Breaking through the shame

When a new acquaintance first discovers that I don’t have children, the following things tend to happen:

Firstly, they invariably assume that I am childfree, that my childlessness was planned, chosen and wanted. Sometimes I leave them with their assumptions; they aren’t automatically entitled to my deepest pain, after all. Let them continue to believe in a world where people get to choose what they want, when it comes to parenting.

The next thing that often happens, in conversation, is that when they find out I am childless not by choice, they assume the cause is medical. Again, I usually let them assume this.

Very rarely, these days, will I ever get to the next stage, which is where I share that my childlessness is circumstantial, and that the particular circumstance is the lack of a suitable partner. In order to share this I would need to already know that they are empathetic, unjudgemental, and open minded enough to hold this precious confidence safely. Too many times in the past I have misjudged people’s abilities in this area and been hurt by the way their behaviour towards me changes. I can see it in their eyes: they are judging me as a failure, they are wondering what is wrong with me, because something clearly must be wrong with me, to have failed so completely to find a man in time. They have suddenly stopped seeing me as an equal and instead see me as someone to be pitied, someone who is deeply flawed, unlovable, tainted.

Or perhaps those are just my innermost thoughts about myself, which I’m transferring onto the other person; I don’t know. But I do know that what has too often been present in these moments of sharing, is shame.

So these days I will often be deliberately vague with new acquaintances. Let them assume. I choose to guard my truth carefully so as not to feel shamed by others’ reactions. I will probably say something like, ‘I wasn’t able to have children’ and let them make of that what they want.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The childless community that I belong to, Lighthouse Women (previously Gateway Women) welcomes childless women whatever their story and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. It was here that I first felt a sense of my right to my grief, my right to choose when or if I share my story, and my right to decide how much I want to share. Sadly, even here I have a sense of some kind of unspoken hierarchy, with the single and childless at the bottom. It isn’t intended and I suspect this is my own internalised shame speaking, but nevertheless the hierarchy exists for me. I remember the day, clearly, when I went to a meet up of childless women, the first I had attended. There were about eight of us there, all very lovely friendly women. I sat there and ate cake and listened to them all share their IVF stories. And I felt less than. I felt like a fraud, trying to join a club that I wasn’t really entitled to be a member of. Thank goodness for the ‘single and childless’ group within Lighthouse women, because this is probably the only place where the shame goes away.

People like me have never conceived, never really been in a position to try. We’ve never suffered a ‘real’, tangible loss, never seen a positive pregnancy test, never felt any changes inside our bodies, never got to the point of buying baby clothes or discussing baby names, or feeling that thrill of hope, of potential for the future. Often we’ve never had any sort of memorial, never had our losses noticed or acknowledged by closest family members or friends, never been given the right to our grief, to have our pain heard by those who care most about it. Our grieving has to be clandestine, unacknowledged, secret.

Sometimes when I have tried to speak about grief with people close to me, I’ve noticed that they look embarrassed or become impatient with me, or they try and point out all the positives and how it is best not to dwell on these things, or they’ve said something about it not being too late, or ‘if you want it enough you’ll find a way’.

Even in this blog, I decided to remain anonymous, because deep down I still feel a sense of not being worthy, not being ‘qualified’ enough to speak about grief. And I know that if I were to go public with family and friends, they would not understand how I can claim any kind of authority on grief. I feel they would be embarrassed for me, or would take personally what I say about disenfranchised grief.

I’ve often felt a sense of being a fraud while speaking of my own losses, my own grief, particularly when in the company of someone who has suffered miscarriages or been through the trauma of IVF. All I have to offer as my story is emptiness. An absence of something and a very personal sense of failure; in my bad moments it feels like this has happened to me because I am not lovable enough. Why haven’t the men I’ve loved, loved me? That’s the nub of the matter. I see reciprocated love around me, and it is the thing I envy most – that feeling of being with someone and knowing that you love them, and they love you back. To say I wish for that is an understatement. That is why, these days, what most triggers my grief is not a newborn baby or a glowing pregnant woman, but a wedding invitation. Being in the presence of other people’s love and hope for the future feels bitter to me, a reminder of what I wanted, and a reminder that the lack of it is the source of my worst pain. This envy is the thing I least like about myself, and I wish it wasn’t there, but there it is. Maybe one day it’ll fade.

In recent years I have done a lot of grief tending work, which I love. I’ve found that, in the grief tending community, you can find a safe place to release deeply held feelings which want to flow. I love the sense of lightness, relief and even joy that can come from this work. And yet. I don’t think I have often shared my full story there, even in that safely held place, that empathetic circle where judgement is withheld. I only recently recognised that I was keeping back this part of my story because of the shame; it goes so deep, right to the core, and I rarely feel safe enough to hold it up for other people to look at. So, in my grief tending circles I will usually say something vague about the grief of being childless not by choice. I will speak my children’s names out loud because this brings me great healing. And while I do it I am aware that those who are witnessing me are probably assuming that these children were real, in the sense that I actually conceived and then lost them. I let them assume that and, for a little while, it makes me feel like a more valid member of this club called grief.

Breaking taboos is hard, scary work and I’m not brave enough yet to abandon my anonymity. But I am brave enough, here, to say that I am childless not by choice. I am grieving. I am single and that was the cause of my childlessness. I chose not to pursue the path of single motherhood for many complicated reasons including financial ones. I chose not to try to have a child with a cruel man I dated for a short time, or with someone else who I didn’t think would be a good father. I chose not to follow the advice of several people who told me to go out to a bar and just sleep with someone to get pregnant.

I am not childless because I didn’t want it enough – I wanted it desperately. But I didn’t want it at any cost, particularly not at any cost to my child. I chose not to attempt to bring a child into the world in a situation which wasn’t healthy and that was my choice, the only maternal act of care I have ever been able to take for my beloved ones. I stand by that decision.

I am choosing to say this now, anonymously, because I want to reach a point, one day, where I feel fully entitled to stand in this circle as myself, without being ashamed of my story.

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

On grief shaming

Some time ago, a friend took my breath away with the following words, “I’m single and childless too, so I’m in exactly the same position as you are. I don’t feel the need to talk about grief so why on earth do you need to go on about it so much?”

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

She really caught me off guard – until that moment I had thought we had the sort of friendship where I could tell her anything that was going on with me and that she would care enough to listen to me. So, I was in a very open and vulnerable place in that moment. I had just shared something deeply personal about my experience of childless grief and I had assumed that she would listen without judgement. Her words hit me so deeply that I couldn’t speak, and simply had to end the conversation. We have never referred to that conversation again; I have never told her how wounded I was by her words. But the result was that I decided, for my own wellbeing, to put up a boundary. I have never spoken to her about my grief again; although she is still a good friend it no longer feels safe to share this part of my life experience with her. Another loss.

I know my friend cares about me, but I have never wanted to revisit this conversation with her, because I don’t think it would lead anywhere good. However, if I did decide to, I would tell her that I think she is wrong – we are not exactly the same, because no two experiences are the same. What was right for her would not have worked for me. She has found a way to accept the circumstances of her life, seemingly without grief, but my path was different. I didn’t know whether I was going to survive my childlessness. My way through has been to explore with curiosity all aspects of my experience, to embrace my grief journey and to fully allow my feelings to come through without shying away from them. Through exploring my grief, I have learnt a huge amount about myself and now feel wiser, stronger, more resilient, and even more joyful than I was before. I am a deeply emotional and sensitive person – my emotions are how I experience and express my relationship with the world, and so this is how I like to communicate with my closest friends.

I probably wouldn’t tell her this, but I can see that my grief frustrates and upsets her, and I wonder whether my open expression of my grief touched something unacknowledged within her own life experience, which was too uncomfortable for her to approach.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I have another friend; we often share deeply personal experiences with each other, in a very open and honest way and I have always felt very safe in sharing with this person. I have been pretty honest about my grief and my life experiences, though I haven’t gone into very much detail. Her life situation is similar to mine, but (like my other friend) she is quite accepting of the cards that life has dealt her and does not really identify with my grief experience. She has, however, experienced some bereavements in her life. Therefore, I was quite surprised recently when she said to me that she felt that I was ‘stuck’ in my grief and that it was time to move on. I was a bit shocked at this unsolicited advice, and the realisation that she has been judging my way of grieving. I do understand, I think – perhaps she feels that my grief is less valid than hers because nobody has died. I wonder if she thinks that grief is like an illness that you have to suffer through and then recover from, and that it is long past time for me to get back to normal.

I don’t think she is right. I don’t feel stuck, but rather I feel that my grief is like a journey that I’m travelling. I’m no longer in the same bleak, raw country that I was stumbling through five years ago, when I didn’t know how to live with the pain. Today I’m in much gentler country, where things are growing and changing around me. I still consider myself to be grieving, although it is probably much less visible to others these days. It feels to me like a flowing, though, rather than a stuckness. So, it does sting, a little, to be misunderstood and judged by a friend like this.

Neither do I agree that this experience is something to get over or move on from. The implication is that I need to go back to normal and return to being who I was before. But that person no longer exists – I am somebody new now and I have been forever changed by my loss. Wishing to be the old me is futile – and I’m actually pretty happy with the person I have become through surviving this experience. ‘Getting over it’ is not on my agenda.

Although these judgements do still sting a little when they happen, they don’t have the power to really shake my foundations, as they once did. I have learnt to accept the limitations of my loved ones, to believe that they care for me and support me as much as they are able. I know now that I need to carefully choose who I share my grief with (and I don’t always get it right), and I need to have firm boundaries in place. I have been very lucky, in recent years; my friendship circle and my wider community is now full of wonderful people who do understand this grief and with whom I feel safe to be open and authentic about my feelings.

I no longer depend just on old friends who may have fully understood and accepted the old ‘me’, but who don’t recognise this new version of me and therefore don’t want to see or hear about the new ‘me’, grief and all. And these days, when acquaintances ask me about my life, I might give them the headline, “I’m childless not by choice”, but I will rarely go further than that. I have experienced judgemental reactions too many times and I frankly can’t be bothered to justify my choices and my grief anymore. So, around the time in the conversation that they say, predictably, “Have you ever thought about adoption”, I will say something like, “I’m sorry, but I cannot talk about this”. And (usually) they accept this with good grace and move on. My strategy works pretty well.

Photo by Paul Melki on Unsplash

I’ve been pondering, lately, the widespread assumption that grief has an end date. I’m not sure that it ever does, for some losses. I think the raw wound may heal but that there may well be a scar that never fades. Love can go on for ever, so why not grief?

Perhaps ongoing grief is a common aspect of the more intangible losses such as childlessness, or extinction or climate grief. With an intangible loss, there may be no grave to visit, as a focal point for your grief. If you are grieving the non-existence of something or the potential non-existence of something there is often no death date, no start date before which you were not grieving, and after which you began to grieve. Hope may diminish so gradually as to be imperceptible, so you may not even know when your grief began. When does anticipatory grief become grief of something ‘actual’? Only you can decide the end point of your own hope. And only you can decide when, or whether, your grief ends. And if our grief does go on for ever – why is that a problem?

I am a living, functioning, growing, and grieving woman. I do not see grief as incompatible with a full and happy life; indeed, I feel that a truly full life is one which can embrace and welcome all aspects of human experience, without shying away from those which are generally perceived to be less positive.

These experiences and reflections have brought to mind the wise words of Megan Devine, author of the wonderful book, “It’s OK that you’re not OK’. She has coined a phrase, Grief Shaming, which she describes as:

  • Dismissing or downplaying another person’s grief experience
  • Comparing grief experiences (‘my grief is worse than yours’)
  • Judging how someone does their grief.

Megan explains a little about this here.

I recognise this grief shaming from so many interactions I have had with friends and acquaintances over the years, and certainly from the two conversations I’ve described above. It is so helpful to be able to point to this behaviour and to understand it; it stops me from internalising that sense of shame and helps me to stand strong with my boundaries in place, confident that I’m grieving in the way that I know is right for me.

I refuse to allow anyone, no matter how much I love them, to succeed in shaking my faith in what I know is necessary for my own wellbeing.

Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

The Grief of Childlessness

It’s more common than you might think.

In recent years, ONS in the UK has reported that 1 in 5 people reach their mid-forties without having children, and there are similar statistics from other countries including the US.

One of the many painful things about unwanted childlessness is that other people tend to assume that if you don’t have children, you didn’t want to have them. And while this is true for lots of people who remain happily childfree, it is also likely that many others without children experience some grief around their childlessness.

Photo by CHIRAG K on Unsplash

In fact, of the 1 in 5 people who reach their mid-forties without having children, only approximately 10% have chosen the childfree path. The remaining 90% are childless not by choice. And you might be forgiven for assuming that most of these people have experienced medical infertility. Actually, medical issues preventing pregnancy account for only a small proportion (perhaps another 10%) of those childless not by choice. The vast majority find themselves childless by circumstance.

And there are many many different circumstances that can lead to unwanted childlessness. As Jody Day, founder of the wonderful Gateway Women community (which provides support for women struggling with unchosen childlessness) says, “The room called childlessness has many doors; not just the ones marked ‘didn’t want’ or ‘couldn’t have’. She has written a blog post called ’50 ways not to be a mother, though she reckons that she has identified more like 100 ways since she started counting them. It could be anything from lack of a suitable partner to lack of money, lack of support systems, other health factors, or a whole host of other reasons.

So, for every 100 women in their mid-forties, 20 will not have children. Two of those will be childfree by choice (didn’t want children) and 18 will be childless by circumstance, and quite possibly in the throes of their silent, invisible grief. It isn’t quite as black and white as this, of course, and there are many shades of grey in between definitely not wanting kids and definitely wanting them – there is a whole complex area of ambivalence for many women who find themselves in circumstances which aren’t ideal for having children.

For many of these childless women, the last years when they are still hopeful of becoming a mother and the years when they have to accept that this will never happen for them are the most painful times in their lives. Many women find that they struggle to cope with everyday life, and it is common to feel depressed, isolated, even suicidal, as it can seem like they are the only person in the world who feels like this.

In part, this is because the subject of childlessness is such a taboo in our society that it is very hard to find people to talk to about our feelings. It is common for women to think that they are going mad, before they realise that what they are feeling is actually grief.

And, of course, it isn’t only women who suffer from this grief. There is a lot less attention paid to childless men, and fewer resources out there to support them, but thankfully there is increasing recognition of their pain. Hopefully a support community for childless men will soon come into being; as far as I know there is not one yet.

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

It is a kind of disenfranchised grief, which means that it is widely misunderstood and unrecognised. The pain of having your feelings judged, ignored, belittled, denied, or ridiculed can make the grief itself that much worse. It is shocking, considering the numbers of people dealing with this, that it is such a hidden grief that even many grief counsellors are unaware of it and therefore may do more harm than good when their help is sought.

Many of us have had the experience of having to educate our own counsellors about what not to say and what is helpful to us.

Brene Brown has said that childlessness is one of the major areas of empathy failure, and empathy failure is certainly a very common experience for those of us living with this grief. This increases our feelings of isolation, and removes our sense of safety in being authentic with others; when our pain is so often received without empathy and we so seldom receive a response which helps us, then it is natural to withdraw and to close off from people and hold our pain close to our chests.

For this reason, it is vital that those suffering in this way seek the help of others who are able to provide understanding and support. It is very difficult for people who are not in this position to understand why it is so painful – either they didn’t want children so find it hard to empathise with our grief, or they were able to have their own children and can’t imagine what it must feel like not to have them.

Many people make the assumption that you cannot grieve for what you have never had.

But other childless women (and men) can and do understand. Even a decade ago there were no support networks or groups for childless women, but these days it is becoming much less of a taboo and more and more communities are arising. One of the first was Jody Day’s Gateway Women community, which has thousands of members from all around the world now, and which provides some invaluable resources to those suffering and those who feel alone.

There are also Gateway Women meetup groups worldwide now, so you can join up and go along and socialise with women in similar positions as you – it is so helpful to meet others and it can really help to ease that feeling of isolation.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There are also many other resources for those grieving unwanted childlessness. Here are just a few of them:

The Dovecote Community – Facebook Group

Childless Path to Acceptance – Facebook Group

World Childless Week – 16-22 Sept 2019

Walk in our Shoes

Living the Life Unexpected – Jody Day a wonderful book, written specifically to help you deal with the grief of unwanted childlessness.

There are many other books and resources out there, and I’ll be adding these in future posts.

The most important thing to know, right now, though, is that you are not alone. There are many of us out there who do understand. Finding ways to connect with others who understand is invaluable and can really help you, if you find yourself grieving this loss.