Can we build a bridge between childless women and mothers?
Trigger warning: infertility/fertility/motherhood
Two things have stopped me in my tracks this weekend. The first, late on Friday afternoon, was what I was going to focus on for this newsletter but as I was going to write it on Sunday afternoon, I spotted something else that I realised was just as important but meant I needed more time to mull the two things over. Today’s newsletter is mainly focused on the topic of motherhood and I am writing from my perspective as a woman who isn’t a mother but would like to be. Obviously I know there are plenty of single mothers who read this newsletter – I see you and know you face unique challenges of your own – and I hope you’ll bear with me. That also goes for the childfree by choice.
In some respects the two things that caught my eye are two sides of the same coin. Neither of them were a response to the other, I should point out, but they highlighted something I have been mulling over for a long time and that’s the chasm between childless women and mothers. This is my attempt at trying to build a bridge because there is nothing the patriarchy loves more than women tearing other women down. It is probably going to be a long read. So grab a cuppa!
The first thing was an article by Elizabeth Day, which was an extract from her upcoming non-fiction book Friendaholic. For those who don’t know, Elizabeth is the author of a number of books including the bestselling How to Fail (along with the popular podcast of the same name). In the article published in The Times this weekend, she explores the impact of her struggle with failed rounds of IVF and miscarriage has had on her friendships. Despite the headline, which I actually hate, it’s more quietly furious than sad. It’s very honest. She doesn’t skirt around the issues of how hard it has been to be childless at a time when everyone around you is having a baby.
Like many women who would like to be mums, I related to a lot – not all which I explore later on – of what she said. In fact there were parts of it I could have written myself despite our situations being very different ones as she is married and struggling with failed IVF and miscarriages. Nevertheless, I found myself crying reading her words and was moved to have things that I have been thinking so well articulated and in such a public forum and by someone with such a huge platform. When she wrote about the perception around what she does with her free time, and how she must be footloose and fancy free, and how alienating it can feel when someone tells you about “not knowing a love like it,” it made me feel seen.
This line stands out for me:
It took me years to understand that just as parents were allowed to state how they felt about having children, I was equally allowed to say how I felt not having them.
Sometimes it can feel hard when you’re expected to shut up and not complain for fear of upsetting The Motherhood. As Elizabeth says, as soon as people become parents, they are elevated in society and their opinions are the ones that matter above others. “You wouldn’t understand, you’re not a parent,” is a refrain we often hear in this world or there is also “As the father of daughters, I support X Y Z” as if the fact you’re a father means your opinion on the matter is more important and carries more weight than others who don’t have kids. The British politician Andrea Leadsom famously suggested during a leadership race with Theresa May that she would be a better leader as being a mother gave her more of a stake in the future than May, who does not have children.
As Elizabeth says: “The fact you have a child is enough of a reason for you to occupy more space on this earth, for your opinions to carry more validity. Being a parent is the access-all-areas card to human experience.”
I think the core of the article though is not a them vs us, it’s about how it is actually possible to hold space for friends in wildly different experiences and about readdressing the balance given we live in a world which puts mothers, particularly married mothers, on a pedestal. The two things together are the epitome of what we, as women, should be aiming for. If we don’t tick these boxes, we are often pushed aside, seen as less important and or just awkward to be around. Saying this shouldn’t be controversial and for plenty of people it isn’t and I think Elizabeth was making a point about empathy and compassion and the difference it makes when she is offered that by friends.
Sometimes the reactions of people to me sharing my thoughts on being a childless single woman have been in stark contrast to other mums I know, which I think was what Elizabeth was really getting at. When she wrote about how her friend Emma takes care of her feelings about her fertility struggle, I immediately thought of a friend of mine who is younger than me and a mother but who has held space for me to talk and explore my fear and sadness in such a beautiful way that it makes me well up just thinking about it. Crucially, whatever we are talking about, she doesn’t make me feel like my day to day tribulations are trivial when I message her about things that probably do feel trivial compared with raising a tiny human. That’s not to say we don’t talk about her child – a picture of her child is actually pinned to my noticeboard above my desk and makes me smile every time I look up – nor does she hide from me the realities of motherhood nor the inescapable joy it also brings her. I think it boils down to the simple fact that she doesn’t think she is more important than me. Both our experiences are valid. Both of us deserve time, space, care and attention.
Having said all this, there were parts that I don’t actually agree with in The Times article. Personally I don’t agree that it’s insensitive to share pictures of children and of parenting. I actually love seeing pictures of my friends kids. I do think that sometimes it can feel like a bombardment, particularly when it comes to mummy influencers who live these perfect manicured lives with children who never seem to fight or cause any trouble. There is also of course a separate debate to be had about how much parents should share of their kids on social media, ethics-wise, but I don’t think anyone should feel they shouldn’t share pictures of their joy. I don’t personally think sharing pictures of children is the same as sharing pictures of Bentleys. Children are a fundamental part of who mothers are. I think from reading the comments underneath that this was the part that many parents found most difficult in the whole piece. It’s a shame really as there were so many other valid points in the article that could really have opened up a conversation and helped people understand each other. But Elizabeth is obviously totally allowed her opinion and I know many would agree with her.
There was also another part I didn’t personally relate to which was how Elizabeth feels around other people’s kids as for her it’s a painful and uncomfortable experience. She writes movingly: “I was given baby after baby to hold, as though I were practising to play the part of a glad-handing minor royal in a straight-to-TV movie … And all the time I felt it was my fault for not enjoying it. I felt I was unmaternal for not revelling in the company of other people’s children. I felt ungrateful, wretched and selfish. I felt useless.”
For the record, I love to hang out with babies and kids. Nothing makes me happier than when someone hands me a baby to hold. It makes my arms feel satisfied. I love how they feel in my arms. I love the smell of them. I sometimes have to stop myself from demanding it straight away and pin my arms to my sides until the child is proffered to me. Recently I was with friends including one who has a toddler. I pretty much ignored the adults and just hung out with the little one, playing and reading to her. It was a win win situation. My mum friend got to have an adult conversation with the others who were there, her child was entertained and occupied and I got to play and do all the things I so wish I could do with my own child. But I haven’t been through a miscarriage or failed IVF or reached a stage where I have accepted that having a child won’t happen for me so I understand it’s different for me. I know plenty of women who really struggle with being around pregnant women and babies and who dread being invited to baby showers. And they are also the ones to find Mother’s Day particularly challenging.
This brings to the second thing I came across this weekend which was an instagram post by Clover Stroud. Clover is another writer I admire. The Wild Other is one of my favourite memoirs in fact and I love following her on social media as she often posts pictures of things like shetland ponies wondering through her large kitchen that’s also filled with children, kittens, assorted other family members and lots of art on the walls. While Clover does write about motherhood, she is not like the influencers. She shares the messy stuff and the challenges. It feels real. And a little part of me dreams of having the kind of beautiful country life she has (warts and all) so it’s kind of aspirational for me.
Yesterday Clover shared a post that has had a big reaction, both positive and negative. It was about how she didn’t want to see trigger warnings or apologies on posts around Mother’s Day – and how because mothering is so often undervalued and invisible and so on this one day, mothers should be able to celebrate without any caveats. Clover pointed out that she had lost her mother and her sister and was often triggered by posts on social media but that it was her responsibility to deal with her own pain. Plenty of people agreed with her in the comments and were celebrating the post.
She wrote: “Motherhood is an insanely difficult job. Also invisible, disempowering, unpaid, mostly unseen, often humiliating. I am at my least valuable, least visible, least relevant to society in my role as a mother … Why should motherhood be covered in trigger warnings and apologies today? Today is the one day of the year when mothers are celebrated.”
I admit, I was a little confused as I hadn’t actually seen a single trigger warning or apology and I follow thousands of people, including lots of parents. What I had seen were some people choosing to add a little thoughtful note to say they were thinking of those struggling. I appreciated these little notes and didn’t think they took away from the celebration. But the part that really stopped me in my tracks was the idea that mothers are the most irrelevant and invisible.
From the outside, it actually feels very much like the opposite. In terms of the status and position we have in society, it feels like mothers - in particularly married mothers - have the highest status among women. Obviously not compared to men. But in my experience, it is childless women, especially single ones over a certain age, who are made to feel irrelevant and invisible. We are often put down and excluded and mocked and insulted. Readers of this newsletter, I know, could offer countless examples of the times when they have been pushed aside or seen as less than important than married mother friends. I know my single mum friends will also relate to some or all of that too.
The fact is we still live a world that believes the ultimate way for women to be successful is for them to be married with children. Recently Angelica Malin, who edited Unattached: Essays on Singlehood, which I contributed an essay to, wrote an article for Grazia about how her recent pregnancy and marriage announcements got so many more likes on Instagram than any of her professional achievements including her three published books. Obviously that doesn’t help the day-to-day challenges and struggles mothers face. I honestly think mums are amazing. But I also know the pain of not being a mum when I dearly want to be one.
When compared to men, it’s obviously different though. The value of what mothers actually do is still sidelined and treated as less important than paid work outside the home. Women still bear the brunt of childrearing and see their careers put on hold because of it. But this is what’s really going on, isn’t it? It’s the patriarchy. That’s what is really pitting women against each other. That is the reason all of us feel shit. Clover and plenty of mums in the comments feel undervalued for their role mothering their children and all that comes with that and how invisible some of that is and I, and others like me, feel undervalued and irrelevant because we still live in an incredibly heteronormative pronatalist society where we are still expected to hit certain milestones and I’ve managed not to hit any of them. Plus as a woman there is an extra layer. Our bodies also want us to have babies. Not having a baby when you want one and your body wants one can make you feel crazy. It’s a primal thing. Just like it is impossible to imagine how it would feel to have children before you have them, it’s also impossible to really explain what it’s like to want them when you can’t have them.
For me, it is a constant painful hum that never goes away. The soundtrack to every single thing I do, every waking moment of my life for the last few years and behind every decision I make is this: howamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababyhowamIgoingtohaveababynobutseriouslyHOWAMIGOINGTOHAVEABABY???????
It has shaped who I am and I know at times, when The Fear as I call it has bubbled up into full-blown panic, it has also made me a bad person – or at least feel like one. It has infected every single thing I’ve done. Sometimes I’ve been selfish. Sometimes I’ve been unable to be the kind of friend I used to pride myself on being. Sometimes it has made me feel bitter, a feeling I particularly hate feeling. Sometimes it has made me short-tempered and impatient. Sometimes it has led me to wildly overreact to things such as work projects being delayed because all of these things in my head are tied around how on earth I’m going to have a baby. Any setback feels devastating. Sometimes I have felt like I have been paddling or swimming against a riptide while trying to be the kind of person who wouldn’t let this one thing steal her joy or take away her peace. That won’t be me. I won’t be that person, I have thought, before realising that maybe it is OK to feel what I am feeling. More than that, it is also OK to openly talk about it, which is what I finally did on Tiffany Philippou’s Totally Fine podcast last year after years of dancing around the subject.
For years, I had kept my mouth shut about how I was feeling both about being single and being childless, partly because of shame and partly because I didn’t want to complain for fear of offending any of my loved ones. I didn’t want to rock the boat. I stayed quiet. Even after I spoke about being single, I didn’t speak about wanting to be a mother long after I’d let go of the shame. I wanted to write about it and yet I wouldn’t let myself for fear of further ostracising myself. In the words of Sheila Heti: “To fit oneself into the smallest spaces in the hopes of being loved – that is entirely womanly.”
As Brené Brown tells us, the antidote to all this shame is empathy. Nothing has made me feel more at ease about my situation than when people react to what I am saying with empathy and compassion, whether they are in the same boat, a similar boat or the exact boat I want to be in. Sometimes when people who are mothers have reacted with compassion, it has meant more to me than anything. I remember how nervous I felt before the podcast came out and then hearing from one of my best friends, a mother, who told me that far from being offended, she was crying listening to it and wanted to give me a hug. I guess that is why when people have put a little note under posts about Mother’s Day to say they are thinking of those who are struggling, I have felt touched. But as I said I didn’t see trigger warnings or apologies – and women really shouldn’t have to feel the need to apologies for celebrating motherhood. That, I feel, is totally unnecessary.
Still some of the comments under Clover’s post did upset me. I guess you could say I was triggered. Some of them felt incredibly harsh when talking about not being able to be a mum. In a kind of ‘just get over it’ kind of way. One, I kid you not, suggested we all need to stop bleating on about it. Bleating. Is there anything that incapsulates internalised misogyny more than a woman using the word “bleating” to slag other women off for sharing their pain? There was a smugness to some of the comments. I also saw people comparing not being able to have a child to not having the career you want or not being able to buy a house. For the avoidance of doubt, not being a mother when you want to be a mother is in no way comparable to not having the career you want or not owning a house.
The question of motherhood, whether we want kids or not, is pretty fundamental to who we are as women. It’s a core-shaker. I once read somewhere that the only thing more exhausting than having children is not having children and wanting them. For some women, they will eventually come to a stage where they know they will not have children of their own and they have to learn to live with that grief and live a very different life to the one they were expecting. I recently interviewed Jody Day, who runs Gateway Women for those who are permanently childless, about her experience of realising she would never be a mother. It’s for a project that isn’t published yet but in the meantime I wanted to add her TEDx talk here, as I missed this perspective off when writing this piece originally. (Thanks to my reader, Vera, for pointing out my blind spot here.)
For many women, and I know some of them are readers of this newsletter, they simply do not want children and even though they are comfortable with their choice, they are still made to feel less than and shunted to the side in society. Sometimes they are openly mocked or even abused like comedian Chelsea Handler was by TV pundits and talk show hosts in the US. Others grapple with not knowing if they do want to be mums or not. The wondering whether or not they will regret not having children can be painful and confusing and lonely. I know people who have gone back and forth over the decision for years and years and yet often this conversation is not one people want to have or read about. Mothers will often tell them to just go for it and they will regret it if they don’t, all while also telling them just how difficult being a mum really is. (Do give this brilliant article a read if you are on the fence. It may or may not help). Others, of course, are more ambivalent. I so wish I was ambivalent.
The thing that both the article and the instagram post (which, by the way, Clover has said was not at all a response to the Times article) is I think they have unintentionally started a battle between childless women and mothers. I say unintentional because both women absolutely have the right to write what they like and this is not about them and more about the conversations their pieces have inspired. It’s in the comments under the Times piece and under the instagram post where the arguments have taken place. Some of it has been quite nasty. Some women have written abusive comments to each writer. Does it really have to be this way? Instead of taking things so personally can’t we have an open conversation about our roles as women both in terms of being mothers and not being mothers? Couldn’t we build a bridge and focus on what we do have in common and focus on the ways in which we could hold space for both experiences? Can’t we agree that we are all important, that we are all deserving of care and attention?
This whole thing reminds me of the concept of the scarcity mindset. This is a term that refers to when you believe there are limited resources. If someone else has something, you feel there is less of that resource available for you. If we feel that there is not enough space to either celebrate or explore struggles, then when someone else does either thing, maybe that feeds into how we react to it. Instead of listening and holding space for them, we feel defensive and like we are being attacked. We project all kinds of things onto other people’s words, often completely missing the point, such is our urge to protect our space and our right to have strong feelings.
Perhaps we need to change our mindset and start to believe that actually there is space for us all; space for us to talk about the challenges and joys of motherhood, space for us to talk about the challenges and isolation of being childless when you don’t want to be, space for us to talk about what being childfree by choice means and space for millions of other conversations besides. All of our stories are important.
I will leave you with one more quote from Motherhood by Sheila Heti:
Living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living. Is that the threat of the woman without kids? Yet the woman without kids is not saying that no woman should have kids, or that you-woman with a stroller- have made the wrong choice. Her decision about her life is no statement about yours. One person's life is not a political or general statement about how all lives should be. Other lives should be able to exist alongside our own without any threat or judgment at all. – Sheila Heti
I will also share this text message that my former landlord, who is a mother, sent me a few years ago, which I found really touching and generous.
Hope this post hasn’t been too upsetting to read. I send you so much love if it has. I am going to open the comments to all today in case anyone wants to discuss any of the topics today. I ask that everyone treat everyone else with kindness and love even if you don’t agree with them.
Editors note: I have edited this to add in a section about women who are childless not by choice and for whom this is permanent rather than something they are still hoping to change as I should have included this before. I’ve also added a little extra clarity in a couple of other places.
p.s because this is such a long newsletter I am going to save my recommendations for another day.
p.p.s paying subscribers, I have an agony aunt column nearly ready to go!
p.p.p.s I am sharing another SELF ESTEEM song – I know, I know, I am obsessed – but I got really emotional thinking about some of the issues I’ve raised in this newsletter when I saw her play this live. I haven’t handled everything as well as I would have liked but I am working on forgiving myself. After all, I did the best that I could, babe.
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I’m Nicola Slawson, a freelance journalist, writer and public speaker based in Shropshire, UK. I founded The Single Supplement, which is an award-winning newsletter and community, in 2019 and have been exploring the highs and lows of the single experience ever since. Follow me on Instagram and Twitter.
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