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.
This makes me sad. Thank you for writing it. I don’t feel like there is any space for me, as much as I am here living on this earth. I feel forgotten and invisible. I hope that one day there will be space for me. Exactly as I am or however I end up in the future which will probably be alone.
Thank you so much for sharing your feelings. I share many parallels with you - I would love to be a mother, but I am single so it hasn’t happened for me yet. Some of the stupidest decisions in dating that I have made over the years (accepting poor treatment etc) is down to ‘how will I have a baby?’ I have now stopped looking for someone else to give me what I want, I am now saving and planning to actively pursue solo parenthood via IVF. But even then, it is no guarantee of motherhood. IVF is no given. I share many of your feelings - I feel invisible as a single, childless woman whilst mothers seem to be celebrated everywhere. The endless complaining about how hard motherhood is (however true), may be designed to make us feel better about our childless state, but it does the opposite and makes me feel more isolated.
Thanks for opening up this topic Nicola, I love and admire your openness and honesty. YES pls let’s build a bridge and support each other wherever you find yourself. As you know I’m a Christian and one of my favourite scriptures in the Bible is Romans 12:15 which reads: “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.” It’s a hard call to put aside our own immediate feelings to be empathetic to another but it’s also a key part - in my opinion - of being human. I had an abortion when I was 18 and then lost my daughter to early infant death when I was married a few years later. It took me ages to even look at another baby but the healing began when a toddler thrust her arms out at me so I had no choice but to carry her. Like you, babies and young children melt my heart. Now that I’m divorced and single again I’ve taken children out of the equation but him grateful that I feel okay about that because I know that feeling of want is realllllly f-cking hard. I pray for people who want to be pregnant and I pray for people who have experienced baby loss like me. It feels like a gift to be in this place of healing.
Thanks for this Nicola, great writing and i realted to it as someone who sits somewhere between childfree and childless, so in a different space to you. Not sure if that will change.
I find there's so many grey areas of feelings in an issue that is often painted as black and white. Some other weird trigger points I've come across in my journey with this:
- I feel like there is an implication if you don't have kids your career better be absolutely stellar to have any value as a single childless woman. My job is good and I value it, but I find more value in my hobbies and friendships.
- As IVF single motherhood had become more slightly common (and absolutely hooray for this for those people who want to do it) there's also a little bit of judgement if that's NOT your choice if you technically COULD do it, albeit with much sacrifice. I just resent being told to take this path by people with twice the income and more resources than me, like it's like it's an easy solution or decision.
Just my thoughts incase someone else relates.
It's exhausting being a woman isn't it! It just feels like you can't win. Love both Clover Stroud and Elizabeth Day - both experiences totally valid and worthy of attention. But given that motherhood is still seen as the 'default', I still feel that single and childless women (whether by choice or not) are really stigmatised and excluded. I feel that Elizabeth really encapsulated the lack of empathy so many people have for something which for them, may have been relatively easy. I feel that all the time I am expected to be constantly empathetic to the struggles and experiences of friends who are partnered, but that same empathy is never available or reciprocated back to me, for what I may be struggling with. If it is, it's done in quite a dismissive, almost exasperated way. I wish more people could understand how it feels to not get the societal validation of hitting these milestones. It's obviously infuriating that men aren't treated the same way, or subject to such judgement! For what it's worth, I really recommend the book Between Women: Love, Envy, and Competition in Women's Friendships by psychologist Susie Orbach - the conclusion is that women really need each other, regardless of whether they are mothers or not!
Woah! Sorry didn’t expect that to be so long! Guess this is a matter closer to my heart than I realised! But basically, yes to women supporting women. Hands down the best way forward 🙏🏾🏾💪🏾 xx
It always hits me when reading articles people write about their lives, experiences and feelings, then reading the comments these articles generate, that the shared thread is often that at times there is a feeling of being misunderstood, alone, invisible or overlooked. Maybe that could be the beginning of the bridge? The realisation that despite how varied and different our lives, experiences and feelings are, that within those, nearly all of us will have felt misunderstood, alone, invisible or overlooked somehow. That the anger, sadness/pain, shame/guilt and contradictory emotions we can all have, regardless of what our lives look like to the outside world/others, are natural and we should try to understand that more. Not just understand the people with whom we share some identified similarities with, but also those whose lives look totally different to ours, but who still have those feelings about their situations etc?
Just think there are the childless by choice, those who wanted children but couldn't,
those who had children who died, women who were pregnant but lost the baby, those who had abortions, those who gave children away for adoption, or had their children removed by Authorities. Grandparents, other relatives or friends of the parents raising children. There are only children or multiple children in a home, single mothers, same sex couples raising children, married parents, divorced parents, step parents, surrogate mothers, adoptive parents, foster parents and of course parents who don't want to be! There are parents with disabilities raising children without disabilities, or parents who have children with disabilities who do not have disabilities themselves. There are couples parenting children who are mixed heritage either together or alone, with either disapproval from the other's family due to ethnicity difference or with support.
There are so many 'parenting' roles, biological or otherwise. Professionally there are jobs where you can take on a role where you care very much like a parent does.
Each unique experience comes with those feelings of being misunderstood, alone, being invisible or overlooked. All are different, none are better.
This resonates with me on so many levels.
I’m 43 and have/ am coming to terms with the fact that the having children ship has sailed without me.
It was hard enough for years being the only single one amongst friendship groups, but being the only one who is single AND childless for the last 5-10 years has been pretty isolating. Being made to feel by some people as inadequate because of the fact that your life hasn’t followed the “traditional” path of find boyfriend, get married, have kids is hard.
Even though close friends try to be sympathetic, I don’t think they understand how hard it is that I’ll never be a mother - because they all are. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve made light over the years of how I feel because 1) no one wants to spend time with a whiner who makes them feel bad that they have kids, and 2) I also don’t want people pitying me.
It’s a tough situation and maybe I need to spend more time making friends who are in similar situation.
This is a subject I have thought about often. Thank you so much for writing about it!
Nicola, what a powerful read. Thank you for sharing so honestly. I don't feel entitled to comment on the experiences of childless women, whether by choice or not, because I do have children. In this space, that feels like a confession. I agree with you and Elizabeth Day in that that surely, like anything else, really *really* listening to each other is the way to bridge any gap? And caring deeply about the experiences of our friends, whether they are feeling joyful, deep in grief, envious, or whatever. I hope to be that kind of friend - indeed I hope I AM that kind of friend.
From my perspective, I have been told not to breastfeed in public in case it might upset a bystander who doesn't have children. I've been deliberately excluded from a birthday dinner for a friend, because they assumed I wouldn't be able to find a babysitter. I don't share celebrations of motherhood on my social media, but I agree with you that I don't think this is akin to showing off a fancy car. This is my life, my family, and I feel I should be able to choose to share some of it.
I do understand the other point of view and I have been in that position - unceremoniously handed a newborn three days after a miscarriage, and ushered upstairs to read bedtime stories to children when I was quite enjoying being childless and drinking wine with the adults. It's such a difficult subject to tackle but I think communication is key. Anyone who doesn't want to listen to your point of view, whatever it is, is not worth the time. x
Such a great piece, thank you Nicola! x
What a well-written, thought-provoking article! Thank you, Nicola. We finally accepted I could not have children when partway through IVF my hormones dropped to a level which meant my reproductive system was no longer viable. After 16 operations for endometriosis my body could not take any more.
For years I had cooed over everyone's babies, played with toddlers, helped kids of friends with their homework - partly out of love and partly out of a need for that kind of connection, always anticipating. When I found out I could not have babies in any way naturally it was like a switch flipped. Every time a friend shared the wonderful news of their babies-to-be I smiled and hugged them, then cried for days at the unfairness of it all. It hurt SO much.
I withdrew from spending time off my own initiative with small people. It felt like sticking pins in my heart. And it wasn't healthy. I love all the kids I have known for decades (no longer kids, obviously) and would literally give a kidney for them. But now I steer clear of most children, apart from two gorgeous redheads to whom I am godparent. With them I have a place. A function. A purpose.
The next stage I dread is when the friends I socialise become grandparents and I feel excluded again. I'm trying not to think of that.
I'm glad you're using your platform to highlight this. Disability is another angle to this which is seldom explored. Substack just ate my entire attempt at a comment, so let's try again:
I personally feel ambivalently childless. I was always afraid of pregnancy and labour, and as my multiple serious chronic conditions developed through my teens, I could see how a pregnancy might destabilise my health, and that having little social or financial support would make motherhood harder given my relapsing/remitting illness. I believed I wouldn't be allowed to adopt.
I sum it up as "I would have liked to have had a genuine choice." In an ableist world where we face all sorts of extra structural inequalities, you can easily wind up adapting your appetite to life for the scraps available, and only in middle age have I been able to see how damaging that has been for me. Nobody back then was teaching me about disability justice or intersectional feminism.
Society's largely unexamined ableism shapes perceptions of our bodies and lives. Either we are seen as needing to make up for our supposed deficits by reproducing, or we face shaming, disapproval and concern-trolling for wanting to - including sometimes by doctors.
If you're autistic the knives are out for you either way. Childless? You risk vicious attacks if you speak up about the needs and experiences of autistic children (which you "know nothing about" despite having BEEN one). The mother of an also autistic child? You risk hostility when you advocate for them in medical and educational settings, because the very source of your deep insight into their experience gives authorities permission to dismiss you.
The fear of disabled bodies is immense at the best of times, and the cycle of austerity, pandemic and now more welfare reforms shows that disabled lives are still considered disposable. In that context, disabled motherhood and disabled childlessness are both intensely political, routinely invisible, and in conversations like this one, often forgotten altogether.
Thanks for writing this. It articulates many of my feelings so well! I’d love to be a mother and had just started exploring options for single women when I got me/cfs. Not being able to work and the prospect of a precarious life on inadequate income support is bleak, but not as heart breaking as how less likely it now is that I’ll ever have a baby. I nearly cried at lunch for my sister’s birthday yesterday when a waitress asked if I wanted to see the kids menu, as if one of the kids were mine. Big love to anyone struggling with motherhood or it’s lack.
Dear Nicola, I am responding from the permanently childless perspective. I am somewhere in between childless by choice and not by choice, i.e. I identify as ambivalently childless. I hear you that you wish you were ambivalent! I am 46, have been single for over ten years, and this is pretty much why I'm childless. I don't expect that to change and am trying to make peace with it.
I liked so many things about this piece. I really wanted to post it on Lighthouse Women, an international community of childless women I'm sure you're familiar with. But I won't post it there (maybe someone else will) because I find a couple of aspects of what you wrote insensitive to the permanently childless experience.
I know that when it comes to parenthood, you still identify as hopeful. You don't identify as permanently childless like I (and all Lighthouse Women) do; you are still in the unknown of whether you will or won't be a parent. I am mentioning this because when I was still in the unknown, I also didn't mind being around other people's children or seeing people celebrate mother's day. I was still hopeful that I might one day join the ranks of parents with children; other people's babies and mother's day celebrations reminded me of what was hopefully in my future.
This all changed when I became permanently childless. It was about two years ago; I was almost 45 and realized with sudden clarity that it just wasn't going to happen. There was some relief in finally knowing. And it also really changed how I felt about being around moms and children (particularly strangers) and mother's day celebrations. I still love babies, though I haven't held one since I became childless, but I am now happiest when I am not confronted with moms and babies because they fill me with mostly shame and also some pain. And I am ambivalently childless - I know that the pain is much more severe for those who are unequivocally childless not by choice.
So here is what made me protest on the inside while reading your piece and compelled me to respond for the first time after having been reading The Single Supplement for over a year:
"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." I agree with you that no one should have to apologize for celebrating mother's day. And I think trigger warnings and opt-outs are absolutely essential for those grieving their childlessness. More and more companies are offering opt-outs from mother's day mailings. Mother's day can be excruciatingly painful for those who wanted to be mothers but aren't and won't be. I feel protective of these women when I see you defending mothers' rights to amplify themselves on mother's day. I really don't want to contribute to the "us vs them" mentality you speak to. And yet--and this brings me to my second point..
You ask: "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?" That sounds great. I would love that. And yet, the space for the motherhood experience already exists. It is literally everywhere. You are right that mothers are not invisible - childless women are. Mothers are in the majority; childless women are a minority, a marginalized community. Just look at any contemporary TV show: All the supposedly relatable female characters over 40 are parents. It is the space for the childless experience that still needs to be created. So it feels a little unfair that you are holding all women equally responsible for creating equity when we are not currently seen or treated as equals.
Yes! This! This was a beautiful read. I’ve never had even an inkling of desire to be a mother…until I met my current partner. Had we come together 10 years ago, I think we would have had children. (There is still a huge part of me that very much does not want to be a mother) It is not in the cards for us and I’m at peace with it.
It’s so disheartening the way women are pitted against one another based on our personal choices and our ability to reproduce. To me, being a mother is a sacred journey that I have the utmost respect for AND it doesn’t make you more worthy than someone who has made a different choice. I don’t feel less than for not choosing motherhood. Women who experience life without children have an enormous amount to offer the world, each other, and ourselves.
I’m very grateful that I have a wonderful mix of girlfriends who are both mothers and not mothers. We support one another and hold space for each of our unique choices/experiences in life. My hope is that more women experience this kind of acceptance and celebration of our personal choices.