‘The desire to have a child never goes away’: how the involuntarily childless are forming a new movement

Jody Day is giving a TEDx talk to a room full of people against a backdrop of signposts she has chosen for the occasion: “Crazy cat woman”, “Witch”, “Hag”, “Spinster”, “Career woman”. “What comes to mind when you see those words?” she asks the audience. They shift uneasily. Gently, she answers her own question: “All of them are terms used for childless women … I’m a childless woman. And I’m here to tell you about my tribe – those one in five women without children hidden in plain sight all around you.”

Day is involuntarily childless. She remembers the moment she realised she was definitely never going to be a mother. It was February 2009 and, at 44-and-a-half, she had left a bad long-term relationship and moved into a grotty London flat. “I was standing by the window, watching the rain make dusty tracks down the glass, when the traffic in the street below seemed to go silent, as if I’d put it on ‘mute’. In that moment, I became acutely aware of myself, almost as if I were an observer of the scene from outside my body. And then it came to me: it’s over. I’m never going to have a baby.”

We now know that 20% of British women born, like Day, in the 1960s, turned 45 without having a child. The number is double that of their mother’s generation – we’ll have to wait for the next census in 2021 to find out whether the numbers rose or fell for women born in the 70s and 80s (and whether or not government statisticians revise the fertility cutoff point – the age at which it is assumed women will stop having children – to extend beyond 45). And yet, on that February afternoon eight years ago, Day could find nothing on the internet or in books about her painful, irreversible situation. When she typed “childless woman” into any search engine, she was directed to sites run by women who had elected to be “child-free” – “some of them saying really hateful things about how awful kids were”. She knew no one like her, and felt alone and frightened. There followed “four years of hell”: “My personality completely changed. There were loads of things I couldn’t deal with. I withdrew from all my relationships. I saw doctors, therapists – nobody knew what the matter with me was.”

It’s fascinating to watch how conversations about uncomfortable, rarely discussed subjects begin to take root in the public domain. Almost always, they’re pushed into consciousness, not by academics or specialists, but by people who have been personally affected by the issues and find themselves reluctant champions of causes they still have difficulty admitting to. Day’s first blogpost – two years into her four-year hell – concerned what she called the Tunnel, “the experience I had at the end of my time to become a mother. It’s a non-specific time, every woman knows what I’m talking about, and it’s kind of when your life is narrowing down and down and down, and you feel as if you’re stuck in this tunnel.” The response was enormous. Her blog, Gateway Women, flourished into a huge online community, and then became a book for women struggling to find meaning in a life that was supposed to be filled with children. Now there are more than 100 free Gateway Meetup groups for involuntarily childless women in Britain and another 100 around the world, including in Switzerland, the US and India. Day runs workshops around the world for women struggling with childlessness, and is training to be a psychotherapist.

Only very recently have other people started talking publicly for the first time about their involuntary childlessness. And, intriguingly, most of them are British, where the rate of childlessness among women over 45 is lower than in, say, Ireland (where one in four women born in the 1960s haven’t had children) or Germany (where the number is one in three). I talk to Lizzie Lowrie, who runs retreats for childless women and this year organised a “Mother’s Day Runaway” service at Liverpool Cathedral; to Stephanie Phillips, who set up World Childlessness Week two years ago (“Parents will say they are fed up waiting to be a grandparent. People need to stop saying ‘the clock is ticking’. There needs to be an acceptance that not everyone will be a parent, and that some people who aren’t need to grieve”); to Kirsty Woodard, founder, three years ago, of the organisation Aging Without Children, which supports and campaigns for older people who don’t have children. Woodard tells me that 1.2 million people over the age of 65 in the UK do not have children – a number that will double to 2 million by 2030: “Half of all older people live alone. The assumption by the government is that all older people have family who will help to look after them.”

This Friday, as part of the 50+ festival in York, the shadow transport minister, Rachael Maskell MP, who doesn’t have children, will, for the first time, join a panel discussion on ageing without children. On the same afternoon, on the other side of the world, in Cleveland, Ohio, Day will be the keynote speaker for the Not Mom summit. Among many interesting observations made by its organiser, Karen Malone Wright, is her belief “that parents take for granted the many networking opportunities available to them. It’s similar to businesspeople who play golf. Parents bored at a PTA meeting or soccer game talk and connect, sometimes professionally.” May says that, in the workplace, “the one in five” are where the LGBT community were two decades ago, except that – proportionally – they’re far more numerous. “Companies conflate family- and female-friendly policies, and you often have situations where childless people are expected to pick up the slack when someone goes off on maternity leave. I think HR departments are going to start having to factor in the wants and needs of the childless.” This is a concept that’s likely to be baffling to some people, as one female blogger wrote in her review of a US book about childlessness: “In a world where there is war, disease, starvation, murder and divisiveness, being a childless old maid is pretty low on the scale of tragedies.”

But who are the childless and how many of them wanted children? The closest we can come is a 2010 meta-analysis by the Dutch academic Prof Renske Keiser, which suggested that only 10% of childless women actively chose not to become mothers. That leaves 90% of women like Day. Only 9% of that 90% are childless for known medical reasons. If we take these figures at face value, it becomes all the more puzzling that involuntary childless women are so invisible. “I believe the main reason that the child-free are so much more visible online,” says Day, “is that they do not feel silenced by shame. Their child-freedom is a positive choice; one that they feel proud of and that helps them face down the stigma of being women without children. Childless women have to wade through grief to get to that place, and many of them remain stuck in it for decades, maybe even for their whole lives. I have certainly met and worked with women in their 70s who have never had a chance to move beyond their grief because of a lack of awareness or support.”

Robin Hadley … ‘The pain of childlessness comes in waves.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Among those people who are involuntary childless is an even more invisible subset, and not a small one: men. In the late 90s, Robin Hadley, then 39, began to grapple with a paradigm shift in his own future life plans. Hadley had started a relationship with a woman a few years older than him. She had already accepted that she would remain childless, but Hadley had always wanted to be a dad. He had been deeply jealous when his best friend had started a family. And now, here he was – confronted by a last chance to have a baby. For Hadley, being childless by circumstance meant having made a decision to pursue a relationship where he knew children were off the agenda. “I know there are some men who prioritise their desire to be a dad over the desire to have a good relationship, but, for me, the relationship was more important.” He remains happily married and childless. “The pain of childlessness comes in waves. I have friends who are becoming grandparents, and the same feelings you had when they started having kids resurface.”

Hadley’s painful situation ended up redirecting his professional interests. He wanted to know more about how men like him felt about fatherhood – “and I was stunned. There’s just nothing out there at all.” (It’s startling, for example, that the Office for National Statistics only collects data on how many women have children.) A technical photographer, he began to retrain as a counsellor. He did an MA (his thesis was on how the desire for fatherhood affects men), then got funding to start a PhD on life without fatherhood. He advertised in the back of the Oldie magazine for men who would be willing to speak anonymously about how they would have liked to have been a dad (“getting men to speak about it is almost impossible, even privately”). The 15 men he interviewed at length were between the ages of 49 and 82. They had become childless through fertility problems, bad timing, the lack of a suitable partner and bad relationships. One man had been written off by his spouse as “not dad material”; other men had partners whose fear of giving birth was so intense that the couple decided to remain childless. “Men don’t say ‘bereaved’ or ‘lost’, like their female counterparts might,” he says. “They’re more likely to say, ‘I feel my life’s off track’, or ‘something’s missing’. And behind that little word ‘missing’ there is a universe of thoughts, feelings, desires, fears and what-ifs.”

Childless men, he says, are seen as weak and objects of deep suspicion: “If you don’t have children as a man, you are basically saying you are a failure as a reproductive human being. There’s a feeling that you’re a threat, that you could be a paedophile and that you shouldn’t be around children at all.” He thinks that research into male infertility and public discussion of it is so meagre because it makes men look feebleand our culture doesn’t allow that.

Hadley says the assumption that men can have children whenever they want to ignores the “social clock” – the “what your peers are doing” factor. “To men, it’s as important as the biological clock. Yes, there are people such as Rod Stewart having kids in their 60s, but they really are the exceptions. Men have said to me: “It wouldn’t be right for me to have children when I’m 50 or 60. I don’t want to look like their grandad at the school gates.” (There are also, of course, biological factors that might affect men’s choices about when to procreate – fertility decreases for men with age, too.)Hadley, who undertook his research for personal reasons, is almost alonein Britain in having gone on the record about this complex, hidden predicament for men. However, a pair of film-makers are now attempting to crowdfund a documentary, entitled The Easy Bit, in which men will speak publicly about their experience of being involuntary childless and the lack of support around the issue. To date, they have raised £1,000 of their £10,000 target.

By the time she was 33, Lizzie Lowrie (now 37) had had six miscarriages. Married to a trainee vicar and living in Cambridge at the time, her social environment, she says, was “like a baby factory. It was possibly the worst environment for someone who couldn’t have children.” She once hid in a bike shed to avoid the other vicars’ wives and their children. “My biggest nightmare was to have that life; of not being a mother. I had always imagined that I’d have had children by the time I was 35, and, as the day got closer, I had no idea how to handle it. I didn’t know how I was going to survive. Not being able to have children is the most difficult experience of my life. I have come a long way. I know now that I don’t need a child to have a life of purpose, but the desire to have a child – that never goes away. I’m not as ashamed of it as I was at first.”

Lowrie and her husband set up a blog, Saltwater and Honey, with another childless couple because “there is so much online about people’s experiences, but the majority are really unhelpful. People usually only share their story when it has a happy ending. When you don’t have the happy ending, you need to know someone’s there with you in [feeling] that pain.”

This year, in Liverpool Cathedral, she and the Rev Sonya Dorah held a service on the evening before Mothering Sunday for people who, like them, had not been able to have biological children. Dorah, who wrote the liturgy and now has three adopted children, contracted chlamydia when she was raped, aged 17, leaving her infertile. She says of the service: “It was an amazing day. The kind of thing where you think: why hasn’t this always existed? Why have childless people never been acknowledged? We had about 80 people in the cathedral – men and women – and we’re thinking of doing others. There are markers in the year that are particularly difficult for the involuntary childless: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, the kids going back to school at the beginning of the academic year. There’s also a feeling – that I believe is wrong – that you don’t know love unless you have had a child. I know other vicars who are childless and don’t hold the baby at christenings because it’s too painful for them.”

There are many dozens of reasons people become involuntarily childless. Day has described some of them in her post, Fifty Ways Not to Be a Mother, “but I could easily go up to 100,” she says – the list includes “being single and unable to find a suitable relationship from your mid-30s onwards” and “having your ovaries damaged by chemotherapy”. It’s the most-visited page on her site, alongside advice on how to respond to the “Do you have children?” question and the almost comically inappropriate responses childlessness can provoke in other people: “Everything happens for a reason,” is in the Top 5, though Lowrie’s Spanish teacher topped that when “she offered to carry a baby for me on Facebook”.

It’s noticeable, in the comments section of Day’s blog, how often it’s mothers, not fathers or other childless women, who most frequently cause upset or offence among people who have not been able to have children. “Motherhood is almost like an idol that is worshipped,” says Lowrie. “A lot of women who can’t have children find their relationships with female friends and their mothers are really affected. Being childless is a very complex form of grief. Day to day, it’s still painful. The desire to have a child is still there. I have friends I’m no longer close to because all they talk about is children or being a mother.” She tries to get them to embrace the other aspects of their lives because, if they don’t, what does that say about them or her? “Surely a mother is more than someone who has children? And I’m more than someone who doesn’t.”

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