Sitting in a café the other day I overheard a woman I know who is in her early forties, single and childless say to a group of people, ‘I don’t need to be a mother, there are enough children in this world, it doesn’t need any more.’ As the group gave her a nod of approval I watched her carefully lest the vulnerability behind that statement show. But if she did feel anything remotely like pain around this it was well hidden. She was super cool and I was almost impressed. On one level she was right. The world didn’t need any more children and her politically correct choice was clear and noble. On the other hand I wanted to know more. Did she want children? Had she just convinced herself of that line now that it was becoming too late to embrace the possibility? Would it be too shameful to admit that life just hadn’t delivered something that she actually really wanted?
Like this woman, I too am in my early forties, single and childless. And the truth is that there are some days when I have found this to be an incredibly painful place to be – even though I get that from my privileged first world position I am also very lucky and free. My desire to write about this has been growing for sometime and I have often wondered why? What am I trying to achieve? Is it simply to purge and share in the hope of sidestepping my vulnerability and make something noble of this circumstance? I have come to realize that it’s more about giving a voice to something that I have really not heard or read much of. The truth. Vulnerability and shame are things I have been very interested in of late and reading Brene Brown’s books and listening to talks by women who are practicing vulnerability, have really inspired me to reveal something of my own shame around being what Leslie Cannold in her research book, ‘What No Baby?’ calls, ‘childless by circumstance.’ In this book, Cannold interviewed thousands of childless women around their thwarted desire to have a child and she found that in her research she was only able to get women to talk about their experiences up to the age of about 38. From then on the women were silent. It was too painful or they had given up any hope around the issue and didn’t want to talk about it anymore. There was something so terribly sad about the lack of stories coming from those women, especially as I was one of them and desperate to identify with a voice in there and make some sense of it for myself. So why the silence? Well it it’s obvious I guess. Shame.
This is how Brene Brown defines shame in her book, ‘Daring Greatly’;
‘Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.’ She goes on to add that shame derives its power from being unspeakable and thus begins to wither the moment we speak it. So perhaps therein lies the need for me to write this blog, to somehow combat the shame that I and I know some other childless, single forty something women feel or have felt. And I know all the soothing arguments that want to put a balm over this wound, the one about over-population being a classic. But I have many of my own. I live in a town that is full of single mothers and I watch them struggle daily for support, money, love and time. I am a teacher of teenage children many of whom are fatherless boys desperate for connection with men and struggling to find their way to manhood. I don’t need to add to this out of my own selfish desires that make me at certain times of the month want to update my facebook status with, ‘I want a baby! Any takers?’ And I am aware of the social conditioning that all women share that wants to make us ‘failures’ in the womanhood stakes if we have not mothered children. I was born with feminism in 1972 after all- apparently the year that has the highest rate of abortion ever in Australia! With a mother who was only 16 at the time it’s a wonder I am here at all! But my mother who is such a beautifully sensitive and feeling woman knew like most women do that feeling our feelings and desires is far more nourishing than any theory or political agenda.
So here I am then facing myself as childless – not entirely by choice- though many would have me believe that its all a choice – and experiencing the whole gamut of feelings surrounding this; shame, loss, freedom, failure, sadness, envy and intense desire. And sometimes it’s overwhelming. I wanted a child but spent many years in love with a man who didn’t and wasn’t able or willing to make an immediate switch into being with someone who did or making the expensive and intense experience to go it alone. And while I am blessed to be surrounded by children daily and love them dearly, it doesn’t reduce the sense of sadness, inadequacy and shame that I continue to sometimes feel. And there you have it. The truth. My truth. Will I publish this on my blog? I don’t know yet, but I do know that I feel a whole lot lighter for writing it.