Parts of a Story
Here's a post I wrote and shared with some friends in June 2019. I've not written here much about how I came to be without children. This website is about providing support, regardless of 'how' one has come to be childless. Because every person's grief is valid - the how we got here does not make it more or less so.
I want to post this now, as tonight I have created the 'How to be Supportive' page with hopes to build understanding and compassion for our experiences and community. May my story contribute to this.
June 28, 2019, I wrote...
If you had asked me in recent years how I came to be a woman without children, you would have heard me stumbling through my story. I couldn’t keep my story straight around how I wasn’t a mother because I couldn’t process that reality or any reasoning around it in my mind, much less articulate what had happened.
When telling my story, I would have focused on my belief that I started trying too late. I would have starting by saying that I always wanted children. Though there was a time in my twenties I questioned that, I always thought I would eventually be a mom. I kicked myself for a long time for ever having any doubt.
I would have told you how I had two long relationships, both times thinking that this would be the man whom I would have children with. Despite knowing in my heart and gut that neither man was right for me. In the first relationship, we were young. We met in university and were together for about seven years. I long doubted the relationship, but he was educated and ambitious so I envisioned us having a conventional and happy enough life together with children. The second man decided he didn’t want to have children after we were together for about four years. When we met in my late twenties, he would go on about how beautiful our children would be. We talked and dreamed about having children together, but he already had a daughter and when I was 31 he decided he didn’t want any more children. The relationship ended. We told people we wanted different things, although I knew deep down it was a troubled relationship that I should have ended in its first year.
I stayed in two long relationships that were not good for me because I wanted children. Before I wrote these words just now this hadn’t occurred to me. I’ve always blamed myself for my decisions to stay with these men as part of why I wasn’t able to have children.
From age 31 to 35, every man I dated knew I wanted children. I made that clear.
At 37, I got married and thought I still had a lot of time to finally start trying to be a mom. And, I kept trying until I was 47. First naturally, then later by trying to adopt. These were demoralizing and soul-crushing years and experiences.
As I write this, I am thinking that this is the most linear version I’ve ever used to explain my how-I-came-to-be-childless story. When asked, my mind has always been a jumble. I feel like I have been trying to explain myself in a way that will make people have sympathy, since I have had so little for myself. I've relentlessly blamed myself for what I’ve always regarded as my ‘bad decisions’ that led to me being childless.
Today, I am getting ready to meet my mother, my sister and my mother’s long-time friend and her daughter for lunch. We are meeting because my mother’s friend’s daughter is going through a biopsy for a nodule in her thyroid. And, my sister and I both were diagnosed with thyroid conditions in our thirties. It should be easy to talk about and reassure this woman that probably everything will be ok. I’ve had three biopsies on a nodule and have been reassured by doctors that nodules in a thyroid usually are of no concern.
So why all these thoughts this morning? Because I will be the only woman at the restaurant table without children. And as I usually do, I am anticipating the situation and the dynamic that usually unfolds. When the other women at the table, all moms, bond over the stories about their children. When I feel out of place and awkwardly silent. When I feel like someone might ask me why I am not a mom.
And, today, this morning with this anticipation and these thoughts being dredged up, I realize something else. That my story has really changed. That I feel that I would be able to tell my story without my usual self-recrimination. That, for the first time, I no longer feel that I have to explain these backstory parts of my story to anyone any more.
That today, if I were to choose to explain to someone how I became a woman without children, I would simply say, “Because of early menopause.”
When I was 43, the new endocrinologist treating my thyroid condition told me I was post-menopausal. That means I would have been menopausal throughout the many years that I was trying. I would have been peri-menopausal throughout many of the years that I was dreaming and hoping I would be a mom.
I didn’t know this at the time. And it’s really not been until this morning, anticipating today’s lunch with thyroid being a topic of discussion, that I’ve realized…this is a big part of my story. I wasn’t able to have children because I experienced early menopause. All this other backstory of my life that I’ve used to explain myself and blame myself does not matter. And, while I certainly won’t be sharing this realization at lunch today, this is progress in my own thinking.
I grieved my inability to be a mom heavily for about 15 years. Only with the connection, conversation and company of other women without children have I been able to move through my grief and find the space and time to fully process my story. To stop stumbling through thinking my story is about the way I lived my life and the decisions I made. To stop blaming myself. To finally be kinder and gentler on myself.
Sadly, it has taken me until my early 50s to stop feeling like the loss of my dream and hope to have children was my fault. There is no fault when a woman or man who wanted children finds themselves unable to enjoy that as a part of their life. There is no fault in that. No matter what decisions were made or how a life was lived, there is no fault. There is soul-crushing grief and that grieving person needs kind support and gentle understanding. I know this because this is my story.
In my late twenties and early thirties, I enrolled annually in at least a couple art classes. I played with watercolour and acrylic paints and explored figurative sculpting and drawing. I loved being among other people as we painted, moulded clay, drew, chatted and laughed together. Being creative within a group environment was a bit part of what made me most happy. At that time, I ran a lot too, and running with others also inspired me then.
Time moves along. When in my mid and late thirties and coming to realize that motherhood was never going to happen for me, I lost my capacity to enjoy these pursuits. I enrolled in some art classes and joined a ‘Running for Women’ group but found myself feeling isolated. Others bonded over conversations about their children. And, everyone seemed to assume that every person present was a parent. I recall how one day while running late, the running group leader exclaimed that we would all understand her tardiness since ‘you’re all moms’. In time, I stopped signing up for art activities and avoided group settings.
But then this morning happened – I attended my first virtual art workshop, Intentional Collage with Anastasia. Anastasia offers wellness coaching for childless women as well as monthly art-focused virtual workshops. There were seven of us in this morning’s one-hour workshop. Guided by Anastasia, we worked with our magazine cuttings and open minds to create whatever felt right.
The workshop was a real lift. Our conversation was inclusive and relaxed. And, my long-slumbering creativity has been stirred. Sitting at my home office desk surrounded by old magazines, scissors and a glue stick and seeing the gathering of women on my laptop screen this morning, I’m inspired again. Thank you, Anastasia! xx
A Different Lens
Last year when our world was first gripped with coronavirus and lockdown began, I thought my experiences of isolation might prepare me better than others. Often being the only childless person in a room, I know what it is to feel isolated and have developed coping strategies.
Then, as stay-at-home orders were put into place, many children returned to their parents’ homes. Families became each other’s bubbles. In time, my feelings of isolation that stem from being involuntarily childless were stirred up. Suddenly, instead of coping well, my isolation and childlessness felt magnified.
I have come to realize that I will always experience life through this different lens. For me, it is not about accepting being childless, or getting over/letting go of wanting children – that’s not going to happen. There will always be moments that create a certain wistfulness.
For me, it’s about learning to live with being involuntarily childless. It’s about learning how to avoid what provokes grief and pain, about discovering new ways to experience peace and joy, about getting get out of my head and out into the world to experience life, people (friends old and new), movement and creativity again.
My new ways to experience peace and joy tend to be simple. They involve small shifts inside. For me, feeling peace and joy these days is about…
During this year of heightened isolation, I've realized and accept that my learning how to live with being childless is a work-in-progress. The grief of involuntary childlessness doesn’t ever really go away. While the pain of loss softens, grief continues like unexpected waves. Some are gentle and easy to withstand. Others smash without warning, leaving me bruised and breathless. This past year has been full of smashing waves.
May we all find simple, beauty-filled moments. May we help each other through the waves. Take good care & stay safe. xo
It Hurt When
Last year, I 'stepped out of the shadows' and submitted a piece of writing for the World Childless Week website in response to their invite for submissions about comments that hurt.
Over many years, I've certainly heard a lot of hurtful comments and questions. For a long time, I didn't know how to respond. Now, the more I write here (and the older I get!), the more openly I want to speak about my experience and the more likely I am to have the words and courage to respond.
It Hurt When
It hurt when a woman at a fertility clinic trying for her second child said, “If you want a baby enough it will happen.”
It hurt when a new neighbour asked, “Do you have children?” then said, “Oh...why not?”
It hurt when overhearing a longtime friend say, “We just find it easier to hang out with other parents.”
It hurt when a therapist said, “Maybe you didn’t want children enough.”
It hurt when my oldest sister said, “You’re not a mother so you wouldn’t understand.”
It hurt when a heartbroken childless friend said her brother told her, “You really need to grow up and move on.”
It hurt when a woman who was drinking too much at a friend’s dinner party said, “Wow, to not have children. To not be a mother. How does that make you feel as a woman?”
It hurt when a formerly childless friend whose husband decided he didn’t want to try for a second baby cried to me and said, “I’m so worried that I’ll regret not having a second child.”
It hurt when that same friend posted photo after photo of herself out with other moms and said, “Sorry, it’s been so long since we’ve gotten together. We miss you both but we’re just so busy.”
It hurts at work and in social gatherings when the others are all parents and they bond over stories about their children or grandchildren and no one tries to engage me in the conversation.
It all hurt. Questions and comments hurt. Even unasked questions and silence hurt.
Finding community with other people who are childless not by choice has softened the memories and a lot of the pain. It’s also given me the strength to avoid such exchanges as much possible, and the words to respond in ways that I never imagined possible, back when it all hurt so much.
This year, World Childless Week is 14th-20th Sept 2020.
For more information, visit worldchildlessweek.net.
Surface and Exhale
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. - Maya Angelou
Friday morning in late July 2016, I flew from Toronto to Los Angeles and took a shuttle ride to Pasadena. The next morning, I was going to meet 14 strangers who, like me, had registered for a two-day workshop - Jody Day's Gateway Women Reignite Weekend that promised, among other things, you will ''explore and express unresolved grief about your childlessness."
The November prior, when my hopes and dreams of being a mother were completely flattened, I had come across Jody's Gateway Women website and online community. Jody's writing helped me realize that my mixed-up feelings - deep, disruptive sadness, anger, wistfulness, disbelief, more anger, more sadness - were grief. And, when I read the stories of other women posting in Jody's online community, I recognized my experiences and feelings. For the first time, my grief felt acknowledged and validated by others who completely got it. When Jody announced her Reignite Weekend workshop was going to be in California, I knew I had to go.
Fast forward back to around 7 p.m. that Friday in July 2016...I phoned my husband to let him know I'd arrived in Pasadena and to say, "Good night." It was 10 p.m. my Toronto time and I was already in bed, tired from travel and nervous about the weekend ahead. The workshop would begin the next morning.
After the call, I checked my email and found a message from Kelly. Kelly lives in Pasadena and was instrumental in organizing Jody's first Reignite Weekend in North America. Kelly, with her kindness and encouragement, was also instrumental in my decision to fly five hours alone across the continent to meet a roomful of strangers.
In her email sent that Friday evening when I was already in bed, I learned that some of the other women in town for the workshop were, at that moment, downstairs in the hotel meeting each other. Though part of me wanted to stay under the covers - literally and metaphorically - I got up, dressed and worked up the courage to join.
Fast forward a couple hours...I felt like I was surfacing. From the moment I joined the table of women in the hotel restaurant, they warmly welcomed me. These three lovely women talked as if they'd known each other for years. I soon felt as though I'd known them for years. They spoke about what had brought them to Pasadena. Then, one of the women turned and gently asked about me, about my experience.
For the first time, I spoke openly about what had brought me to seek out the company of other women affected by involuntary childlessness. I told my story. I described my pain. I didn't feel the need, as I usually did, to carefully consider my words or further explain myself. They understood.
The whole weekend experience, together with a group of women in my shoes, was a turning point in my healing. So many times during that weekend, I felt a sense of surfacing. I was surfacing from grief, isolation, self-blame and so many other longstanding burdens that stemmed from the loss of my parenting hopes and dreams.
Fast forward a couple years to September 2018...After completing an intensive workshop facilitation program with Jody, I arranged and delivered a sold-out Reignite Weekend workshop in Toronto. A lovely group of women gathered and told their stories. As my experience in Pasadena, understanding, support and compassion was expressed throughout the weekend. Late Sunday afternoon, while closing the workshop, each woman described how she felt given her workshop experience. Each expressed her heart-felt and personal response and gratitude. One woman said she felt like she could now exhale.
I'm surfacing. I can exhale.
When we struggle with involuntary childlessness, I believe we hold our breath. While hoping, while waiting, while feeling disappointment, we hold our breath. We tense up and hold that tension for years. When we realize how hard it is to find acknowledgement that our grief is real and valid, we hold it in. With every childbirth story, baby announcement, shower invite, grandchild photo, we hold it in. When we learn that most people can't gently listen to our stories or understand our continued sadness, we go further inward. We feel alone, like we're holding our breath, underwater.
To surface and exhale, to move toward healing, find connection.
Find a community that feels right and comfortable for you. More and more communities of women without children are being created - many online. Helpful hashtags include: #childless, #childlessnotbychoice, #childlessbycircumstance, #lifeafterchildlessness, #GatewayWomen, #CNBC, #childlessness...and more.
Then, share your story. Surface and exhale.
And this - one more thought...in her book It's OK That You're Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand, Megan Devine writes "...lengthening your exhale soothes your nervous system, shutting down the stress hormones that trigger anxiety. When you feel anxious, make your exhale longer than your inhale....It doesn't have to be a deep breath, just exhale for a moment longer. Experiment with that. See how it goes."
A few months have passed since my last post. But, I am still here with more to write and more I want to explore with this site. Of late, my thoughts have been swirling with ideas and possible titles of as-yet unwritten posts...
Surface and Exhale
Plan B vs. Plan Be vs. Plan B + Be
I have been unable to write for awhile.
My dear dad died in early February. He lived a wonderful life but I miss him terribly, always will.
And we are all now isolating at home. The gravity and impact of COVID-19 weighs heavily. Everyone is experiencing loss and worry.
There are so many layers to experiences, loss and grief.
While I have started writing my thoughts again, they are unfinished drafts. The intended titles may be enough for now....
Surface and Exhale Words Acknowledgement Plan B vs. Plan Be vs. Plan B + Be Sanctuary
What do these words and phrases mean to you?
What thoughts do they generate for you?
Surface and Exhale
Plan B vs. Plan Be vs. Plan B + Be
I am seated in my home office after spending the morning at a coffee shop working on my laptop. During my drive home, I happened upon an interview on the CBC Radio's Tapestry show. The man being interviewed said, "Happiness is a dish with many ingredients." I love that sentiment. He expressed that happiness tends to be a by-product during one's pursuit of happiness - and that connection is a big part. I agree.
I'm going to find the full interview online and the name of his book. Capturing these thoughts here right now while I remember. And, so glad I had the radio set to that station at the right time.
As I arrived home, I found first Christmas card in mailbox. It's from a thoughtful Gateway Woman in the U.K. I met her as part of the online B program. Her kindness moves me so much - connection does bring happiness in many forms:) xx
...later afternoon additional note: I checked and learned the radio interview was between the author Meik Wiking who was being interviewed by Mary Hynes. I've copied a link to the interview and an article below. I've heard of his book The Little Book of Hygge but haven't read yet. They talked today about his most recent book which I'm now really looking forward to reading - The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments.
Article: Treasure map of happy memories: a guide to remembering the best moments of your life: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/tapestry/treasure-map-of-happy-memories-a-guide-to-remembering-the-best-moments-of-your-life-1.5386117
What Lifts Me
My first two posts express thoughts that run through my mind in terms of what I 'want to say' to our larger society - feeling that more empathy and inclusiveness would help. This post turns back to sharing what else has helped me in my experience.
I'm a visual person, hence the photos! In addition to all these visual representatives, other things that help...
Feeling lifted has certainly taken time and courage - more thoughts for another day:)
If You Ask
For a long time, feelings of isolation and disconnection characterized my experience of being involuntarily childless.
Whether at work meetings, social gatherings, across boardroom tables where I volunteered, people around me were bonding over conversations about their children. So many times, I was left out.
In my experience, today's typical conversation-starter question is, "Do you have children?" And, I dread that question for many reasons. Mainly being that no one asking seems prepared for a 'no' response.
When I say 'no', awkward silence is the most frequent consequence. Then, it feels up to me to bridge the silence and dispel the other person's surprise and apparent discomfort.
I want people with children to know that the question "Do you have children?" can be painful for many people. I want people who ask this question to know...
If You Ask
If you ask, "Do you have children?"
I will say, "No"
Then I will most likely ask about yours.
This is my strategy
From the awkward silence my response usually elicits.
And my attempt to prevent
Intrusive questions, or
You should know
Behind my one-word response that may seem abrupt to you,
Is an explanation that is excruciating for me.
It is my story
Of a lifetime spent expecting, dreaming and hoping that I would be a mom,
And then how I had to stop.
After years of continuous disappointment,
First, I lost the expectation then I lost hope.
I had to stop.
I didn't let go, move on, or make a decision.
I had to stop my wishful thinking
That had long become
It doesn't mean I didn't want children enough, didn't want to be a parent as much as you.
But I HAD to stop,
Because grief had become the ever-present consequence,
An all-consuming state.
My grief was devastating and real,
Fueled by remnants of hope,
In the company of continuous disappointment.
I lost myself.
This was no way to live.
And so, I had to stop.
And when I stopped
More grief was the consequence,
Deep, devastating and real.
Sadness, anger, isolation surrounded me.
I had to learn how to sleep again, feel joy again
Find calm, peaceful thinking.
With understanding support, connection and self-care,
I have surfaced,
I feel a softening
Can feel peace and joy again,
Am living more fully again.
You should know
That a woman or man who wanted to be a parent
But wasn't able
Didn't willingly let go, move on, or make an easy decision.
She wanted children as much as you.
But she had to stop.
He had to stop wishing, wanting, trying.
He was devastated and, at some moments, still is.
Their grief should be recognized and gently acknowledged.
Any woman or man grieving this loss should be consoled.
Not asked questions.
Or given suggestions.
You should also know
We want you to include us
In your thoughts, conversation and community,
Just without first asking, "Do you have children?"
This Deep Loss
Until I found available resources, the silence around involuntary childlessness was, for me, one of the most difficult parts of living this experience. Until I met other women in my shoes, I kept a lot of hard thoughts and most of the sadness felt to myself. I felt alone and isolated. And, certain phrases expressed by parents unintentionally hurt. The 'as a mother', 'as a parent', 'I never knew love until...' qualifiers made me feel less than. The phrases still make me want to shout in response, "As a caring, compassionate human, I feel love and am as empathetic as you."
With these thoughts, the following words came together.
This Deep Loss
Does not mean
When not by choice
Means to be forever
Without the children
We expected, dreamed about,
Wished for, hoped for,
These children who never came
Are deeply loved,
Are heavily grieved,
To be childless involves
Childless means child loss.
Those of us who experience
This deep loss,
Have loved as profoundly and
Grieved as heavily,
As any parent would.
Inspirations and otherwise, as a woman without children. Welcome to share yours too - please be in touch using the Contact form.