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 a 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.
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
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:)
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?"
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.