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Breaking the silence of childlessness

April 5th, 2022 7:05 AM

By Emma Connolly

Breaking the silence of childlessness Image
Jody Day is ‘out the other side’ of her grief but says Mother’s Day can still be extra painful. ‘It can be a knife in the heart, with messages coming from every angle.’

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A Clonakilty-based woman is leading a global network to connect women who, for reasons including infertility and circumstance, are childless. And she’s determined to help them find their place in a ‘motherhood-mad’ world 

NOT becoming a mother broke Jody Day’s heart but she learned to grieve the life she longed for and now she’s leading a global movement helping other childless women.

The 57-year-old is the founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship, support and advocacy network for childless women with a social reach of 2 million, set up in the UK in 2011 and now headquartered in Clonakilty.

After her own experience, she’s driven to help women realise that a childless life isn’t some runner-up prize to motherhood, and that you can learn to live in a world that doesn’t include the thing you wanted most.

Jody got married when she was 26, and started trying for a family when she was 29. She hadn’t expected any problems, she was young, and healthy, she had it all planned out.

‘I even had a chart listing month-by-month my plans for the next five years of my life, including which months I aimed to conceive so that our children’s births would fit around our schedule. I still have that chart in a box somewhere. I keep it to remind me how much I’ve changed,’ she says.

She was the first in her social group to get married, but soon all her friends were passing her out and getting pregnant. ‘I saw every nutritionist, herbalist, acupuncturist, shaman, healer, homoeopath, naturopath and quack in London. I tried every diet, made all the lifestyle changes and became an expert on my ovulation dates, peeing on every colour and type of stick I could buy. Yet, each month, regular as clockwork, my period would come.’

Doctors called it ‘unexplained infertility.’

Aged 38, she was at the point of moving on to IVF when her marriage ended after 16 years, due to the pressures of infertility and other problems.

It was tough, but she was sure motherhood was still in her future; that she had time to meet someone and get pregnant. She was ignorant about the poor IVF success rates for women her age and completely baby-focused, she admits.

‘Around the age of 40, I started dating again. I had a couple of serious relationships, but sadly neither of them were stable enough to consider doing IVF. And so, when my most serious post-divorce relationship ended, I was 44-years-old. I remember a gloomy, rainy February afternoon in the grotty studio flat I’d moved into after that stormy break-up. I was standing watching the rain on the window when the traffic in the street seemed to become completely muted. In that moment, I became acutely aware of myself, standing there, looking out of the window. And then it came to me: It’s over. I’m never going to have a baby. I realised with absolute clarity and complete certainty that even if I were to meet a new partner immediately, we’d need to be together for at least a year before we could even think about doing IVF. It was too late for that. I was too old. It was over.’

As well as dealing with that overwhelming grief, she remembers feeling ‘judged’, and looked down on, regarded as ‘social plankton’ for not having a child or being in a relationship.

“People would just suggest I adopt or try on my own, as if it was like getting a dog. But I was in my mid-40s, with poor fertility, no home, no savings, and I worked freelance. Even if adoption had been a choice in my heart, no agency would have touched me.’

What followed were years of intense grief. ‘And nobody let me talk about it because they felt you couldn’t grieve for something you never had. I found out later that what I was feeling was ‘disenfranchised grief’ – a grief that our society does not recognise and whichconsequently many of us feel shame for experiencing. There are other types of disenfranchised grief, like grieving the death of an ex-partner, but childlessness is a hugely unrecognised one.

‘If we had lost a living family member by some tragic event, we would never expect ourselves to “get over it.” Yet those of us who are childless are expected to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, count our blessings and get on with things.’

Originally an interior designer, Jody retrained as a psychotherapist: ‘That gave me an opportunity to start processing my sadness, introduced me to new ways to think about things and new friends to talk about them with. About a year later, I started writing about being childless in a motherhood-mad world on a new blog I started called Gateway Women.’

On average, one adult woman in five does not have children in the western world and it’s on the rise. There’s voluntary and involuntary childlessness, and various studies confirm that childlessness by choice (being childfree) accounts for around 10%, with 10% of women childless due to infertility and 80% by circumstance, with perhaps the most common circumstances being single, not by choice, during your fertile years. Not surprisingly, the response from all over the world to her blog was phenomenal.

Fast forward to 2022 and she has a team of worldwide facilitators for her global movement.

She has also written a book, Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children which many professionals consider to be the ‘go-to’ book on the topic.

Jody thought she’d make the world a better place through her children, but she’s doing it through her work instead.

‘I felt all the nurturing inside me go toxic but I realised myself, and I tell people now, that we can use our mothering in other ways, you just need to find a way that works for you.’

Her book doesn’t hold back on what she’s been through and in it she talks about hope, and false hope, pointing out that 75% of IVF fails, and the success rate for women in their 40s is a shocking 1-5% (when using their own eggs).

‘Offering a childless woman this kind of “hope” is akin to suggesting to someone with financial problems not to worry as they’re going to win the lottery,’ she writes.

She also feels strongly about fertility education and says there’s massive ignorance out there. ‘Most of what we know and talk about is centred on not getting pregnant, so consequently we were all brought up to think that it must be a really easy thing to achieve and that it should be delayed as long as possible. As a result there’s so many women who are unintentionally childless.’

Jody says Mother’s Day can be extra painful ‘It can be a knife in the heart, with messages coming at you from every angle.’ It also impacts friendships. 

‘When your friends have kids there can be an empathy gap there and you can feel sidelined.

‘I found it painful but bearable when I still thought I could join them in “this other world” but there was an obvious disconnect when I knew I couldn’t. It can be hard to understand your place in life.’

Now, Jody is ‘out the other side’ of her grief and is at peace. She moved to West Cork four years ago to be with her new partner, who she married just a few weeks ago.

‘I no longer long for the Jody that could have had kids, we’re of equal value. We must stop thinking that the highest form of a woman is a mother. We are not “others”, we’re part of society. You have nothing to be ashamed about for it. You’ve done nothing wrong by being childless; you are nothing wrong by being childless.

‘You never completely “get over” childlessness. It’s not a broken leg but it is possible to heal around it. 

‘Not having a family broke my heart. Some may think that’s melodramatic, but I know it’s true. 

‘However, grieving that loss and the life I longed for healed my heart, leaving it bigger than it was before.’

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