Jody Day has accepted being childless in a motherhood-mad world
As a middle-aged, single and childless woman, Jody Day is at the bottom of the social heap. Crazy cat lady; hard-boiled career woman; lonely sad sack – the negative portrayals are entrenched, she says. She's heard them all. Yet, "the stigma is invisible unless you're part of it".
"I mean, I've always had cats," she says from her home in London. "When did I become the crazy cat lady – when I got to 40? Later? Also, I've never yet met a woman who delayed childbearing because she wanted to keep going in her job. Most of the time there were other factors that led to childlessness.
"But the fact is we live in an overwhelmingly pro-natalist society, and that can be hard if you're childless by circumstance – as opposed to childless by choice."
The good news is that life has never been better for the 50-year-old. In less than four years, her website for the childless, Gateway Women, has reached almost half a million women worldwide, including 30 members in New Zealand. And she has subsequently tossed aside her nine-to-five as a marketing executive and authored a book on the issue – Rocking The Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life Without Children. It became an Amazon bestseller within 24 hours.
But her success and contentment has been hard-won. For most of her adult life, Day assumed she would be a mother. A 16-year marriage to a man with addiction issues and her own (undiscovered) infertility led to childlessness in her 20s and 30s. In her early 40s, she began dating again, but none of the relationships were serious enough for babies or IVF. By the time she was 43 and newly single once again, Day faced facts.
"I came out of denial. I realised I would never have a baby. But instead of falling apart, I began to 'fall together'. All the hopes of the last 15 years, the dream of the Jody who was going to be a mother some day, vanished," she says.
"Of course, I then entered a period of intense grief for the children I'd never have. But soon after that I was accepted onto a course to train as a psychotherapist."
Day says she began to envisage an alternative future. She started writing about being childless in a motherhood-mad world on her blog, which she named Gateway Women. It led to discussions with other childless women, a few public speaking engagements, a tentative media presence and a workshop.
That's all it took: fast forward three and a half years, and Day now sees women for private sessions and runs weekend workshops and retreats, on top of regular public speaking engagements.
Up next is the public policy arena – she is particularly interested in what she sees as the disadvantages faced by childless women in the workplace: "Extra workloads placed on childless women when their colleagues are on maternity leave, and the unwillingness of many employers to understand that 'life-work' balance doesn't always mean 'family-work' balance."
A secondary concern is what happens to childless women as they grow old. At a 'Future of Ageing' conference next year, she will discuss the issue of ageing alone, which she cites as the "number one fear" of childless women. It will be the first time the topic is broached in the public arena, says the author, who will join other campaigners, charities, and public bodies at the conference.
Day believes the stigma around childlessness comes from a deeply tribal, human fear of not reproducing. "Remember, in some tribal cultures childless women were actually banished. Unmarried, childless women over 40 are of no use to the patriarchal system, and women have internalised that dislike. Sadly, some of the harshest judgements can come from other women."
She considers the stigma as "perhaps part of the unfinished business of feminism". Earlier waves of feminism looked at a woman's right to control her own fertility, "however, one of the unintended consequences of birth control and women's access to the professions has been the rise of the 'childless middle-aged spinster', now the most shamed female figure in [our] culture, compared to unmarried mothers a generation ago".
The uncomfortable truth for many is that there are more childless women today than ever before, says Day. (A fact backed up in this country by Statistics New Zealand, which reports the trend is expected to continue).
"Do you know there's more chance of a teenage girl becoming infertile than becoming a teenage mother? We are so obsessed with preventing pregnancy at a young age that we forget infertility is a much bigger issue."
Smart, engaging and youthful, Day is often dubbed 'the voice of the childless generation' and is perhaps its ideal spokeswoman. For a start, there is little risk of her being dismissed as a bitter old crone. Which, incidentally, is one of the myths she wishes to counter: just because a woman looks young doesn't mean her eggs aren't aging. Just because sprightly celebrities give birth in their mid to late 40s, doesn't mean they didn't use donor eggs.
And, what's more, women should know that IVF often doesn't succeed, she says. "If I'd known all this, I might have made different decisions when I was younger."
For those who didn't know this, or remain childless for some other reason, she advocates having a Plan B. Start your own business, design a garden, mentor a younger person, or simply rediscover your love of baking. "You have to find your own way back to a life that brings you joy. That requires unplugging from the way you thought you would achieve fulfilment and plugging into a different fulfilment.
"Our pro-natalist culture promotes the idea that motherhood is the only way women can find meaning in life. An alternative future isn't glorified in mainstream media, so it's harder to find."
At first, Day thought her own plan B should be something momentous, like working in a Third World orphanage – "I thought sacrificing my life in some way was the only way my life would have meaning". But that was just her grief talking. "Now I say, you don't have to live a big life on the outside, but you do have to live a big life on the inside."
Day's message has struck a chord the world over: Gateway Women (GW) has members in the UK, Ireland and Europe, United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and Day plans to tour this way in 2016.
She says she's noticed that the New Zealand women on her site are shy; concerned with confidentiality and anonymity. It was no different for this story – all the local Gateway women I spoke to insisted on pseudonyms.
They had also all accepted they won't have children. Though a few were still searching for their purpose, for their Plan B. It's telling that more than one brought up a line that had been uttered by a Shortland Street character that week: "You're not really a woman till you've had a baby."
"For god's sake," said Sue, 47, who has established a GW meet-up group in Christchurch, "haven't we realised by now there are heaps more ways of being a woman?"
Motherhood is extolled in New Zealand, agreed GW member Kelly, 36, a transplanted Brit. She says childlessness is also hard for men, but it affects women far more publicly. "My husband grieved too," she told me, "but his grief was more private than societal. The deification of mothers – you don't get that with fathers."
Not only are the childless disenfranchised here but their grief is also not acknowledged, said Aucklander Nicole, 42. "For me, grieving took about four years. Some days it was so bad I couldn't go to work. It's even harder when we aren't recognised at all – I once spent a day clocking all the times motherhood was glorified in magazines, the radio, advertisements and other media. It was massive. Things like that make you feel very alone.
"It's also confronting to see people who don't deserve to have kids," she added. "It's hard to reconcile. I feel very singular."
Each woman said the question they dislike most is, "Do you have children?" Their negative response either stumps the questioner or prompts the next question ("Why not?"). More often that not, the answer is too intimate and painful to reveal in casual conversation.
The GW members I spoke with had diverse reasons for their childlessness: one had been in an abusive relationship during her childbearing years; one simply hadn't met anyone to have a child with; another had been with an infertile partner. In fact, Jody Day has listed 50 ways childlessness can come about. It isn't as simple, she says, as 'didn't want, couldn't have'.
Nicole says Day's online initiative has given her a community and a framework for understanding her situation: "Understanding things has calmed me a lot."
Sue says she'd spent years in denial and feeling depressed, but recently began to think more deeply about her situation. "I acknowledged what a big deal not having children was. That's when I started searching online and found Gateway Women."
Kelly believes, as does Day, that childless women are vastly underestimated as a demographic. "Parenting is important, but for those who can't, there will be a huge societal shift if we empower ourselves to embrace our childlessness," she says. "The thing about women without children is that we have the time and energy and drive to do things, and we think differently to men… We are a force to be reckoned with."
To join a Gateway Women meet-up group in New Zealand, see meetup.com/Gateway-Women-NZ/
Additional reporting by Rebecca Kamm
- Sunday Magazine