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‘I learned that shame is what keeps the taboo alive today’ – tackling the stigma of childlessness

Hilary Fennell's new radio documentary was inspired by her own frustrating journey of not being a mother. Here, she shares her backstory, while Emily Hourican interviews three of the featured women united in pain, prejudice – and self-acceptance

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Documentary maker and journalist Hilary Fennell. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Documentary maker and journalist Hilary Fennell. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women support group. Photo: Teresa Walton

Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women support group. Photo: Teresa Walton

Writer and arts curator Mary Grehan

Writer and arts curator Mary Grehan

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Documentary maker and journalist Hilary Fennell. Photo: Steve Humphreys

I got the idea for this documentary sitting around the table at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an artists’ retreat in Co Monaghan, with five women I had just met when the conversation veered from current affairs, art and politics to children and grandchildren.

Three of us went silent and it became clear we didn’t have children. But that didn’t stop the mothers from continuing to talk about theirs. When the three of them began sharing the inevitable photos, the three of us began sharing the hidden sadness around being childless.

It was the first time any of us had spoken about it – and it made me wonder why. I searched for clues, and hope, online. I was recently divorced, struggling to write a novel, and heartbroken at the prospect of not creating a ‘family unit’ of my own.

All I found were unsettling statistics. By the time they reach 45, one in five women in Ireland will not have a child. That figure will soon be one in four. Only 6-10pc are childless by choice. The vast majority of the 20pc are childless by circumstance and tend to keep quiet. 

And who can blame us? Historical and cultural attitudes help keep us silent. Embedded in our language is an abundance of offensive labels: barren, selfish spinster, career woman. Popular imagery is no better, casting childless women in a variation of two roles: evil stepmother or bunny boiler. Art through the ages? Don’t get me started; we are either entirely absent or depicted as old hags.

A combination of factors has led to the rise in childlessness, such as the availability of contraception; a more educated workforce often spending much of those fertile years establishing careers and thus leaving very little time on the fertility clock; not meeting the right partner in time; relationships breaking down at a crucial age; or, simply putting too much faith in fertility treatments.

The more I researched, the more convinced I was that involuntary childlessness would make a prescient subject for a documentary. I learned about pro-natalism, an ideology that is pro-birth, and how we live in a pro-natalist society. So, I hadn’t been imagining it.

Pro-natalism is only negative when used in its shadow sense, to make out that parents are more important as human beings because they are parents, creating an inequality between those who do and don’t have children.

It shows up at policy level, for example during Covid, when those without children can feel forgotten in the hugging grandparents discourse and the relentless schools issue – with no recognition that over 20pc of the ageing population doesn’t have children, let alone grandchildren.  

I also learned the taboo of involuntary childlessness has deep evolutionary roots from the days when we were a tribal species. If a woman wasn’t having children, it threatened the future of the tribe, which was shameful. And I learned that shame is what keeps the taboo alive.

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So, definitely a documentary in this, then. But I was reluctant to make it because I don’t usually make programmes, or write, about my personal life. Then I read about the ‘bingos’, as they’re known in the childless community. Expressions that immediately shut down the conversation when childless people try to talk about their situation such as: “Why don’t you just adopt?” “Have you thought of having one on your own?” “Why not use a surrogate?”

I remembered all the times I had been bingoed, most memorably by female friends who told me: “If you’d really wanted kids, you’d have sorted it in your twenties.” And also: “You probably had 10 kids in a former life.”

OK, that’s it, I thought, I’m making a documentary. We’ve got to get a healthier conversation going around this issue.

I’ve made plenty of programmes about sensitive subjects, but finding women who were willing to go public on this topic was a real challenge. The main reason given was that people didn’t want pity, which of course, I understand.

That was at the root of my reluctance to tackle this, although logically I know there is nothing pitiful about it. The reason I don’t have children is because of timing, I wasn’t in a committed relationship with a man with whom I was going to have a child at the optimum time – but there is a lingering sense of it being in some way my own fault that it didn’t happen.

I did find six generous souls who opened up about grief and the many hidden impacts of being childless. The toll it takes on relationships and friendships. How family occasions like Christmas can become unbearable. And, how, as soon as you realise you are not going to have children, the next fear that slaps you in the face is ‘who’s going to be there for me when I’m old?’

Just because you have children doesn’t guarantee they will look after you (although research shows only 6pc of adult children don’t get involved in their parent’s old age), but the difference is we know they won’t. The growing number of childless people – UK data shows the number of people over 65 without children is set to rise from over 1.2 million to a whopping two million by 2030, and the numbers globally are staggering – have to plan for their later years.

Ageing without children is just one of the serious issues on which we need more public dialogue. Childlessness is a vast and complex area, which is why I am developing a television series on the subject.

We need to talk about equality. Let’s start in the workplace. HR departments need to factor in the wants and needs of non-parents and to stop conflating family and female-friendly policies.

We need to talk about free childcare, to encourage the working mothers and families of the future. We need to talk about fertility education, which sorely needs updating to include how and why fertility declines with age, and that this happens to male fertility too. We need to talk about childless men and the childless in the LGBTQ+ community.

In the meantime, I think what involuntarily childless people are looking for is the same as any minority: acknowledgement, and a little empathy.

If I’ve learned anything from making the show, I’ve learnt that I’m not alone. Here, three of the women I met share their experiences of being childless.

 

Jemma White

Just over two years ago, Jemma decided, with her husband, to stop trying for a baby. “I decided I was going to focus on all the positives in my life,” says Jemma. “By giving up hope. I love my life and I decided to enjoy it fully. I have spent the last few years thinking constantly about having a baby. And hope is horrendous.”

Her infertility is unexplained: “Which means there’s nothing physically that can be found, and so that means, technically, every month there’s hope. And you always hear the story – ‘oh I have a friend who was trying for years and as soon as she stopped trying she got pregnant…’

“People will always tell you that. They do it from a place of love. They think hope will help you. But I could not mentally, physically, emotionally, financially go through that anymore.”

Now 38 and living in Belfast, Jemma took the decision after her second unsuccessful round of IVF.

“For four years I’d been consumed at some level by infertility and trying to have a baby. That’s 48 months of waiting for your period. And each month you go through the cycle of emotions, counting symptoms, and you try to dampen it down, but if you’re a day late, you’re already deciding what school your child is going to.

“You just get carried away. And the longer you’re wanting something, the more you want it. So I had to say ‘no, I can’t have that, for my own sanity’. There were so many good things in my life and yet it was always shrouded in this cloud. I wanted out, I wanted to live my life.

“I really struggled. I had a massive identity crisis about not being a mother. That’s crazy as I’ve never been a mother, but you live your life thinking about it, and then it’s taken away…” She likens the grief to bereavement: “It comes as a very close second to my dad dying by suicide.”

And yet there is a significant difference. “Your grief is pushed out to the fringes of society. I think society needs to be more open about this. Going on an IVF journey and not being successful is traumatic, but even more so because it’s shrouded in silence and that just makes everything more difficult and painful. So for me, any opportunity I have to talk about it and to help people is very potent.”

Taking such a fundamental decision meant, for Jemma, other significant life decisions. “I realised if I can’t have children, I have to do something that fulfils me. My job is going to be a massive part of my life.” She had worked as an energy company trading analyst, but chose to retrain.

“I’d always been interested in mental health, and I knew I wanted to get into a career helping others struggling with mental health. Everyone thought I was nuts, but it has worked out well.

“It’s been the right thing to do. I work developing and delivering mental health workshops for children and young people. I love spending time with children, it’s very fulfilling as a childfree person and hopefully has a positive impact on their lives.”

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Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women support group. Photo: Teresa Walton

Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women support group. Photo: Teresa Walton

Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women support group. Photo: Teresa Walton

 

Jody Day

“I still have what I call ‘griefy moments’. Because childlessness is a lifelong loss. It’s not just that you don’t have children as babies – you don’t have young children, you don’t have adult children, you don’t have grandchildren,” says Jody Day, who lives in Clonakilty, Co Cork, and is the author of Living the Life Unexpected and founder of the support group Gateway Women.

“There are plenty of opportunities for it to grab you. But mostly I’m as at peace with my childlessness as though I had chosen it – after a lot of work on myself.”

Jody, now 57, tried for 15 years to conceive, beginning in her mid-30s, with no specific medical reason why she could not.

“I went to see every alternative practitioner, tried every special diet, took every special vitamin, force-fed my husband vitamins, stood on my head after sex…”

Nothing worked, and finally, at age 44, along with the end of her marriage, she found herself confronted with the fact that “childlessness was permanent for me”.

“Thinking back to it, it still chokes me up. It was so devastating, and then I couldn’t talk about it, because nobody would let me. That was a dramatically difficult time for me and there were days where I... I didn’t want to take my own life, but I didn’t know how I was going to lead the rest of my life feeling that bad. I just wanted to be a mum.”

Adoption, she says, “wasn’t an option as so many things need to be in place for an adoption agency to consider you. And I wanted my own biological children.”

Something changed “when I discovered what I was experiencing was grief. That was massive for me. I was about 46 then, and until then, I didn’t know that the life-wrecking distress I was experiencing was grief. And neither did any doctor or therapist I consulted.”

Jody, originally an interior designer, had begun to retrain as a psychotherapist. “In the second year of my training we were doing a module on bereavement and we were exploring the grief model. I was thinking, this all feels very familiar to me… And I realised, I’m grieving. It was such an important moment. I was learning that grief is a process and saw that one day I would be out the other side. That gave me my first moment of hope.”

By then, Jody had started writing the blog, Gateway Women. “I had women getting in touch, asking: ‘How did you know what was in my head?’ I used my real name and my real photo. I didn’t hide. I wasn’t ashamed of my childlessness, and that was really unusual, because shame is a huge component of childlessness.

“Until then, I thought I was alone. This outpouring of connection coming back at me was life-changing. I had a background in design, marketing, journalism and PR, and I put all of that into what I was doing.

“A decade later, Gateway Women is a global network for support and advocacy for childless women. Before I started it, I had this feeling that the love I had for the children who were not in my life was turning into a toxic lump in my chest. Once I started Gateway Women, that love had somewhere to go. It’s been incredibly helpful for me.”

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Writer and arts curator Mary Grehan

Writer and arts curator Mary Grehan

Writer and arts curator Mary Grehan

 

Mary Grehan

“I suppose I believe in honesty,” says Mary Grehan, arts curator and novelist. “I’m a writer, and I like to think I try my best to name things, like all writers do. We like to think that we’ve evolved beyond taboos. And yet it’s difficult to talk about childlessness, because there’s no context for that.

“If you’ve experienced child loss, that is something that’s terribly sad but there is an aftermath. But what’s the context of ‘you always thought you’d have children, but you didn’t?’”

She too talks about the shame associated with childlessness: “When I was a child, I remember my mother would talk about someone and she’d say ‘they didn’t have children’. And full stop. She didn’t say anything else. It was the full stop that made it so powerful. There was a sense of that being very significant.

“From a young age, as women, our whole bodies are designed around this. We’re preparing to procreate. It’s like building the factory, and then nothing gets made…”

For herself, she says: “Bad timing would be my summary – by which I mean the timing in the lining-up of being in a relationship with somebody who was committed to the same dreams and ambitions that you had at that time. I think that’s many people’s story. Timing is everything.

“People might make assumptions – ‘oh you held off on having children because you were waiting until you had the mortgage and the house and relative security.’ It’s not that at all. You might plan, but it doesn’t go so smoothly for everybody. That’s the bit that you want to tell your 25-year-old self.”

Now in her 50s, married and living in Waterford, Mary says: “When I was 40, I had finished my Masters, and wondered would I do a PhD. I knew that if I was married with children, the focus would be on getting those children raised, and the question would almost be a luxury. But for me there was that moment, and it resulted in me writing in a serious way. I started writing my first novel and it was published five years later. I was very aware this was my baby, that I was giving birth to a novel.

“And that first novel was about motherhood – ‘what if you did have the lovely little girl you always thought you’d have, and it wasn’t everything you thought it would be?’ Often you write, not what you know, but what you are curious about.”

‘Childless’ will be broadcast on Newstalk at 7am on Sunday, January 23. Repeated at 9pm on Sunday, January 29

Finding solace

For support or more information, visit gateway-women.com; worldchildlessweek.net; awwoc.org


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