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You may not have realised that Childlessness is on the rise in the UK, with 20-25% of adults being childless. You may not have given it a second thought, I know I hadn’t.

With this on my mind, I rocked up to the Storyhouse Childless Festival, ready to listen and learn, not realising that by the end of the day I would have a personal epiphany and meet a group of truly inspiring women.

The idea that you could be Childless by circumstance was surprising to me and something I’d never considered. Whenever I thought about older adults who didn’t have children, they always fell into two categories; those people who, for various medical reasons, were unable to have children of their own, and those who had simply decided that children were not for them. But it is so easy to be childless by circumstance, whether you don’t meet the right person, don’t have the right home situation or are told you have ‘unexplained infertility’.

When Jody Day, author of Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children and founder of Gateway Women (a network for childless women), took to the stage and told her story of being childless by circumstance, I was utterly gripped.

The work that Jody is doing is about helping women find a way through loss into a new life of positivity; one that Jody vigorously embodies. She speaks passionately about the problem with hope, how damaging it can be, and how to let go of the motherhood dream. Her acknowledgement that accepting childlessness can lead to a deep and encompassing grief is what has brought so many women together and helped them to understand that what they’re going through is real and that they’re seen.

Jody is famous in these circles and is often cited as the pioneer of the movement, donning her red leather jacket and heading out to do battle with a pro-natal society that is ill-equipped to support childless women. She has certainly set the agenda through her founding of Gateway Women and the support groups that exist around the country, helping to inject passion and energy into these women so often overlooked. It’s hard not to be captivated as she practically shines on stage.

The reality of getting to your Plan B means accepting that the dream is over. In our society, it’s so provocative to talk about giving up hope on natural fertility, IVF or other treatments, so much that women shared moving stories of how they find themselves doing exhausting emotional legwork for those around them who refuse to give up on their behalf. The world outside becomes a battlefield requiring careful navigation to avoid the ever-increasing child-centric social sphere.

You may find this type of talk overly dramatic, but this is the space these women occupy. Many have dealt in painful traumas made worse when friends or family thrust a newborn in their arms or insist that one day, they will get their ‘miracle’.

If we never have to go through this experience it can be so easy to take for granted the way our world is structured and social expectations and pressures on us to meet a partner and have children. Questions about children tend to follow marriage pretty quickly, for example. When are you going to have children? If you can’t have children or are too late by circumstance to try, you are left with the overwhelming question: what is my purpose now?

The event, whilst deeply moving and emotionally charged, also allowed space for laughter and freedom to share anecdotes of the perils of being childless in a pro-natal, family-centric society. A notice board was set up in a game of Childless Bingo where you could write down things that have been said to you over the years and find others to commiserate with:

  • “why don’t you just adopt?”
  • “you’re so lucky”
  • “have my kids if you want, they’re exhausting.”

The fact that they can find humour and friendship in their pain is precisely why events like this one are so important. The start of the day felt like the first day of a new job where nobody really knew each other, and nervous energy took hold. Within a short time, people were laughing and chatting together, offering to buy each other coffee’s and grouping together for lunch. Gone was the nervous energy, replaced by enthusiasm and sisterhood.

The event also included a panel of Chester women sharing their stories and I was struck by their candid and open manner. Here four women from the city told the most personal and painful tales that brought them to this very room but were also able to find support and laughter with each other, extending the offer to join the local Gateway Women group – 1st Sunday of the month in Dutton’s if you’re interested.

It’s brilliant how much these women are advocating for a space in society. To move away from feeling they are ‘making a scene’ and begin to break the taboo around childlessness. It was joyful to hear women talk about creating an environment where the next generation of childless women could find a home and not have to go through the same isolating trauma that they did.

Proof of this in action was when Shona gave a 10 minute talk about her journey to being diagnosed with POI (premature ovarian insufficiency) aged 24. She is young, newly married and going through the menopause. As she starts this journey she won’t be doing it alone, she’ll have a community of women around her thanks to the work that Jody started.

Which brings me to the epiphany I had, sat on the red benches of the Garret Theatre surrounded by these amazing women. As a woman in a same-sex relationship people often say to me “two wombs, twice the babies!” but the reality is that we are staring down the barrel of a long and expensive process which we honestly don’t know if we have the emotional resources to begin. I may become childless by my circumstances and these women would become my tribe. And you know what I thought as I looked around the room? I would be just fine.

Storyhouse Childless was arranged by Dr Dawn Llewellyn with contributions from:

Jody Day

Chester Gateway Women Group

Dr Robin Hadley

Barbara Dillon

Shona Hookham

Yvonne John

Lizzie and Dave Lowrie

Chiara Berardelli

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