One in five British women will never have children. Jody Day explains why this growing trend has become a political as well as a personal issueby Serena Kutchinsky / January 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
Jody Day believes that “childlessness is the unfinished business of feminism” ©Simon Fairclough Author and social entrepreneur Jody Day is often called “the voice of the childless generation”. She finally abandoned her dreams of motherhood in her mid-40s after a 15-year struggle with infertility. The grief and social isolation that she suffered as a result of her childlessness gave her the inspiration to found Gateway Women, an organisation that supports, inspires and empowers childless-by-circumstance women in the UK. Her first book, Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfiling Life Without Children, was published last September. SK: Congratulations on the success of your book which became an Amazon bestseller within 24 hours of being published. Did you expect such a positive reaction? JD: The response has been amazing. I wrote an article in The Guardian before Christmas which received over 1,300 comments, some of which were quite unpleasant but prove my point about the prejudices that childless women face. If anyone accuses me of exaggerating, I say; “Look at those comments and see what I’m talking about, because people tend to say what they think when they have the protection of anonymity.” You describe yourself as the “Taboo Girl” who dares to speak openly on subjects such as childlessness and the menopause. Are you comfortable with that label? I’ve become comfortable being someone who confounds all the stereotypes about childless women. I’m capable of standing up in public and saying “Look at me, I’m a divorced, infertile, single, childless and post-menopausal woman who lives alone with her cat and I’m actually fine. Not having children isn’t the end of the world, in fact it can even be quite good fun.” Once I realised that people were seeing me as a voice for a group of women who are largely invisible in today’s baby-centric society, I felt able to confront emotionally difficult issues such as ageing and infertility. You talk about society being “baby centric”—do you really think that’s true? Motherhood is increasingly portrayed as a privileged state. Elderly women are astounded by the attitudes of our generation and can’t understand why we’re making such a big deal of what is just 20 years of our lives. By the time you’re in your 80s, motherhood is a distant memory. And yet, magazines are full of pictures of pregnant celebrities and the concept of the family is more marketable than ever. I think we as the “shock absorber generation” are dealing with a massive cultural backlash. There has been a huge shift in the balance between the sexes in an incredibly short period of time—in one generation we’ve seen the introduction of the pill, legal and safe abortion, women entering higher education and competing for the top jobs. We’re trying to make sense of these new opportunities, and one of the unintended consequences of all this change is the rise in involuntary childlessness. What inspired you to create a community for women who, like yourself, were struggling to cope with their childlessness? My initial motivation was the deep sense of isolation and shame that I experienced and how much that was re-enforced by mainstream society. I had the idea of creating a Mumsnet-style online community for childless women and set up the Gateway Women network in December 2012. I was already organising workshops for women like me who are childless-by-circumstance, not choice, but the word was spreading slowly. The community took off instantly because Christmas is such a tough time for childless women. Now, I have over 1,200 members and it’s growing fast. What are the worst comments and criticism that you, as a childless woman, have faced? I’ve come to believe that childlessness is the unfinished business of feminism, and that women without children are an easy focus for the misogynistic attitudes inherent in today’s society. I call the most common criticisms “bingos” because they’re so predictable. I try to treat it like a game—on some online articles you can get a full house if you’re lucky. Bingo number one is “Why don’t you adopt?” That’s usually followed by; “It’s your fault you’re childless you stupid feminist.” Then the tone gets a bit nastier with comments along the lines of “You’re selfish and unnatural. You couldn’t get a man and now you’re a drain on society. At least you’re not a mum because that’s much harder.” I’ve heard them all so many times. I tend not to get involved in replying to comments, I have a lot of supporters who tend to wade in and defend me on forums. They call themselves “Jody’s Army” (their name not mine!). You talk a lot about the sense of loneliness experienced by childless women. Are you still lonely now you have such a big community supporting you? No, because there’s such a strong feeling of solidarity between myself and the members of the Gateway Women community who jokingly refer to me as “Captain Jody”. One of my aims has always been to create a tribe, because I felt robbed of the family I had always dreamed of having. Has it been hard maintaining friendships with women who have children? When you’re childless not only do you lose your future family, you also lose your peer group to a great extent. There is this great idea that female friendships can survive anything but it’s simply not true. The understanding usually goes one way between women who have children and those who don’t. We are expected to sympathise with how tough the new mother’s life is but there is no sensitivity towards childless women and our emotional needs. I’m not saying this to get sympathy, but I rarely have any social invitations because as a single woman without children I’ve dropped off the radar. How do your old “mummy” friends react to your new role as a taboo buster? The majority aren’t all that interested. They’re not against it, they just don’t understand it. There are a few close friends who haven’t collapsed their identity into motherhood and who will always support me. I don’t want to sound critical of women who do give themselves completely to motherhood because I’m fully aware that could easily have been me. I was so hungry for that identity that I’m sure I would have bored for Britain about my children. What advice do you give to women like yourself, who desperately wanted but failed for myriad reasons, to have children? To remember that just because you’re not fertile, or weren’t able to conceive or never found a partner, you’re still a woman. It’s my mission to show childless women how much they have to celebrate. Making that shift can be hard—I found it really difficult. People would constantly tell me how much freedom I had and it just wound me up. It didn’t feel like freedom. I remembered feeling free in my 20s, but in my 40s I just felt oppressed and alone. It takes time to move through that. You seem to suggest that childlessness is a political as well as a personal issue. Do you have an agenda for social change? I want to see childless women integrated into mainstream culture, in a similar way that the gay liberation movement has helped destigmatise the LGBT identity. We are another marginalised group fighting against prejudice. Currently around one in five women in their mid-40s are involuntarily childless or childfree by choice and this is a growing trend. Never before has there been so many liberated, educated, financially self-supporting women alive in their 40s and 50s who are not involved in raising children. We have the potential to be a great asset to society. What shape do you see this social change taking? I don’t think the British class system and the type of structured inequality it entails can survive into the next century. Everyone is in favour of change, but nobody yet knows the shape it will take. Sweden is often quoted as an example of a productive and integrated economy which has a significant number of women in top positions. This has been achieved by making it possible for women and men to combine bringing-up children and having careers. Its not rocket science, but it does require a cultural shift. Are childless women actively discriminated against in the workplace? Many women in my community have had problems at work. Those without children are expected to pick up the slack when their colleagues go on maternity leave, and then are denied the same flexibility that is offered to working mothers. This is totally unfair. The privileges that mothers have in the workplace should be extended to everyone, men included. Having a child is a choice. I know women who have left jobs due to being exhausted by the extra work piled on them during maternity cover. The company ends up losing the one female employee who hasn’t spent the past decade having children, and who might have had a shot at becoming a director, because she feels so abused. If this level of discrimination was aimed at any other minority there would be a huge outcry. What is the future for women without children, whether their childlessness is by choice or by circumstance? Should they benefit from tax breaks and enjoy the same flexible working privileges as mothers for example? It needs to be possible to discuss all these options without mothers screaming that it’s unfair. The issue of childlessness needs to be brought into the public arena and the stereotypes about bitter old spinsters, career bitches and cougars stripped away. We’re real people with real lives who have something valuable to offer society. There is no need to be scared of us, mothers might feel threatened by us but we actually contribute towards other people’s children’s education, schooling and health care. What are you looking forward to the most in 2014? I want Gateway Women to evolve from a support network for a difficult moment in women’s lives to be a professional networking platform. Meanwhile, I’m going back to school to finish the final two years of my psychotherapy masters, the cost of which is now covered by the royalties from my book. I’m also hugely excited about an event I’m planning to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8. It’s called the Red Dress Parade and is part of the Southbank’s Women of the World Festival. Think Greenham Common meets Sex in the City. It’s intended to address the feeling among childless women that we’re invisible in society. We will all be wearing red dresses, looking fabulous, drinking cocktails and parading proudly through London. I see it as the childless woman’s equivalent of Gay Pride.