Whenever I do a short radio or TV interview, I come away wishing I’d said things differently and made my points more clearly and succinctly. In most cases, I come away wanting to write, wanting to make sense of my thoughts by putting them down on paper or computer.
So here I am.
Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of being on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss ambivalence about motherhood alongside the award-winning comedy writer Sian Harries. You can hear presenter Jane Garvey interviewing Sian and I on the Woman’s Hour podcast here. We begin 35 minutes in.
I’ve wanted to speak on Woman’s Hour for a long time, ever since I began to find my voice through this blog and write about things I truly cared about: eating disorders, addictions and self-harm, recovery, dysfunctional relationships, loneliness, singleness, the missing baby, grief, commitment-phobia and, in recent years, falling in love.
It’s hard, in a live radio interview of seven minutes or so, to tell the full story. And I’m not going to be able to tell the full story in this post either. I have my book, of course, which tells much of my story and talks about my ambivalence towards a relationship, as well as towards children, but you may not have read that, so I’ll attempt a precis now.
For the first, say, 34 years of my life, I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in having children. I didn’t feel a yearning. I didn’t make any space in my life to think about them or plan for them.
I was too busy travelling and focusing on my career. I appreciate focusing on my career is one of those standard phrases people use about women who’ve been busy working rather than having children but my story is much more complex, as I imagine all our stories are.
I didn’t think about children because a) they simply weren’t on my radar and b) I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being tied down by kids when all I wanted to do was travel, have fun and work. I had no notion that children could be fun, bring joy and fulfillment and open us up to incredible experiences.
The messages I’d picked up as a child, being brought up by a single mum on low funds, was that children were a ball and chain around your neck, that they curtailed your career ambitions, drained your bank account and kept you home when you wanted to be out enjoying yourself. In short, they ruined your life. That sounds harsh and I’m not blaming anyone. That’s what I picked up. My brother has three wonderful kids, so he clearly didn’t absorb the same message as me. But then I’m female and my mum was a single mum who did most of the childcare. Dad carried on with his life.
So kids were not on my agenda. Neither was a relationship for that matter. I understood, based on my parents’ unhappy marriage and divorce, that relationships were a bad idea, that they ended in loss, misery and hardship. I picked up that men weren’t worth bothering with, that I’d be better off on my own. I took that message and ran with it.
I focused on my career because I was an intelligent, capable, adventurous woman who picked up foreign languages easily, loved to travel and managed to get incredible jobs doing exciting things (foreign correspondent in Mexico and Brazil, for example). It was the natural thing to do? Why wouldn’t I?
But I also focused on my career because I craved adrenaline, excitement, achievement and the approval of others. The adrenaline enabled me to numb or hide from my uncomfortable feelings while the approval of others went a small way towards filling the gaping hole I felt inside (the hole in the soul, as we say in recovery circles).
My low self-esteem and sense of imposter syndrome drove me to climb as high as I could so I could win as much adoration as I could, to try and feel better about myself, to try and feel worthwhile. Of course, no amount of approval or achievement was ever enough. The hole inside was love shaped. Just as I stuffed the hole with food to try and feel better, I also stuffed it with career success and an impressive CV. None of that actually changed how I felt inside, but I kept trying, doing the same thing and expecting different results.
As my mid-30s approached and I spent some time in a good relationship, I began to think about kids. By this time, I was in recovery from an eating disorder, although I was just at the start of what would turn out to be a journey of transformation. I began to think what it would be like to live in an idyllic cottage by the sea with a loving husband and a few little ones. Suddenly, family life seemed attractive. It also seemed like a good way to fix the emptiness I felt inside. My craving for family grew, which put a strain on my relationship. I needed to know. I needed to know now if he was ‘The One’ and if this was going to work out so I could get on and have that family I’d begun to dream about.
That relationship ended, for a number of reasons, opening the floodgates on years of grief and loss. My dad had died the year before and I hadn’t paused long to grieve, jumping into a romance instead, so it all came tumbling out. I had what some would call an existential crisis: what’s it all about, why am I here? I had what could be called a breakdown – I was signed off my big journalism job in parliament. Instead of going to press conferences in Downing Street, I sat on my bed and cried.
So for a few years, I had no choice but to focus on getting well and working on my recovery. As 40 approached, I began to think more about the absence of a partner and children, hence the start of this blog, posts like the baby gap, and articles about dating with baby goggles in the press.
As I hit 41, I didn’t feel ambivalent anymore about kids. I felt kind of desperate. Now my time was running out and I didn’t have anyone to date, never mind have a baby with. How on earth did I end up here with this amazing job, great CV and beautiful flat, but with no partner or kids?
I turned my baby angst into a project and began to research a book about it: The Baby Gap. I got an agent, but I didn’t get a publishing deal and I lost all my momentum. I still aim to finish that book, or a version of it. I tested my fertility, interviewed IVF doctors and women who’d had kids on their own by various means. I talked with counsellors about the prospect of becoming a single mum via IVF and ruled that out because of my mum’s experience. I dated but nothing worked out.
As my recovery deepened and I worked through a lot of my baggage with an excellent therapist, I began to understand that the emptiness I felt inside was about much more than the missing baby, and that a child might not change the way I was feeling. In fact, it could make it worse. I needed to re-parent myself first.
I began to fill myself up from the inside out and create my own happiness. I learned to soothe myself. I reconnected with the things I used to love doing as a kid – cycling, camping and being outdoors. I began to explore a different, more fulfilling career. The hole in the soul got smaller. The craving died down. I became more self-aware.
At 42, I decided to stop over-thinking my life, shelve my baby angst for a while and date a man I found attractive but who didn’t want kids. We had a wonderful time but I ended it after a few months because I thought I still wanted a shot at motherhood.
In therapy, I was starting to explore my ambivalence, towards everything in life and especially towards a relationship. I understood how scared I was of commitment and of love because my first experience of love with a man – with my dad – ended in heartache and loss. I also began to delve into my ambivalence around motherhood. Did I really want a child? Was I ready to have a child? Did my own inner child need more attention first? Did I just want a child to fit in and to feel like I belonged?
At 43, having failed to find anyone I liked more than my ex-partner and having realised I had my own deep ambivalence about kids, I went back to him and we committed to each other. Nine months later, I moved to Dorset. Less than a year after that, we bought a house.
All the while, my therapist helped me keep my ambivalence in check. He helped me to see that I found fault in my partner and wanted to run away and find someone else because I was scared – terrified of commitment, of intimacy, of love and of potential hurt. He also helped me to understand that the baby obstacle that stood between us had been a convenient excuse to avoid getting involved and that deep down, I was unsure about children myself.
I’m now engaged to be married to my partner. I’m 46 and we don’t have kids. Most of the time, I absolutely love my life. I love my freedom and I love my work. I get to write from the heart and I get to coach others to create wonderful lives and find love. I’m doing things I’ve always wanted to do but have been scared to do in the past. I’m using my voice. I’m working at something I love. I’m speaking on Woman’s Hour and at events with Psychologies magazine. I’m running retreats by the sea in Dorset and will soon run them abroad. I’ve published a book and want to write more. Wow. It truly is amazing. And I mean that. I really do mean that.
Sometimes, when I walk down the steps to the beach and look out to sea, I feel so much joy I could cry. I created this life. I did this.
At other times, though, it doesn’t feel enough. I see pregnant women all around me and I begin to question my life. How come I didn’t get to do that? I’ll never know how it feels to grow a baby inside my tummy or be a mum. I’ll never have a family of my own, beyond our family of two (or maybe three if we get a dog). I’m missing out big time.
I had one of my biggest meltdowns just the other night, ironically the evening before I was going on Woman’s Hour to discuss ambivalence about motherhood.
To set the scene, I was already feeling hyper-sensitive. We’d been discussing Christmas, a time of year when I really feel the absence of a family of my own, the absence of our own kids in our own house. A time when I find it virtually impossible not to feel like my life is less than others’, smaller, less complete, less joyous, even though I know people with kids and families struggle with their own stuff and that nothing is as it seems on the surface or on Facebook. So I was already feeling vulnerable.
We then went to a drinks party. There were only seven other people in the room besides us, one was a gorgeous toddler and two were pregnant women. Suddenly, I felt like a green-eyed monster, like there was something very wrong with me, with us, for not joining in, for not doing the baby thing that so many couples do, for not having that experience.
Later that night, grief hit me like a fast-moving truck. It would be simple to say the grief was about not having a child but I know myself better than that. The grief was too big, the sobs too loud, the pain too raw to be about that alone.
It was grief for all the losses, for the fact that I had no choice but to spend years of my adulthood re-parenting myself and healing my past in order to get to a place to even have a loving relationship. Grief that I only got there at 43, not at 33 or 36. Grief that if we’d had more years, we might have had children. Grief over my upbringing and my partner’s early experiences, which for some reason, put him off parenting.
Sadness. Horrible, heavy sadness. That my life hasn’t been ‘normal’. That I haven’t had the chance to do the ‘normal’ things that others do. That there’s something I’ll never know or experience. The tears and whirring thoughts kept me up most of the night.
And now that tsunami of emotion has passed, how do I feel?
Better. More like me again. Keen to finish this blog, get on with my work and then get to the beach. Excited to work on all the things you’ll see mentioned at the bottom of this post.
And ambivalent. Yes, still ambivalent about motherhood. Which would be funny if it wasn’t a little bit sad. If you gave me the opportunity to have a baby today, what would I say? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m on the fence.
In preparation for my Woman’s Hour interview, I did my research. I read articles. Here’s one of the many I found – Love and regret: mothers who wished they hadn’t had children. I checked in with honest friends with kids. For some, ambivalence doesn’t go away after you have children. I saw my mum in those articles and those messages from friends – loving us like mad, of course, but questioning, regretting perhaps, wondering what if.
I read about drudgery, boredom, loss of identity, isolation, self-doubt, loss of freedom and never-ending sacrifice. I also read about the fireworks that go off in your heart, about a profound and satisfying experience, about a love that beats all other loves and makes you a better person.
So where do we go from here?
I clearly have more processing to do. Ambivalence is a difficult place to be. You can only sit on a fence for so long before it really starts to hurt.
The important thing, no matter where we are – with kids, without kids, still with the option or with the door now closed – is to try and make a choice, for the sake of our own sanity and happiness, and perhaps for the sake of our relationships, if we’re in one.
If it feels the choice we want to make is no longer within our grasp for whatever reason (to be a mum or not to be a mum), we have to try and embrace where we are and accept where we’ve ended up. We have to grieve the losses as best we can – give them space and time – and then try and live with ‘what is’ rather than always chasing ‘what if’. This choice isn’t a one-off thing. We make it, then unmake it. Our feelings ebb and flow like the tide, but perhaps with every movement, we get closer to resolution.
If we’re still deciding whether to try for motherhood or not, I believe we have to get out of our heads and into our hearts. I’m a huge over-thinker. I try to work stuff out. I’m a journalist. I do my research. I ask questions. What do you think? What did you do?
But the answer, I believe, lies with our intuition, with our hearts. And we connect to that sacred, wise place by quietening down and sitting still.
I was re-reading my book on the train back from London yesterday with a view to updating and re-releasing it in February. I’ve always thought my first chapter goes on a bit, but I was struck by how much sense it makes and how important that first step is. The answer lies in stepping inside and connecting to ourselves, in understanding what lies within – fear, pain, grief, sadness, negative beliefs or fixed ways of thinking that are stopping us from moving forward with our lives.
We have to feel it to heal it. We have to be aware of it to change.
No wonder I couldn’t summarise how I feel about this topic in a few minutes on Woman’s Hour. It’s massive. I’m close to 3,000 words and I could carry on. It’ll be a miracle if you’re still here, still reading. But if you want to read more, try my book. I write about ambivalence – how I overcame it in my relationship and how it relates to motherhood – throughout the book, but especially from pages 205 to the end. I also have a blog on ambivalence from 2013 here if you’re not tired of reading yet.
If you’ve stayed with me to the end, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please do comment or get in touch x
Dates for your diary:
How to Fall in Love six-week course starts Jan 8.
There are a few rooms left on my Jan 12-14 How to Fall in Love retreat.
I’m doing a London talk – Fall in with yourself, with life and with another – in partnership with Psychologies and NOW Live events on Feb 12. I’ll also be doing a Facebook Live on Psychologies page on Feb 14.