I’ve just spent a long weekend in the company of nine wonderful women whose lives, like mine, haven’t gone to plan.
These women, attendees on my How to Fall in Love retreat, had expected things to work out differently.
Some of them had imagined they’d have a partner and a family by this age and stage. Some are coming to terms with being childless-not-by-choice, because they didn’t meet someone in time to have children, or because the menopause has been forced on them by a medical condition, or both.
Some of them are in relationships they’re not sure about and they don’t know whether to stay or to go.
Many of them want to share their lives with someone, but they’re afraid, scarred by childhood wounds, or they’re worried they’re not attractive or are too old for love.
Some of them have spent years striving, pushing and climbing the ladder in a particular career, only to realise that their souls are yearning to do something else, something softer, more creative, more authentic.
I could relate to all of their journeys, and they could relate to mine. And this is the magic of it.
Shared stories. Shared grief. Shared tears.
Shared healing. Shared growth. And shared hope.
There’s something so incredibly powerful and transformative about telling our stories to people who understand and about hearing others tell our story back to us, perhaps with a different context and different words, but the same pain.
There’s something so healing about finding our tribe and about feeling like we belong when we have so often felt like the odd one out in a world where other people seem to have it sorted.
There’s something so affirming about being seen, validated and understood.
I’ll never forget the first time a reader commented on one of my posts, telling me that they could relate to my story and that they felt less alone because of what I’d shared. It was such an incredible feeling. It helped me to feel less alone. And it inspired me to write more.
That is the power of vulnerability.
When we speak our truth, come out of hiding, share our loneliness, grief and fears not only do we give ourselves the chance to heal but we give others permission to share their truth and their pain too, and thereby heal.
We form connections. We create tribes. We establish communities.
There’s a woman I know who’s gone further than most in creating connections between women who’ve felt lost, lonely, isolated, like they didn’t belong and like their lives had gone disastrously, painfully wrong. That woman is Jody Day.
I first came across Jody nine years ago, just before I launched this blog. Jody and I were on a 30-day business start-up course, hosted by author and entrepreneur John Williams.
I was poised to launch From Forty With Love and Jody was about to launch an organisation called Gateway Women. I’ll never forget being on a group call with Jody and hearing the web developer say to her that she was cooking with gas. That phrase stayed with me, partly because it was unfamiliar to me (perhaps imported from across the Atlantic) and partly because it was clear that Jody was very much cooking with gas.
She was on fire, with a mission and a purpose to create a supportive community for women who were childless by circumstance, not by choice – to bring them out of the shadows, welcome them into their tribe, help them to grieve their losses and support them to build fulfilling lives.
When Jody and I first met, we were in different places. She had accepted that she would never achieve her long-standing dream of being a mum and was exploring how to find purpose in her pain and build a fulfilling life without kids.
I was just turning 40 and was in the ‘still hopeful’ category when it came to motherhood – or at least that’s what I thought at the time.
Through therapy and lots of soul-searching, I later realised that I was in the ‘ambivalent’ category, which I’ve written about at length on this blog – Ambivalence about Motherhood – and in the Guardian: I feel grief and relief that I’ve never had children.
Ambivalence is a tough place to be. With ambivalence, it’s hard to find one’s place in the world. I’m not able to relate to the women who tried desperately to have children and failed – and I guess they’re not able to relate to me. The same goes for the resolutely, happily childfree.
But childlessness through ambivalence is a thing – a painful thing – and I’m so pleased that Jody explores it in her ground-breaking book, Living the Life Unexpected, which will be re-released on March 19th. More than that, I’m honoured that Jody has chosen to quote some of my words on the topic of ambivalence in the fully revised and updated second edition of the book, under a section aptly titled ‘The Non-Decision That Becomes a Decision’. And I’m thrilled that she invited me to be part of a blog tour to celebrate the launch of the book’s second edition.
Jody has always been incredibly generous and supportive, which is, I imagine, why she has succeeded in building Gateway Women into a global, supportive tribe where women can voice feelings they feel unable to share ‘out there’. She has been a pioneer, a trailblazer in her field, bringing healing and hope to so many women.
Talking of hope, the new version of Living the Life Expected has an emphasis on hope. It’s in the subtitle – “How to find hope, meaning and a fulfilling future without children” – and it’s explored in the new introduction, where Jody writes:
A message from your future hope: Life after childlessness – a fulfilling, happy, meaningful, connected and enjoyable life – is possible. I know, because I’ve created one for myself and I’ve helped thousands of women like you to do so too. It’s not easy, it doesn’t just arrive, it’s rarely what we expect and it certainly isn’t what we ordered! Embracing it takes huge courage, but it is possible. Whilst in no way do I wish to diminish the heartbreak you might be feeling right now (I’ve been there; it’s the darkest place I’ve ever been) hope has an important message from your future for you:
Your childless life isn’t a runner up prize to motherhood. It’s a different, messy, imperfect human experience to the one you signed up for, but no less valuable. And it can be as meaningful and fulfilling, just in different ways.
There was a time in my life when I had lost hope. It wasn’t just about not having children, but that was part of it. I was in my early 40s, single, lonely, lost in my career, grief-stricken because my father had died and completely bemused as to why my life had turned out like this, because I had very different plans.
Just as Jody has found hope, meaning and purpose, I have found those things too. It hasn’t happened overnight. It has been gradual. And it has required huge courage. But it’s happened.
The other thing we’ve both found, after thinking it would never happen, is love. And while a loving relationship doesn’t erase the pain of a life that hasn’t gone to plan or the grief around childlessness, in my experience it is incredibly healing in so many ways.
Now you might be reading this feeling hopeless, not only about motherhood but also about love. I hear you. I see you. I validate your pain. You will need to do your grieving. It will take time. But I believe there is hope, for all of us. My story attests to that, and Jody’s does too.
Relationship, and now marriage, has given me a sense of belonging that I never had.
As humans, we are programmed to seek out that sense of belonging. Yes, we need to find it within ourselves. Many of us need to go on a journey so that we can feel that we belong to ourselves. But we also need like-minded souls around us. We need to be heard, validated and understood. We need to know we’re not alone.
If you feel alone with your childlessness, check out Jody’s wonderful book (you can download the introduction and first chapter here) and worldwide community. As she writes:
Those of us who’ve already made this trip are waiting for you on the other side, and many others are in the water alongside you, each feeling that they’re swimming alone. But you’re not alone. Welcome to your Tribe.
Of course, in the UK we have a day coming up that has the potential to push our buttons on a number of levels. Mother’s Day is on Sunday, March 22nd – an especially challenging time for childless women and for those struggling with the double whammy of being single and childless, or the triple whammy of childlessness, unwanted singleness and grief about one’s own mother.
If you envisage that day being tough for you, sign up for Jody’s free webinar on ‘Coping with Mother’s Day on 14th March. By signing up, you also get a chance to win a signed copy of the second edition of her book.
I’m also giving a way a signed copy of Jody’s book, which she will personally dedicate for you. I will pick the winner at random from those who comment on this blog, so please do share your thoughts. There are other ways to win signed copies, so please check out Jody’s blog, social media pages and the blog tour.
If you can’t wait, you can pre-order a copy of the book (paperback or ebook) here if you’re based in the UK. If you’re outside the UK you can buy it online via Amazon or The Book Depository (which offers free international delivery). I hope it supports you on your journey.
I’ll wrap up here with a brief mention of my forthcoming birthday, as it’s relevant to this blog.
I’ll be 49 on Friday March 13th. When I began this blog, just before my 40th birthday, I didn’t imagine I’d still be writing it nine years later, and I couldn’t have imagined where my life would end up.
But despite the ups and downs and the periods of sadness and grief, I am so so grateful for this colourful journey I’ve been on and I will continue to do my utmost to embrace what I have.