Step One: The Dawning Realisation
How can a day, so pedestrian and a conversation, so ordinary, be the moment that changes your life forever? How can a four-word sentence turn you from a hopeful, mother-in-waiting to a grieving, childless woman?
It was a lovely summer’s day. The leaves rustled, gently, in the wind. The wood pigeons called out to each other from the tree tops. The squirrels took their daily constitutional; down one trunk, along the garden fence and up the next.
I was standing in the kitchen of our five-bedroom house on the edge of the forest. A house we had chosen for its capacity to be a great family home. With a child-friendly garden and a perfectly placed “play room” over-looking it.
A home that we had been “getting ready”, over the previous six months, “for the children”. Children that I had always expected to have in my life, one day.
But as I stood in the kitchen, on that most ordinary of days, the door to family life closed, once and for all.
My wonderful husband and I were having a very ordinary conversation, as he sat at the breakfast bar chopping veggies for dinner and I made us both a cuppa. We were discussing the ongoing rollercoaster of the adoption process that we had been riding for many hair-raising months. We were reviewing our options. Figuring out what our next move would be. Just as we had done many times before.
You see, our social worker had recently decided that we were “not ready” to be put through to the next stage of the process…“yet”. She was definite this time, having spent the last few months changing her mind back and forth – but that’s another story!
The problem was, the social worker may not have thought us ready but I knew that I was ready! Many, who know me, would say that I was born ready.
Afterall, hadn’t I been the precocious 19-month old who “helped mummy” with her new baby brother? And just 18 months later, hadn’t I been the toddler who anticipated the needs of her new-born sister?
Wasn’t I the 15-year old babysitter whose lap her two-year old charge would prefer to sleep on rather than in her own bed? Wasn’t I the one who looked more like the pied piper than a visiting auntie during social occasions with her friends and their increasing brood of kids?
Wasn’t I the one who countless people said “would make a great mother”?!
But the social worker didn’t slam the door shut that day. I did. And standing there, in the kitchen, that was the hardest thing about it. It was me who said, out loud “I’m thinking that maybe adoption isn’t right for us. What if we don’t put it hold? What if we stop?”
I heard the words. They even made sense. It was definitely more important to do what was right for us in the long-run than to forge ahead regardless.
Perhaps that’s why it took a few moments to realise that it had been me who had said them! The same me who had always assumed she would have kids. The me whose friends always expected to be the first and to have the most.
And there it was. Like an ancient tree toppled by an intense storm. Thud. I would not be a mother. My ancestral female line lay broken on the ground. After countless generations of striving, thriving and surviving it would end with me.
This was the precise moment that all the years of “what if” and “perhaps when” fell away and faded into the distance. Now it was time to grieve.
Step Two: The Grieving
What followed the dawning realisation that I would not be a mother were waves of grief. Each seemed to present itself when I least expected it. They came in no particular order. Theoretically, I know that the stages of grief are common across whatever major loss we experience. However, I had never had to contend with them all first-hand…and in such intensity.
For me this spanned denial that it was over – “maybe we should foster?!” – to intense guilt for having stopped. The latter was very painful and lasted a long time. I was haunted by the image of children abandoned at a bus-stop, waiting (in vain) for me to collect them!
At times, I poured over my life and wondered whether I could – and should – have made different decisions. At other times, I isolated myself from friends with kids. Turning down invitations, pulling out of pre-planned weekends away. At my rawest, these gatherings were just too hard. On my lowest days I felt people just didn’t understand what it was like for me.
Sometimes I felt my life was under the microscope. Even my status as a woman being questioned. People assume that I have kids. Perhaps because I work for myself (or because of the work that I do or because of my age or because I’m interested in their kids…), who knows?!
“Being self-employed must help with the childcare”, they comment breezily. But when they hear the answer, the clipped “oh” I get in response makes us both feel uncomfortable. I often felt compelled to explain my situation. To a stranger! Then I’d go home and feel awful.
This whole period lasted a solid 18 months. Eventually, it became easier to manage my grief. Slowly but surely over the months that passed I got stronger and felt less triggered.
It wasn’t as smooth as that sounds. I did my work. I sought holistic support. To address how I felt. To find practical ways of moving forward. To gain a deeper sense of meaning.
I read books; I joined online forums; I booked holistic treatments and for the first time in my life, I talked to a counsellor. I reflected on my own and shared with others. I wrote my friends and family an email asking them not to say certain things, explaining my triggers, asking for time and space.
Ultimately, I did what I often do, undertook more holistic training. It helps me integrate my personal experiences and in turn makes them valuable to my work with others.
Firstly, I did more emotional transformation work. This helped unlock some of the old patterns and limiting beliefs from childhood that were impacting my recovery from this new challenge.
Then I embarked on a two-year apprenticeship-style course with Rites for Girls to become a mentor to young women as they prepare for puberty. I was first drawn to the training because it fitted with my idea of working to support people at different milestones in their lives – I was already a doula (supporting birth) and independent celebrant (conducting weddings and funerals). It gave me so much more. An even deeper sense of myself and how my story has evolved.
Step Three: The Breakthrough
Then one day I found the beginnings of true peace with being a woman without children. It was the day that I finally began to feel more “myself” again.
My most recent trainings had started to give me a sense of what my legacy might be. How my own journey – through some significantly transitional times – could help me support others who are going through their own major milestones.
This isn’t a new phenomenon for me. It has been 17 years since I took my first steps in to the holistic world. In that time, I have worked through the end of my first marriage; learned to live with coeliac disease and lipoedema and unearthed the trauma I hold from being a civil-war refugee at 3 years old. As well as becoming childless by circumstance.
Along the way, I have met many inspirational teachers and learned some valuable lessons. Not only have I built my resumé of professional qualifications but through each milestone I have emerged a stronger version of myself.
This time, in relation to becoming a woman without children, my breakthrough came when I was sitting around a fire chatting with one of my tutors.
It was a clear night, after a full day on my residential training course. The conversation had turned – on a tangent – to discussing our journeys into being “without children”. My tutor is also in this position.
I listened to how she had made a very conscious decision to remain without children. As a follower of the shamanic traditions, she had “dedicated her eggs” to her life’s work. On hearing this, I stumbled across a clearing in my grief.
And then, as I told my own story – to someone who understood – I could see “the wood for the trees”. Whilst the door had shut firmly closed that day in the kitchen some 18 months earlier, it had not been the isolated and dramatic incident it had felt.
The truth was, I had made several defining decisions in the preceding 10 years that that led me to this place. A place where wanting children was qualified by an all-important caveat – not at all costs.
Deciding to wait until my career was more established before trying. Choosing to end my unsuitable first marriage in my mid-30s. Declining medical intervention in our attempts to conceive naturally. All of these decisions had, in one way or another, led me be standing here.
The gentle but profound conversation I had that night showed me how everything I had experienced up until this point had been necessary in making me the strong and resilient woman I am today.
On this night something else began to dawn on me. The process I had been developing to help people transition through life’s major milestones was as profound as it was simple. And that I had been living it these last couple of years. Funny how the sub-conscious works!
Step Four: Re-Framing My Experience
I knew that I would never be “childfree” as children will always be something that I wanted. Up until this point I had been “childless”, feeling the emptiness that came with having a piece of my expected future missing from the jigsaw box.
That’s no longer how I wanted to define myself. Being “childless not by choice” or being “childless by circumstance” felt too negative. I also rejected the idea of being a “NoMo” (= Not Mother)…!
My breakthrough conversation did something seismic in reframing my experience. It established it as just that. An experience. Sure, it is an important part of my history – along with the other milestones I have traversed (diaspora, divorce, diagnosis) – but it doesn’t have to be the way I define myself.
My status as a woman is not validated by having or not having children – and neither should anyone’s be. This can be one of the difficult things to come to terms with in a world that often feels skewed towards motherhood.
Don’t get me wrong, motherhood is definitely something to be valued and respected. It was what I had wanted for myself, after all. However, with something like, one in five women over forty in the UK being without children I do not see how it can – or should – be held as the only marker of womanhood.
I decided that evening, under the star-laden sky, to dedicate my own eggs. In more practical terms, to pour all my nurturing energy into creating my best possible life. To find meaning, fulfilment and, most importantly, legacy, in a life well-lived – in work and personally.
And so, that’s where I am now, in full acknowledgement, acceptance and even – dare I say – gratitude for a path that has led me through this storm. Why? Because I can now see that even though the tree (of my planned life) is fallen, shoots of new life can still grow from it.
I can now appreciate that all of my personal (and professional) experiences have come together in a unique way. And that’s why I work holistically now, with women who are having to face a major milestone in their life.
As a Milestone Mentor, I help them rise above the label others are placing on them. So that they feel stronger, calmer and more connected with themselves and others. Enabling them to go on and live their best life.
Just as I was, these women are ready to use their situation as an opportunity to learn something about themselves on an emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual level. And just as I did, they are looking to break old patterns and evolve the way they respond to the challenges they face.
So far in my life I have been a “displaced refugee”, “divorcee”, “coeliac”, “lipoedema sufferer” and, most recently, “childless woman”. And sure, I can see “menopausal woman” on the horizon but here I stand, today, as ME once again. Ready to use my experiences to fulfil my destiny and help others unlock theirs.
If you would like to find the words to tell your own story I offer you this guide (for free) to help you connect with your personal experience.