Fireside Wisdom with the #NomoCrones

Video recording and edited transcript from the first gathering for World Childless Week in September 2020

Please subscribe to this newsletter to hear when we announce future ‘Fireside Wisdom’ webinars. Click the video to play; edited transcript below; links to speakers at the end.

Jody Day:

Welcome. Thank you for joining us for this live webinar for World Childless Week on Inspiring Childless Elders. My name is Jody Day, I'm the founder of Gateway Women, and I'm a World Childless Week champion. This is the fourth year of World Childless Week which was a campaign set up in the UK by Stephanie Phillips to raise the profile of childless people around the world.

I'm so excited we have an ‘Ageing without Children’ themed day this year for World Childless Week. So I have invited six amazing, inspiring elders for you to meet and probably to ask lots of questions of. So I'm not going to hog any more time. I'm just going to hand it over and ask our guests to introduce themselves. Karen Malone Wright. Would you introduce yourself?

Karen Malone Wright:

Hi, I'm the founder of The Not Mom which started as a blog, has evolved into also The NotMom conversation, which is a video podcast each month. The thing that distinguishes The NotMom, I believe, is that we really don't care how you wound up without a child. Whether you wanted one and it just didn't happen for you or whether you never ever wanted to be a mother. We believe that you have so many things in common that you don't realize as you walk a different path than all your girlfriends who are moms. So I'm happy to be here.

Donna Ward:

I'm mainly a writer, I'm the author of a book called She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster's Meditations on Life. It's, you might say, an unconventional memoir collection of essays and reflections about what it's like to be me and in Australia. What I would like to do as part of my introduction is also do what we do here in Australia, which is to acknowledge the original custodians of the land on which we meet tonight, or at least that I'm meeting tonight and they are the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. And I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Maria Hill:

Hi. I live in the DC area of the United States. I have been a long time moderator at the Gateway Women community, where it's been an honour for me to support the wonderful, brave, women who are going through this very difficult journey as childless women, very inspiring. I'm also the founder of Sensitive Evolution. My focus is on the sensitive experience and there are a lot of sensitive people who are childless. It seems to go naturally with being a sensitive person. I connect sensitive people with the various frameworks around culture and personal development that they generally aren't aware of, and that helps them to move out into the world more effectively. So I'm glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Kate Kaufmann:

Hello, I'm Kate Kaufmann and I wrote a book called, "Do You Have Kids? Life When the Answer is No." I realized a day or two ago that I really have become the woman that I went in searching because I was writing the book. And that is an open, frank, honest, courageous woman talking about what the impacts are of not having children. On my screen, I'm flanked by two people who really helped inspire some of that path, Karen Malone Wright and Jody Day. I've learned from so many of the rest of you. So I look forward to this conversation. I'm in Portland, Oregon, where the air is hazardous. We're going on our second week now.

Jackie Shannon Hollis:

Thank you. Thanks for doing this, Jody. And welcome to all of the participants. It's really exciting that you're here and that I'm here with all of these very cool women. I'm 62 years old. I am a writer and the author of the memoir "This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story." Which is a story about my journey to childlessness, in particular being married to someone who did not want to have children, and me choosing to explore life, what it would be like with him without children. So here I am, this is one of the beautiful benefits of that.

Stella Duffy OBE:

Hi, I'm Stella. I'm in London and I was born in London and I grew up in Aotearoa, New Zealand. So "Kia ora" anybody who's here from Aotearoa and Donna, our introduction would be "Omihi" where I would say my river and my mountain and my people long before I said what I do for a living, which is so important. However, what I do for a living, I'm a novelist and a theatre maker. My 17th novel comes out next year and I haven't specifically written about my experience of childlessness through cancer, but it features anyway. I'm also queer and I am very passionate about speaking out for the often ignored queer voice in infertility and childlessness culture, where particularly for queer women we've been assumed we just didn't want them. Not that our lives worked out differently.

Jody Day:

Thank you so much, Stella. Well, I am so honoured to have each of you here. This is a really exciting moment and I feel that I have so much to learn from you. If anyone has any questions, feel free to use the Q and A box or just to pop it in the chat. Just so you know, it's just me at the Zoom controls. So I may miss things. It's like the flight deck sometimes trying to do this. Just so you know you are not included on the recording at all. Anything you put in the chat box is not included in the recording, your participation is completely anonymous.

We have five, amazingly enough, five topics. I did poll the Gateway Women community, what they would love to know and I've snuck a few of my questions in there as well. So the first topic I wanted to look at was identity, I mean how big is that as a topic?

Jody Day:

First of all, I wanted to ask how you felt about the term ‘crone’. Marian Van Eyk McCain - a mother - she's a mother and she wrote a book called Elderwoman which is very good - has created the term ‘Elderwoman’ which I like. Although I also love ‘Apprentice Crone’ too, which she's gifted me with. So I'm wondering, how do you describe yourself? How do you feel about that terminology? I'd love to pass this question to Donna.

Donna Ward:

Thank you. It's lovely to hear you speaking about Marian because she is in fact a very dear friend of mine who appears in my book under the pseudonym of Hecate because, in fact, she is the crone that has guided me in my life. As I was listening to you Jody, I was thinking I don't think I'm old enough and wise enough to call myself a crone yet. I still feel... I don't know. I'm 65, I'm looking at 66. I feel that I have an incredible zest and youthfulness that belies the... and actually, I can be very unwise and unthinking sometimes I don't feel very cronish. Yet many people comment on my wisdom, so I must be giving something. So it's odd for me in terms of, to put a label on my identity.

I guess I just feel that I am who I am. I'm much more centred, particularly after getting the book rounded. Before it went to the publisher, it felt to me like that's everything I want to say about this. I now want to think about other things. But in a way, I felt solid and complete and at peace with my story and also incredibly proud of myself. So there'll be a fall happening soon.

So I was thinking about the word crone and I thought Marian to me was a crone. She was a real wise old woman. She's 10 years or maybe nearly 20 years older than me. I can't remember, but she was old enough to guide me in so many, many ways and to affirm my value as a person first and as a woman, before I even quite knew that I was valuable. It was she that did that. We all need crones in our lives and women who will do that.

Jody Day:

I think that's one of the reasons why I wanted to bring us together because I'm 56, my next significant birthday will be 60, and I have this sense of moving towards those years. But just like when I was in the grief of childlessness and trying to come to terms with that, I find myself looking for role models, looking for resources, looking for wayfinders and finding them really hard to find. I want the crones, I want to know where they're hiding. So I'm going to seek them out. I wanted to bring Maria on another question, which was ... And I think this is why we need our elders.

Jody Day:

Maria, with COVID and climate issues amongst other upheavals, what do you feel is the role of childless elders in cultural change? What role do you see for childless elders in shaping a different kind of future thinking with your extraordinary work around cultural frameworks? What do you say?

Maria Hill:

Well first, about the subject of crone, I just want to say something for a minute here… I think that there is an international movement to develop elderhood. I see it in a lot of places. The word crone, unfortunately, both of these words come from a past time when people didn't live that long and now we do, and women have such vitality. It would be nice if we rejuvenated the word and maybe talk about ‘Wild Crones’, ‘ Ninja Crones’ - just rejuvenate it.

Stella Duffy OBE:

I'll go with the queer crones, I'll take that.

Maria Hill:

Maybe come up with some kind of vocabulary. Anyway, it would be nice if we could play with that. As far as the role, I feel like we're going through an initiation right now. For childless women, I think it's an important one. I think maybe we are getting an initiation into a big shift that perhaps may be before other people are experiencing it - because for a lot of people Covid brings in a change, whereas we've been going through this huge transformation for quite some time…

So I think that we have the potential because we understand grief, we understand the need to take our lives back. I think as capitalism dies we're all going to have to take our lives back. So I see us having experience at least in those two areas. We also have to then consider what does happiness really mean? Success and happiness aren't the same thing; our entire way of living is going to have to be reinvented. So it seems to me that childless women of all ages, and certainly crones in particular, have much to give at this particular time of change.

Jody Day:

Wow, that's really interesting and I chime with a lot of what you say. Thinking about that, I have a question here, which is a bit about identity for Kate. How do you feel about your legacy as a woman without children? I get asked this all the time. I think when we're younger, for me, the legacy was so hot when I was grieving.

Kate Kaufmann:

That transition from looking at legacy from a bloodline into an impact on the world, I think it's huge. One of the things that I realized is when I was trying to have kids, I had a laser focus on trying to have kids. Now what I have is this broad, broad focus, which if you told me even five, ten years ago, I would have ... I was just no way. But it's broad, it impacts in a whole bunch of different slices. It may only in certain places go deep, but the thing that I love about what we do in the world, with all of our work, is that we create openings for people to walk where they haven't walked before in a way that lifts some of the shame and it simply is, and we've always been here.

So I look at my legacy in the individual little sparks that happen just by saying ... I mean those of us who have books, it's such a calling card, Karen you've got to get yours out. But that you just say I'm a woman who doesn't have children, here's my story. And I shut up because then people just tell their stories. Because it's pent up, it's right at the surface. So that's my legacy is if I can shift that needle about the stigmas and stereotypes, even in the slightest way if all of us do that collectively, it's a huge change and we become normalized.

Jody Day:

And then our identity is just one of many identities.

Kate Kaufmann:

Exactly.

Jody Day:

I'm thinking Stella, and maybe Karen as well, to speak a little bit about the complex intersectional identity of childlessness, which is, there are more layers to your experience? I wondered if either of you wanted to talk about that a bit and how that then intersects with ageing?

Stella Duffy OBE:

You want to take that one Karen to start?

Karen Malone Wright:

I was hoping not to, only because I was trying to figure out exactly what the layering is. But I am assuming that I think the layering may include being African American, as well as an only child, which is really not discussed a lot about. Only women who are only children and realizing they're the last one to turn out the lights for their family. I believe for me, certainly, when I realized that, when it finally hit me that it's one thing to grieve over I didn't have my child, but then when you realize, wow, if I don't hurry up and cure cancer, I'm not leaving anything to the world.

It just really was a powerful thing. The few times that we've addressed it on our blog, I've been overwhelmed by male and female people reaching out saying it's really destructive to their psyche to realize that they feel so worthless truly because they have no brothers, no sisters, their family name is gone. All their ancestors' work and dedication to improving that family line just sort of dies with them. And they feel a responsibility rightly or wrongly to do something big.

I've sort of gotten past that. I guess I feel like The NotMom will be my legacy one way or the other. It's grown amazingly since it started in 2012. I don't have as strong a developed offline community like Gateway Women and yet I know my internet is full of so many women who met at the two conferences I had. If I could just figure out how to trip a rich person and take all their money and make Covid go away, I would continue those conferences. A total of about 500 women who came to the two events, they had never ever experienced a time when you could be in a hotel for three days with more than 200 people, and not one of them would say, "Do you have kids?"

Jody Day:

It was amazing.

Kate Kaufmann:

It was.

Karen Malone Wright:

So I would love for those summits to be my legacy. But in the meantime, if I dropped dead tomorrow, I know that I have connected women together who never would have been connected before, in part because it's so easy to think, I knew I didn't want kids when I was 10 years old, and to think that that woman has a whole lot in common with a woman who cries every night because she didn't have a child. So those connections I hope will be my legacy. And yes, I do want to write my book and the great American novel and I turned 65 yesterday.

Jody Day:

Yay.

Stella Duffy OBE:

Happy Birthday!

Karen Malone Wright:

So I got to hurry up before I get close to kicking the bucket.

Jody Day:

Thank you, Karen.

Jody Day:

Actually, our next topic is taboos and-

Stella Duffy:

Can I just jump in on this one though? Just ... Sorry.

Jody Day:

Yeah, it might wrap in the next one, which is what are your thoughts about childlessness as a taboo subject and how do you think, how do you feel this has contributed to any alienation in your experience. I just think that there could be some layering here.

Stella Duffy:

I've had breast cancer twice. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say "Oh but you don't have children." Like I've got less cancer because I'm not a mother? Like having cancer is, of course, worse if you're a mother. I mean, seriously, it's a strong thing in the cancer world, believe me people…

Karen Malone Wright:

Oh, my word.

Stella Duffy:

That would be a thing... Oh yeah, and it's so painful as well. Because of course, the reason I don't have children is that chemotherapy made me infertile at 36 when my wife and I were trying. She miscarried and never got pregnant again because people always go, well, “Why didn't she get pregnant?” So I've got to answer that always as well. There's a bunch of things. Karen, can I just say, if you write 500 words ... My 17th novel comes out next year. This is one thing I do know about for sure - if you write 500 words a day, Monday to Friday, you can have two weeks off a year. By this time next year, you will have written - this is to everyone else as well - you will have written 90,000 words. That's your first draft, once you've done your first draft, then you make it better. Sorted, go for it! You'll have it done by the time you're 66.

Look, I'm doing this. I want to rip the crone. ‘Wild Crones’, ‘Queer Crones’, all the crones. We queer women have been told we were crones and witches and outside all along. We have been made outside of the childless community as well as the mainstream community all the time. My coming out as childless when people ... I want another word, I want to not have to say I'm not a mother. I want just another word for the world in which ... Now because my wife and I finally were allowed to be married, I get to say ‘my wife’ and it's such an easy coming out. I want us to have a term that is an easier coming out for us, so we can say it without having to go and I did want children, or I didn't want children, or this is why I don't have children. The 9,000 reasons that every individual has. I don't know how to do that, but if I can fix that, that'll be my legacy.

However, I do loads of work with communities and all of that and community participation and culture. We talk about rippling, and all of us our lives ripple through other people's lives. Whether they ripple biologically or not, and rippling, which is a term that Irvin Yalom the psychotherapist uses a lot, rippling is a great term. So whether we legacy up and down or ripple out, it still goes on.

Jody Day:

That's beautiful. Thank you. The times just rattling past, I got so transfixed then, I forgot what I'm meant to be doing! Anyone, I'm just thinking... Jackie hasn't spoken yet. What has been your experience of ageism? How do you think this affects childless women in particular and what do you think we can do about it? Any thoughts? Anyone or Jackie?

Jackie Shannon Hollis

Well, I so much have enjoyed every age I've been, that it's really hard for me to look out and see what are other people saying about this or thinking about this in regards to me. But the questions that come up so often are, "Well, who's going to take care of you?’ While people have been going along raising their children, I've been going along ... and not that people with children aren't doing this, but I've been creating communities. I think that this is sort of the imperative in some way however you do that, it doesn't mean having vast amounts of people, but your people and the people that you choose to be part of your community. I think that I have found that there's been the space for that. That's exciting to me because it's very textured and it's people of all ages. I have people much younger than me in my life and I have people ... Well, they can't be much older than me at this point, but older than me.

So that's one of the things I think in regards to ageism is, there's this concern and I think that what has happened with the pandemic is that in some ways it has come more into view of people are alone and more isolated. People without children, some are experiencing that more intensely which I think also has brought into again the idea of how do I reach out to community.

Donna Ward:

Can I think about my experience to echo some of what you're saying? So I've been in lockdown in Melbourne since early April. Now I've been in lockdown a little bit more severely before our stage four lockdown came in because I am 65 and I get asthma from time to time and I just didn't want to take the risk. So I kind of locked myself down fairly quickly. At first, it was a very curious experience because I'm very used to working.

I get up every morning and go to work in a cafe. So I've got a sense of people around me and community and I found it quite difficult to readjust to that. Still, first world problems. So it could be worse for me I kept thinking, but anyhow, it was just getting really, really tough. At some point about a month ago I felt like my skin was off. A maintenance person came into the house just to fix some things and left. And I felt like it was sandpaper on my skin. My world had been intruded upon and I thought, okay, I'm a little fragile.

I told a few friends and people started ringing me and I've had no lack of phone calls or contact or care and consideration from the people who love me. And then one day I woke up, we're allowed to go shopping. I went out, got into my car and found that the council had painted white lines on the road, which meant that we have what's called a contraflow cycle lane going right next to our parked cars. And I happened to have a regular park that's behind ... Well, let's just say a castle on wheels. So I can't see anything. So I was feeling very distressed, probably overly emotional about the fact that I could possibly kill a cyclist. And this became then, of course, the discussion in street. And then I began to find out the rot in our local government. And I got caught up and now completely caught up in major objections and petitions and subterfuge and nefarious plots to bring down our local government. I cannot tell you what a silver lining that has been. Who would have thought that there I was sitting in my house in total isolation, and the council planted a white line out the front? I have met 50 people who I know live directly in my community - I never knew them before - I now know up until this time, I've always worried, like oh my God, I'm going to end up in old people's home.

And you know what they're like over here? They are key areas to Covid to come along and kill you. So things were looking pretty glum. And now I know that I don't ever have to leave this house. I’ve learned that I'm surrounded by people who will bring me food and, and nurse me if that's what I want. So I just can't believe, and I don't know how I'm going to write the story because it just feels like the most silver lining that a person could ever have. There's part of me that thinks the best thing that's ever happened is Covid.

Jody Day:

It's complex what you just said, but interesting it jumps us into a different topic later because the last two points have gone into it. So I'm just going to kind of jump into that, which is partnerships, friendships, and intergenerational relationships. I was thinking that one of the issues and Karen, you talked about being an only child, I'm sort of defacto an only child, which, well, let’s just put an awful lot of brackets around that statement and move on…

If you don't have kind of brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces through your bloodline, and many childless women, many Gateway Women members don't. I mean, how do we create that intergenerational contact? It can be really difficult when you're in a younger stage or an earlier stage of your grieving journey, when interacting with people who have children and facing the endless barrage of pro nativism and questions and things - you can end up just hiding for a while. But when you can cope with mixing with everyone else yet, how does one go about it? I really admire Jackie. You said you spent your life building community. I know you come from a big and very ... I've read your book, I've talked to you before about it. You come from a big and involved family, but you've put the work in there. I mean, who would like to speak about a piece of advice to someone who wants that community, but doesn't really know where to start?

Kate Kaufmann:

I can speak to that. After my then-husband and I stopped trying to have kids, we moved to the country, which is like chuck everything. And then I went into a state of real isolation. I found that living in the community where everybody basically had kids was kind of a cuckoo idea, but what that did was it created the conditions for me to really get desperate to have to reach out. So despite the fact that I was still very tenuous and very sick and tired of hearing mothers telling me how everything's going to be okay that instead what I did - I mean I'm one of those flip chart people - and every year at the beginning of the year, I put up a little flip chart. I didn't do it this year on purpose just to see what it would be like not. And I have many years where it says, ‘Find new friends who don't have kids’. And what that did was it gave me the kick in the butt and the license to go out and ask the questions even when I didn't want to. And that paid huge dividends, which basically I can see now in hindsight, because we don't get to see our path until we've already walked it, that it set up the environment in which I got more and more curious, more and more hungry and it started to snowball. So when I think about how you create that community, you start - it's like the 500 words a day - you just take the step and then that builds and it builds and it builds.

And to link back to Covid... I have been so touched, now I'm single. My very longterm marriage ended a couple, four years ago. And I have just been overwhelmed with ... I've been so touched with the people, not only that are reaching out to me, but those that I feel in turn compelled to reach out to as well.

Jackie Shannon Hollis:

One of the other things, if I can jump on that is I think for me I'm an introvert, although I say I'm an introvert living in extroverts life, there's a lot going on and there's a lot of us out there. But for me, a lot of is I have followed the things that interest me. Where am I curious? What am I interested in learning about? Writing was one of the things and so as I began to do that community built around that.

So it is the process of finding where your passions are, and boy, there are people sitting right in that even whether it's gardening, whatever the things are, there are classes and all of these things that surround your passions. So that's the other piece I would say is going and doing something that interests you and taking that deep breath in those moments of I'm scared. For me it was exploring, yes, I'm afraid and I'm going to go do them.

Stella Duffy:

I don't know what it's going to lead to and I can't possibly know. Like Kate said, we don't know, but we take the steps. I happen to co-found a small charity eight years ago that half a million people have taken part in, that is entirely about hyper-local community connection. It happens all across Britain, but it's also slightly international but it's more UK based. I didn't know what it was. And I'm working with a colleague and we don't know ... It's called Fun Palaces in case you want to Google it. But it's about supporting people to connect in their local community and people do and they get it, but we had no idea what we were doing with such and we still don't know. I think it's really important to keep acknowledging that we don't know and we haven't got it sourced. And how could we because we're living in changing the whole time. I'm 57 and I started a doctorate this year.

I'm the youngest of seven kids and I'm the first in my family to go to university and it's all utterly daunting. I have no idea where it's going to end up, but each little step has helped me get away from the place because I've just seen somebody who's got a question about what would we tell to people in their 30s and 40s? I lost my 40s to the grief around cancer and childlessness. And I've only just realised it. It took the second cancer to wake me up that I was living in my grief rather than living in my life. And of course I needed the grief but I needed to look up above it too.

Jody Day:

So you've frozen on me there Stella. Hopefully, you'll come back in a minute.

Stella Duffy:

No, I just ended with I needed the grief. I'm not saying don't grieve, but I needed to look up and beyond my grief, the abyss of grief and make other choices too.

Jody Day:

Thank you. Actually. let’s go back to the topic before now which is grief. So a lot of women, older childless women as well, contact me asking for support around grandchildren envy - the grief resurfacing as friends and family members have grandchildren. This isn't something that is part of my experience yet. And being from a very small family - I mean I do have some great nephews and nieces and that's actually quite nice, but they're not directly through my bloodline - once again, large amount of brackets around this - and I'm wondering for those of you here who have experienced your peers, your brothers and sisters, having grandchildren - what helps you? What advice would you give to someone who's just starting on that path? I know Karen, we talked about it the other day.

Karen Malone Wright:

Going back to those women in their thirties and forties - that’s one of the things I would say to them is because it blindsided me, and many of the women that are in my online community. We talk about it and write about it all the time. This is my own theory and okay, maybe this'll be part of my 500 words - about ‘getting your girlfriends back’ - when their children go off to college, suddenly they have time for you again, they have a little bit of free money to go to the movies again.

You get your girlfriends back and then, just as you settle into that comfort, the grandchildren arrive and you lose them all over again. The difference is that now you're in your forties and you didn't see it coming, and you can offer, “Oh, I'll go with you with your grandchildren,” but it's exactly like it was in your thirties, you just got more grey hair - they don't really want you around, the grandchildren came. And when you do get your girlfriend alone, all she wants to talk about are the grandchildren.

That's one of the things I am going to say real quick again about our conferences at The NotMom summits - women kept saying to me that they never realized that in their private real lives at home, when another woman would pull out their wallet, they would sort of cringe up because they’d anticipate being shown their kids or their grandkids. But for those three days, people were whipping out their wallets or their phones and were showing pictures of their gardens and their dogs and their cats!

It really showed all of us that much like ... I'm sorry, I think it was Jackie said, is that once you find other people who are more like you, you can put your shoulders back down and feel not just accepted, but seen. .Because without grandchildren, and since we are heading to a place where grey hair makes you invisible. Now you get with your girlfriends and you're invisible again because you don't have any little people to show pictures of.

Donna Ward:

Can I respond to that? In a very Australian way, and it might be a cultural difference, but when my girlfriends started doing that, I just got very direct. And I said, look I don't mind seeing the grandchildren, probably not every day, otherwise I'm going to tell you what I've written every day and you're going to listen to it. I just think we have to women up and be proud and put it in their face because they're caught in a cultural response that they're just not aware of that. And it's not that they don't love you. It's just that the big conversation is about grandchildren and it is an achievement for them. Well done them, but honestly, we can't spend the whole conversation about that.

Stella Duffy OBE:

Can I add a slightly tangential version? I'm the youngest of seven kids. I have fifteen nieces and nephews and thirty great-nieces and nephews - goodness, a lot. I have specific relationships that I really value with some of the nieces and nephews and some of the greats. One of the things that’s brilliant about not being a mother or a grandmother is I don't have to love them all.

I don't have to love everybody equally at all. And that I found really exciting and interesting. And there was a time when it was just constantly painful as my siblings just kept breeding, and then their kids had even more kids. And there are a lot of people now, the immediate family and I'm fond of most of them. But I don't have to love them all the way a parent and grandparent does. That allows me some really particular interesting intergenerational relationships. And that's been on my terms, they didn't get that and I'm really glad I got that.

Jody Day:

Maria, did you want to come in on this topic?

Maria Hill:

I'm the oldest of five. So, my siblings, three of them have children and started with grandchildren. But my family, being a good American family, is highly politically polarized. I can't say that I'm particularly close to most of my siblings because I live in a more progressive mindset and I don't know if that comes with being childless or not, but anyway. So I do have some affection with some members of the family and have gotten to know my sister's kids in particular over a period of time.

So when I'm around their grandchildren, it's not too bad. I don't feel any great tension. I don't visit a lot. So I try to minimize that, but I also try to minimize the stress of being in a family that's so as uncomfortable as mine. So I think for people who have really large families, it can be a very difficult journey seeing the grandchildren and having that discussion all the time. I have managed to kind of sidestep that quite a bit. I'm perfectly fine with that. So it's a little different I think for me.

Jackie Shannon Hollis:

Just one thing I would like to add to this is that I've seen an interesting process happen with some of the people I know who've become grandmothers, where they really are ready to go off into their lives and do different things. And they, as women do all over the place are sitting with the expectations that people have of them, that they'd be grandmother, and they'd be home and they want to take care of their children.

I'm just struck again by how we want to put people in these roles and we want everyone to fit and meet our expectations. So there's that piece of it. One other part of it is like right around holidays, I'm invited like my great aunt Lana was to my nieces holidays every year. I feel thrilled to be included in that, but I also have at times said, “No, I'm going to be in this other place.” And I think that for me it used to be an easier process of saying, “Actually I'm going to London this year,” or wherever I'm going to the beach, that I'm going to do ... Or I'm staying home.

Stella Duffy OBE:

And there's something here about all of us have got different answers because we're all very individual but like any human being and this assumption that all childless women are the same - when we’re not - when really we all have to find our own way.

Jody Day:

I often think if we had been mothers, we all would have been very individual as mothers.

Stella Duffy OBE:

Yes.

Jody Day:

Just because we're all childless, that doesn't mean we’re some kind of homogenous group. So time is clicking on, we've only got 15 minutes left. The chat has been absolutely blowing up about intergenerational relationships and problems really connecting with nieces and nephews because of obstructions from family members. Basically, people actually going out of their way not to facilitate those connections with their childless friend or their childless sibling. This is something I've heard a lot in the online community as well.

And also about not being made a godmother - almost deliberately excluded. And I think this does speak to a lot of the unconscious fear of the childless woman. I feel very lucky that my ex-husband's family, he comes from a big family, my nephews and nieces, they just saw me as their uncle's wife - it doesn't matter that I'm not a blood relation. But I was welcomed by those mothers and fathers into their children's lives. But I know sometimes that there's a fear sometimes from the mothers, maybe unconscious, that somehow by bringing a childless woman into contact with their daughters, it's more likely their daughters will end up being childless.

Stella Duffy OBE:

It's contagious…

Jody Day:

And one of my nieces actually, I think she is childfree. And I think that is going to be because of knowing me all her life. I remember when she was about 12 saying, “You mean I don’t have to have children?!” and I said, “No, if you want to, it can be a choice not to.” And she was like, “Woah.” Maria, did you want to say something?

Maria Hill:

Yeah, that really resonates with me because, in my family, I'm the first female to go to college and in my generation the only one to work. I've worked my whole life and my mother was German and the whole German mother thing is the big deal and got to be on the pedestal and all of that kind of stuff. So I have noticed that sometimes when I am visiting, I mean I'll get this messaging about “we're all about tradition and this is what we believe in.” If I'm talking to one of the kids, I'll notice that my sister's kind of hovering around behind, in the adjacent room or the hallway listening in and I feel this enormous distrust. And it’s very sad. I often feel like it doesn't matter how great I have been to people, how much I try to be good for other people, nothing interferes with that distrust and that is really heartbreaking.

Karen Malone Wright:

I just wanted to say real quick that ... to respond to that, I want to say that because you told us your progressive, perhaps your sister is afraid you're going to inculcate the children with that…

Maria Hill:

I hope so, I've been trying!

Karen Malone Wright:

The other thing I wanted to say real fast was - back to Jody - that everything you were saying I have learned is, can be true in many African nations where the women who are barren, which is still a word used in those second world countries, are kept apart from the mothers because the mothers believe you are cursed. And that curse will come on to me and my daughters. So throughout that whole story, Jody, I thought that's nothing more than the Ghana women that I've told you.

Jody Day:

So it's in our collective unconscious, this very deep tribal belief…

Karen Malone Wright:

The very idea that because you cannot have children, you are a witch and you will therefore curse me with the same curse you received. I was horrified when I first learned those stories that in 2020 that's what's happening.

Jody Day:

Actually, there are these extraordinary ‘Witch Camps’ camps in Ghana as well, where childless women go to live when they are excluded from their homes - I read about them in Lorna Gibb's book, Childless Voices.

So we're going to move into Q&A for a bit. When we come to the end and we do a little closing round, I've got a question for you to think about for the closing round: working out what to do about the festive season is something that many childless women and couples struggle with. So what works for you? And given that this year we'll also be hosting COVID-19, what are your plans?

But don't answer that now. Just have a think about it. I'm going to take a look at some of the questions. Actually, we're back on to intergenerational stuff, but before we go there, I just want to actually touch on something that I know is really important to a lot of women who asked me about these questions, which is ... Where has it gone? Back in relationships.

What difference does having or not having a partner have both for you and your perceptions of the way other people treat you as you age? And looking back over your life, how did your childlessness impact your desire or otherwise to be in a romantic relationship? And how has that changed over time? That's two questions put together, but I'd love to give space to Donna and to Kate maybe to talk about the experience of not being partnered and growing older without children? And just a couple of minutes each, just cram it all in!

Donna Ward:

Just one reflection I want to make is I think the Australian culture on being coupled and having children is different to that in the UK and definitely in America. We were a colony that was based on prison ships. We had something like 80% more men than women in our colonial days, and those men were not interested in getting married. And that's a kind of sort of thing that has continued in our culture, it's a foundation here. Marriage has never been very strong. We had a little episode in the 50s and 60s where it was seen as the way to leave home. And then the pill came in and the 60s and 70s happened. And we went back to our foundational idea of well, marriage doesn't matter. Children can come, children can't. We're very much more relaxed here about that. And I grew up in the 70s and was very informed by the feminism of Germaine Greer and Australian feminists, and Anne Summers who you may have heard wrote Damned Whores and God's Police from which I get the Australian history from.

So I never really felt that I should do anything other than marry well. And since Australian men ... Well, let's just say they’re relaxed about wanting to get married and very interested in doing everything that doesn't require a commitment… I didn't find a suitable partner and all the suitable guys had already been taken by someone else. And for me, it was important to have a partner before I had a child.

So unlike many women, I'm one of that very small percentage that didn't have the great grief of not having a child as much as I had a great grief of not being chosen for the team. That's where my grief was. Does that kind of address the question very quickly?

Jody Day:

It does. I mean, you and I could talk for a long time about this, but thank you, Donna. I just think that it's another layer of the experience that the story that is told about women ageing is such a narrow story. It's a husband and a wife, it's heteronormative, it's white, it's middle class, you see all the adverts for things - everyone's tall and slim and Caucasian, and it looks it's an advert for some medicine they'll never need - it's just not real!

Kate Kaufmann:

I would say having swum in both pools, clearly there is a bias to couple them but a kind of a guiding principle, and I used this one when my book came out as well - I'm only going where I'm welcomed. So I'll pay attention to that and I can do my part, but I can't do the whole thing. That's been a really helpful way for me to recognize when I need to just let it be that it's the way it is. Then I think during this time of Covid, I'm living alone and to actually befriend myself in a way more profound way than I ever knew possible. I'm a blast to live with.

Karen Malone Wright:

I bet.

Jody Day:

Thank you. I'm going to paraphrase a couple of questions in the chat - I'm not going to say who they're from. So this is from a viewer who says:
“Dear beautiful ladies who are all role models, who are women like me in the early 40s. It makes a huge difference looking forward to growing older when listening to experiences and advice. What I personally find very difficult is the intergenerational conflict with my own mother who on various occasions told me, ‘You cannot understand how I suffer from how you and your brother are reacting to me because you don't have kids.’” So there's a kind of complexity in there of kind of conflict between siblings and a mother who's thinking about her issues rather than her daughter's. Let's just be as tactful as possible. Anyone apart from me? Well, Stella’s training to be a psychotherapist, so you’re in the ‘difficult mother club’!

Stella Duffy OBE:

I think you can't, your mother's right - you cannot understand how she feels. Sometimes saying to them when they say that: “You're right,” shuts them up. Acknowledge that they're right, then they've got no leg to stand on. They also can't understand how you feel - none of us truly can get how the other feels - we get a bit of it, we get a sense of it. When we're being very generous as Maria was talking about very sensitive. We might get a bigger sense of it, but that's the best anyone can ever do. Sometimes the way to stop them saying the very annoying things is to just agree with them. “Yes mum, you're right. You cannot understand me, I cannot understand you. Where are we going to go from here?” Sometimes.

Jody Day:

Lovely. I'm going to write that one down. Thank you. Any more wisdom for tricky conversations...

Karen Malone Wright:

Can I say this very quickly, my mother had a habit of saying, “You have no idea what sacrifice is because you never had a child.” My response would always be, “I do know what sacrifice is, it just doesn't look like your sacrifice.”

Stella Duffy OBE:

Yes.

Karen Malone Wright:

So when Stella started to talk, I'm like I was thinking to myself boy she said that better than I ever could have, we're saying the same thing.

Stella Duffy OBE:

It was brilliant, Karen.

Karen Malone Wright:

Because what she was basically saying is '“My sacrifice trumps yours” which is the same thing that I've heard from so many childless women who are helping with their elderly parents and their mom girlfriends say, "Oh, you think you've got it hard, I'm raising a little kid and taking care!" It's like your pain trumps my pain and it's just a game I don't want to play anymore. But I had to get older to figure out that I had the power to say screw you in your pain, my pain is going over here.

Donna Ward:

If I can say something to that, I write a lot in my book about the prejudice between the heteronormative couples and everyone else, but particularly spinsters. I think coupled people with children or even just a coupled people, think that a spinster, in particular, got it made because she's got all that solitude. But it’s not just a weekend of it - I'm trying to say, “I've got a life of it, and it's a bit of a challenge sometimes and I’d like to talk about it,” but no, kids trump, errand husbands trump. So many things happen. Just on mum, I just want to say that I often found myself saying, “That wasn’t quite the response I was hoping to get from you.”

Jody Day:

Can you see why we need our wise elders?

Maria Hill:

Yeah, really.

Jody Day:

You are amazing. All of you. This is just amazing!

There was another question from a participant, which is for Karen. I'm afraid it's the last question, but I'll try and wrap another one up into another thing: “So this is going back to being an only child and a childless woman. What advice would you give as to how to move forward with those feelings of fear and worthlessness that you are the end of the line for your family? I'm really struggling with this and I don't know how to change my thought process.”

Karen Malone Wright:

I don't know if I did ... It took me a while. I'm no crone with a full of wisdom. I think in a nutshell really quickly, I would say the best thing is to do is to acknowledge what an amazing line you came from, and that every one of those voices and efforts resulted in you. If you don't cure cancer or you don't do something amazing to leave this big ass mark on the world, just be the best you. I mean, and I know it sounds as hokey as can be, but honest to God, that's finally what got me through was realizing I'm just the best me. And if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be me. Certainly, as a black woman, I know what my ancestors went through to get me here to be able to sit on my ass in my house and talk to you lovely folks. So at the end of the day, I would say gratitude. Gratitude will get you through. Gratitude for what came before you, gratitude that you can be you and gratitude that through writing, talking, volunteering, sharing, you're a gift to the world too.

Jody Day:

That's really, really beautiful. Thank you Karen. So we are now at the end. So unbelievably, that was an hour. I'm afraid I haven't been able to get to everyone's questions, but I know you've been very busy in the chat. There's a question about can we save the chat? Yes, we can. I can make it available to those who were registered for the call. So just let me know, just email me and I'll send it to you.

So my last question I'd love you to check out with you is the holidays and hosting COVID-19. What are your plans? I mean childless - they're complicated at the best of times - I think when we're also single and childless or we're grieving - it can be very tricky. And I say ‘holidays’ because we have different faiths, different experiences.

Karen Malone Wright:

One sentence answer, because I am an only child who is childless and my husband also ... He's not childless but he's distanced from his brother, he might as well be. But his brother is also childless. Because now that we are in our sixties, all of our family has died and we were the ones who hosted the family. And one by one Christmas after Christmas, there were fewer people at the chair. So truly for the last few Christmas holidays, it's just been me and him. And I'm very happy to have him and glad that I still love him after all these years and that he loves me.

Donna Ward:

Christmas was very difficult for me for a number of years when I was living in Perth, it was always 40 degrees centigrade for us and I had to drive from one end of Perth to the other from breakfast to lunch, to dinner and couldn't drink. I moved to Melbourne where it's cooler at Christmas and I have two friends who I kind of think there are a couple, I'm not sure they've been together for 20 odd years. But they don't say they are a couple. They come around to my place for Christmas and anyone else who wants to. So after all these years, I've managed to have Christmas in my house which is what I'd to do. And let's hope COVID helps that happen, I imagine it will.

Maria Hill:

I'd have to say that my past several Christmases have been relatively quiet. I work all the time. So for me, I generally start my program and at the beginning of the year, so if I can have everything ready to go in January, then I can actually just take a step back and try to relax and reset. I think Christmas is a great time for that. Certainly, in this time of COVID, I think it's a great time if you can for people who aren't working that they may feel like they're resetting all of the time. But for me, since I work as much as I do, I like to be able to sort of step back from everything and to try to refresh for the beginning of the year.

Kate Kaufmann:

Let's see. The holidays have always been fraught for me. Worst case is it's a day to get through and I know that it will, or it's a season to get through and I know that it's going to transition to something else. Best case, well best case I guess I have plans that I'm really excited about. Middle case, and the one that I actually am most curious about, is when I don't make big plans, things fall my way that are absolutely delightful. So the curiosity is the place I'm sitting in this year. I have no clue what's going on.

Jackie Shannon Hollis:

I also like Kate, the holidays for me have been fraught with I think just the expectation and I still am that child that wants it to be like it was back then. So a lot of it sort of ageing and time going by has been letting go of expectation or of having it be any big deal and just choosing, moment to moment, what do I want it to be? And something surprising coming in, we're setting up a canopy out on our deck outside and some heaters. And we'll probably have a dinner outside with two people in the middle of winter.

Stella Duffy OBE:

I've been practising Buddhism for over 30 years. My wife is Iraqi-Indian Jewish. I was brought up very working-class Catholic. Christmas is fine for me. Sometimes we have with other people, a couple of times with just been ourselves in pyjamas all day, oh bliss. But somebody had said in the chat, “I wish there was something like this for us to get together with other people like us.” If you wish it, you have to be the person who makes it. Each of us has only made the things we've made not knowing, not having anything guaranteed, not certain, write 500 words, write another 500. If this is the thing you want, we have to make it. This is how it happens. We make it for ourselves because it doesn't exist then we share it with other people.

Jody Day:

Yes. Thank you. Well, I think we just made something that didn't exist and we shared it and it's been fantastic.

Stella Duffy OBE:

You've done a lot of that, Jody.

Jackie Shannon Hollis:

Thank you Jody.

Jody Day:

Christmas is going to be very busy for me because it's a very busy time supporting childless women around the world. I don't know, I think maybe we might do some kind of Zoom cocktail party or something. I'm just cooking up more things to keep my time full because I'm a childless woman and I've got nothing to do!

Donna Ward:

And you don't know suffering!

Jody Day:

I just can see a whole load of T-shirts coming out of this! We need to stop this now… Goodbye Karen, Donna, Maria, Kate, Jackie and Stella. This has been so much fun for World Childless Week.


Thank you to World Childless Week for hosting this conversation.
Hosted by Jody Day, Founder of Gateway Women
Karen Malone Wright The Not Mom
Maria Hill Sensitive Evolution
Stella Duffy Not Writing But Blogging
Kate Kaufmann Do You Have Kids? Live When The Answer Is No
Donna Ward She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life
Jackie Shannon Hollis This Particular Happiness