As I write this I am fifty-six; well, fifty-six-and-a-half. Those halves don’t matter as much to me now as they did when I was a child longing for maturity, or as that frantic middle-aged woman desperate to reach the promised land of motherhood.
I crawled from the wreckage of that baby lust a broken woman - my career, finances, marriage, social circle, health, heart and faith shattered. Slowly, as I grasped for healing, hungry for a compassionate conversation or an illuminating book, I found nothing. Or maybe even worse than that - I found censure, pity and cold-shoulders. My pain was not a welcome guest around the tables of those with children, which was almost everyone I knew. And in the wider world, whether through the global reach of the internet or the intimacy of the therapy room, I was often met with misunderstanding and a tone-deaf disbelief that I couldn’t just ‘pick myself up’ from the loss of my motherhood dreams, ‘count my blessings’ and ‘move on’. After all, how hard could it be? And this from matriarchs and mother-earther’s who’d built their whole lives and identities around the experience of motherhood and grandmotherhood. Those from whose lips parenthood metaphors dropped unknowingly to describe the human condition, blind to the fact that this is a far from universal experience.
1 in 5 British women born in 1964 did not have children, ninety percent of them not by choice; I am one of them.
My soul cried out for a hearing but it went unanswered. So I did what I’d always done from childhood onwards; I told it to the page. For a few years it was just to my private journal and then, in 2011, I started a blog called ‘Gateway Women’ focusing on my childlessness and how it felt to be a childless woman in our society. And through the community of women who found me there, including other bloggers, I found my tribe and my healing.
Today, Gateway Women has a global reach of 2-million and my book Living the Life Unexpected - the one I longed to read but which in the end I realised I had to write - has helped countless women (and quite a few male readers too) crawl out of their own personal childlessness wreckage.
Once I was asked where the name ‘Gateway Women’ came from and I surprised myself with the answer. You see, it wasn’t a name I’d spent hours pondering over - it came to me almost fully formed - I’ve probably still got the notebook somewhere where you can see my thinking process. My first stab was ‘Project Gateway’ and then, very quickly, ‘Gateway Women’. At the time, I didn’t know why - it just felt right. It wasn’t until I was asked the question that the answer came to me: it’s about thresholds.
I have always been drawn to thresholds, to liminal spaces, to the marginal.
In my time training to become a psychotherapist I volunteered as a school counsellor and discovered that the group I connected with instinctively were adolescents - those on the threshold of young adult consciousness but with one foot still in childhood. Now that my nephews, nieces and godchildren are in their twenties, I am the willing ear to their exploratory conversations as they create a life that makes sense to them. The threshold of becoming, or not becoming, a mother is one that chose me as its acolyte and the menopause, that dark rite of passage, is something else I’ve been writing and talking about for as long as my childlessness, shocked by how few other women were willing to do so.
Perhaps it’s time I stopped being so shocked at other’s unwillingness to go where I’m drawn because it would seem that if there’s a threshold to be crossed, a taboo to be explored, that’s where you’ll find me. Leaving polite society to step into the darkened room, looking for those who’ve gone ahead and hoping that I’ll learn something I can share with those that follow.
So here I stand on the threshold of becoming a childless old woman, just as I once I stood, naked and lost in the wilderness of my childless grief.
And the irony is not lost on me that I’m back at the page again, looking for guidance for the path ahead, and once again, coming up empty. So far, almost every book I’ve read about the ageing process for women, whether written for a professional or general audience, makes the assumption that every woman has had children. Usually, I manage to read past that pronatalist assumption and hopefully glean some wisdom, but it’s hard work. And of course, that’s assuming it’s there, tucked in between the homilies to motherhood and grandmotherhood: it isn’t always.
It seems that amongst my own generation I am unusual in speaking up about my experience of childlessness - but once I broke that silence, my sisterhood found me. I am hopeful that I will find my conscious childless elders this way too. I have had the privilege of inviting a few of them to speak at two ‘Fireside Wisdom’ webinars I hosted in 2020 and I’ll be introducing you to them as part of this new project of mine.
The door I stand at now is a dark and ancient one, worn smooth by the many hands that have passed it on their way. It’s a humble door, you have to stoop to enter it and even though it’s heavy, the timeworn hinges swing easily. I have been walking near this threshold for a few years now and gradually, my eyes are adjusting to the luminosity within, waiting to be discovered.
I don’t know what I’ll find as I cross this threshold; it is a step into the unknown, as all thresholds are. I am here to learn. I am ready to begin my apprenticeship to become a conscious childless elderwoman.
I am an Apprentice Crone. And this is my time.