Childlessness after miscarriage: the untold story

British author, trainee integrative psychotherapist and the founder of Gateway Women, Jody Day, tells us about the often untold story behind childlessness after miscarriage.

Tommy's guest blog by Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women  

The losses of miscarriage, stillbirth and early-term loss are devastating and still something that women and couples are encouraged to keep to themselves.  However, in recent years, high-profile individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan and, only this week, British singer Charlotte Church, have chosen to break the taboo by talking of their pain over miscarriage losses. Tommy’s media campaigns are also really helping to shift this stigma. 

Yet missing from the miscarriage narrative is something so huge, but still so taboo, that many people don’t even realise it’s missing: the stories of those women and couples for whom things didn’t end with a ‘rainbow baby’; the stories of those for whom miscarriage, early-term loss or stillbirth marked the end of their hopes for a family.

I in 5 women over the age of 45 in the UK don’t have children. As I spoke about in my recent TED talk, this is a much bigger number than most people realise, because we exist in a massive cultural blind-spot, ring-fenced by taboos, silenced by shame and often existing only in people’s minds as the butt of cruel social caricatures such as the ‘crazy cat lady’ or the ‘career woman’.  Of these 1 in 5 women, it has been estimated that ninety percent of them are childless not by choice. And of those women, how many of them have an unheard miscarriage story?

Where is the place of the forever-childless women in the miscarriage narrative of ‘rainbow babies’?

As a culture, we’re pretty uncomfortable with unfix-able things. We like to believe that if we have enough data, make smart decisions, throw enough money and a really positive attitude at anything, it can be solved. There is also an unspoken but pervasive fantasy that if we’re ‘a good person’ things will work out for us in the end; a fantasy that persists in spite of the fact that not only do bad things happen to good people, but really great things happen to horrible ones!

So this perhaps leaves a lingering unspoken idea in people’s minds that childless women either ‘did something wrong’ or, even worse, that they ‘are something wrong’.

Internalising this guilt and shame can be profoundly corrosive to a woman’s identity just at the time in her life when she may feel acutely adrift from her ‘womanhood’, and struggling to get her head and heart around what it means for her to be a woman if she can’t be a mother. Often, at the very moment when she’s most in need of empathy, compassion and understanding from friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues, instead she’s met with silence, banter or judgement. Her grief becomes an unspeakable thing, both for her and for others. 

Adoption doesn’t ‘fix’ childlessness

For many of us, childlessness turns out to be one of life’s unfixable things. And no, adoption doesn’t ‘fix’ childlessness. It’s an entirely different way of bringing children into your life, and not one that every woman or couple has the mental, emotional, familial and financial resources to even consider, let alone accomplish right now. It involves taking on the grief and trauma of a vulnerable child just at the point when you’re quite possibly in the worst shape of your life to do so. To every parent who says to a childless woman or couple, “Why don’t you just adopt?” (I love that ‘just’!), perhaps the answer needs to become, “I’m a physical, financial, spiritual and emotional basket-case right now, so I think I’ll pass, but if it’s so easy and such a fab idea, why don’t you adopt?!”

For childless women who’ve lost babies to miscarriage, early-term loss and stillbirth, those babies were as real to them as the women and couples who experience the same and then go on to have a rainbow baby. So why should childless women’s losses be treated as shameful, as a secret not to be spoken of?  And what does it do to childless women to find themselves not only excluded from the category of ‘parent’ but somehow also to have their entire pregnancy journey seemingly erased? If grief is a social emotion that allows us to heal in a collective context, where do childless women go?

Gateway Women: a safe place to rebuilt our shattered hearts

 And so that’s why I set up Gateway Women, to bring childless women together so that we can heal. We have a private, carefully moderated online community as well as social Meetups and healing workshops. It started as a blog in the UK in 2011 and is now taking on a global dimension, so great is the need for a safe space for us, for our grief, for our experiences. A space free of judgement and full of empathy, where we can heal our shattered hearts and work out how to inhabit the rest of our lives as childless women in creative and compassionate ways. Because finding a Plan B for life when Plan A may have been your dream since childhood is no trivial undertaking…

The need for ritual

 All human cultures have created rituals because we need them. We need to make tangible the intangible. To make visible the invisible. We need to memorialise our lost babies, our lost years, our lost dreams. And then we have to let them go.

For the last five years, I’ve worked with a group of childless women to create a ritual to honour and let go of those little lives and the dreams we had for them, and for ourselves. It involves writing a ‘goodbye’ letter to the children they never met and then, standing together in a circle under a tree or in a secluded natural place, we read out those letters and burn them. We symbolically let those little souls, and all the dreams we had for them, go up in smoke. Afterwards, I encourage the women to take some of the ashes home and do something with them that feels right. Some choose to keep their ashes in a sacred place in their home, some scatter them in place important to them, some bury them in their garden.  In a more public setting, the Mariposa Trust organises 'Saying Goodbye' services of remembrance in cathedrals across the UK for babies lost at any age and any stage. I’m pleased to say that the Saying Goodbye services (which are beautiful) now also recognise the loss of the never-conceived too, although it can be a challenging service to attend for the forever-childless as many parents bring their living children with them to honour their lost siblings. As a forever-childless woman, the triggers are everywhere!

Tread carefully, for you tread on our dreams

There is a growing understanding that one of the kindest things you can do for a woman who has experienced miscarriage, early-term loss, still birth or infant death is not to forget about it – because she won’t. For those of us who remain childless after such loss, please don’t forget that we are mothers in our hearts too. That we too never forget our losses, even as we learn to heal around them and move on with our lives. And, if you are a mother who experienced loss on your eventual path to motherhood, please tread carefully with your assertions that you ‘understand’ our loss. We know you mean well but, although we may share the experience of miscarriage, you’ll never know what it’s like to inhabit the stigmatised identity of the forever-childless woman. Because for many of us, miscarriage wasn’t part of the story; it was the end of our story.

About the author

Jody Day (1964) is a British author, trainee integrative psychotherapist and the founder of Gateway Women the global friendship and support network for childless women with a reach of two-million women. She’s a founding and board member at (Ageing without Children) and a former Fellow in Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School.  Her 2016 book Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children (Bluebird/PanMac), is recommended by the British Medical Journal as “the book to recommend to… patients when they face coming to terms with unavoidable childlessness.” Jody writes and appears regularly in the media and in March 2017 gave her TEDx talk 'The Lost Tribe of Childless Women' at TEDxHull.