never married, over forty, a little bitter

Category: motherhood

no reservations

Interestingly, this was written in 2002, before pregnant celebrities became splashed across every cover. Backlash?

There appears to be a generational gap with regard to women’s feelings about their childlessness. Women in their 50s acknowledged a strong societal imperative toward having children, which in turn left them feeling inadequate because they had not. Women in their 40s had mixed reactions: Some felt that a societal expectation was placed on them, whereas others did not. Women under 35 did not feel this sense of obligation, having grown up in a society more open to allowing individuals to make their own choices. That has allowed younger, more liberated women to be comfortable with childlessness. The next generation could well be childless without reservations.

Read more:


Here’s the problem: While “childless” means the condition of being without children, it implies that everyone who does not have children would like to have them. However, being “childfree,” like Mirren—and like me—means that one does not want to have children at all.

The implications of using these two terms interchangeably reach beyond celebrities, of course. People (not just women) can be childless for a lot of reasons—reproductive and financial challenges among them—but, like being childfree and not wanting kids, it’s a deeply stigmatized experience, accompanied by shame. Both groups of people are in search of a community, and finding that can be incredibly difficult, particularly when you might be looking in the wrong place.

the terminator

Regardless of the myriad reasons for a life without children, many have experienced one common silent battle; feeling abandoned by friends who became immersed in motherhood. Some say they woke up one day, often in their mid to late 30s, and realised 20-year friendships have been put on the back burner because their friends had little time or, in some cases, too little inclination for a social life that didn’t revolve around their young family or other mothers.

Voicing these concerns publicly is somewhat of a taboo; there’s plenty of media discourse and blogs about how to balance motherhood with work, the struggles of women who seek to become parents through IVF and the dilemmas faced by women who are full-time mothers. And celebrity motherhood is fetishised in tabloid tales of the baby-making exploits of Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie’s frantic rate of adoption, and speculation over Jennifer Aniston’s “agony” at her childless status.

But admitting to feeling marginalised by friends for having not propagated the species is akin to outing yourself as a Miss Haversham figure surrounded by cats and knitting needles.

Fiona, a 37-year-old who never wanted children, says motherhood has been a “friendship terminator” for her.

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behind the walls

My biggest lesson from access into the Mommy Club is this: Being a mother does not make you automatically connect with another person. I’ve found the same holds true for infertility. It just might give you something to talk about for a few minutes or a few get-togethers. We are more complex and interesting than our children. Or lack of them. I choose to instead consider that we are all part of the Human Club. And for that, there is no special admittance required.


In my twenties and thirties, my mother was like one of those sitcom characters who asks her daughter in every conversation, “So, are you seeing anyone?” A widow now, she maintains that there’s no life outside of marriage and family for women (while at the same time occasionally saying she regretted having kids– put that in your pipe and smoke it, Freud).

I battled that whole idea in my youth but certainly a lot of it sunk in. I can’t blame all of that on my mother’s attitude, as it’s easy enough to get that message from the larger culture. So in my early decades I put a lot of energy into “finding someone” while simultaneously pursuing my own interests and dreams. It was a bit of a schizophrenic existence.

In my forties, I have to admit that, for all practical purposes, my mother is right. I don’t want to be a “whiner,” but I only have to read the eloquent posts on sites such as the Gateway Women forum to realize that strong, admirable women frequently “wobble” in the face of long-term singlehood and/or childlessness.

It’s the nonexistent path, and it does sometimes feel like one has to be superhuman to overcome the messaging. Given that I don’t want any old relationship but a generally good one, I may have to don a cape:

First… the weight of a whole tribal or family historical tradition has to be
lifted…then the influence of the individual parental, social and cultural
background has to be thrown off. The same must be done with the demands of
contemporary society at large, and finally the advantages derived from one’s
immediate social circle have to be partly or wholly sacrificed. Then all the easy
indulgences of being a Sulk or a Jerk… have to be given up. Following this, the
individual must attain personal and social control, so that all the classes of
behavior… become free choices subject only to his will. He is then ready for
game-free relationships… at this point he may be able to develop his capacities
for autonomy. In essence, this whole preparation consists of obtaining a friendly
divorce from one’s parents (and from other Parental influences) so that they may be
agreeably visited on occasion, but are no longer dominant.

Games People Play by Eric Berne, M.D. p. 182-183, “The Attainment of Autonomy”

the scrubbing

“Celebrities are the perfect vehicle because they are working women, but also very much shaped by feminist stereotypes,” she explained. Drawing from the work of Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels and their book “The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women,” she explained that unlike the rest of us, celebrities can achieve superwomen status, they can look great and work hard and be good moms who cook excellent chicken. Of course, the large network of people they rely upon to achieve such feats are often scrubbed from their public image and all we are all left with are “poster figures for this post-feminist ideology, a perfect antidote to the masculinized working women” that are so commonplace.

the multi-dimensional

Eliot sometimes referred to her books as her children, and the writing of them as a form of parturition. She once wrote in a letter of the experience of completing a novel: “the sense that the work has been produced within one, like offspring, developing and growing by some force of which one’s life has served as a vehicle, and that what is left of oneself is only a poor husk.” The image of a new mother as dried out and used up is one of the few places where Eliot’s comprehension strikes me as limited. There are doubtless many new mothers who do feel this way, but it seems to me that a more typical experience might be that which combines utter exhaustion with an unprecedented sense of vitality. (Nothing has ever made me feel so alive as actually producing a new life.) Perhaps this image of being devoured or despoiled by a voracious, needy infant helps explain why Eliot did not follow a conventional course of motherhood. The way she describes it doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Eliot may have decided that she could meet the needs of only one incessantly demanding voice, and that was the voice of her inner creativity.

And yet in her fiction she was able to give expression to an entirely different experience of motherhood than the one she sketchily characterizes in that letter. As I write in my book, one of the most moving moments in “Middlemarch” occurs when Fred Vincy, the mayor’s son, is dangerously ill. Suddenly his mother, the silly, frivolous Mrs. Vincy, is catapulted from her mundane diversions into the direst fears for her firstborn. “All the deepest fibres of the mother’s memory were stirred, and the young man whose voice took a gentler tone when he spoke to her, was one with the babe whom she had loved, with a love that was new to her, before he was born,” Eliot writes. The precision and comprehension in that characterization floors me. How did she know so well, and so exactly, what that experience was like? In a few, perfectly apt words she expresses what was for me at least the most dumbfounding surprise about motherhood: the way in which becoming a mother granted me access to—forced me into—an entirely new sphere of love, care, selflessness, and terror, a dimension that I had no idea was there. From out of nowhere, I knew a love that was new to me.


There is no pregnancy, no child, and therefore no real grief. But when there is no single cathartic moment which allows one to whole-heartedly give in to that grief, no way to point directly to something and say “that, that is what I’ve lost”, then there is no means to assimilate grief. And when there is no publicly known event to create the expectation in others that we might be grieving, it becomes a private pain, and therefore somehow questionable, invalid: the grief can seem to be over nothing more than a cycle of trying and hoping and trying and hoping – and to grieve that seems faintly ridiculous.

the hard way out

Agree with this comment:

02 June 2014 8:36pm

The problem is that it’s so much harder to go to uni and build a career after having children. Taking 3 years out and paying for it is impossible for most families. My own mum went to uni for the first time in her late 30’s but struggled to compete with the fresh faced young nqt’s in teaching. Many employers are ageist, especially to women so you could fall from one trap to another.

Theoretically I can see her point, it is easier to have a baby young and it comes with benefits. Going to university with life and work experience under your belt would also be a good idea for some people but in the real world I’m not sure it holds water.

the system

“Women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35. We should talk openly about university and whether going when you’re young, when we live so much longer, is really the way forward. At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try and buy a home, and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone. As a passionate feminist, I feel we have not been honest enough with women about this issue.”

Allsopp says fertility is the one thing that cannot change.

“Some of the greatest pain that I have seen among friends is the struggle to have a child. It wasn’t all people who couldn’t start early enough because they hadn’t met the right person,” she said.

“But there is a huge inequality, which is that women have this time pressure that men don’t have. And I think if you’re a man of 25 and you’re with a woman of 25, and you really love her, then you have a responsibility to say: ‘Let’s do it now.’