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Don't judge us for being childless

We talk to women who don't want to feel judged for not having children

    The new Prime Minister has had to reveal personal heartache
    The new Prime Minister has had to reveal personal heartache

    Chaya speaks calmly about a memorable visit to her local mikvah.

    "I had a mikvah lady physically poke me in the stomach and say 'Why no baby? Why do you keep coming back?' And this wasn't after I was dressed - I was completely naked in the mikvah room. That was quite special..."

    Chaya's experience of being shamed for her childlessness is, unfortunately, not out of the ordinary. Being a Jewish woman without children is still considered unusual, and in some parts of the community virtually unacceptable. Society expects women to have children. And it's hard for them if they don't.

    Chaya, 30, is an administrator for a Jewish charity and hesitates as she tries to explain how painful it can be when others comment on her childlessness. "It feels very belittling. It feels awful," she says.

    "There's this constant barrage - I feel like I'm very obvious public property. As a Jewish woman I'm constantly trailed by my non-existent children, as if people are going 'where are they?'."

    It's difficult to know we're never going to be grandparents

    Women without children have been in the news this week after controversial comments made by Andrea Leadsom, former Conservative leadership candidate. She ended up pulling out of the contest - handing victory to Theresa May - after suggesting the new Prime Minister could be at a disadvantage because she was childless. The comments caused a furore, but many women without children experience similar slurs on a regular basis.

    "I'm surprised that she was so explicit; but it betrays quite a deepset attitude," says Carly, a 27-year-old writer. "When I saw it, it was an 'eyeroll' moment, rather than a 'I can't believe she said that' - because I really can believe she said that."

    According to the Office for National Statistics, almost one in five women aged over 45, and nearly half of all women aged 30, have no children of their own.

    (There are no published statistics available on childlessness among UK Jewish women.) Indeed, among female MPs in 2013, 45 per cent were childless, meaning Theresa May's circumstances are hardly unusual.

    Nevertheless, women without children must still contend with deeply-ingrained views that motherhood is the pinnacle of womanhood.

    Andrea Grossman is a director at executive coaching consultancy Talking Talent. As someone whose work specifically focuses on supporting the progression of women within the legal profession, she has seen how perceptions of women are changing. Whilst in general terms she feels that women respect other women's choices about whether or not they have a family, she still acknowledges that there are unspoken and deep-seated prejudices about women who don't.

    "I think there is a stigma; I don't think you can deny that. There is just a general suspicion of women, not men, who don't have kids."

    Grossman gives an example of how this can impact within the workplace. "A lot of women don't feel there are many role models when they look up. It's a big problem that companies are trying to address; but women are looking up and saying 'there's just no role models!'.

    "And when you point out a bunch of women that are actually in very senior positions, if they don't have children, there is a definitely feeling that … well, are they a role model? There is a general push for women to be able to have it all - family and career - so, for women at the junior level particularly, they might not know if they want a family or not, but they want to know it's an option. So there's unconscious suspicion."

    Childless women within the Jewish community, as elsewhere, were hurt and angered by Leadsom's comments. Jodie, a 45 year old business consultant, says she has often encountered thoughtlessness and ignorance. Some people have joked that she is too picky about potential boyfriends, while others regularly suggest: "Well, there are plenty of singles events".

    She says, "there aren't! Well, interestingly, there are, but only if you're divorced, with kids…". She has friends who have suggested adoption - "believe me, I've been down that route, and I've been told that as a single Jewish woman it was virtually impossible for me to adopt any child under five". And then there are those who reassure her that it is not too late, even now when she is in her mid '40s, and who regale her with tales of "I know somebody who...".

    She still finds it hard. "People feel that they have the right to try and solve the problem for you, even though they don't know the journey of grief that you've already been through," she explains. "People throw these obvious things - as if you haven't thought about it, as if you've not worked hard enough at it. And the judgment: 'if you'd really wanted this, then you would have done this…'."

    Leadsom's words implied that a mother's most important focus was her own children. Being an aunt was not enough: "Theresa ... possibly has nieces, nephews ... but I have children, who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next".

    Many of the women interviewed for this article felt not just that this was a very blinkered mind-set, but also that it bordered on the selfish. They assert that having a stake in the future is not just about the particular work by one particular parent to develop one particular child, but rather about the communal effort made by all adults, in various roles and with different strengths, to develop the lives of all children.

    In fact, there was dissatisfaction that Leadsom had raised this issue at all. Andrea, a solicitor aged 49, encapsulated everyone's thinking when she paraphrased former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "there is a special place in hell reserved for women who put down other women".

    Chaya highlights the double standards exposed by Leadsom's comments and expresses her anger about the very public nature of the "shaming".

    "May has basically had to expose herself, come out as childless, come out as having struggled with infertility, [which] is really horrific.

    It's almost like a public stripping. She had to say she 'tried'. She's not allowed just to be a woman without children."

    Jody Day is the founder of Gateway Women, a global friendship and support network for women who are involuntarily childless. Day confirms that the torture of being asked to justify your childlessness in a public arena is common.

    "The first question you get asked is 'do you have children?'. It's a social opener, like 'have you seen the cricket?'. And if you say 'no', the next question is 'why?'. It is extraordinary.

    "So you say you've done all these things; but when you're struggling, when you're grieving, a lot of women feel very traumatised, and judged. It's very personal. You want to say back, 'I didn't realise we were going to get straight into personal stuff: how much do you earn?'. This is private! It's very hard."

    Gatherings marking lifecycle events can be especially painful for Jewish women without children. The never-ending stream of barand batmitzvah celebrations can be particularly fraught.

    Jodie is at a stage in her life where she is receiving a lot of bar/batmitzvah invitations. "I went to one last Shabbat," she says, "and when my friend welled up, I thought 'what a beautiful thing'; but as I watched her I also had a searing pain because it is something that I will never feel in the same way."

    "There's a part of me that doesn't want to go to all these simchas, but I have to go because I have to go. And knowing that I'll probably have to go to the weddings too."

    Michal, a travel agent aged 47, said that she finds such simchas doubly hard: firstly because each one throws her childlessness in her face; and secondly because "you are shelling out for presents for these kids, and there's a certain amount you're expected to give, and I feel like I'm paying for my place to go to something that I don't necessarily want to go to."

    Shelley, who is 56 and a writer, takes the lifecycle theme further forward. "All of the milestones - barmitzvahs, coming of age, going to university - these are various stages of growing up that we've never had, and sometimes it's painful. The difficult thing now is that we're never going to be grandparents. A couple of my cousins are grandparents, and I don't think they realise how difficult it is that we're not."

    Women without children know that they can't turn back time or change their circumstances. But they do want to feel more accepted and comfortable within their wider community. Small shifts in attitude can make a big difference.

    Two words come up over and over again when talking to women without children: judgment, and thoughtlessness. People should not assume that everyone can, or wants to, have a child; nor that women haven't already explored every opportunity that is appropriate for them. If parents learned to make fewer judgments and considered their words more carefully, it wouldn't remove all the pain; but it would be a good start.

    And perhaps, just perhaps, having a female Prime Minister who is childless through circumstance will make a difference too.

    Some names have been changed.

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