Mumsnet recently featured a messageboard thread that discussed the fear of loneliness and depression in childless women over 45. The topic was picked up by a few newspapers this month. The Mirror attributed the blame to the current fixation on all things pregnancy and child-related:

“Much of the obsession regarding motherhood comes from a good, if not slightly old-fashioned place – we see a woman having a baby as her getting the happy ending and fulfilment she deserves”. 

A gloss over the subject, but these days the childless-not-by-choice (and mothers alike) are subjected to a mostly rose-tinted view of raising children in the media, and certain parents compound this by trumping up the #feelingblessed version of family life. (Also, what was Beyonce thinking at the Grammys?)

The question from the OP on Mumsnet was:

“Women who are single and have no children, post 45? This is what I’m facing so I’m not being nasty. I’m just wondering if loneliness is inevitable and things like holidays and so on (I know you can go alone but this isn’t for me) any advice? [sic]”

Why is she asking Mumsnet, I thought. What do the mums know about being single and childless in middle age? Being single and childless in your twenties or thirties is light years away from that.

I’ve always been sceptical about the ability of one side to provide insights into the experience of the other. I know I’ve been guilty of not empathising with the lot of parents. Do they secretly raise an eyebrow at me, in turn, when I allude to the quiet aftermath of my own losses? I’ve certainly felt that sometimes.

And can I ever presume to tell a single person that they’ll be fine without kids, when I’m married?

And what do the happily childfree think of the childless-not-by-choice who are still raw? Here’s a recent tweet I got:

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how all these different cohorts interact and see one another, about which attitudes exacerbate polarity and which help break it down.

Honestly, will we ever fully understand and empathize with each other? Probably not. Not all the time, or at the same time. Should we just accept this, are we OK with it?

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Lost in a black hole a few years ago, I thought my friends were ungrateful and insensitive when they moaned about how tough child-rearing was. Now that fog has lifted, I can finally hear them. The more vulnerable you feel, the harder it is to appreciate that there are happy and also desperately unhappy people in every domestic situation available.

Anyway, I think that the contributions below from the mothers who responded to the childless, post-45 OP on Mumsnet are particularly eloquent on how children are not the fast-track to satisfaction that they might sometimes seem to be. Especially to those who feel like they’re on the losing team.

“I read something in a weekend magazine that said the typical midlife experience for a woman with a family was one of constant, knackering, amateur psychiatric nursing for all those around her… That sounds so bloody familiar just now. I have teenage angsty kids, a student son with some quite severe mental health problems and a depressed other half. Although I love them very deep down I want to run away most days and have a turn at just being me. The trivial bits – my sleep patterns, my timescale, my radio choice, my head space, my own bed, my paint choice – and my chance to go out and not worry that I’ll miss another frantically distressed call from son. I should probably delete this. You sound so sad, and it never really helps to hear that others are too. But the grass is not always greener”.

“I’ve come to learn that loneliness is very much about mental attitude.  It’s perfectly possible to be intensely, cripplingly, lonely even if you’re married with kids and surrounded by people every day. Family members just take what they need from you, take you for granted, you’re stuck having to ‘serve’ them and you can’t even get a bit of time for yourself, because of your responsibilities to them. Any change involves upsetting the apple cart, and if you’re feeling lonely, unsupported and depressed, this is the last thing you want to do. So it all just plods on, while everyone assumes you’re happy as can be, because it’s easier to pretend than have to confront the truth and upset everyone… When I was feeling particularly isolated, it really helped me to talk to a counsellor”.

“Once you are over fifty, even if you’ve had children mostly they are off living their own lives, not crowding round mum offering to take her out every weekend. But you still have that little niggle of worry in the back of your head ‘what if something happens to one of them’? So you live alone, worrying about something you can’t do anything about, visiting enough to keep everyone happy but not enough to suffocate…it’s stressful and tricky. And often, because you’ve brought children up alone, you’ve been trapped in part time, dead end jobs, and once the kids leave there’s nobody suddenly leaping up with a fabulous, well paid full time job. And you’re old. So you live trapped in ‘little jobs’ in poverty. That’s where I am. You have to make your own happiness, OP. Kids, partners, money, don’t do it for you. I am, despite not being able to afford to heat my house, happy. Love the little things – a cream bun, warm toes, a good programme on the telly, a new library book. That’s where pleasure lies”.

Then the non-mother who responded with this also caught my eye:

“…. I‘m getting closer to accepting my possible fate, as a single childless woman for life. I then have two choices – embrace it or mourn it”.

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