In January a letter was allegedly sent to Mariella Frostrup, agony aunt for the Guardian, with the subject I’m almost 50 and full of regret it’s too late to have children.
Frostrup’s reply is brisk: a cheerleading pep-talk that instructs the woman to look forward not back, count her blessings, get out there and grab the world with both hands, buck up …. that kind of thing. If all else fails, Frostrup advises the woman to adopt an adolescent as a kind of pot noodle insta-family.
Personally, I agree fundamentally with most of what Frostrup is trying to say (apart from adopting ‘a school-age child desperate for a secure home‘. Adopt one yourself.) I hate the idea of spending the rest of my life mourning something I don’t have, and I categorically refuse to be unhappy because I don’t have children. F*** that: this is the only life I’ll ever have.
But then I was always very ambivalent about motherhood – I could never imagine myself with a baby – whereas this woman ‘ached’ for her own child. So I can’t pretend to be the right person to offer empathetic advice to her, but I can talk from experience about life as an older non-mother. I also have enough emotional intelligence to intuit that it’s insensitive to tell this woman that she’s lucky to be ‘unfettered’ by children.
That’s the problem: Frostrup is a mother-of-two who had her babies at 41 and 42 and is therefore an enormously bad choice of audience. She is now deep in the throes of parenting teenagers and, importantly, she is not a qualified counsellor. Honestly, it’s like texting a mum-of-three during the school run to say you’re depressed because the house is so quiet and your life is so empty. Frostrup trots out everything I’d expect her to say: that she’s envious of the freedom the childless have; that they don’t have to deal with stroppy teenagers; that they should be delighted to pursue ‘bucket lists’ and ‘trophy boyfriends’ (actually I wasn’t expecting that one! Tut tut, Mariella) with all that time and money on their hands.
Frostrup got defensive on Twitter when the CNBC community challenged her about her answer, asking:
To that I would say: well, yes, unless they’re a qualified professional. And even the qualified professionals can be terrible if they don’t have the insight that experience brings. A therapist once told me ‘I don’t know where I’d be without my four daughters’ when I told her I’d just found out I couldn’t have kids – now, I would only ever see a therapist with relevant life experience.
In my early days of infertility when I had The Fear quite badly and thought my life would be lacking compared to some of my parent friends, I did try to broach the subject with a couple of them – how I feared an eerily quiet, unpunctuated life, how it made me feel so old, how the future unnerved me. The short shrift I received from them was an education: their exasperation was tangible, they were so mired in the noisy world of child-rearing that they had no time for my existential woes – of course. My oldest parent friends still have some views that would rock the CNBC community: that infertile people don’t have the right to be assisted to have children, that IVF should never be provided on the NHS, that adopting is the panacea for all of this.
The moral of the story: don’t complain about your empty childless life to busy parents; likewise, don’t complain about your busy parenting schedule to actively grieving childless folk. Take refuge and comfort in the appropriate community.
How, then, to educate people to understand the loss that is unwanted childlessness? To have more empathy? That is the problem I don’t know how to solve. And people’s ideas of loss, and of what is appropriate in a given situation, are so different that it’s quite a mind-boggling prospect. Take this comment under Frostrup’s column, for example:
I have two wonderful children.
But deeply, achingly would have liked 5 or 6.
It became clear that would not be wise, nor possible. But I still deeply regret that ‘loss’.
5 or 6! *Hollow laugh*
But that’s just it: EVERYONE has wildly differing opinions, perspectives and empathy thresholds on this perennially divisive subject. It’s the proverbial minefield.
I’m not sure it’s possible for non-parents and parents to ever fully empathise with one another. The best we can do is to actively listen; the worst we can do is diminish the other person’s different experience with ‘at least…!’ or ‘you’re lucky that…!’ or ‘but I……’ statements.
As for the letter writer – if she’s real – I do wonder why she went to Frostrup. Maybe she hadn’t googled her. And Frostrup should have researched some of the amazing resources that her correspondent could link up with, notably Jody Day’s Gateway Women, instead of quite brazenly plugging her own menopause stuff. Let’s face it, in grief we find most comfort with those who’ve been through similar experiences.
I enjoy re-posting this comment from years ago which appeared under another one of Frostrup’s dodgy replies to a middle-aged childless woman, because it helped me vastly at the time, and it’s straight from the horse’s mouth:
Thanks to ‘dontlikeit’, Guardian commenter, whoever she is.