When Jennifer Aniston complained this week that she was tired of seeing her value as a woman undermined by her failure to have a child I was tempted to embark on a little victory jig around the office.
She spoke for so many women over 35 who either never wanted or were just never able to have children – be it through fertility issues or so-called circumstantial infertility (being unable to find a suitable partner during their fertile years).
Jennifer, 46, insisted that her success was in no way reduced by her failure to ‘birth a child.’
"I’ve birthed a lot of things, and I feel like I’ve mothered many things,” she said “And I don’t feel like it’s fair to put that pressure on people.”
Her experience mirrors the prejudice the rest of us so-called ‘nomos’ (non mothers) frequently tackle.
Recent figures show that one in five women now reach the age of 45 without having a baby, and that figure is likely to rise. Yet we who fail to breed are often regarded as a desperate minority group – impossibly selfish and unnatural.
I have certainly felt like the deviant outsider during formal family occasions, social gatherings, office water-cooler moments and, depressingly, on dates with mature men who are quick to issue warnings about not wanting (new or additional) children themselves.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether you have ‘birthed’ great friendships, love affairs and positive life experiences. Unless you’ve had a baby you are not deemed a real woman. You could be on the board of a city bank, save lives, do bundles of charity work, bake like Mary Berry – or simply have a happy life in the suburbs. Regardless, if you are a childless woman over 35, you are likely to encounter people who view you with pity and suspicion.
I recently fought off a series of very personal interrogations at a dinner party dominated by married couples. They could not come to terms with the fact I was (still) single and childless in my early forties.
‘I suppose you are just not very good at relationships,’ said one thrice-married woman, as she threw down her umpteenth glass of Chardonnay.
But my life has been anything but tragic. Twenty years ago I embarked on a career in journalism which brought me into contact with people from all walks of life, most of whom I found infinitely fascinating. I’ve interviewed rock stars, soap stars, politicians and the hugely-inspiring survivors of rape, bombings and plane crashes.I’ve travelled the world and had exciting love affairs.
The truth is I would have liked to settle down and have children in my early thirties but the right man never came along and I didn’t see the point in settling for a loveless marriage. Still, it was a bit of a shock waking up one day and realising, as my late thirties sped by, that my chances of becoming a mother were dramatically receding. Like many women, I went through a period of adjustment and I dare say considerable grief as I realised the future I had imagined with a husband, dog and 2.5 children was never likely to happen.
A huge part of my coming to terms with my child-free status came via Jody Day’s Gateway Women - a support network for childless women over 35. (www.gateway-women.com). Jody (whose marriage failed after repeated attempts to get pregnant) is passionate about helping other childless-by-circumstance women grieve their losses and restructure their lives. Her book Rocking The Life Unexpected helped remove the guilt and shame I felt about my childless status and I would urge anyone struggling with these issues to grab a copy (Ms Aniston included).
Nowadays, I can honestly say I do not dwell on my childless status. I love my nieces and nephews and I’m actually pretty baby mad - but that doesn’t mean I need to ‘birth’ my own child.
I may not be a mother but I can honestly say I have a happy and interesting life, and at 42 there is precious little I would change. While things probably haven’t turned out quite the way nature intended, I accept that the best-laid plans often go awry. Survival is about adapting.
My own view is that the secret to a successful life is finding a lasting sense of contentment – and there are so many promising paths to fulfilment for today’s educated, sassy and independent women.