Childless women still come under fire for being selfish, ambitious, uncaring or tough. What is it about their state that challenges so many? Journalist and producer Gillian Guthrie began Childless to make sense of her own grief and guilt over not having children. In the age of feminism which gave women biological freedom to make their own decisions about whether or not to reproduce, her feelings troubled her.
Census data reveals a changing pattern of childlessness throughout Australia. Between 1986 and 2006 the percentage of childless women aged twenty to forty-four shot up from 27.6% to 40.1%. Estimates of how many women will never have children range from 20% in Western Australia to as high as 33% in the ACT.
But Childless goes behind the statistics to look at the personal cost of childlessness. Whether a woman is childless by circumstance or by choice, the topic is almost taboo, seldom discussed face-to-face beyond glancing remarks.
This book is the result of countless conversations with women whose stories are filled with intrigue, love, sadness, relief and sometimes never-before-told secrets about why they failed to reproduce. With their insights and those of Professors Michael Chapman and Beverley Raphael, along with Anne Summers and Hugh Mackay, Childless reveals a fascinating range of reasons and reactions that challenge many misconceptions about women who don't have children. Not all women are grief-stricken. Often events out of their control in childhood or adult life have led them to live without having a child.
Gillian Guthrie's exploration of this very modern issue encompasses the advent of family planning, contraception and the end of illegal backyard abortions as well as the rise of pregnancy assistance with IVF. It examines the complexity of psychological trauma surrounding the loss of childbearing potential and what it means to override the biological imperative to reproduce. It also looks at how the experts view grieving for a child who was never born.
Gillian Guthrie has worked extensively in television news and current affairs for thirty years. She was a driving force behind SBS World News in its early years and then moved to the ABC to produce The Investigators and Quantum. She later became executive producer of Insight at SBS TV, overseeing various major live broadcasts including Corroboree 2000 and the annual Walkley Awards. She returned to the ABC to help establish the current affairs program Asia Pacific Focus.
Gillian has also made a number of independent documentaries with her partner, Rob Simms, including Without Prejudice about a Deliberative Poll on Aboriginal reconciliation and Beyond Fear, which explored the psychological impact of terrorism. A Second Chance and Out of the Shadows followed the world of volunteers with the medical aid group Interplast Australia in the Philippines.
Childless Reflections on Life's Longing For Itself
Short Stop Press
Author: Gillian Guthrie
Question: What inspired you to write Childless?
Gillian Guthrie: I was finding it increasingly difficult to shake my rather intense feelings of loss, longing, emptiness, envy and sadness which all appeared to be related to the fact that I didn't have children. My stomach would lurch whenever I saw a pregnant woman or a baby, or a cute kid. I felt envious of friends or colleagues who had children. I couldn't explain why I was feeling what appeared to be grief for something that had never existed and wasn't mine to lose. It seemed inexplicable that I had anything to grieve over. It was truly unsettling and I also felt very alone and isolated. I just wanted to work out what it was all about and get it off my chest.
Question: What research went into this book?
Gillian Guthrie: I knew that I needed to talk to other childless women because I was certain not all of them felt as pathetic as I did. What I found was an extraordinary range of feelings and circumstances that led to their childlessness - everything from the deepest grief because of miscarriage or IVF failure, to a clear resolve that children were just not a necessary part of life.
I also knew I needed to find out more about grief itself, and whether mourning the loss of a child that had never existed was actually a legitimate sort of grief. So I went to visit Professor Beverley Raphael who wrote The Anatomy of Bereavement. I also went to see counsellors who work in IVF clinics and spoke to women who'd tried IVF but failed.
I read as many books as I could find about childlessness - and there aren't all that many but they do exist - and I trawled the internet for articles and comments about the subject. I also spoke to social researchers to try to find out more about trends and what drives the birth rate up or down.
Question: Can you talk about your own grief and guilt over not having children?
Gillian Guthrie: Yes. The guilt that I felt was related to not providing grandchildren for my grandparents. I was 38 when my little sister, eight years younger, had her first child. I was terribly choked by that. I didn't have a very good marriage. I was the main money earner and felt there was never time or enough financial security to get off the treadmill to investigate why I seemed unable to conceive. When I got to 42 I just couldn't believe that I'd reached that age and hadn't done anything about having children. Three years later, when I left my husband and fell in love with my partner, Rob, I was 45. He seemed to be the perfect person to be the father to my children but it was too late. And that's when it really hit me. I felt I'd been irresponsible in the past about addressing the issue and I felt I'd missed out big time - and it hurt big time. It was just awful.
Question: Who did you write Childless for?
Gillian Guthrie: Myself. It was only later that I realised other people might gain something from it. It really delights me when I hear that they have, that it's helped them to see things more clearly.
Question: How has the book been received, so far?
Gillian Guthrie: Very well. The feedback has been incredibly positive. One woman whose story is in the book has told me she doesn't feel so alone any more. That's a great thing to hear. Some people have also found parts of the book quite funny - so that's also been a positive thing. It's not just a dirge about sadness! I've also been told that it's well-researched and covers a wide range of views. So far so good!
Interview by Brooke Hunter