Thirty-two years ago at 16 weeks gestation you died inside of me. It had taken me a long time to get pregnant and to my knowledge I have never been again. I hated my body for a long time. I felt useless, worthless and less than a woman. I wanted to run away from the world but mostly I wanted to run from my own hurting self. With care and love and encouragement, from many people, but most significantly from my own mother, I slowly began to realise that even if I was not to be a biological mother I did have other opportunities and my life was not valueless.

It was not until after her death five years ago that I realised that my mum, your nanna, never ever focused on her own loss – no babies for me, no grandbabies for her – but always on mine, always on me. A return to study followed by a career in higher education have provided me with the resources to explore in detail the complex relationship between mothers and others.  I have been privileged to have been able to spend so much (paid) time researching perinatal loss, infertility and in/voluntary childlessness; issues and experiences that I and many of those I have spoken to believe to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Whilst grieving for you and for the other babies I began to realise that I would never give birth to my mum told me that one day I would be grateful to you for what you had added to my life. Deep in distress I could not then see how this could happen. I do now. I am grateful not only for the memory of you but also for how reflecting on what you mean to me has influenced the person that I am and the relationships I have.

I write this letter to you during the first World Childless Week (11th-17th September 2017) but in many ways ‘childless’ does not feel like an appropriate label for me. In my work and personal life I am blessed by friendships with some wonderful younger people, and in some cases with their children also. And yet, on a daily basis, I feel not only the loss of you but an exclusion from a group to which I am always peripheral. I have had my knowledge of childcare and of children and young people denied (despite an earlier career as a nursery nurse and nearly three decades of teaching and learning with young adults), been told that I will never understand my own mother as truly as I would if I had been a mother myself (which feels like an insult to the precious relationship we had) and been lectured on the benefits of having no parental responsibilities (as if I am not able to work this out for myself). Additionally, all of my adult life I have been, and remain, a mere bystander in more conversations than I could ever count. So, I am constantly cautioned (if only fleetingly), by friends, acquaintances, strangers, and when reading the news or watching a drama or film that I am different. On the other hand people often assume that I am a mother, and possibly now at 58 a grandmother, without asking or see me as available and willing to care for others because they assume that as a woman I have all of the skills and inclination and more time and less responsibilities than those with day-to-day childcare responsibilities. Although I resent this expectation as much as other ‘feminine’ expectations of women, whether mother or not, I do in reality want to nurture others and I am grateful to those who accept such from me.

Overall then my status as mother/not mother and as motherly or not is complex and I vow to continue to challenge simplistic stereotypes and to advocate for an understanding of all women’s reproductive identities, experiences and (non)choices. This I do as your mother and in memory of my own wonderful mum. Both of you are with me always, in my head and in my heart.

Gayle Letherby