One to One Coaching

I offer free 30 minute telephone/Skype consultations for people wanting to find out more about coaching on the 'baby decision'. Email me at mailto:beth@ticktockcoaching.co.uk and assistant Laura will respond and arrange an appointment with you. Visit http://www.ticktockcoaching.co.uk/ for more information about my coaching services.

Monday, 23 September 2019

When it's not a choice - Reflections on involuntary childlessness

Last week was World Childlessness week and I was hesitating on whether to write anything for the week.  There are so many other people with more expertise and years in the field than me like Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women  or Lesley Pyne, who coaches women who are involuntary childlessness. Stella Duffy, one of the patrons of World Childless Week also wrote a deeply moving blog post On Family for World Childlessness Week  .   I also wanted to leave this week for those who have the lived experience of involuntary childlessness and listen to their voices.

I'm also very aware that I frame my work as being focused on helping people make the choice to have children or not and this implicitly seems to exclude people who are facing childlessness not because they want to be, but because of circumstances.  I feel like I need to find a better and more inclusive way to frame the work I do but also, as mentioned above, their are others who are more specialised in working in this space.  But throughout the years,   I've have often worked with clients who are looking for support to explore their options after finding themselves childless not by choice.

One of my clients said it's a shock - realising that your original choice has been taken away and now you  have to make a completely different choice, that you never thought you would have to make.  The choice has now become something completely different.   It's a choice you never thought you would have to make.

If you want children and your partner doesn't, the choice now becomes about whether you want children enough to leave your relationship and ... either have a baby on your own or hope that you will meet someone to have children with or do you accept a life with out children?

If you are struggling with infertility, the choice becomes do you continue down the fertility treatment path, do you look to other options (e.g. adoption) or do you accept a life without children?

If you are facing a health challenge, do you go forward with having children even though it might worsen your health?

All of these - and more -  are questions faced by women who are childless not by choice.

There many different and unique stories shared by those who I've met who are childless not by choice.  And a common theme that binds them all is the need to acknowledge their sadness and find a way to mourn before moving on.  Another common theme is dealing with a world where it is still assumed that women will have children and where family life is still defined as the nuclear family with children.  In workplaces, often parents will bond and discuss their children in a way that can be excluding to those without children... and that can be particularly painful if you are childless.

But you can move forward.   Acknowledging and finding ways to mourn the dream of having children will help.  Practising techniques to deal with insensitive comments and assumptions of acquaintances will also help.

There is life afterwards.  Perhaps, as Stella Duffy describes, you will embrace being a family without children and find love and joy and life in this family life.  Or maybe you'll decide to become a different sort of parent - perhaps as a foster parent.   

Read the stories on the World Childless Week website - all so unique and moving.  What they show beautifully is that there is a path through the sadness and shock of involuntary childlessness.





Wednesday, 21 August 2019

TV Reviews: Kathy Burke on Motherhood and I Am Hannah

Finally - the issues of the 'baby decision' has reached the mainstream media! In the past few weeks, there have been not one but TWO TV programmes that have dealt with the issue of the choice women make to have children ... or not  not!  Kathy Burke's programme last night 'All Woman' explored the issue of motherhood and why some women choose motherhood or not.

When she was growing up, the implications was that you either 'had children or you had a career'.  Living in poverty, she knew that she didn't want that when she got older, so that influenced her decision not to have children.

She explains how that there was one time she felt broody .... and that was when she met someone that she really loved and felt that if 'I was going to have a child, this is who I would have a child with.'

She talks to women in different situations - from a woman who has decided to freeze her eggs to a woman who has just given birth.   After seeing the newborn baby girl on her mother's chest, she says 'We're celebrating a new woman being brought into the world!'

As she said several times during the documentary, 'I have never had any regret about not having children, I have never shed any tears.'

She speaks the truth about all the 'boxing in' that all the expectations that women and mothers face.  If a woman is a mother, it is assumed they will find work hard or impossible.  If a woman doesn't have children, it is assumed they are selfish and hate children.  As she continues to point out throughout the programme, women find themselves put into a box in a way that men aren't.

So many women, with so many individual experiences, finding that society wants to stuff them into the same box!  Thank goodness for women like Kathy Burke speaking out about the reality and diversity of women's lives.

A few weeks ago,  I Am Hannah, which is part of a trilogy of three hour long dramas focusing on three different women, each facing a personal challenge.  Hannah, played by Gemma Chan, is a woman in her 30's and she feeling weight of her family and wider expectations to have children.


When we first meet Hannah, she is about to go on a date.  Walking in the park and then sitting on a park bench, her date asks her whether it is her dream to be married to someone for 65 years.  'The idea of it is nice' she says unconvincingly. When he rings her after sex, saying that he would like to see her again, she looks blank.  On another date, the bloke asks whether she is thinking of marriage and settling down and Hannah hedges.


'You thought about kids?' he says


'I'm still trying to figure it out' answers Hannah.


Later on, she has a conversation with her mother who says 'Someday you are going to wake up and you will be 40 someday'.  Her mother says she doesn't want her daughter to be unhappy but wants her to experience happiness in a relationship.

She meets a friend with a baby and then when holding the baby, she feels a pang and gets tearful. You can tell that she feels the ambiguity about the decision - sometimes she relishes her freedom and then sometimes she is feeling that draw towards having a child.

In talking to a friend, Hannah talks about her fear of  'fucking it all up'.  She speaks to the reality that most of us are taught growing up that having a baby will be the worse thing in our life, that it will mess up our youth and career.... and then, all of a sudden, it seems like the opposite is true.  That we must have a child or our life will be a disaster.

She considers freezing her eggs, even though the doctor gently tells her the odds are low.  But after the initial investigation, the doctor says that it is unlikely they can harvest enough viable eggs.


At the end of the programme, she sees the nicer man she had dated at the beginning ... even though she does like him, she says that she needs to work this out on her own.


The drama ends with no easy resolution.


There is so much that I felt was powerful and wonderful about I Am Hannah.  The director and cast perfectly transmitted that nervous tension and anxiety that often women feel when they are in this dilemma.   And they perfectly captured the ambiguity that many women feel about having kids .... While some people always knew they wanted kids and some people know that they want to be child-free.  Hannah is like many people, part of her is not wanting but part of her wanting.... and those two parts are in conflict.  Gemma Chan talked about the importance of bring in this ambivalence to the drama in an interview with Elle Magazine, Gemma Chan: I Am Hannah


'I liked the idea of doing something about the pressure to become a mother and our attitudes towards it and he liked it too. I was keen to tell a story about a woman who a felt a bit more ambivalent about becoming a mother. She might like it, but she is not entirely sure and definitely doesn’t feel ready yet.'


It was exciting to finally see this topic represented so well and so beautifully on TV.  I hope that we will see more dramas that show the range of situations that women can be in and choices they can make.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Should you freeze your eggs 'just in case'?


Over the years, I've written about egg freezing and whether this is a viable solution if you can't decide whether you would like children or not.  Recently, there has been a flurry of articles and TV shows which have addressed the issue of women who seek to freeze their eggs as an insurance policy.

I've been skeptical about whether this is really a good idea and I have written about this before here on my blog. (Is egg freezing the answer to the baby decision?)

 Although I know that egg freezing has worked for some women, I tend to caution against 'kicking the can' down the road and delaying the baby decision by using egg freezing.   The procedure to collect and freeze eggs is both expensive and invasive and the science on how many successful pregnancies actually occur as a result is sketchy.  Indeed, the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine gave a warning that egg freezing may give women and couples false security about their ability to have children in the future.  In the briefing paper,  Planned oocyte cryopreservation for women seeking to preserve future reproductive potential: an Ethics Committee opinion, the authors say that while egg freezing can be a viable option for women who may wish to conceive in the future, they point out that the technology is new and untested.  They point out that women should be advised of all the options available to them including adoption and also living childfree.    The authors warn against giving women a sense of false security:

'The issue of false security is highlighted when planned OCis referred to as an ‘‘insurance policy’’ for future childbearing, raising a concern that women may rely too confidently on their preserved oocytes. This concern presupposes without basis that the women have other available options, such as immediate marriage or reproduction, that they will dismiss because of the cryopreserved oocytes.  To the extent the risk is based on a misunderstanding of the likely success rates
of planned OC, it is best addressed through education and informed consent. Physicians and those acting in concert with them should avoid overstatements that may invite or allow misplaced confidence.' 

A recent article in the New York Times Modern Love section called: Modern Love: Don't Put All Your (Frozen) Eggs in One Basket  is one woman's story on how she became disillusioned with the fertility industry which encouraged her to see Egg Freezing as a way to 'preserve fertility'.

Like many women, the author, Ruthie Ackerman, was in a relationship with someone who didn't want children.  Although she had known from the start that her husband was sure that he didn't want children, she thought that her desire to have children would go away or that she would be unable to have children.   She suggested to her husband that she could perhaps adopt as a single parent and they could live apart but still have a relationship.  But that didn't appeal to him.

So she decided that she would freeze her eggs so that if, in the future either her husband changed his mind or that she left the relationship, she would have a 'back up plan.'  But as she explains, she didn't realise the odds were stacked against her.

'When I froze my eggs, I didn’t understand that “fertility preservation” (as many doctors laughably call it) has only a 2 to 4 percent success rate per thawed egg, according to my clinic, meaning more likely than not, my eggs would fail me.  Almost 7,300 women froze their eggs in 2016 and the market continues to soar. In 2019, that number has jumped to more than 10,000 women in the United States alone, according to FertilityIQ, a Yelp-like website for fertility clinics....

Yet so few women have tried to use their frozen eggs that success rates are unclear. What will happen when they try to do so, only to realize that the promise of fertility on their own timeline was always too good to be true?'

What Ackerman began to realise was that her relationship wasn't working but she thought that they just needed more time and, as she said, 'egg freezing offered the illusion that more time was possible.'

Within two years, she and her husband divorced.  She meet a new partner and then, in her early 40's she was able to try her back up plan.  But unfortunately, she wasn't able to get pregnant - as the doctor who was overseeing the fertility treatment said, 'Frozen eggs are always unpredictable'.

At the end, Ackerman said they are looking at alternative ways of having the family they want - perhaps through adoption and she feels that they have come to terms with this decision.

This week, writer Sophia Money-Coutts, wrote an article for the Times Magazine, Do I want a Baby? which also explores the issue of egg freezing.  Although she is far from sure that she would like a baby, she finds herself making appointments at fertility clinics.

Like many of my clients, Sophia confides how confusing it is when, for much of her life, she was told what a disaster having children would be  and then, all of a sudden, it is something you need to do RIGHT NOW.

'It feels particularly alien, this obsessing about egg counts and fertilisation, when we spend so many years trying desperately not to get pregnant....But then, somewhere in your late twenties, the see-saw tips. Seemingly overnight, the message switches from "Whatever you do, don't get pregnant" to "Do it sooner, rather than later!"

I see the huge appeal of freezing your eggs.  It can feel like you don't have to decide yet, you can give yourself time.  In the case of Ruthie Ackerman, it can allow someone to try to have a child with a new partner who also wants children.  Yet, as Ackerman points out the chances for her were actually very slim.  She reflects whether she would have actually dealt with the problems in her relationship sooner if she hadn't have had the false security of egg freezing.

As the American Ethics Committee pointed out in their paper, egg freezing is a medical and technological solutions to what often is a social issue saying 'It would be beneficial if workplace and societal norms evolved to achieve equality for women and obviated the draw of so-called ‘‘medicalization,’’ that is, the ‘‘tendency to seek medical answers to social problems’’   The decision that individual women are trying make is being done in a wider context where women are still expected to have children, where being child-free is seen as a lesser choice and where men are often absent in the whole decision making process.

There are so many questions raised by egg freezing, If the choice to be childfree was seen as a real and valid choice for women, would women feel the same pressing need to freeze their eggs?  What if we encouraged couples to have open and honest conversations about what both people in the relationship wanted in terms of having children? What if we allowed women the space to explore and make the decision about whether they want children or not earlier?  There are no easy answers but we need to start raising and exploring questions around our still narrow expectations about women and motherhood.







Tuesday, 25 June 2019

What makes a happy or meaningful life?

My last blog post was looking at recent headlines that couples that did not have children were happier than those who did.

I wanted to follow up on the topic of happiness.  I'm always curious on how happiness is measured and the difficulty that these discussions of happiness have for people who are trying to decide whether to have children or not.   The Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley has been exploring this issue and had published an article a few years ago in their online magazine called Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? which I think gives a great overview of the issue.

Many of those looking at happiness say that how we define and measure happiness may not take into account the issue of fulfilment and 'living a meaningful life'.  At the end of this blog, I've listed 5 major differences between a happy life and a meaningful life that researcher Roy Baumeister has identified during the course of his research.

Parenting provides an interesting point of debate between researchers.  Many conventional research studies of happiness.... as I explored in my last blog post.... tend to show that parents lead less happy lives than those that are child free.  Other studies, such as Baumeisters, show that while parents are less happy, they tend to lead more meaningful lives.   While others, such as Sonja Lyubormirsky, of the University of California, say that trying to separate out a 'happy life' from a 'meaningful life' is problematic.

"In a recent study, she and her colleagues measured happiness levels and meaning in parents, both in a “global” way—having them assess their overall happiness and life satisfaction—and while engaged in their daily activities. Results showed that, in general, parents were happier and more satisfied with their lives than non-parents, and parents found both pleasure and meaning in childcare activities, even in the very moments when they were engaged in those activities.

“Being a parent leads to all of these good things: It gives you meaning in life, it gives you goals to pursue, it can make you feel more connected in your relationships,” says Lyubomirsky. “You can’t really talk about happiness without including all of them.”

Lyubomirsky feels that researchers who try to separate meaning and happiness may be on the wrong track, because meaning and happiness are inseparably intertwined.

“When you feel happy, and you take out the meaning part of happiness, it’s not really happiness,” she says."

One of my conclusions from reading the different articles and viewpoints is that it would be too simplistic to say that it is either or not having children that leads to having a more happy or meaningful life.  There are a whole host of facts at play and we can create happiness and meaning whatever we choose.

Reading Baumeisters descriptions of what helps us live happy and meaningful lives below, it is clear that we can all create circumstances for us to lead the lives we want. 

One point that all the researchers seem to be clear about:  having social connections and friendships where we both give and receive that brings happiness and meaning to our lives.   We could get this through volunteering at a care home,  assisting an older relative with chores.  being part of a choir, and spending time with friends. 

________________________________________________________________

Five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful life as identified by Roy Baumeister and his research team. (published in  Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One?

"Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.

Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them. In addition, happiness was seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.

Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but not happiness.

Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.

Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example, considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness."





Friday, 14 June 2019

Would you (and your relationship) be happier without children?

There has been lots of buzz in the press during the last few weeks about research showing women without children are happier than women with children or a spouse. (see Women Happier Without Children)  Paul Dolan, who has been writing and speaking on this issue was referring to the American Time Use Survey 'which compared levels of pleasure and misery in unmarried, married, divorced, separated and widowed individual.'  Despite the media focus on Dolan's work, there have been some critiques of Dolan's assumptions and reading of the data such as in this article here: Happiness and Academic Malpractice  .

This article published on the Institute for Family Studies website looks closer at Dolan's assertions;
Are Married People Still Happier? 

'Consistent with prior research, parents are a little less happy than non-parents, provided they are unmarried. In addition, the results don’t look that different when limited to female survey respondents ....Children increase unhappiness a little more for separated/divorced and never-married women, likely in response to the challenges of being a single mother.'

There was a more developed piece of research  on a related topic of how having children impacts on a couples happiness  published a few years ago called Parenthood and Levels of Marital Satisfaction 
At the beginning of the article, the authors set out the context of their research:

'In contrast to previous historical eras, individuals today have an unusual amount of freedom to decide if and when they will have children and how many they will have. In many cases, this is a mutual decision reached between marital partners. In making this decision, couples some- times consider an important question: "How will children affect our relationship?" Folk wisdom suggests that babies bring couples closer together, and some couples name greater closeness as a reason for having a baby (Brinley, 1991). Unfortunately, some scientific research suggests that couples actually grow less satisfied with their marital relationship after having children (see Belsky & Pensky, 1988, for a review). Others may argue that children will have no effect (that an unhappy marriage will remain unhappy, and a happy marriage will remain happy)'

They explore reasons why the transition to having children might decrease happiness within a marriage.    As they point out, having a child can significantly change usual routines such as sleeping patterns leading to tiredness and stress for new parents.   They also mention ways that traditional gender roles put more expectations on women and more of the work of child-care.  As I've mentioned here on the blog before, these traditional expectations cause many women who aren't sure if they want children to worry that they will be trapped and lose their identity if they become mothers.  There fears are often confirmed when they see friends and colleagues who are bearing the brunt of child-rearing. 

The addition of children to a family can lead to a reorganization of social roles along traditional lines. This is especially true for women, who are often expected to take on a primarily care giving role for the child. The father also may be expected to take on a greater bread-winning role than before. A problem arises when the couple does not desire traditional roles. Women, for example, may give up or downgrade their professional roles for the sake of their care-giving roles. The result may be more power for husbands (who now are the significant or sole breadwinners; Feeney et al., 1994). Women also may experience some psychological stress as they see themselves primarily in a care-giving role, especially if they are accustomed to a professional role.

One of the interesting aspects to this research is that at the end, the researchers say that they do not wish to dissuade people from having children. Rather, they hope that people are able to identify the potential stress points that having children bring.  In doing, so they may be able to address some of the potential problems before they arise.

I completely agree with the researchers as this what I do with my clients.  I work with my clients to explore what their fears or anxieties about what having children are.  And then, we look at what strategies could they (and their partners) implement to make these things less likely to happen.   If my clients identify some real solutions, they can find they are more drawn to the option of having children.  If they do this and still don't feel the desire to have children, it can confirm to the client they would rather be child-free and will allow that client to embrace that choice... without worried that they are being held back by an internalized fear or anxiety.

I'm hoping to explore this topic in more depth later this month - I'm particularly interested in the topic of how we measure happiness, particularly when it comes to having children or not.  I'll see what research I can find and report back!


Sunday, 26 May 2019

Why it's easier to talk to a stranger about deciding to have children or not

I've often heard from clients that they have often never shared their struggle to make the decision whether to have children or not with anyone else before.... not even with their closest friend.
Why is it often easier -  for people to share and talk about their fears and vulnerabilities with strangers than friends?  Oliver Burkeman talked about this in this short article Confiding in Strangers.
In this piece, Burkeman is talking about talking to strangers or people we don't know very well, like hairdressers or bartenders.... not so much therapists or coaches but it is a similar principle.  As Burkeman points out, people who are not friends and who don't know us very well provide a blank slate.

'There are benefits, too, in the blank canvas of someone you don’t know well. This helps explain the cliche of the therapist who answers every personal question with a question (“Why is it important to you to know that?”). A psychoanalyst, Freud said, “should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him”. Learning that your shrink has three kids and likes playing the harmonica, he thought, would interfere with the psychoanalytic process. But you needn’t buy Freud’s theory to see the upsides of being forced to really hear your own words, and think about them. By contrast, a close friend might jump in with reassurances, or suggestions as to how he or she would respond in your shoes – well-meaning, but not always helpful'

Our friends are invested in our decisions themselves.  Unconsciously we often want our friends to reflect our choices in life.  Why? Because this often validates our our decisions.   Friends can also be well meaning because they have found the path that makes them happy and they want to share that happiness with you.

Many of my clients say that often they have found it difficult to talk to their friends and family.  They can often feel that their friends don't understand their ambivalence .... and they can feel some pressure from family, particularly parents who would love grandchildren. 

Talking to someone who doesn't know you can give you that opportunity to talk to someone who will give you a sounding board without having the same emotional investment in your decision.  It also offers you a safe and confidential space to express your fears and worries and work through those without judgement or being triggered. 



Saturday, 20 April 2019

Doubt & the baby decision: Learning to trust ourselves

'I'm always doubting myself.  Every day I have contradictory questions and worries.  Would I be a good mother? Could I be happy without children? What if I make a terrible decision and regret my decision?'

Many people trying to make the 'baby decision' feel racked with doubt.  Many of my clients tell me that they constantly question themselves and feel that they have lost the ability to trust any decision they could make.   This leads to a huge worry that their decision - whatever they decide - would end up in disaster.

It could be that it is a lack of confidence in themselves to make the decision.  But I think it's also a lack of trust in themselves that they can  cope with the challenges that they would face of whatever choice make.

Articles such as The Confidence Gap  in The Atlantic Magazine written by the authors of  the book Womenecomics point to the fact that women in the workplace often lack confidence and doubt their abilities daily in the world of work.

The shortage of female confidence is increasingly well quantified and well documented. In 2011, the Institute of Leadership and Management, in the United Kingdom, surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents....We also began to see that a lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance—or other people—for their successes. (Men seem to do the opposite.) David Dunning, the Cornell psychologist, offered the following case in point: In Cornell’s math Ph.D. program, he’s observed, there’s a particular course during which the going inevitably gets tough. Dunning has noticed that male students typically recognize the hurdle for what it is, and respond to their lower grades by saying, “Wow, this is a tough class.” That’s what’s known as external attribution, and in a situation like this, it’s usually a healthy sign of resilience. Women tend to respond differently. When the course gets hard, Dunning told us, their reaction is more likely to be “You see, I knew I wasn’t good enough.” That’s internal attribution, and it can be debilitating.

As the article quoted above points out above, women have a tendency for assuming blame when things go wrong but at the same time, they credit circumstance for when things go right.  How does that work when thinking about the people making the decision to have children or not?  In my clients worse fears and fantasies, they put themselves fully as the person who could cause chaos by making the decision to either have or not have children.  But they rarely credit or see themselves as a person who can cope with challenges and deal with challenging or difficult situations that might occur in the future.

One woman might worry that not having children would meant that she might end up lonely, not trusting that she has the ability to create a rich and vibrant life that was different than others.    Another woman might be anxious and doubt her ability to be a good mother.  She may imagine that she could probably has some innate flaw that would also impact the life of her child.

So how can we learn to trust ourselves - trust our ability to make this decision now AND trust that in the future we will to be able to cope, be resilient and deal with any challenges that we might face, no matter what choice we make? 

I encourage all my clients to find different ways to do this.    One  method I often use through using a creative visualisation.  I ask clients to shut their eyes and focus their awareness on their breathing.  After 5 minutes relaxation, I ask clients where trust lives in their body and what it looks like?  Is it small? Is it hidden?  Some clients see it as a ball of energy or light, some have seen it as a plant or other image.  Usually it's smaller and seems fragile.  I then ask clients to visualise doing something that nurtures trust.  What is does it feel like when trust expands throughout their body?

I ask clients to connect with this feeling throughout the week before we meet again.  Generally clients feel more relaxed, confident and more able to access that feeling of trust that they can cope and that they can deal with any challenges that will occur.



Friday, 22 March 2019

Will I fail at being a mother ? The ideal mother & the comparison trap

Image by Photos by Mahin https://pixabay.com/u

Are you haunted by images of the perfect mother?  Glossy hair, successful career and endless time to make cupcakes with their children?  Or maybe you remember the time and care your own mother gave you as a child but wonder how you could ever live up to her?

In 2019, images of  mother as both the domestic goddess and successful career woman are ubiquitous.  Women are exhorted to 'lean in' and embrace both motherhood and work.  At the same time, Daily Mail headlines warn that poor mothering is responsible for everything from obesity in childhood to their children's sexist behaviour.   Along with the pressure to live up to the image of the ideal mother,  the consequences of not living up to this ideal seem to be severe.

Naomi Standen explored this in her wonderful book What Mothers Do... Even When it Looks Like Nothing .  One of the causes of a phenomena of maternal ambivalence (where mothers of babies feel ambivalent about being a mother) is the disconnection between the idealised version of motherhood that is so present in our society and the reality that it is often boring, difficult, challenging etc.  Women report a huge mixture of emotions and feelings about being a mother that often do not match this idealised version.  This is particularly acute in mothers of children of a year or under where the demands of babies and in particular the lack of sleep and sleep deprivation, often put enormous strain on mothers - both the physical strain but also the feeling of failure that one is not living up the image of beatific mother earth mother hood.

“Babies of around one year old are often active by day and wake frequently at night, for no obvious reason. Then a mother can feel desperate for sleep yet equally desperate to comfort her baby when he needs her at night. I have spoken to many mothers who have sacrificed their own sleep, waking up numerous times every night because their babies cried for them. It seems terrible that these hardworking women think of themselves as failures as a result. Surely a mother who has chosen to sacrifice her sleep deserves respect and admiration for her generous mothering.”  Naomi Standen, What Mothers Do

Many of my clients come to me expressing their belief about motherhood as a black and white polarity.  On one side is the ideal mother.  She is fulfilled, successful, calm, present for her children, able to juggle work and do the domestic chores.  One the other side, is the failing mother.  She is a mess, chaotic, not able to cope with the sleep deprivation of having a new born and, she lets her children down.

The fear of being a failure as a mother who lets her children down that can haunt women trying to make this decision.  Often I've heard from my clients that it is this fear of failure that most worries them and causes them anxiety.  When we unpick this fear and look at it closely, we find that the client often has an inner saboteur (i.e. an inner critic) that is very harsh, that is constantly encouraging the client to compare herself to the ideal mother. 

So, how can you address this fear and escape the comparison trap?

1.  Take 15 minutes to write without stopping about what your saboteur has to say about how you could never be an 'ideal mother'.  Let all the negativity out on the page.

2.  After doing this, take a moment and shut your eyes.  Imagine the saboteur in the room and then imagine you can do something to reduce it's power and silence it's voice.  Perhaps you sprinkle water on it and it shrinks.  Or you could imagine throwing it out the window!

3. Psychologists have a concept called 'the good enough mother'.  Coined by Winnicott, the 'good enough mother' has her flaws - as all humans do - but she provides good enough parenting to for her child to flourish.  What would being a good enough mother be like for you?   Write about all the ways you can imagine being a good enough mother.  If you are struggling, read up about what a good enough mother is.

If you are stuck in the comparison trap and trying to decide whether to have children or not, it's so difficult to see a way forward.  By challenging the voices of the saboteur that seeks to make us feel inadequate, we can start to break free of the trap and be able to see our decision more clearly.

We may still decide not to have children - it may not be the right thing for us but by acknowledging we don't HAVE live up to an unrealistic image of the ideal mother, we can know that we are making this decision from the best possible mental place that we can.




Friday, 1 March 2019

Swimming against the tide


'Everyone in the small town I grew up with has children.  I live in NYC now - but when ever I go back, I feel so strange.  And Christmas is always difficult - I always get an air mattress in a corner while my brother and his family get the best bedroom. It sounds like I'm being petty - but I'm not upset about the sleeping arrangements.... I feel like I'm the 'odd one out' and no one knows how I fit.  I don't think I want children ... I don't have a strong desire to have kids... but I think having children would mean that I felt more a part of the community and like everyone else.'

It can feel uncomfortable if you don't have children, particularly as you get older.  Having children is still seen as 'the norm' and for many women,  this makes the decision to have children or to not have children very challenging.  As the quote from one of the women that I interviewed for my book shows, if you don't have children, you can feel sidelined.   This is more acute depending on where you live.   Fore instance, working with several clients in France, I'm aware that French culture is extremely family focused - more so than in the UK.

Swimming against the tide generally doesn't feel good or comfortable, particularly when we aren't sure ourselves of what we want.  Even if we  have a value of  'being independent' or 'doing things differently or 'being unique', it's very challenging for to do or believe something different than most of the people around us.  This is called 'Groupthink' and it is a powerful psychological tool that is very hard to resist. 

I work with clients to explore what their reactive pattern are under stress, pressure or conflict. When we are operating in our reactive pattern, we are mostly concerned with safety.  We seek safety through approval, or control.  The easiest way to get approval from our friends, family and peers is to conform to group norms.

But there is a huge cost to conforming.  It takes energy to pretend to want the same thing as those around us and to suppress our own desires and needs.   There can also be a sense of precariousness - and a belief that your membership as part of the group will be threatened if you don't conform. But the question is, how true is this belief?  Would we really be rejected, are we really outsiders if we follow our own path?   Or is this a fear that we have - in part - created?

An exercise that I think can help is to re-look at the situation with our friendship groups when we are feeling less stressed, when we are feeling calm and centered.  When we can 'recover to our centre' - we can experience how much better we feel when we challenge our usual reactive pattern. When we centre we can feel more at home in ourselves, more confident, more able to move forward and make difficult choices, even is they mean that we are going to follow a different path than our peers.

So try this right now:

1. Take a breath.  As you breath in, imagine the breath travelling up your body from your feet and then as you exhale, imagine the breath travelling back down you body, back down to your feet.

2. Imagine that you can expand your energy so that is becomes a bubble that surrounds you.  This bubble extends about an arms length all around you.   Now imagine your worries and anxious thoughts as if they were small paper balls that someone is flicking at you.  As those paper balls land in your bubble, the energy holds them so that they are just pieces of information that you can assess and then let go of.

3.  If you are holding any tension in your shoulders or jaw, just notice that and then allow that tension to flow out of your body.

4. Think of a quality you would like more of - it could be 'calm' or 'peace' or 'lightness' or 'ease'  or any word which is a quality you think would help you at this current time.  Now how the questions 'What would it be like if I had alittle bit more of my quality [insert name of quality] in my body or being right now?'

Once you have done that, look again at the situation you are in and what it would be like if you did choose not to have children; choosing a different path than many in your peer group or community.  Is there anything different in how you are feeling about this choice now?  Do you feel that you could make this choice and still be accepted?



Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Baby or Not? Reflections on the Baby Decision

Struggling to decide whether to have children or not?  My friend and writer Michelle Hebert-Boyd responded to my invitation to write about personal reflections on the decision that she and many women struggle with daily: choose children and motherhood... or choose a child-free life.  

I recently listened to a Guardian podcast  called “Maybe Baby: Should I Have a Child or Not?”. In it, the host Leah Green spoke to various people (women, for the most part) to understand how people come to the decision to have a baby or to remain child-free. As someone who struggled to become a mother and has since struggled to raise a child with special needs, I found myself nodding my heads to the points raised in this podcast. Where were these questions a decade ago, I wondered, when I was ready (or not) to have a baby? Why aren’t women better supported in making what is, arguably, the biggest decision they can face? As with any type of choice that relates to women’s reproductive health, it seems the discussion of whether to have a child or to remain child-free is still one that is based on rigid gender assumptions, and gets talked about mostly in whispers, amongst other women. This podcast gave me hope that we can raise the discussion above a whisper, and start to explore the options in front of us with confidence and support.

The podcast included interviews with people who explained their choices and how they arrived at them. I was struck by the fact that the voices of all of those interviewed – whether they’d had a child or had chosen to remain child-free – held a fear that their choice would be judged. It’s clear that judgement and societal expectations play a huge role in influencing how these decisions get made, and that it’s typically women who feel they have to defend them, even if a couple has reached the decision together.

As one woman in the podcast says, the realization that having a baby or remaining child-free is actually a choice is life-changing.  Yes, most of us have access to birth control, and we’ve given thought to preventing pregnancies. But it’s most often with the notion that we’re merely putting something off, and we’ll get around to having a baby sooner or later, at some point in the dim future.  Having a baby is an idea to which girls are socialized for from the earliest age, with baby dolls and nurturing role-plays. But the idea that we might not only just put the decision off, but make a completely different decision…well, that does fly in the face of how most girls are still socialized. Having a baby is the just the default expectation society holds for women – especially for cisgendered women in heterosexual relationships. People still assume that if you don’t have a baby, there must have been a medical reason that prevented you from doing so. It’s not typically seen as a choice.

Many women are sure, from an early age, that they don’t want to have a child., for a whole constellation of reasons. Still, as the podcast points out, they are often told they’ll change their minds; they just haven’t found the right person, or ‘those hormones’ will kick in eventually and they’ll be full of regret. This is, frankly, sexist crap, and assumes that there is only one way to be female. Just because you have a uterus doesn’t mean you need to use it to grow a baby, any more than having hair means you need to grow it into a long braid.

We are more than the sum or our organs. We’re the sum of our choices.

For others, the decision to have a child or to remain child-free is harder to make. We struggle because many of us haven’t found the tools to help work through this decision. It’s a choose your own adventure book, and the stakes are high. Both paths are filled with uncertainty. Happiness isn’t assured, either with children or child-free. And once we’ve made our choice, we don’t get to relax, because the paths aren’t straight or smooth. It’s just a lot more decisions, a lot more obstacles, either way – that’s life. That’s why it’s so important to be clear about what choice you want to make, and what is important to you, before choosing either adventure.

Having a baby or deciding to remain child-free is a very individual choice, and there is a story behind everyone’s decision. There’s no magic formula to tell us what to do. For someone who is as much of a planner as me, that was unsettling. I wished I could shake my Magic 8 Ball and get definitive advice. I wish, in retrospect, that I’d had access to a life coach like Beth Follini.  Beth’s coaching fills a unique niche – she helps people work through the choices in front of them where having a baby is concerned, helping them to ultimately understand themselves better and to find the path that is right for them. Using evidence-based tools, Beth leads her clients through self-inquiry, exploring their fears, hopes, and goals. She doesn’t steer them in any one direction; the choice is the client’s to make. Beth stands with people, encouraging them and challenging them, while they stand at the cross-roads.

I’ve stood at that crossroads myself, although the paths weren’t as well defined for me. I don’t think I even knew what questions to ask. Maybe I didn’t know that I could ask questions. I was in my mid-30s, and felt the pressure of social expectations and my own biology. I felt I didn’t have a lot of time to make a decision. To some extent, more than a dozen years ago, I didn’t really feel there was a decision to be made. Most people I knew had children. The few who didn’t were perfectly happy and fulfilled, but it was still very much seen as an ‘other’ choice back in the early 2000s.

My partner and I had talked about having children, before we got married. Neither of us felt strongly it was a must-do thing. Nor did either of us feel it was a must-avoid. We were somewhere in the middle, bobbing in a sea of ambiguity and expectation. We’d only just gotten married. I had a job I loved, and for the first time in my Gen X life, I had money to travel and have fun with. I wasn’t sure, really, how a baby would fit into that mix. I remember feeling a bit resigned to it…like, “If that’s what fate has in store for me, fine; if not, fine.” It was the biggest decision I’d had to make in my life, and I felt completely unprepared to make it. Looking back, I wonder if I understood that it really was a choice.

I’m a planner and a journalist. I like to research things, to ask questions and make lists of pros and cons. I prepare cost-benefit analysis spreadsheets for the most mundane of things. Beth Follini would say I approach things from my head. For a variety of reasons, over the years I’ve learned not to trust the advice my heart gives me. The head is about facts, and logical arguments, and data. The heart, I’ve found, can lead to Really Bad Decisions. It’s the one whispering in your ear, telling you to hurry up and decide before it’s too late. It’s the one that taunts you with FOMO, regret, and all the ‘what ifs’. Its whispers can be very loud, especially in the wee hours of the morning, when the head isn’t sharp enough to fight back.

I remember being on a business trip a week before my 34th birthday, feeling quite consumed by the choice in front of me: baby or not? What did I want my life to look like? After my meetings one evening, I found myself wandering into a bookstore, drawn to the huge section on all things baby-related, hoping to find something – anything – that would help me clarify my feelings. There were hundreds of books in this very-large section. There were books on fertility, pregnancy, baby names, infancy, toddlerhood. There was a much, much smaller section on women’s health. But there were no books, at all, about actually deciding to have a baby or to remain child-free. There was lots of advice on how to get pregnant and what to do after that. There was nothing to help me figure out if that’s the path I actually wanted to take.

I bought a book about fertility and a copy of I Don’t Know How She Does It and walked out of the store. My head felt defeated. My heart felt triumphant.

It wasn’t until my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage that the questions came into focus for me. The miscarriage had been emotionally devastating and physically exhausting. Like the decision to have a child or to remain child-free, miscarriage isn’t something that gets talked about as much as it should. I am someone who has succeeded at most things I’ve tried, so I felt like an enormous failure for not being able to do this most basic human function. There was always innuendo from others about what I’d done to cause it (it’s possible I imagined some of that innuendo, since I was so good at blaming myself for what I might have done or not done). Then, there was the inevitable comment, most typically from older relatives:

“At least you know you can get pregnant. You can always try again.”

If I’d felt ambivalent about having a baby, the miscarriage forced me to examine my feelings. Did I even want to try this again? Was I willing to risk that a miscarriage might happen again? If I said no…how would that feel? What would a child-free future look like?

For the next few months, my partner and I talked through all these questions and more. We decided that if we couldn’t have a child, that would be fine. We weren’t going to pursue IVF or adoption. We wanted a baby, but not at any cost. We decided that we’d be okay with whichever path opened up in front of us.

With my biological clock ticking loudly, I revisited the question just a year after my first child’s birth. Should I have another? Time was running out. There was another, more difficult miscarriage. My second child’s birth resulted in a life-or-death situation for both of us, and a warning that I shouldn’t have any more children. I remember feeling relieved that the decision-making was taken out of my hands. I was done.

There were times, over the years, that I’ve questioned whether the path I chose was right. Like the women interviewed in the Guardian’s podcast, I could list a dozen reasons why daily life with children felt kind of awful, sometimes. But also like the women in the podcast, I was ultimately happy with the path I’d taken. Both my head and my heart were sure, though, that I would have been equally okay with a child-free path. Having the opportunity to explore those questions and personal values was critical to finding peace.

Another issue that features heavily in the podcast is one that parents are sometimes loathe to admit: the fear of risk. The fear that Something Will Be Wrong. The fear that the future we’ve envisioned as a happy family with happy, perfect children won’t materialize. And what will happen then?

I can attest that children with special needs take a real toll on parents’ emotions and well-being, as well as their relationships. There is a higher rate of divorce and relationship breakdown among families with kids with special needs. The financial and emotional burden can overwhelm you.

And yet, there is no such thing as perfection in life, no matter what path you choose. You just never know. You might have a physically ‘perfect’ baby placed in your arms seconds after birth, but you don’t know what’s going on in that baby’s brain. Brain-based diseases, mental illnesses, and developmental issues may take years to show up, requiring you to become a completely different parent than you’ve been. You throw the script out the window and start over.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t risk to remaining child-free, of course. Relationships still break down. One of you can become sick or injured. Life is rarely what we think it will be, no matter how much planning or thought we put into it. There is no ‘safe’ road.

Yet, when the podcast’s host asked parents of kids who had mental health challenges or special needs whether they had regrets, they said no – not regret, really; more of a reflection that life could be easier than it is. As a parent of a child with special needs, I understood this. There is a peculiar sadness, almost a nostalgia, for what life could have been – for the typically-developing child in the happy family that could have been. Do I regret my choice? Overall, no. But would I have chosen THIS? No, probably not.  Few of us willingly choose the difficult paths. Most of us aren’t given the tools to think through everything eventuality in front of us. That’s why the work that Beth Follini does to help people sort through their feelings, hopes, and preparedness is so critical. It’s not about making people choose one path over another, or scaring people with worse-case scenarios. It’s about helping people feel as prepared as possible to make informed decisions about the road ahead, and to own those decisions with confidence – no matter what life throws at you.

The Guardian podcast is one of the few forums I’ve heard raise the issue of whether a mother feels mentally okay to have a child. After that first miscarriage, the hormonal flood from pregnancy and the miscarriage left me with a debilitating, month-long migraine. That gave me a lot of time to lie in bed and think. One of the things I thought about was whether I was mentally healthy enough to be a parent. I’d had an eating disorder in my 20s and had fought hard to maintain recovery. Would pregnancy’s changes to my body set me back? What if I didn’t lose the weight after pregnancy – was  I prepared for that? What if I passed the eating disorder (which has a strong genetic component) along to my child? I remember hoping I didn’t have a girl, so that the body image issues wouldn’t be as strong. (Spoiler alert: my first child is a girl, and my second child – the boy- is the one who is more prone to body image issues. The universe mocks me, truly.).

We owe it to ourselves, as women, to recognize and talk about the choice to be made. We need to think hard on those choices and evaluate our options. We need to be able to reach the best, most informed choice for us – not for our partners, not for our parents or friends, and not for society. Because at the end of the day, during those long sleepless nights (or the long stretches in the psychiatric emergency room with a child in distress), it’s us, not society, who is raising this child and living through the experience.

I haven’t heard many honest discussions about the decision to have a baby or remain child-free, to be honest, and I found this one quite balanced (although it was presented from a fairly cisgendered perspective, and there was little mention of the gendered parenting roles that may play into women’s decisions around having a baby). More voices from the ‘child-free’ path would have been helpful. Just as there is no one typical experience in having a child, there is no one typical child-free experience. People who make the choice to remain child-free are too often viewed as selfish or flawed. Hearing more about their stories and choices will help remove that stigma, which then frees women to truly see the choices in front of them. Discussions like this one hosted by the Guardian shine a spotlight on the real lack of support for ‘choice’ women have in making decisions about having a baby.

At the end of the day, the decision whether to have a baby or to remain child-free is one with no easy answer. With either path, there’s no way to know what it will look or feel like, whether we’ll have regrets, or whether we’re up for the challenge. But that’s life. The uncertainty is what makes it equal parts awful and exhilarating. The choice is a very personal one, but needs to be seen in the context of the broader social discussions about how women are valued and expected to behave in society.

For more information on coaching support for your baby decisions, contact Beth Follini at beth@ticktockcoaching.co.uk and visit her website at http://www.ticktockcoaching.co.uk/

By Michelle Hebert Boyd

Michelle H├ębert Boyd is a writer, editor, and social policy consultant based in Nova Scotia, Canada. She blogs about parenting, mental health and gender issues at www.baloneyinthemiddle.com. You can find out more about her writing services or hire her as a writing coach at  Michelle Hebert Boyd

Friday, 28 December 2018

'We're still expected to conform' - Lessons from a decade of Maybe Baby coaching

Throughout this year,  I've written an occasional series on this blog on the lessons that I have learnt in over a decade of coaching people who are struggling with questions such as:

  •  How do you know if you want a baby or not? 
  •  How do I know whether I want to be a mother?
  •  Do I want children?
  • Will I regret not having children?
If you aren't in this position, it can be difficult to understand why people struggle so much with these questions.   But if you are ambivalent with the idea of motherhood, there are many underlying reasons why you will feel so stuck. 

One of the main factors I've come to realise is fundamental to many of my clients is the pressure that they feel to conform to society norms - both of gender norms of what it means to be a women and how we should live as adults.  

'We are still expected to conform' said one client to me one day.  She had been struggling with the decision of whether to have children for several years before coming to see me.  We were looking at her feelings that she would be inadequate as a woman if she didn't have children.   And it became clear that she had 'absorbed' many of messages and beliefs from society, her family and community. 

Many of us unconsciously absorb beliefs that aren't ours.  It's how we as humans become socialised.  Socialisation isn't all bad - it's how we learnt right from wrong.  We learnt about taking turns, being polite, how to negotiate the world.   But sometimes, it isn't until we go to another culture that we realise that our beliefs which we have taken for granted are not shared everywhere and importantly, they are not innate. 

Looking at a simple example of lining (or queueing) for a bus or at a take away.  When I first came to the UK, I wasn't very aware of the British etiquette of queueing.  Now, after 30 years in the UK, I find myself feeling mildly uncomfortable when I'm in another country and the British rules of queueing are not observed or if I can't work out where the line is and who is next. 

'It's only the British that have such a strict approach to lines Beth.' my German friend said after observing me stress out when people at the bus station in Spain seemed to be randomly approaching the ticket seller.  'In many countries, people take the attitude that when there is a 'gap' that needs filling, we move in.' she explained.

I realised that I had become socialised into the British way of lining up (or queueing).

When it comes to expectations of having children and motherhood, then the beliefs are harder to identify because, we seem to have progressed a great deal from the 1950's were stereotypical images of woman and motherhood were more explicit.   Advertising has moved on since the days of 'Mad Men'

And yet,  many of my coaching clients say that they feel underlying pressure to conform to a vision of womanhood that involves being a mother.    This pressure contributes to the ambivalence towards having children that many of my clients feel.   Why would anyone want to have children just because they feel pressure to do so?   But.... if it was only pressure that my clients were feeling, then they wouldn't be feeling stuck.  I've spoken to child free women who are aware of society expectations but don't feel any pressure because they don't feel any ambivalence - they know they don't want children. 

But you are already feeling ambivalence around having kids, feeling the pressure to conform and make the decision doesn't help.   It can cause you to be stuck and paralysed. 

When I work with clients, I help people step back and separate out the beliefs that they might have inherited from their beliefs and feelings.  Then we can look at what we really want and at questions like how could I be a mother and not conform to stereotypical images of motherhood? If I didn't have a child, how I can I keep shaking off the stereotypes of what is expected of me?  Whether we have children or not, we don't have to conform to narrow beliefs of what it means to be a woman or a mother. 



Tuesday, 11 December 2018

How I (finally) made the decision


I’m often asked how I made the decision to have children.  While I’ve often talked about how my indecision often lead me to coach women on the decision to have children or not, I haven’t often talked about how I made the decision myself.

I was never someone who grown up seeing myself as having children someday.  I had been a shy and awkward child and teenager and while I always had friends, I never had a boy or girlfriend. I think that I found it difficult to imagine myself in a romantic relationship and being a mother. In university, I started to address some of my issues and began to … finally … feel at home in my own skin.  I had a couple of non-serious relationships before meeting my current partner of 19 years when I was 29 years old.

There is a significant age gap between us and he already had a 18 year old son.  Soon after we started the relationship, he said although he wasn’t keen on having children, he would revise this decision if I really wanted children.  ‘Oh no.’ I said.  ‘I definitely don’t want children.’ That was true for me at the time. 

Time went on and, after a few years past,  I spent a week vacation with my cousin and his three children.  It was chaos but fun and something in me was triggered.  ‘Actually’ I thought ‘having children might not be so bad and maybe, I might want to be a Mom’

I was completely shocked by this.  For months, I kept this to myself, not sure if it was a fleeting desire or something more solid.  Finally, I brought it to my partner, who understandably was not thrilled.  For the next year, we discussed the issues with my partner putting all the arguments against having children but my feelings about having a child grew stronger and stronger.

As this was in the day before Google (it’s hard to imagine!) I turned to bookstores and libraries for help but nothing seemed relevant to me.  All the resources were polarised – either aimed at mother or those that were trying to get pregnant.  OR, there were books aimed at the determined childfree.  Nothing seemed to be relevant to me or someone in my situation who was just unsure.

I knew that there were many practical reasons to not have children which included:
  •         Losing my freedom
  •          Being tired all the time
  •          Having less money
  •          Feeling that I might be overwhelmed with responsibilities

Yet, I felt that I couldn’t ignore this tugging string of desire.   I felt stuck between the rational beliefs of myself and the rational desire of my partner to not have a child VS this strange and unexplainable desire.  I knew and felt that I would be fine if I didn’t have a child – I knew that I would have a full life without children but I kept finding my emotions returning again and again to thoughts of having children.

So how did I escape from this trap to DECIDE that I did want children after all?

I decided I needed to make the leap and, as corny as this might sound, listen to my heart. I decided that as much as I had worries and doubts, my emotions were becoming so strong that I needed to listen to those feelings and desires above all.    As soon as I made the decision and put my case to my partner, he came on board and supported my decision and agreed to have a child with me.    After a couple of years of trying, we had our son.

I’m happy with my decision and haven’t looked back.  But equally, I strongly believe that if I had decided not to have children or if I couldn’t have had children, I would have been fine.  I would have led an equality fulfilled life but it would have been different.   

Key to my being able to make this decision was being able to trust myself and trust that I could cope and make a good life.  That's what I want for all women - no matter what path they choose.