The beauty of 'mothering' as a childless woman

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

I always thought I'd be a mother. I'm the eldest of seven - with approximately 12,000 aunts, uncles and cousins. Having children is what our family does. I was going to have one: Frankie. A great name for a boy or a girl, I thought.

But it didn't happen. I'm what is called "childless by circumstance" (or CbC). I was never in a relationship long or strong enough to hold children. And I wanted the whole package: a child with the man I loved. By the time I realised that no relationship would hurt, but no child would kill, I was too old for IVF on the NHS. Affording it on my own was out of the question.

One in five women reaches the age of 45 without bearing children. While 10 per cent are childless by choice (these women are "childfree"), 10 per cent are childless due to infertility, and 80 per cent are CbC, like me. My mum died when I was 22 and my dad died in front of me 20 years later. And that grief, that suffocating pain, that devastation that would have me gurgling with tears on the Northern Line, was nothing compared with the loss I feel over the baby I never had. That is a pain that is felt across your entire life: your past (you shake your head at every time you begged a man to be "careful"); your present ("Who and What am I now?") and your future (no lineage... no one to care for you).

And people are, at best, insensitive and, at worst, bloody cruel about it. I had one woman come up to me at a funeral: "Did you marry?" Me: "No." Her: "Did you have kids?" Me: "No." Her: "Oh well. It's not for everyone."

I've had someone say she'll introduce me to a bloke because "he's Jaffa, too". No seed... Infertile... Incorrect. I was perfectly fertile and able to have children. But why let the truth get in the way of a good insult?

I've had a woman SCREAM at me to give up my reserved train seat because "I HAVE CHILDREN!" (I offered her the three empty seats around me but wouldn't budge from mine.) Women like me are variously described as "barren" or not real women. Earlier this year, the actress Jennifer Aniston opened up about the "reckless assumptions" that are made: "No one knows what's going on behind closed doors. No one considers how sensitive that might be..." she told InStyle. "There is a pressure on women to be mothers, and if they are not then they're deemed damaged goods." Equally, Kelly Brook says she is made to feel selfish because she does not have children, and has talked about how uncomfortable it makes her being constantly asked about it.

People are people - let them live their mean, narrow lives and I'll get on with mine. Yet, there were days when I couldn't. I'd grieve every time I saw a pregnancy bump or a baby. The deepest loss of not being a mother comes from not being able to mother - to give and receive love, warmth, knowledge, life.

But then I heard the actress Kim Cattrall on Radio 4's Woman's Hour say: "I am not a biological parent, but I am a parent. I have young actors that I mentor; I have nieces and nephews that I am close to." I wanted to crush-hug her. The childless are made to feel less. Cattrall showed she's not - she unapologetically owns her life. She made my brain and heart click: I mother people, too. I don't have to be a mother to do that.

Mum died 30 years ago when she was 40 and my youngest sibling was only two years old. My sister was still living at home so had a strong maternal role with the babies but, as the eldest, I feel I am now the matriarch of the family. I love them: I'm proud of them, I talk incessantly about them and a photo of us all together is my "wallet" photo.

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I'm maternal with my six nieces and nephews. They all have great relationships with their mothers - but my relationship with them is an important one, too. I'm the bridge between friend and parent; they can talk to me honestly, and will get a one-step detached but loving response.

I hope I give them solid advice and support with everything from love, life, careers and clothes. My niece, Elly, 20, regularly comes to stay with me in Hove; and another niece, Billie, 23, will always call me when she's upset. We make each other howl with laughter.

I stayed with my nephews, Edison and Arthur, 11 and eight, for a week recently. They are wild and wonderful and we bonded over football and Thor. And over me shouting: "I LOVE YOU" out of the car window at a stranger as a forfeit for losing a game. They kicked balls at me, but they also let me stroke their hair and comfort them after a teary fight over Fortnite.

I now realise how maternal I felt with my uncle, Roycie, last year. Talking to oncologists for him when his lung cancer was diagnosed three months previously; sleeping in his hospital room with him during his last days; and holding him to me and singing to him as he died.

I'm also maternal with young people I'm not related to. I'm a keen mentor and I've met the most amazing young people through my show on Soho Radio. I respond to their every achievement like a "proud mum" and I hope that being a 52-year-old who is still "relevant" is a great "there are no rules" lesson.

I offer a non-judgmental ear and lots of life experience - bad life experience, too, which brings compassion and understanding. If you've suffered the level of sadness I have and survived, then you really do "find yourself".

I get so much from non-mother mothering. I get to give and receive love; I get warmth, respect and joy. And I get a sense of belonging and value that is sometimes very hard to find in a world so obsessed with "as a mother" and "hard-working families". My friend Helen once said to me: "I wish you knew your own, beautiful worth."

I'm now a godmother - to Elisa. When her mother, my cousin, Little Julia, asked me, I cried and cried. That word "mother" is still so powerful and I'm so excited to help shape this gorgeous child's life and to offer moral guidance. That I wore leopard print to her christening gives a hint to the direction I'll take her. The kid's got the best non?mother ever.

World Childless Week begins Monday. Details: worldchildlessweek.net

The Sunday Telegraph, London.