Storyhouse Childless 2019: a round-up

It was a day dedicated to exploring life as a non-parent in a world that is still very much centred around children and family.

And Storyhouse Childless certainly seems to have struck a chord with both the dozens who took part and the organisers who drew together the programme of talks, workshops and performances.

Dr Dawn Llewellyn, of the University of Chester, who worked with Storyhouse and the city’s branch of Gateway Women – a global friendship and support network for childless women – to bring the event to the Garret Theatre, described the day as “inspiring and powerful” and one which helped confront the stereotypes and isolating taboos that often surround the subject.

She says she was particularly struck by the large numbers who attended – mainly women, but also some men, showing the level of demand for a dedicated event about childlessness.

Speakers included Gateway Women founder Jody Day and Robin Hadley who researches the impact of childlessness on men, while there were also interactive seminars and a one-woman show as well as candid first-person testimonies about the realities of living without children.

Although the day was predominately focussed on childlessness through circumstance or biological reasons, anyone without children was welcome.

I think what surprised me was how quickly everybody started to have conversations with each other,” says Dawn who is herself childless by choice. “If you ask me what the goal of the day would have been, it would have been for people to find a space where they could make connections so they didn’t feel isolated.

Dawn Llewellyn

“That’s quite hard to create in a day that only runs from 11am until 6pm.

“I don’t know quite what quite happened, I can’t put my finger on it, but there were people there who were chatting in the breaks, making connections.

“For about two or three days afterwards, thinking about that made me full of emotion. It still does.

“There’s something quite special about what was happening, and I’m not being hyperbolic about that – there was something quite tangible about the feeling in the room, and the support.”

Among those who made a connection on the day were two women who attended the same Chester church and had turned up at Storyhouse separately – not knowing the other was due to attend, or that they were about to discover something they had in common.

“They didn’t know that each other was childless,” Dawn reveals. “This was the first time that they’d shared that conversation and that experience with each other. And these are people who have talked to each other every week for four or five years.”

Another thing that stayed with her from the day was, she emphasises, the tangible atmosphere of courage in the room, something she particularly noticed when in charge of a ‘roving’ mic during one question and answer session.

Dawn recalls: “There were a couple of times when I could see the person taking the microphone from me was nervous and shaky, and I got the impression this might have been the first time they’d voiced something about their childlessness.

“I think I expected people to be quite far on with their journeys to come to something like that. And they weren’t – there were some people right at the beginning.”

While the day did encompass deep emotions and help people to express and share their feelings, there was also a chance for laughter, both through programmed events like Chiara Berardelli’s solo show Sea Monster and also in an impromptu session of ‘Childless Bingo’ where people swapped well-intentioned but unhelpful comments and suggestions made by family and friends.

Dawn, who studies motherhood and the family through her academic specialism of gender and contemporary Christianity, says: “One of the reasons I think it was a really special event was because the people that were in the room were allies to each other, whether you were childless by choice or not by choice.”

Although Jody Day spoke at Storyhouse’s Women of the World Festival in 2017, and the subject of pregnancy loss was raised at Storyhouse Parent, this was the first specific day of its kind at the venue.

Dawn believes events like Storyhouse Childless, together with the annual World Childlessness Week and the arts-led Fertility Fest In London, are helping to create a wider acknowledgement and understanding of the issue.

She says: “There are stories that women talk about, and men in Robin’s work, that are so isolating – not being invited to something because it was a family event. Just not being asked.

“One woman said she’s had to have the conversation with family members over and over again because they keep thinking there’s going to be some miracle and she says no, I was told at the age of 16 I can’t have children. How many times do I have to keep saying it?

“Dating came up. If you’re trying to negotiate a new relationship and you want children, but you know you can’t have them, when do you broach that on a dating app?

“Friends can fall by the wayside if you’re the only one who doesn’t have children. And losing friends is very painful. If you’re experiencing grief and you want your mates to help you, it’s very difficult to be in a room with someone who’s got children. It’s like a knife to the heart.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that finding somebody, or finding a group, when you’re in that very vulnerable exposed position and you’re feeling shame about your experiences, finding other people in the same boat as you can save your life – and change your life.”