For this week’s story we’re heading ‘down under’ and featuring Enza Gandolfo who was helped on her journey by writing a novel about her experience.
I love that Enza’s turning point was acceptance and that her key was understanding that it is not possible to control all aspects of our lives. Both so true don’t you think?
Over to Enza.
Where are you on your journey now?
I am in my late 50s and happily living with my husband in Melbourne. It has been 16 years now since I stopped trying to have a child. It took a number of years to work through the grief and sadness, but I feel fortunate to be living a creative and inspired life. I believe that the turning point for me was acceptance. We live (in the Western world) in time when we believe we can and should be able to have everything we want. Understanding that it is not possible to control all aspects of our lives, was an important lesson for me.
I now teach creative writing at Victoria University, in Melbourne Australia. I have published a novel, Swimming, which is an exploration of childlessness, creativity and friendship. I am passionate about storytelling, especially about telling women’s stories, and the stories of those whose stories are often not heard. I believe stories have the power to create empathy and understanding.
I am also a researcher with an interest in women and creativity and have co-authored a book on op shops (thrift shops), and two books on women and craft. I am currently working on a second novel.
What’s your story?
I was in my early 30s, and had been married for a couple of years, when we decided to start trying to have a child. Up until that point I had not been sure whether I wanted children or not and certainly in my 20s I was sure I would not have children. But finding myself in a relationship with a man I loved (and still love) and trusted who I knew would be a good father, I decided now was the time. I had my first miscarriage before I even knew I was pregnant. In the five years that followed I had a number of miscarriages and continual struggles with getting pregnant.
Each time was more upsetting and difficult to deal with, each time was followed by more tests and testing until finally they diagnosed antiphospholipid antibody syndrome. However, even with the diagnoses and the heparin injections the next pregnancy ended in miscarriage.
By that stage I was feeling worn out and overwhelmed by grief. Some days I could not bear to go out. It seemed like there were pregnant women everywhere. Everyone, every other woman seemed to be able to get pregnant but me. I could not think about anything else. I found it difficult to do anything else.
There was some pressure from doctors to go on IVF, ‘if you really want to have children’, one doctor said, implying I was not trying hard enough. Some of my family thought I should keep trying. But I knew that it was time to stop. We think we can control everything but we can’t and sometimes in life it is about coming to terms with that. I decided to stop trying and to write about my experience so that it might make a difference to other women. Later I discovered that I was already premenopausal by that stage (but the doctors had not picked it up) and so it is likely that IVF would have resulted in more disappointment.
What helped you to heal/how did you deal with your grief?
Writing my novel Swimming helped. When I was going through the treatments and the miscarriages I looked for novels and memoirs about and by childless women. I wanted to read other women’s stories. I wanted to know how other women made a life for themselves without children. I read books about childless women who never overcame the grief, about childless women who finally had the longed for baby but there were not enough books about women who lived full and meaningful lives without children.
Writing Swimming was about imagining an older woman, not me, and her making a life without children. Writing it was painful at times but it helped me work through many of the issues I was facing. And now when other women read it and tell me their stories, and tell me that reading Swimming helped them, I feel I have made a difference. I feel I have made something useful out of a painful experience.
Having loving friends and a loving husband helped. It also helped to have beautiful godchildren and nieces and the children of friends. I think having young people in my life has helped me to deal with the grief.
An important part of my journey has been about acceptance and about gratitude.
What are the positives (gifts) for you of not having children?
Every journey teaches us something. For me the struggle to have children was a long and painful journey but I came out of it with a sense of gratitude for what I have and the privileged life that I lead. This was the most important gift.
What has not having children made possible for you?
In some ways I find this the most difficult question. Of course I could talk about increased opportunities in terms of work and travel, but it is difficult to say what not having children has made possible that might not otherwise have been possible. There are many successful and well travelled women who have children, just as there are many successful and well travelled women who do not have children. I know that it takes a lot of work to bring up a child, and that my friends who are mothers have given up have put a lot of energy and time and love into their children and I have put my energy into other areas of my life – my writing, my teaching, my relationships. Maybe I would never have written a novel or finished a PhD…these are things I value and appreciate having had the opportunity to do.
Is there anything missing in your life? (and what do you plan to do about it?)
No I appreciate my life as it is.
How are you different now (who are you now)?
I feel stronger and surer of myself and less concerned about what people think about me. Less put out by questions about whether I have children or about why I don’t have children. This is partly about being older I think, but also about time passing.
Grief is a strong emotion and one we don’t talk about enough. A close friend of mine died several years ago now and of course the grief was most intense in the weeks and months after her death, but even now on warm summer days when there is a sea breeze and I remember her. I remember her love of the sun and the sea; I remember her long red hair blowing in the breeze, her bare feet, and the way we could talk all night. And then the grief returns and I miss her so intensely it is as if she died yesterday.
This is the same for me with the miscarriages and the infertility. Most of the time, I don’t think about it. Some days, especially when my friend’s teenage children are being particularly difficult, I am grateful that I am childless. Thankful even. But some days, holding a newborn, or sitting around at a party with a group of mothers talking about their adult children, about their grandchildren, the grief returns, intense and painful. It doesn’t last long, but it’s there. I don’t think this is a bad thing. We miss and grieve for those who are lost to us, it is part of being human.
What advice would you give to women who are not as far down the road as you are?
Give yourself the time and space to experience the grief and the sadness. It is important. Often there is a tendency to be dismissive – when I had my first miscarriage I thought I did not have the right to be so upset because I was only 6 weeks pregnant.
Talk to other women. Share your experiences. I was surprised how many women I knew had had miscarriages but had never talked about them. When Swimming came out and I was invited to book clubs and other women’s groups to speak about the novel, some of the childless women in those groups had never talked to their friends about how they felt about not having children. We need to share our stories and experiences; sharing it helps us to see that we are not alone.
As part of my PhD in creative writing I wrote about the process of writing my novel Swimming and about some of the research on childlessness. (available online through the University library.
One of the researchers whose work I found helpful was Mardy Ireland whose 1994 study Reconceiving women: Separating motherhood from female identity is principally focused on exploring how childless women go about developing a positive adult identity that is not based on being a mother, she writes: ‘When a woman shifts her attention from experiencing childlessness as a concrete fact to wondering about the meaning of childlessness for her life, she is introducing a ‘third term’ of language between herself and the childless experience, making psychic space where interpretation and elaboration of her own particular childlessness become possible.’
The point at which we start to reflect on experience is the point we can start to move forward, certainly that was my experience.
What brings you joy/what’s your passion?
My passion is storytelling both through fiction and through my narrative research which involves interviewing women about their stories. In my most recent project I have been interviewing women artists from migrant and refugee background about the impact of migration on their art work. I believe that what we need is more empathy and understanding and that by sharing our stories and experiences we create the possibility of a more connected and empathetic society. (Another great book – women sharing their stories: The Sound of Silence: Journeys through Miscarriage 2011 Edited by Irma Gold)
I am also passionate about creativity and about making – be that making art or craft or gardening. I believe that creativity is as important to our wellbeing as healthy eating and exercise.
What’s your 6 word memoir?
Creating empathy and understanding through storytelling.
Bio: Enza Gandolfo was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1957, she is the daughter of Sicilian migrants. Her debut novel, Swimming (Vanark Press) released in 2009, was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award in 2010. Swimming is compelling novel about female friendship, creativity, unexpected childlessness, and the potency of long distance swimming (available as ebook through Amazon, Kobo and iTunes)
Her previous books include: Inventory: On Op Shops with Sue Dodd (Vulgar Press 2007) and It Keeps Me Sane: Women Craft Wellbeing with Marty Grace (Vulgar Press 2009). Her short stories, essays, autobiographical pieces, reviews and articles have been published in a range of literary journals, magazines and newspapers. Enza is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Victoria University. She is also the co-editor of TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses
Interested in writing?
To recap, I believe it will really help those who are struggling to see what’s possible in their life. The purpose is:
• To show that it’s possible to have a positive life,
• To explain what’s positive about being childless and
• To explore what helped healing & how to make it happen.
If you’re interested in writing this is how it works.
I’ll post your story in your real name or any other that you chose to give me. If you have a website or blog I’d be happy to link to it so I’ll need the details and a short bio.
I’ll send you a list of questions, and you choose and answer a minimum of 6.
If you’d like to be included please contact me.
Over to you
If you realise you need help I’d love to help you. You can book a complimentary session via my online diary or leave a message on my contact page and we can spend 20 to 30 minutes to get clarity on how we can work together to create a life you love.
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