This episode of the BBC Radio Four programme Beyond Belief 'Without Child' was a powerful discussion on the topic of miscarriage, childlessness & faith. It included fascinating, and truly moving, faith-informed accounts of finding an alternative purpose after childlessness. I'm full of admiration for the positivity of the contributors and of appreciation for the hope that they bring and represent. It was also fascinating to hear their sense of a distinction between 'religion' and 'culture' in terms of the expectations placed on women to reproduce. I want to think and read more about how that might, or might not, be different in the context of different religious traditions and cultures.
I'm grateful too (of course, but also seriously) to my friend and colleague Dr Dawn Llewellyn, who pointed to the toxicity of narratives that make motherhood and parenthood utterly normative, and the myriad mechanisms by which the 'othering' of the humiliated childless person is performed.
Farah Dualeh was contributing to the porgramme as a childless Muslim woman. I was very struck by the piece of, no doubt un-looked-for, guidance she received from community members. 'Are you praying enough?' Patronising, though the intention is supportive, of course. But what I'm most struck by is how this religious trope finds an analogue in secular culture in terms of 'positive thinking.' At its most extreme this can take on a 'Law of Attraction' resonance. This 'doctrine' structures so much thinking that claims not to be religious, and belief in it is so often presented as a 'virtue'. Am I alone in having a hard time staying on Instagram because of the amount of 'type 'yes' if you believe' material that appears on my feed? Though I wouldn't go as far as Hamlet and say 'nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so,' I don't deny that in general thinking positively is better for mental health than thinking negatively. However, when supernatural agency is attributed to that kind of thinking it becomes dangerously double-edged. I've seen many people in recovery from addiction for example, clinging to the idea that if they have faith and think positively then 'the right things will happen'. They lock on to an outcome, and why shouldn't they? The thinking promises it. But inevitably, their sense of reality is potentially (and sometimes, sadly, actually) fatally overturned when the causal link they imagine between their positive thinking and the outcome fails.
In these systems of thought, as Dawn so rightly said of certain presentations of Christianity, the individual is always the the locus of failure or lack. 'God did not want this for you' MAY be taken as a comfort - God wanted something else, but you don't know what that is yet - but equally, it may feel alienating, oppressive, or erasing. It may frame the person as at fault, for wanting something that is at odds with God's purpose. Perhaps this is especially hard when that wanting has a powerful evolutionary base that is affirmed so strongly by culture, not least by our ideas of 'love' being 'productive.' It may also the frame the individual as being at fault for not getting it - because they were not religious enough, not 'right' with God. Someone suggested to my childlessness was because I'd 'done something bad' in a previous life. It may also put in question their right to grieve. Ask any involuntarily childless person if they've been allowed to grieve. Your plan has to submit graciously to 'God's plan.' To be unhappy, or, God-forbid, angry or bitter, is socially and religiously unacceptable.
It is surprisingly structurally similar when that same quality of desire (God wants/doesn't want) is attributed to 'the Universe' (whatever that is!).
The episode of Beyond Belief did so much to call for reform in religious leadership and institutions. Infertility and involuntary childlessness really should be an EDI issue in ALL institutions, but religious institutions undoubtedly have the most work to do. However, the problem is not just institutional. It's cultural, and deep in our thinking, regardless of faith or otherwise. Involuntarily childless people on the wrong side of these religious discourses know it so well. They have to undertake so much hard emotional labour to survive, either by finding other spaces or new interpretations of those discourses, or by abandoning them altogether. But non-religious people also live with the same cultural patriarchy and pronatalism. They also encounter the very religious-like forms of agency attributed to vague entities like 'the Universe.' Even the phrase 'everything happens for a reason' borrows its power from a spiritualised sense of agency. It may go unnoticed at a conscious level but my sense is that these near ubiquitous forms of thinking carry with them (for the most part - there may be exceptions) the potential for increasing the suffering of people who are already suffering.
I'm only speaking for myself, and do not wish to take anything from anyone who does find relief in these ways of thinking. Relief is important and so hard to come by when you're grieving. But also, I want to offer apologies to anyone to whom I have ever recommended this way of thinking. I've no doubt I've perpetuated it when I've been less in touch with the suffering I'm speaking in to, or flailing about because I can't sit respectfully with someone else's pain. I'm sorry.
And finally, I want record my gratitude for the beacon of honesty and realness that is Lizzie Lowrie (pictured), whose faith I don't share, but so much else.