Women are commonly asked, “do you have children?” It’s a loaded fact-checking question and the woman’s answer hovers as a tenuous balancing point from which they know there are two choices, being met with approval or judged.
In this episode, Sarah talks honestly about the prejudice she faces in being a woman without children. She shares personal stories about her experiences, when and why she’s felt most judged, as well as explaining why she’s the person you especially want in your life.
Listen in to this episode to understand why society needs to do better. WE need to do better. Sarah’s experiences shine a light on how a woman’s purpose is viewed, why that can be so damaging, and how everyone can see women as much more than just ‘baby machines’.
In This Episode:
- Types of prejudice that childless women face
- The power of challenging assumptions
- Improve your communication with women
- Benefits of non-parental relationships with children
Follow Cath at Drawn to a Story
Music by Grant McLachlan
Mentioned in the podcast:
Share the Love – blogpost about pregnancy troubles as the expat
The Miscarriage Association – Support and resources
Tommy’s – Baby Loss Support
SANDS – Stillbirth and neonatal death (information/support)
The Child Death Helpline – support regardless of when the loss occurred
Adoption UK – Support and advocacy for those parenting or supporting children who cannot live with their birth parents
New Family Social – information/support for LGBT+ adoptive & foster families
Samaritans – FREE Help – Tel: 116 123, E: firstname.lastname@example.org
The British Psychology Society – Find a Psychologist
Pregnancy Birth and Baby – information and support for parents
Mensline – help, support, referrals and counselling for men
SANDS – Miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death support
Beyond Blue – Mental health support
Headspace – National Youth Mental Health Foundation with support services
The Black Dog Institute – Medical health resources, services and research
SANE Australia – Counselling support, Tel: 1800 187 263 (10am – 10pm)
March of Dimes – Pregnancy Health
The Compassionate Friends – Support for Loss generally
Very Well Family – Support for Pregnancy and Parenting
American Psychologist Association – Psychologist Finder
OR contact medical services in your country.
This podcast contains conversations about trauma, addiction, death, and other challenging subjects, and maybe sensitive for some listeners. Listener discretion is advised. If you need resources to get help, please see the show notes.
You're listening to Drawn to a Deeper Story. I'm Cath Brew from Drawn to a Story. I'm an artist who illustrates and educates about marginalized experiences for positive change, with a particular interest in identity belonging, an expat life. This podcast is about lives that challenge us and the difficult conversations around them. It's a place to listen openly to absorb people's truths and to learn how to show up differently for the benefit of everyone. And that's you included.
Today's guest is Sarah Black. Now I've known Sarah for a few years, but we've actually only met in person, I think twice. Sarah is someone who has spent more than 20 years working in PR and comms in Ireland before moving first to Norway, then Texas in the States. And now she's in the Lake District in the UK. She started her own consultancy, called, Athrú Communications two years ago where she works with clients that want to drive positive change. Sarah is married to Russell and has two former shelter dogs who joined the family in Texas. This is the bit that I really love about Sarah, that she's passionate about volunteering, inclusion and finding the perfect gin and tonic, but not always in that order. Sarah is also childless. She and her husband do not have children, no children. So what went through your head when I said that Sarah does not have
children? Nothing? If that's the case then fabulous, but you're in the minority. Maybe your head started its own conversation, like why doesn't she? Maybe she doesn't like them? Maybe she's a workaholic? Or maybe she's maybe she's even selfish? Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe it's none of your business, but none of this matters if these are just your thoughts and they stay in your head, right? So why does it matter? It matters because other people make it matter. It matters because other people judge women for not having children. And this is exactly why I've invited Sarah to talk with me today to share her experiences. So welcome Sarah, and thank you for joining me.
Sarah: Hello Cath. How are you?
Cath: I'm alright thanks thank you very much. How are you?
Sarah: I'm good thank you. It's good to be here.
Cath: And thank you for talking about a subject, which for many people,
and potentially yourself included, because we're going to be learning more about your story, but is a particularly, difficult subject and can be quite painful for some people to talk about and even to hear other people talking about because of their own pain.
Sarah: Yeah, it is. I was really glad that you asked me to do it because it's something that I don't mind talking about, but I know for a lot of other people it's very fraught and very delicate and very difficult. And so it felt like a good opportunity to, have a chat with you and hopefully help people see that sometimes, what seems like them to be a perfectly natural question, a perfectly natural assumptions, can actually be quite damaging unintentionally to other people. So thank you for that opportunity.
Cath: My pleasure. I mean, I guess the thing is with these kinds of conversations and what I want to bring out in this podcast is talking about the layers in between that we don't see. And we never know where someone else's pain point is. And we talk
based on where ours are without actually often understanding where someone else's might be. The first question I wanted to ask you was, when we're all growing up, we all have ideas about how our lives will turn out as adults and there's that social idea of marriage and 2.4 children is still quite strong and there's varying degrees, depending on what culture you're from or what religion you belong to. Can you tell me a little more about how you imagined your adult life to look.
Sarah: In some ways I don't know that I ever did. I think one of the many great gifts of my upbringing was the, I didn't have a lot of social pressure about, you know, what I should do or why should be? I mean, as I get older and older, I appreciate my parents more, but I think they genuinely were very happy with whatever choices we made, as long as we were not doing anything illegal, immoral or overly dangerous.
Well we won't talk about those today. Not today. That's the gin and tonic part. But I think generally as long as they were happy. And so I don't think I ever felt the social pressure that I know a lot of other people do that a lot of other people are asked, you know, from the minute they get married. Well, first of all, why you're not married yet? You know, when you're getting married, what are you doing? You know, when you're having babies? When are you going to get me a grandchild? I didn't really have any of that and I think that was enormously liberating. And so, I mean, I guess for a couple of years after Russell and I got married, I was still a bit surprised that I was married. I mean, not, not to him. He was, he was never a doubt. But, I don't know that I ever had that sort of, um, you know, fairy tale kind of that some people do they have like kind of fairytale wedding or whatever. Much more conventional and if that's what you like and you do you, that's awesome. But I didn't have that and so on the sense, I don't think I grew up with that sort of pressure, which
is an absolute gift, because I know I've talked to so many women and quite a few men who did really grow up with that and had a lot of family saying to them, kind of like from weekend of the honeymoon, like when are you having grandchildren? Babies? How children, do you want? Those sorts of things?
My immediate family might've been thinking it, but they were too polite to ask. I think within our wider social circle, there were those things, but I don't think I ever had that drive. I don't ever think I looked forward and thought my life will not be complete if I don't get married, my life will not be complete if I don't have children. I don't think I've ever thought in those terms.
Cath: Do you think from your experiences and the women that you've spoken to, that there is difference between men and women in how they feel about that whether the pressure or not having the pressure? And is that something that, because women are so often judged differently to men
and if you do have children, you might be judged for having one child, then you're judged for having too many. And then you're having for too many years between the siblings or having the air quotes 'wrong kind of children', like there's, there's judgment all round. Do you think Russell felt the same as you? Was it the similar kind of thing?
Sarah: I think he probably, well, I think I'm being honest, he probably got asked more about it than I did, after we got married and I maybe, I don't know that he felt pressure exactly, but there's certainly deep discomfort and you know, like being asked why your wife hasn't produced offspring yet. I mean, who thinks that's a fun conversation to have? I think probably there is discomfort for both parties. I think maybe somehow it's worse for women and I don't like to say that cause I don't want to minimize the experience of, you know, infertility happens to men as well, not just biologically, but if you're a couple who want to have children, then that's an experience and a grief for both husband and wife or
partners or whatever or husbands and husbands equally. You know, it's a grief that's felt by both parties. I think there is a pressure because it's biologically somehow how seen to be a woman's job. I don't necessarily agree with that, but I do think that's a perception, in the same way that there's a perception that, you know, lesbian couples don't have kids. There's some assumptions made that if you're in a straight committed relationship, you should be having children and that is the woman's job.
Cath: Absolutely. And as I think I've said to you before, I, my question is being in a same-sex couple is, or did you ever want children as though there's an assumption that I'm just not going to. This is the whole thing, isn't it with identity that people place what they think is in their box, their idea of you on you rather than actually asking.
Sarah: Yeah and now that I'm old and post-menopausal, I probably will get asked that question more. Like, did you never think of that or did you ever want to have them or, you know? And that's gonna be a different conversation
to have. I think also, and I do feel for men in this situation, because I think sometimes it's even harder for them to talk about it because they feel, you know, if I talk about, some of the things that happened to me medically then that's me talking about my body and my experience. You know, men are not very good generally about talking about that stuff. I mean, society's, not good about talking about that sort of stuff, but I think it must be difficult to talk about your partner's body and their experiences because that's deeply personal.And then for you to have to tell that story, I think is uncomfortable when it's not really anybody's business anyway. And so it's messy for everybody.
Cath: It's interesting you say that because I was reading something yesterday. I think it was in the Sydney Morning Herald about couples, the - value judgment that's placed on the reasons why you don't have children. So that if they were couples who had chosen, a conscious decision to not have children - that was seen as a selfish thing. And then people
who hadn't been able to have them for medical reasons, or just had met too late in life and were past their kind of reproductive years, then it was like, that was okay because it wasn't a conscious choice. It's like the conscious choice is this demonized thing. Why would you not want to have children? There's that underlying value all the time and I think it's.... I'd be interested to know in terms of the people that have asked you or your husband, were they predominantly men or predominantly women, or was there a mix it's their a gender thing happening about how women feel about themselves, about how society feels about women or.....
Sarah: I think actually it's a generational thing. Well, let me break that down a little bit. Because I did not conduct a sense of research with my husband about who's asked him before this. No, but seriously, I suppose I'm trying to think of the occasions where I've been asked and I can sort of break them down into a couple of categories. One has been extended family and I think that's a generational thing as well as a
gender thing. It may also be an Irish cultural thing, because all of those factors are in there, and that's mostly being older members of the family that want grandchildren nieces, nephews, whatever, but it has been predominantly female and that's partly because men from Ireland, don't like to talk about that sort of thing. I can't imagine any of the men in my extended family would ever have asked that question. My other experience has been much more as I became an ex-pat later in life. So I didn't move overseas till I was 40, which for a lot of people, it's kind of past the point of getting pregnant, but that was the first time that I was consistently asked as part of that, 'getting to know you' expat coffee conversation, where I felt like it was the question I was asked all the time and it was all women. Possibly at the time, it was mostly because I was meeting women, because that was the nature of expat life. The situation that we were in was that the man would have been at work
and so I was maybe meeting them once I've known their wife for three months or their partner. By that point they probably knew, you know, that Sarah and Russell don't have kids. So I've been asked that a lot more consistently, and that was the first time that being asked that question made me feel less than.
Cath: So you were aware that there was a judgment coming in the question.
Sarah: Yeah and I don't even know the people who were asking the question, we're making a judgment, about my choices and you know, it wasn't completely our choice not to have kids but I think it was more, you know, it's like that kind of, it's like the Harry Potter sorting hat, right. You know, you're one of my people, you're not one of my people. You are no good for play dates with my children. Right. Okay. My kids are not going to make friends with your kids. Okay. Next?
It's like a sorting filing system at the post office almost. It's not even a conscious thought.
Sarah: It's not even conscious and a couple of years ago I wrote about this and I had an experience. We'd moved to Norway. That's a big, big, huge cultural change, I stopped working, blah, blah. And so first time moving, into that lifestyle, big, big change and I went to one of the first expat coffees. As you do, if you're listening to this and you're an expat, you'll be feeling this.
And I was, as I think a lot of people are in their first move, very apprehensive because you've no idea what you've gotten yourself into, and I remember somebody at that asking me, did I have kids? I think it was the first time in years that anybody had asked and I didn't even think before I said, no, and then she literally just turned in her heel and walked away.
Sarah: And I just remember like shock and I felt like I would get asked that question every time I met somebody, like, I felt like somebody had handed out a sheet of paper where,
you know, these are the questions you ask when you meet new people. And maybe I've asked that question of other people as a getting to know you. I probably have.
Cath: I imagine there's a sense of firstly, like what did I do wrong? Like, cause any other type of question, if someone just walked away, you'd think you'd been offensive to them. Like that's the implied but you're on the receiving end and it's the other way round and they haven't even realized. I mean, that's, that's incredibly powerful. I think for listeners, it's like how often do you make other people uncomfortable by your need?
Sarah: I think the other thing that whole experience and I, I mean, I made some incredibly great friends in Norway, some of whom had children, some of them did not, but it felt like something I was asked a lot and that was actually a really difficult period for us because it was the first time, not that we confronted and they don't like to say it was a choice because, um, I have all kinds of underlying medical issues that would have made conception naturally very difficult.
The choice that we probably
did make was not to embrace something like IVF, and that's a very deeply personal choice. If you're listening to this and you have done IVF, I think that's wonderful, but it just wasn't the right time for us at that time in our lives and other things happened. Um, but it's, I mean, sometimes it isn't, we just don't want them. Okay, great. That's fine. That's lovely. But I think it's such a complicated, nuanced story. It's not, it's not straightforward, but it was the first time that we felt, or maybe I felt that's not fair to say that Russell did, that I felt that I was excluded because, and I'm not because anybody was being mean, it was just because they were all going, all our kid's are at the same school. They were all at the school gates, kind of benign exclusion. It was not that anybody was ever anything other than lovely to me.
Cath: It's just circumstance. Isn't it?
It was just, you were a little bit outside, some things.
Cath: So much of that networking when you come into a new country is done at the school gate or the kind of school events and so imagine for you, you have to work much harder to make those kinds of connections.
Sarah: Yeah you do and I think we were very, very lucky and anybody who was in Norway with me is listening to this, you were all wonderful. I was very lucky in that I think, we had friends who were empty nesters, who didn't have kids with them. That was awesome. We had friends who have much older kids and also I made some great friends who were younger than us, who were not at a stage in their life where you're thinking about children.
Cath: And you were probably living and presenting a different option that they might even, they might consider and think, oh, look at, this is the other way of doing it.
Sarah: I think it was more to do the availability and also they, weren't asking the question about, do you have kids? They were much more interested in, could you go for a hike on Thursday? Then you do, know that there are things that you go to experiences to kind of equalize and we find our groove and all the rest of that, but there was a period at the beginning before I made really good friends. I
made really, really great friends in Norway but there was a period before that, when we were still trying to find our people, where it was a bit bruising, a bit challenging, and also people make some assumptions about you. I think the thing that I've learned and I'm on the other side of that I wanted to share today is that, at that time that was happening,
it was bruising and it was difficult, but now I'm like, well, you just missed the best babysitter in time. Well, the person you want as your emergency contact is the person who does not have kids with them.
Cath: That's exactly what I was going to ask you about. So if I'm the parent of three children and I'm looking for new friends for my kids, if I'm only focusing on other parents, for friendships, what am I missing out on? You've hinted at this before and I wanted you to break it down a bit more.
Sarah: I think one of the assumptions that people make, when you say they don't have children, is that you might not like them. I will be honest, and I've always said this I don't like old small people because they're just small versions of big people and I
don't like all adults either, but mostly I do love kids. My sister-in-law has five, so it's just as well I do like them. I mean, generally I enjoy young people. I enjoy children. I enjoy spending time with them. My best friend has three boys who I have been left in sole custody of on a couple of occasions and I have given her the same number back as she left with me. That's a famous story. She's like, how did it go? And I said, well, they're all still here. But she's left them with me for three or four days at a time. I've actually flown in to stay so that she and her husband could have time away.
Cath: And it's also nice for you to be able to have those relationships with children and even if you don't have your own, you can still be an adult that's kind of guiding kids and helping kids.
Sarah: And you get to be the cool aunt which is like the best job in the world. All of the fun and I would like to say none of the discipline but actually.... Two of our closest, closest friends in our time in Texas had two teenagers. We went on holiday with them, and I think there's an assumption that you might, when we went on holiday with them and their kids, was that a
little bit weird for you, but actually it wasn't, it was just like a family holiday. When their eldest graduated high school, we went to graduation with his mum and dad and his brother, because they were like, well, you're the family that we have here. If you're kind of automatically going, well, we probably don't have much in common and equally it's sometimes it's the moms going, you won't want to hang out with me because you know, I've got kids and I'm tied to that. It kind of works both ways.
Sarah: Yeah, I'm okay with that, that doesn't really matter. It's assumptions both ways. Like you wouldn't want to come and spend time with me because I've got these four children.
Cath: That's fascinating to me that women are they're judged for this is the role you're meant to fulfill, and then when you've fulfilled it, you're still not worthy because you're not this woman on her own doing your own thing. There's this social stuff put on, but it's also therefore then what comes up out of us because we live in the context of all of this stuff.
Sarah: It's tricky to navigate, but I do think if you've discounted the woman with no children, then I've always said that I am your best possible emergency contact because if something happens, I will only be worried about your
children. I will have none of my own to worry about.
Cath: That's really wise. I would just reiterate that to people who are listening, if you find that you've fallen into that trap of, I'm only going to be friends with other people who've got children for my kids. Yeah. What are you missing out on?
Sarah: I don't think anybody ever does it intentionally. I think very few people do it intentionally, or even actually think consciously that I'm looking for. I don't think people do it consciously. I think that it's just sort of convenience. Ease? I don't know.
Cath: I also think it's familiarity with the expat process. So if you're a seasoned expat, you know, once you've left the country, when you arrive, there's like these tick things that you've got to do is like, get the kids into school, get a place, get like, find your local coffee shops or food shops. It's all that.
Sarah: Find friends for kids.
Cath: Like friends for the kids and so it's not coming from a bad place necessarily. It's a focus of their needs and in the process, they don't
see what that impacts or how that impacts someone else potentially.
Sarah: Yeah and so it's totally unintentional. It's not anybody trying to exclude or trying to other, but it just does make it a bit more complicated sometimes to form a social life. Not always. When you meet the right people, it doesn't matter, but definitely it can, when you're in that new zone of trying the newcomer thing can make it a little bit more difficult and also because sometimes there's that awkward pause when people say, oh, do you have kids? You say, no. People can look at their feet or to the wall or go, okay. And I mean, people I've ended up being friends with have gone. Oh great. Right. Okay. I've got 3. Or, oh, that's grand or just like moving on or just kinda like not missing a beat, just like that's good information at the end in the same way as, oh, you don't drink coffee. I actually get quite that strong reactions not to, but you know, that's a different thing, but it's the people who kind of go, oh, Um, oh and don't know how to
respond or become all awkward about it.
Cath: I'm familiar with that from, I think I've said to you before with being gay, that there's, that when someone assumes you've got a male partner, there's a, or you tell them that you're gay, there's that split second. It's almost not long enough to even put a second on it where they'd stare into mid space and you know, they're uncomfortable and then they come back desperately trying to show that there's no issue. There's that awkwardness and I think there's a lot of power in that space because actually, although it's not our responsibility to make them feel better, it can also be a moment of you just lead the way you just set the tone and you move on with it, but, as we've also talked before, you can do this because, you said to me once that when people, uh, talked to you about it or ask that it irritates you more than it upsets you. But I imagine you've also done a lot of work to get to that point. And if you're that person that your whole life has been destined where you've wanted to have children and then you can't then, it worries me that the
damage that can be done to people in that split second.
Sarah: Yeah and I've been thinking about friend's of mine who lost a baby recently, who I know was asked this question a lot and was under, I think I felt a bit of pressure when they got married. It doesn't deeply upset me anymore. I mean, I'm 51. I've made my peace with a lot of the choices that we made and where we are and what's happened in our lives and that took work. And partly because I didn't have that sense that my life would be over if I didn't have kids, I didn't have that kind of deep seated, whatever that is thing that some people do and equally, I have never lost a pregnancy had a miscarriage or lost a child, but there are people who have, and I cannot begin to imagine how difficult those questions are for them or how triggering.There's so many things because there's a grief there
and real pain and, and just, you know, I've, I mean, I've known so many people in that situation. It's heartbreaking and to then have that be the question everybody asks is really, really difficult and I think, A, what they're experiencing is difficult.What they have experienced, it's very difficult for them emotionally and secondly, there's also this pressure. I mean, I promised I wouldn't swear, but I can't imagine what it is that they would want to say to people who ask that question when they're in their worst moments of pain. There's also that social pressure to make the person asking you that question, feel comfortable so that you don't say, no, actually, I, you know, I've got six miscarriages or no, actually I really desperately wanted children and I can't or yes, actually, no, we don't, but I'm doing IVF right now or no, we don't, my baby took four breaths and passed. And those are still things that in some ways are quite taboo in our society. You sort of
speak about it in hushed tones, or they are heartbreaking and I think it's good people talking about it. I'm thinking by infertility and miscarriages particularly, that still that can be quite taboo for people.
Cath: It could be enough to stop, someone going to an expat coffee morning because they know that's where they need to be, but they know too that these are the questions and they can't face that they can't because it's so painful for them. I would hate to think that there's women and men, but particularly women with these mornings that there's women out there who, aren't getting the support they need through a network of expats because they're fearful of how they might get treated or how the question might be too painful for them, even though it's not painful for someone else.
Sarah: Yeah. I think, I want to give a shout out to Kate von Knobloch at Share The Love blog, who I think has a blog about talking about infertility and the expat world, because Kate raised this issue and had talked about it a bit and I think was one of the few people I have
known to talk about it in expat world. You know, that infertility is complicated if you move every three years, you know, what do you take? Interventions, treatments? I mean, I find that hard enough. I was having some drug therapy when we moved to Norway to manage some symptoms and had to go to find a private clinic and bring my drugs from Belfast and have my monthly shots.
That was complicated enough and different countries will have different approaches to infertility. You know, it means possibly things like fostering and adoption are more complicated, not impossible, but maybe complicated and so there's lots of nuances, which I am not an expert on, that are complicated.
There's also, you know, if, if you write an expat blog, or expat podcast about, expat life, it's, you know, we're not all parents and we're not all raising TCKs and sometimes you can look out at the great swathe of content and kind of go, oh, right I'm feeling a little bit outside that sometimes.
Cath: Yeah, I don't fit that mold.
Sarah: Not always,
but that can sometimes happen as well and I think, you know, it's been a locked down and it's been a while, so I met new people folks, but I did meet someone recently. I sort of intuited that she didn't have children from other information that she told me, you know, because things she might've said, oh, I've got the kids at home with my husband, or you usually get kind of, you read between the lines. I don't think I asked that question. I'm much more likely to say, do you have dogs? Or, you know, do you like, would you like some more chocolate cake? Or that mine's a gin, but I think there's lots of things that determine, when you're doing that new meeting, new people, figuring them out sort of stuff. Equally, I have a lot of respect for the people in my life who've just gone, oh, no kids, alright. Okay. Next. Like, you know, do you come here often? And not skipped a beat and the people in my life who've just gone all right you don't, that's fine. Without going, well why don't you?
Kind of like probe that or investigate it or equally go, um, I told you the story. I think we were talking before, um, doing a study group and a lovely, lovely group from Bangladesh. It's a very different culture. It was all around children's project, ironically, and a couple of days in one of the lovely, lovely ladies, said to me, Sarah, you have not spoken of your own children do not have children. I said, no we don't and it's okay, which is quite often what I say actually. I'm just like, get this uncomfortable thing out of the way.
Cath: That's quite a good way of setting the tone isn't it?
Sarah: Nobody needs to be upset um, and I just remember putting her hands on me and saying, yeah, I'll pray, but it was really actually, it was incredibly kind and I think if other people had done that I might've found it annoying. You know? Yes it's okay. But you know, I will think of you anyway. Yeah it was very empathetic
Sarah: [00:29:00] and it was very kind and it wan't like, well, why not, did you never want them? I have been asked all those things and if you're far enough into a relationship and a friendship with somebody, then that's okay. You kind of judge that, you know, you have to make a judgment about that and I've constantly good friends who have asked me that and we've had really great conversations about it and that's okay. But you know, we've been friends for a really long time at that point know?
Cath: But this is the thing. If you look at the kind of expat world where relationships develop much faster, or you can be in a country and one of the first things you do is find your kind of safe people. The person on a form that you can suddenly send your family to, or your kids do or whatever, if there's an emergency. So how do you find that balance then of, we don't go in too fast with a personal question, as opposed to expat circles where you bond and you click very differently very quickly. How would you visualize being in a room coming in and talking about these things
and where do you find the balance is to get it right so that both parties feel good about the conversation?
Sarah: For me, if people do ask that children question, it's me saying, you know, we don't, and it's okay. That usually clears the air a little bit on that and kind of takes the pressure off everybody to either apologize for putting their foot in it and asking a difficult question and moving the conversation on to something else. I think, I think it's also about embracing people that are different from you, I think is fundamentally what it's about when I think back on meeting people in our various experiences, that you know, you'd said to me that I would end up with great friends who were know 15 years older than me, I think I might've been surprised, but I think you just have to be open to people in the same way as you are open people from different cultural backgrounds and different life experiences, or at least I hope you are. Then you also have people whose
families don't look like you and to challenge whatever assumptions you might make, all of them. So I've had the kind of oh, it was all about your career. I've had that, it's a work thing. It's, very softly, but those things will come up and I think it's also about if I'm interested in spending, investing time, energy in a relationship with someone, it actually doesn't matter whether they're a parent or not, unless they're a really horrible parent. It's more about shared values and shared interests sometimes. My best friends in Norway I met nearly all of them through hiking. We had an infamous, expat hiking group and there was a lot of chat. There was some walking too and that kind of was a shared interest that cut across whatever our life experiences, cultural experiences and whatever our families looked like, whatever our circumstances were. I think it's also about finding things to talk about that are not fact checking.
Cath: So like open questions?
Sarah: How long have you been here? What brought you here?
Cath: How are feeling about your move?
How are you doing? Have you been settling in okay? Do you know anybody else? Do you have people to talk to? You know, all the kinds of important stuff, you know?
Cath: Almost like wellbeing rather than who are you and where do you come from? Or what is your, I'm going to say, husband in the sense that just because that is the question, but often is what does your other half do? What does your husband do? How many kids have you got?
Sarah: Even, do you come here with family, are you here on your own? Because family can be a partner or 17 children, whatever you want or you can be here as a part of a group, you know, kind of what the circumstances are that you're in. So thinking about that and thinking much more about, wellbeing, personality, characteristics, all those things.
Cath: And you're more likely to make a friend because someone's going to feel that they're actually being cared for and inquired about, it's not a factual conversation of telling someone it's actually asking someone how they are and showing an interest in them, for their sake, not through your filter. Does that make sense?
Sarah: Yeah I've started going swimming at a local pool now
that we're out of lockdown and can do those things again. I got there and the doors for one of the regulars, asked me it's even not usually open by nine. I said, yeah. And he said, I thought that was a Belfast accent. And so we had a whole conversation then, and when I was leaving, he said, he'd come back tomorrow I'm not back till Friday. Oh we'll see you then and that's how you begin to have the basis, that social content, that's the beginning of a relationship, even if all ever do say hi to each other in the slow lane. That's still a relationship of a kind.
I think it is a about stepping back and if you're asking that question, why does it matter to you? Is it just because it's kind of an automatic thing in which case maybe want to think differently about that and if you do find yourself, I mean, I think Naomi Hattaway's talked about this probably much more eloquently than me, but you know, when you see somebody on their own, like go and say hi, because whether that's an expat life or in any kind of social situation, it doesn't [00:34:00] matter what your personal circumstances are only in the sense that you might need support and care. And if you asking someone very pointed questions, like, do you have children and why not, then, then you might not realize that in your questioning, there's a value put on that and I think some of these things are, if you are that person that asks that question, then I would be wanting to say to them, like you just said, why do you need to know? And actually if in your head you feel like you need to know what thoughts are you creating that means that you think you need to know? So does that mean that a woman is only worthy when she becomes a mother? It's a good space to explore where that's coming from within you. Yeah and is it just that you've never stopped to think about it, in which case I think it's time you should, frankly, because there's lots of questions that we ask and that I did do that thing. I did that faux pas, you know, who's your husband worked for? And she said, well, my wife and I thought just like, I know better.
You wanted the ground to swallow you up.
Sarah: Yeah, shoot me now! And I just remember apologizing profusely and saying, you know, that's, that's a good lesson and thank you for being so lovely about it because I know better. I just, my brain wasn't clearly on that day, but we've all, I think a lot of us have made that mistake. You're not going to admit it as publicly as me.
Cath: Oh, I do. I mean, I'm a gay woman. I've still made that mistake and it's like, if anybody should know it should be me. I mean, but this is the thing there's a social norm I say in air quotes, that we think we're outside of, but we're all still part of it. And I think this is the one of the reasons I want to have these conversations. There's nothing wrong with making a mistake. That's fine, but if someone makes a mistake, then like apologize and move forward, or like this, talk about it and actually share, like to start to not have it as a taboo.
Sarah: Yeah and I think, like the examples that I just gave, I mean, I, as soon as I'd said it and she responded, I knew it was like, I'd really screwed up. The thing is when people ask you, if you
Sarah: [00:36:00] have children or not, you don't get that immediate response when you say no. There's kind of an awkwardness and then there's an awkwardness if they apologize. And then there's an awkwardness if we don't just move on.
Cath: Like, how do you quickly change subject to make it better again?
Sarah: And I do. If I like the person and they haven't asked it and it sort of a very inappropriate way that I would usually say, you know, it's okay, do you? What are their names? and what ages are they? That's all good.
Cath: That's still you doing the work, isn't it?
Sarah: It is to an extent and if I kind of get a weird reaction, then I don't do that. But if it's someone that, you know, maybe there's a conversation that's gone on for a couple of hours and we've kind of got to know each other, then, I've mellowed into it, decided I might like them. I do think that if it's kind of in your opening checklist of things that you ask, and I think it's an easy trap to fall into, particularly in the expat world, because a lot of the socializing is around school and so I think you do get on an autopilot where you've just come from the school coffee morning and that's completely
natural and step outside that bubble.
Cath: There's nothing wrong with that pattern because it is absolutely certain people's lives, but it's when you're always doing the school thing that, because we know that the connection comes from, like you were saying with the swimming, just that repeated, seeing each other even through no effort, you become friends because of just the circumstance of seeing each other all the time. So for someone like you, if you're not at the school gate, how do you get in and how do you breach or broach that subject?
Sarah: You definitely have to work a bit harder because the social nucleus is quite often around schools and around kids. You have to work a little bit harder to meet people. I remember a good friend kind of just basically brutally telling me not when I met her in Norway as a brand new expat, she was much more experienced expat. And she said, you know, I hate this, but this is going to be harder for you, this lifestyle, because so much of it for women partners, is around the parenting stuff on around schools and so you have to be a bit more
intentional perhaps and for me, sometimes I had to be a bit thicker skinned.
Cath: And there's a self-awareness that comes with that as well.
Sarah: But it's like anybody who's a little bit different. If the norm is heterosexual partnership, 2.4 children, husband works, wife's at home. You know, we need to find ways of being better at intentionally, including the people who don't look like that. And also, because I've never not worked or not being in education in my 10 years as an expat, sometimes people find that we're a bit like, what do you mean you work? When I wasn't working in the very brief period where I might not have been working people would say, we don't have children what do you do all day? Nothing. I just sit and drink gin. Do you have any books? I have not yet read?
Cath: I think this is part of an interesting thing because it shows us where socially we put, put our values all the time. It's only through these things that you then have value or you have worth. People say that they're bored and I don't get bored, like there's so much to do and I don't have children and I'm still ok!
Yeah and I'm in a new country, which is fascinating and amazing and I have to get out and meet people and make friends and figure out how the library works I was in Norway for two and a half years, still don't know how to buy double crime. I mean, there was a lot to process. So, yeah, there are value judgements about what do you do with your time and how do you entertain yourself? And I went back and got a degree that's what I did.
Cath: That's amazing opportunity on all different levels and actually by not having children, as you said, you're, you're an amazing aunt and you're also the person that everyone should know because while there's an emergency you're going to be interested in their children, not your own.
Sarah: Absolutely and also I think you bring a different perspective and sometimes you have time for their kids and in a different sort of way or a patience with them that maybe somebody who's just spent, you know, 48 hours dealing with their own children in a very intense way, doesn't have time to then hang out and talk to yours.
Cath: Or you're the confidant for a child who can't
talk about something with their parents and you're a safe space for the child.
Sarah: Before he became too cool to have an aunt, one of my best friend's kids used to get up very early come and walk with me in the mornings when I stayed with them and tell me all kinds of things, but you do definitely have a special relationship and I do think I'm really, really lucky. My best friend has three wonderful boys I would take a bullet for in a heartbeat. She has never made me feel that I was not as much a part of their lives as you know her well, actual family. She's never made me feel that I wasn't as qualified to look after her kids as anybody else. And I think that's a real gift because I think a lot of people that are childless don't necessarily have the experience,
Cath: That's also a testament to your friendship and that she sees you as a whole person, not, you don't have this, you don't have that.
Sarah: It's also about making intentional choices because I'm sure she wouldn't equally have judged me badly if I was not the person who sent a gift and sent a note and knew all the
boys birthdays. I mostly got all my nieces and nephew’s birthdays right. I don't have to be reminded very much. Usually only when I moved countries, but you know, we made a choice that we want to be present in their lives in whatever way we could and that is mostly sending gifts. Making sure we remember birthdays and Christmases, because when you're not able to be with them all the time, that's important, but that was an intentional choice for us to step in, to be aunty Sarah and uncle Russell. That's not that's not for everyone. We made a commitment and look forward to that commitment continuing into their adult lives. That's our choice, in a sense, but again, there are people who you just assume that you don't like kids or that you're not good with them. I don't understand that. If I think if you're interested in them, then you are mostly good with them.
Cath: And actually by not having your own, you bring something else to the relationship, that they may not have experienced. There's even a different outlook on life by not having kids and having a different way of living that you can bring extra experiences and
knowledge and lessons and all kinds of things into a child's life.
Sarah: It's, it's so much fun to be the cool aunt. I think that's one of the great pleasures of my life actually. That is a lot of fun, actually. That's a great, great gift for us and, we've always enjoyed our friend's kids and the conversations with them and knowing what they were up to. We've always enjoyed that. And I think the people that we have enjoyed that most with are the people who if you go to dinner at their house and the table's set for them and the kids and you're all in together, it's a very subtle thing, but it's a very lovely thing.
Cath: Very powerful.
Sarah: You know that you're really in then that you're part of the family, part of the tribe.
Cath: And also, when you say in it's not children at one and adults at the other, like it's all properly mixed and everyone has equal place. So, there's a value put on everybody.
Sarah: And when the kids are hanging out, when you're having dinner and it's not like we had to get a sitter and go out because Sarah and Russell can't hang out with our kids. We're completely relaxed about that, but we have had a couple of people who've separated those things somewhere.
Is that because they want the night off without the kids do you think?
Sarah: We're like, they're adults, they're adult friends and that sounds silly, but you know what I mean? That people, they go to the pub with and have fun with because they don't have any responsibilities and maybe they want to be like that. Everybody wants to be like somebody they're not. People apologize because they have to bring their kids with some, and we're like, why you apologizing? You know, your kids are great.
Cath: That's probably a really good point to end on is that it goes both ways. I mean, you talked about the key points of not assuming or the point of you actually really enjoying the kids, them enjoying your company and it comes down to let's not assume either way. Let's actually just talk to each other and find out in the proper way not just fact checking questions, but actually having conversations about people's wellbeing and actually not assuming but finding out in ways that actually are empowering and respectful for both people.
Sarah: I think, take
the opportunity to enjoy and embrace people who are different in whatever way that looks like or experiences and taking the opportunity to get a little bit deeper so that you're not asking those checkbox questions or if you are, you're asking them a little bit more intentionally and with a little bit more thought.
Cath: Yeah, fantastic. Well, I think that probably brings us to an end. Thank you, Sarah.
Sarah: That's quite enough for me.
Cath: Before you go, how can people find you with social media, if they wanted to get in touch with a Athru communications?
Sarah: Probably best way is Instagram. I am Sarah. Underscore, Athrú. It should be correctly pronounced, which is the Irish word for change, and it's A T H R U. I'm also on Twitter there as well. So yes, Twitter and Instagram are probably the best places to find me if you want to have a chat.
Cath: Fantastic. Thank you so much Sarah. It's been a really fascinating conversation and I wanted to
thank you for being so candid and trusting us with your story. You've gifted us with a lot of wisdom and I hope given people a lot to reflect upon so, thank you, and I'm incredibly grateful for the chance to talk with you
Sarah: Thank you for asking Cath. It's a pleasure.
Cath: Thank you. And before I go, remember Sarah's key points of, it's not okay to ask. It's not okay to assume, and it's not her responsibility to make you feel better. And in doing that, it's about having deeper, more open conversations, that aren't the fact checking and actually checking on someone's wellbeing rather than who they are, what they do and where they live. So I ask you, what are you going to do with Sarah's story? How are you going to show up differently? And what's this first thing you're going to do? How are you going to actually make a change given what you've heard today?
You've been listening to Drawn to a Deeper Story with Cath Brew. I'm confident that today's conversation will have given you some
insight into the hidden layers of someone else's life and like Sarah in sharing her story, let's have courage. Let's use that courage and the new awareness that we've gained today to show up better for women and men who don't have children. Thanks for listening.