Personal Reflections on Non/Mothers, Other-Mothers, Mothering and Being Mothered

We live in a world where the identity of woman and mother are still often seen as interchangeable. As a result, there are many ways that women who do not (currently) mother in traditionally defined and valued forms can feel excluded. Furthermore, many of those without a mother similarly experience their difference to others as painful.

Mother’s Day, and accompanying Hallmark inspired celebrations, can be difficult for those who are motherless and/or nonmothers and yet these identities are more fluid than is often acknowledged. Mothering Sunday then might be a better term for such celebration given as it allows for the inclusion of our memories of being mothered and our past, present and future experiences of mothering children and other adults – in both our personal and work lives – in many and varied ways. This includes, but is not restricted to, women whose children have died, are estranged from them or who live far away; women who mother children to whom they are not biologically related; women who mother children (and adults) through their paid or voluntary work life; and the mothering of friends.

My personal identities as non/other mother (M/Other) and as daughter (now ‘orphaned’), alongside my professional identities as teacher, researcher, supervisor and mentor, have been significant to, and within, my auto/biographical work as a feminist sociologist (see for example Letherby 2017, Brennan and Letherby 2017). I have attempted a critical auto/biographical approach to explore aspects of my professional and personal identity with reference to (non/other) maternal status and experience. I have undertaken research and written (alone and with others) in the areas of perinatal loss, ‘infertility’ and ‘involuntary childlessness’ (written in quotation marks to highlight problems of definition) teenage pregnancy and young parenthood; experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood for women living with long-term health conditions; identity issues for women with polycystic ovary syndrome; older motherhood; stay-at-home mothers; the ‘voluntary’-‘involuntary’ childlessness continuum; and non/motherhood within institutions (including universities and prisons). I have also recently begun to reflect and write on the experience of being mothered.

Alongside my academic writings I write fiction, memoir and political opinion pieces some of which refers or relates to my academic work in these areas. This is an extract from a piece I wrote for Mother’s Day (in the UK) in 2017:

‘Thirty-two years ago, when I had my miscarriage my central aim was to be a mother and I felt that I was only half a woman without a child.  Any doubts or ambivalences I had about becoming a mother I denied. I now feel very different. I no longer see myself as a lesser woman (or less than adult) for not mothering children. I am also able to accept the equivocal nature of my desires – that is, a part of me enjoys the freedom that I have had and have because of my biologically childless state. And if I had become a biological mother I know that I would have felt opposing emotions in relation to that experience also. Of course, I cannot know how my life would have turned out if I had carried my baby successfully to term. My return to education a couple of years after my loss would likely not have happened but given the opportunities I have not had I will be forever grateful for the fulfillment my studies and subsequent work in higher education have given me. It is not only the intellectual stimulation I am thankful for but also the relationships I have made with students and younger colleagues. Indeed, most of my working life, as nursery nurse and as academic, has provided me with opportunities to support and encourage younger people. Although, I am amongst the first to critique the view that women should automatically be expected to care at work as well as at home, personally I feel privileged to be able to do this.’

As my maternal desires, intentions and experiences have changed I am aware that I have shifted my position on what James H. Monach (1993) calls the ‘voluntarily’/ ‘involuntary’ childless continuum. I prefer this to Anne Woollett’s (1996) description of her own move from ‘infertile’ to ‘childless’ for I have always had children in my life (through my work and in my relationships with the children and grandchildren of close friends). Now in my late fifties my life is a fulfilling mixture of paid and voluntary work (both within and outside of the academy) some political activism and time spent with close and loving friends (of all ages).

I still grieve for the children I do not have and am regularly reminded of what is missing from my life, in terms of daily interaction with children and grandchildren of ‘my own’. However, I appreciate the value of my life as it is and the many positives and privileges associated with it.

Throughout my career I have, on occasion, had my academic choices challenged. My auto/biographical approach has been devalued or dismissed as not academic (enough) even self-indulgent (Letherby 2000) but I have always felt confident enough to counter this with academic argument (e.g. Letherby 2013). The ‘critique’ of my personal, as opposed to my academic, identity has at times been harder, at least emotionally, to counter. On the break-up of his previous relationship my second (late) husband John was given custody of his two teenage sons. For the first eight years of our time together both boys lived with us full-time and on occasion spent long periods of time at home well into their twenties. These relationships made me think again about my own biological childlessness and were both a challenge and a revelation to me. I never defined myself as the boys’ mother and they did not see me this way either but I do feel that my relationship towards them was, for many years, parental.Thus, there were times when it felt appropriate to say yes when asked if I had any children and in an ironic twist on my status there were times when I felt like an ‘involuntary’ parent. When writing about this in a journal article the editor of the feminist publication changed my reference to ‘a parental relationship with John’s two sons’ to ‘a kind of parental relationship’.

Throughout our 53 years together, and since her death six years ago, friends and acquaintances have commented on the rapport and warmth between my mother and I. Indeed, not least with reference to my status as non(biological) mother. As I have described elsewhere: ‘I feel sure that I would not have survived intact, reformed as whole without my mother’s support and unconditional love. For her it was all about me, always about me and it was not until after her death that I realised she never, ever, spoke of her own loss, no babies for me, no grandbabies for her’. Despite this, it has been suggested to me, several times, at academic conferences and seminars and in published pieces, that a woman can never really understand, or be completely close to her own mother until she becomes a mother herself.

Outside of academia there is also exclusion. One recent experience demonstrates how my academic and personal identities interconnect. In 2017 At ‘The World Transformed’ at the 2017 Labour Party Conference a group called Mums4Corbyn launched. To accompany this the New Socialist put out a call for a series of articles on the ‘politics of contemporary motherhood’. I submitted a pitch for consideration:

My concern is with the political significance of all women whether mothers, nonmothers or other-mothers (women whose mother status is considered lesser, even ‘unreal’). This is important because the ideologies and expectations of ideal motherhood affect all women, in our private and our public lives and the image of the ideal woman – which is arguably synonymous with the image of the ideal mother – also affects us all, whether mother, other-mother or nonmother. Feminism can be criticized for focusing on motherhood at the expense of a consideration of sisterhood. Yet any (political) understanding of motherhood and mothering needs to embrace the experience of nonmothers and other-mothers. It is only through such holistic reflection on our similarities and our differences that as sisters together we can challenge that which divides us and holds us back and celebrate our ‘collective and communal relations’ which will enable to us work together for ‘transformative change’.

Sadly, the editors felt that my piece did not ‘quite match’ their intended agenda. Which in turn, I would suggest, is a further denial of the relevance of the very many of us who have an identity and experiences defined by society as lesser (see here for more on this).

This rejection has prompted more reflection and writing. I’ll end here with an extract from a piece of prose poetry:

Being Other

. . . .

Yet, there remains a sense of difference, compounded at times by exclusion.

Still feeling other and sometimes being othered.

Being also, at least at some level, an expert in my own experience, and through much study and research the experience of similar others, does not always protect me from distress.

So what of the latest exclusion, that which forces me to relive my loss (yet again), and its’ social, emotional and material aftermath, more than thirty years on from the life-changing night when all this started?

This time a denial not only of our contribution and our value but also a rejection of my knowledge and expertise.

I appreciate then that my pride is hurt on top of all the rest.

I will recover, I always do.

But for the moment I’m left reflecting on the fragility of it all.

Contentment, self-worth, security in one’s achievements and meaningfulness, perhaps even some small legacy.

In a heartbeat all threatened.

Walking on ice.

Careful steps now …

Written by Professor Gayle Letherby, University of Plymouth


Brennan, M. and Letherby, G. (2017) ‘Auto/Biographical Approaches to Researching Death and Bereavement: connections, continuums, contrasts’ for Morality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 22(2): 155-169

 Letherby, G. (2000) ‘Dangerous Liaisons: auto/biography in research and research writing’ in G. Lee-Treweek and S. Linkogle, S. (eds.) Danger, Gender and Data in Qualitative Inquiry London: Routledge

Letherby, G. (2013) ‘Theorised Subjectivity’ in G. Letherby J. Scott and M. Williams Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research London: Sage

 Letherby, G. (2017) ‘To Be or Not to Be (a mother): Telling Academic and Personal Stories of Mothers and Others’ in G. Rye, V. Browne, A. Giorgio, E. Jeremiah and A. L. Six (eds.) Motherhood in Literature and Culture: interdisciplinary perspectives from Europe London: Routledge

Monach, J. H. (1993) Childless No Choice: the experience of involuntary childlessness London: Routledge







The Story of An Accidental Infertile by Jessica Hepburn

This month we are launching our Centre blog which will be used to share work, advertise events and most importantly, to generate discussion and dialogue. For our inaugural post, we invited January’s guest speaker Jessica Hepburn, to tell our readers about her experience as a public figure in the world of fertility and what she thinks needs to change to improve things for patients and the public in the future. Jessica is one of the UK’s leading patient voices on infertility and founder of Fertility Fest the world’s first arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility and the science of making babies.

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Standing at the front of the classroom at the Centre for Reproduction Research in January, I thought how far I had come. Four years ago, almost to the day, my first book The Pursuit of Motherhood had been published and since then my life has changed completely. For years, I had been very secretive about my struggle to conceive. Publicly I was a successful ‘career woman’ (that terrible term that is never used to describe men). I ran a large theatre in London. But privately I was desperately trying to become a mother going through round after round of unsuccessful IVF.

I contemplated bringing my book out under a pseudonym. I knew it was a story that needed to be told, but I wasn’t sure whether I was strong enough to face the stigma and shame associated with infertility. I was going to call myself ‘Jessica Harper’ but then my editor did a Google search and discovered there was someone of that name who had just defrauded Lloyds Bank of millions of pounds. It wasn’t worth the mix up.

So I ‘came out’. I became a public infertile. And it’s been ok, not only because being honest about my own experience has made things better for me and those around me –  because secrecy and shame can be toxic – but also because it’s enabled me to campaign to make a better world for fertility and infertility. And this May my second book will be published: 21 Miles: Swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood. It’s the story of one woman (me!) who ate 21 meals with 21 women and then swam 21 miles to answer the question: does motherhood make you happy? You can watch the trailer here:

My work in the sector has taken a number of forms in addition to writing including being a trustee of the national charity Fertility Network UK, a patient adviser to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and hosting the Q&A stage of the Fertility Show in London and Manchester. It sometimes bemuses me that the black-sheep of the fertility industry (me again!) is welcomed in these arenas which are dedicated to supporting people to achieve their dreams of a family. But I do think there is more and more recognition that IVF, whilst being a modern miracle, isn’t a magic bullet. It doesn’t work every time for everyone and it’s important that there is better understanding of that as well as the psychological impact of going through treatment. But at the same time the science does offer remarkable routes to parenthood, both for people who are fully fertile (single women, the LGBTQ+ community) and for couples struggling with infertility and sub fertility. And the opportunities that the science might offer for the way the human race is made are developing all the time. We need to talk more as a society about all aspects of human fertility and reproductive science – what it can and cannot do and how people can best make the families they want, with (or without!) children.

In 2016, I brought my two worlds of the arts and fertility together and founded Fertility Fest – the world’s first arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility, modern families and the science of making babies.  It will be back in May for its second edition at the Bush Theatre in London (8 – 13th May Six days, forty events and 150 artists and fertility experts in a unique programme of events, entertainment, discussion, debate, support and solidarity. I’m delighted that Professor Nicky Hudson from De Montfort University has agreed to be one of our fertility experts in our session ‘The Gift’ which will look at the light and dark sides of egg, sperm and embryo donation.

The festival has three big aims:

  • To use the power of the arts to improve the understanding of the emotional journey of the fertility patient in order to ensure better patient care and outcomes;
  • To improve the level of public discourse about all aspects of reproductive science;
  • To improve fertility education.

I believe that the next generation deserves a more rounded and robust understanding of their fertility. They shouldn’t just be taught how ‘not to get pregnant’ and our project, Modern Families, which launches at the end of February aims to influence the current consultation that is being undertaken into the PSHE curriculum following the introduction of compulsory Relationship and Sex Education in schools – you can read more about it on our website here:

The festival programme will be exploring things like ‘The Doctor In The Bedroom’ (what it really feels like to conceive through reproductive science); ‘The Invisible Man’ (on the still little discussed issue of the male experience of infertility). We’ll also be looking at the aftermath of unsuccessful treatment in sessions such as  ‘When ART doesn’t work’ as well as parenting after IVF in ‘No Longer Extraordinary’ – because does the experience of struggling to conceive ever leave you? We’ll also be tackling some big societal questions like ‘What Comes First The Career Or The Egg?’, ‘Race, Religion and Reproduction’ and ‘The Future of Fertility.’

And new for this year, we have a series of sessions called ‘Fertility Fight Club’ in which artists and fertility experts will take to the stage to argue for something they want to change about the world of fertility. These sessions will be live-streamed so if you can’t join us in person, you can watch and participate from the comfort of your armchair wherever you are in the world.

But I hope you can join us in person. Tickets are on sale now. The festival is for everyone and anyone and you won’t find another event in the fertility calendar like it. It’s for patients at all stages of their fertility journey. It’s for fertility professionals (scientists, clinicians, and academics). And it’s for people who are just plain curious about the subject and want to learn more. Crucially it’s for people with and without children because we all have a fertility story. I may be an accidental infertile. It’s certainly not something I ever planned for or wanted. But now I’m here let’s talk about it because this is how the human race is being made (and sometimes not being made) today.