I aimed to set up (In)visible childlessness a year ago, but I wasn’t ready as I was still an imposter to myself. In July I shared (un)becoming an imposter on my own website, it was my attempt at ‘coming out’ as childless, but also more than childless and the fragmenting process that had occurred to my identity as a result of viewing being childless as failure. I share the full post below. I more ready, but still in my process of accepting childlessness and myself as not being a failure.
(un)becoming an imposter
The wearing of masks leaves scars. Scars, which I haven’t always allowed to heal. It is the daily picking of these scars, which, for me, defines being an imposter. The underlying uncomfortableness of inhabiting myself, physically, emotionally, mentally. At many times during my life so far, I have been disconnected, insecure and in conflict. Too often inhabiting territories of self-hate, a sense of failure and a lonely emptiness. I struggle to care for, to be, myself. I can be very ashamed of who I am not and by default who I am, as if I am deficient.
So why share? Because I can no longer live the stories I tell myself. I also want to give voice to my experiences. Experiences, which so often stay voiceless. Stories, I have rehearsed too many times as the reasons behind the masks, as excuses for inaction, for unhealthy decisions, for maintaining my intensely self-critical part, because I fear loving myself. The stories are not important to this post, though they are an unsettling mix of childhood experiences, religious preaching, of not being accepted, first by others and later, more crucially, by me, and my reactions to coping with the internal noise of not being who I want to be. To survive I developed masks to fit in, to appear ok. Smiling, when anything but. What is important about the stories is they dominated my narrative, shouted across other stories, stories of love, achievements, friendships, all part of a sense of self I am proud to be. And I can forget these stories of care, even when they are part of my everyday, as my sight, my hearing, my thoughts become skewed. And the ensuring conflict is suppressed, ultimately in reactive attacks of self-harm to my sense of being, to my sense of mattering.
The repeating, harming stories I had processed, drawn a line under and instead was living my life based on the stories of love and care. But, it seems one plus one, doesn’t always equal three. Through trying for children and the following invisible grief of being childless not by choice, the grapple hook of that pain, sadness and unfairness pulled up my past stories of failure, for what is not being a Dad? Of not mattering, for who are you without children, to care for, to pass onto? I picked those scars and I tore away the recently laid foundations I had developed.
To cope, to function, I layered on new masks on top of the returning old masks, in attempts to protect myself from traumatic situations. Trauma that is everywhere and everyday: bumps, prams, playing toddlers, shouting parents, car signs, friends, brothers, having families. The list feels endless. The years blurred, we kept trying for children, we kept processing, we kept trying to be, we kept falling down, but also getting up, there are two cats to feed after all.
My sense of self I had developed and was content with, began separating out, the writer, disappeared; the therapist, where I felt connected, alive, purposeful, but contained to that space, outside I was my own client, losing meaning, purpose; the runner, falling in and out of this self-care, the enjoyment, the movement, it was never far enough away; the husband, I told myself I had to be strong, had to support, I would not allow myself to break and that was a mistake, I needed to break; the childless man, lonely and full of self-blame; and now also a PhD student, beginning, not belonging. All these parts I kept separate. I had fragmented through shame.
In fragmenting, I lost my sense of belonging not only to myself, but also to others. What kept me involved was masks, was being an imposter. On the majority of occasions, I was present, but with no depth of connection, on the edges and too often on the outside looking in. I felt unseen with my childless grief, I was turning myself invisible to match. On those rare occasions where I felt connected, felt joy, I felt betrayal too, to the memories of our lost children. There was that cruel voice, scratching onto my heart, look at you, enjoying yourself, you can’t have wanted children that badly. A snarl, I wish I had told to Fuck Off, instead I told myself to do that instead.
Until, one day, a day that had been coming, I broke. There was no dramatic collapse, no alcohol fuelled implosion, no lightbulb moment on the Joy Division bridge. It was rather boring. A quiet acknowledgement to my wife, that I both wanted to and needed to focus on processing the childless grief, in order that I could enjoy my life with her and our cats, our family, without guilt. I had got by on bits and pieces. I wanted more than getting by.
Here I am. I am coming back together. I see my masks hanging up, I know I could end up reaching for them again, but I am aiming not to. I want my scars to heal. The masks are part of me, part of my insecure beginnings, part of my grief, but then so is the love from my wife and cats. And as difficult as this is to say, so is the love for myself. I am enough. Three words to support curiosity, to support care and be with all aspects of my experiences and myself. I am enough. Three words as an anchor for belonging.