This time last year, Alison and Rachel, members of the staff Wellbeing Champions network, co-authored a blog post to raise awareness of childlessness and how it can affect wellbeing. A year on, with World Childless Week coming up, we are reflecting on a year of progress and opportunities for connection around this theme.
Last summer, we hosted an online meeting within our Wellbeing Champions network to share our personal stories and experiences of childlessness and how it can affect wellbeing, including in the workplace. It was a very safe and supportive environment for taking our first steps in speaking openly about the topic. It felt extremely vulnerable but also very validating to be acknowledged in our experiences. The intention was to raise awareness of the topic so that Wellbeing Champions can readily signpost support for colleagues.
We went on to establish the No Kidding group, an informal support network for University of Bath staff who are childless not by choice. We have hosted meet ups during ‘Time to Talk’ and ‘Mental Health Awareness’ week, and the network is slowly growing. It provides a confidential and supportive space where staff can connect with others around the shared experiences of childlessness. We recognise that everyone’s journey is unique. The support group is open to colleagues whatever the circumstances (such as childlessness by circumstance, by relationship or following fertility treatment). We have created an online space for sharing resources and reflections, and we hold regular meetups, both on campus and online.
For Alison and I, the most striking thing about holding this shared space is the way it allows us to recognise, acknowledge and normalise some of the complex and difficult feelings that crop up around childlessness. These feelings can come up no matter how far along you are in working through your grief; sometimes a very mundane trigger can catch you totally unawares. Being able to share that experience in a safe space and hearing someone respond ‘oh I know what you mean, something similar came up for me just recently...’ transforms the experience and breaks down the sense of isolation and not fitting in.
Next week, to mark World Childless Week, we will be holding an on-campus meet up on Wednesday 14th September, 10:30 – 11:30. It will take place in a quiet, confidential space and is an opportunity to connect and chat over a tea or coffee. If you would like to join the network or find out more, contact Alison and Rachel via firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking ahead, we are also planning to host an awareness raising session for managers and HR during the autumn, so keep an eye out for more news.
What can I do to support colleagues?
If you would like to learn more about this topic, and to be able to hold a space for colleagues (or indeed family or friends) who have experienced childlessness, here are a few starting points:
- You could spend a short time exploring some of these resources to understand more from the perspective of the childless community
- 5-minute read: Childlessness – the unspoken workplace inclusion issue. Published by Diversity Council Australia, written by Michael Hughes
- 30-minute listen: Growing the inclusion pie. Inclusive Growth Show, Episode 70. Toby Mildon interviews Jody Day. Audio and transcript.
- Got a bit longer: Explore some of the resources and stories shared via World Childless Week. This year’s themes include Childless and Single, and Childlessness in the Workplace, among others. It is a rich resource of personal stories, expressed in many different forms. You can browse topics from previous years (g. Men Matter Too, Ageing without Children) to help understand different facets of the experience
- Try to be an open and active listener, and be mindful about making assumptions around parental status
- If you ask someone ‘do you have children?’ are you prepared to give someone space for a complex or nuanced answer, and to listen to their experience if it’s not a straightforward ‘yes...’?
- If someone chooses to share from their experience, avoid giving advice unless asked. Rather than offering a ‘fix’ or solution (‘have you thought about...,’ ‘oh, I know someone who tried...’), be prepared instead to listen and acknowledge what they share
- Think about how you communicate with colleagues, for example around baby announcements or maternity or paternity events
- Be mindful about including photographs in emails. Are the photos fitting in a work context where they are likely to be shared via mailing lists, not just with close colleagues? Could you attach them in a zip file? Putting the photos in a folder doesn’t detract from the chance to share good news with colleagues, but it can make a dramatic difference to the experience of a colleague who is experiencing grief or loss around childlessness. It allows everyone to choose if they wish to look at the photos.
- If you have an event such as a parental leave celebration or bringing a baby to meet your team, can you arrange it as an ‘opt in’ event – with advanced notice and in a separate space to the daily work environment?
Most importantly, above all else listen to your friend, family member or colleague with an open ear, without judgement or offers of quick fixes. Being heard is the most supportive thing you can do if someone has chosen to open up to you. If you have been affected by this topic personally, or know someone who has, or even if you would just like more information on how to support loved ones or colleagues, please do contact Alison or Rachel at email@example.com, we’d love to hear from you.