"My unborn child, the one who will never be, finds me even in sleep." This powerful and moving portrait of people without children combines memoir of the author's own childlessness and her eventual acceptance of it, with a many-faceted cultural overview of an issue which affects millions of people. From the playgrounds of Glasgow to the villages of Bangladesh, Gibb collects stories of the childless. In the process, Gibb hopes to raise awareness of the state, and tell stories that have been neglected or silenced.
Lorna Gibb’s Childless Voices is painful to read on many levels. Her starting point is her own experience – sadly, all too common – of severe endometriosis that went undiagnosed for two decades; despite such intense pain that she frequently passed out, one male doctor told her dismissively: “Some women just have bad periods.” By the time her condition was properly identified, the damage was too great for her to conceive naturally and Britain’s unjust postcode lottery for NHS treatment meant that she and her husband would not qualify for free IVF (though in the next borough they would have been eligible for two cycles).
This is a book so much more powerful for Gibb having searched the world for childless voices. It tells the author’s own story, too, as one voice among many: her far from unusual history of undiagnosed endometriosis. “Some women just have bad periods,” as one doctor put it. These “periods” were in reality various organs bleeding in turn, causing so much internal damage that she occasionally collapsed from the pain. Gibb’s account is restrained, coloured with love and gratitude – for the husband who stands by her through her illness (she knows how many millions of men do not); for the fact that early menopause means “I have not had endometriosis for 10 years now and I know how fortunate that makes me”. But at the same time it takes years to come to terms with childlessness... Gibb offers this book, too, as a small step forward, hoping that, in her acts of listening, fastidious exactitude and unflinching accounts of tragedy (it’s a hard book to read without crying at least once), she can make the case for empathy, imagination and respect as the most viable beginnings.
Childless Voices is a dense book, packed with statistics and anecdotes, and I will certainly never again include “Have you got children?” in my small talk. Yet at times Gibb seems to cast her net too wide. She spends too long making tenuous connections between female suicide bombers and childlessness, and explaining how nuns can be “spiritual mothers”, too. A tighter edit would have helped...She is at her most tender when describing her own thoughts on motherhood and the child she never had. Only towards the end does she question how she too is perceived in society. “Do they ever think — silent, unshared thoughts — ‘She’s not a mother, she doesn’t understand?’ ”