Taking the road less-travelled, with 65-year-old clinical psychologist Shelley

This second-wave feminist has been lighting our way since the 70s!

Episode 20


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Shelley is a clinical psychologist and second-wave feminist who’s been fighting for our rights since the 70s. She was an early beneficiary of Roe vs Wade, which legalised abortion in the US, and chose to be sterilised at 21. Now that she’s 65, it was a pleasure to look back with her over an action-packed life, to see how far we’ve come in the struggle for gender equality and bodily autonomy… and why we’re still fighting! Shelley was the perfect person to speak to about the question of whether to have kids or not, as she’s helped many women think through their options, and her example lights the way for anyone interested in taking the road less-travelled. If you’re curious about the childfree choice, this one’s packed full of advice and insights that could help your decision. And if you’ve made up your mind, this episode will give you an absolute icon to look up to!

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Shelley: And she said, “You’ll see when you’re older – you’ll be happy to sacrifice your life for your children. Just like my mother’s mother sacrificed for her, and my mother sacrificed for me, and you’ll sacrifice for your children.” And I said, “Absolutely not! I am not doing that!” I said, “It doesn’t make any sense. If your mother sacrificed her life for you, and you sacrificed for me, and it just keeps going like that, no woman child gets to live. It doesn’t make any sense. You keep sacrificing as if someone is going to benefit from this, but it’s just sacrifices for the girls, all the way down the line.” You know, I just told her, “I’m going to live my life in honour of all the sacrifices that have gone before me. And at least someone is going to live.”

Zoë: Hey lovelies! Welcome back to We are Childfree, a podcast that celebrates childfree lives and shares our stories. Today’s guest is Shelley, a clinical psychologist and second-wave feminist who’s been fighting for our rights since the 70s! Before we get into this inspiring convo, I’d like to thank everyone who’s left a rating or review of the show on your podcast app. On Apple Podcasts, We are Childfree has a 5 out of 5 star rating, and the reviews are so heartwarming. Here’s one that touched me, from AK 35: “I started this podcast series on Dr Kate Tomas’ guest episode and became totally hooked. As a childfree woman who is confident but rather alone in her choices, it is so affirming to hear these awesome people discuss their childfree lives. Thank you Zoe for creating this community and bringing together these fascinating and empowering voices. Heart emoji” Aw thanks AK! Please keep the reviews coming – they mean so much to me. So now onto this amazing episode. Shelley was an early beneficiary of Roe vs Wade, which legalised abortion in the US, and chose to be sterilised at 21. Now that she’s 65, it was a pleasure to look back with her over an action-packed life, to see how far we’ve come in the struggle for gender equality and bodily autonomy… and why we’re still fighting! Shelley was the perfect person to speak to about the question of whether to have kids or not, as she’s helped many women think through their options, and her example lights the way for anyone interested in taking the road less travelled. If you’re curious about the childfree choice, this one’s packed full of advice and insights that could help your decision. And if you’ve already made up your mind, this episode will give you an absolute icon to look up to!

Shelley: I knew when I was very young. I think I was, I don’t know exactly what age, but I do know that as a very young child – I was born in 1957, so I was a child of the early sixties, and I was very aware of things in the news. And we watched the news every day, and, you know, seeing the body bags of people coming back from Vietnam, and seeing all the militarism of the world and all the civil rights struggles of that era, it made a big effect on me. I was also aware of things like zero population growth, that group. I learned to read when I was very young, and so I was just reading every single day at the library and, anyway, I think that was sort of the soup that I sort of was immersed in, just of the world issues that I was aware – that this is not a safe place, this is a dangerous place. There’s a lot of fear at that time of nuclear war with Russia and school, I’m hiding under the desk, as if that could somehow help you survive, which I knew was absurd. And so, I think that was the outer context of my feeling about it. But I think I was also aware of so many issues just in my own family, and my own self, I had a lot of medical problems that I had inherited from my parents, eczema and asthma and severe allergies. And I was very disturbed that I didn’t ask for this, but you know, because my parents had these things, I had them too. So, I was sort of angry about that. And my family didn’t seem to think it was that big a deal, but it felt like a big deal to me, because I couldn’t do many things that other people could do. I’m one of those people that will die if I eat nuts. So, I always had to be afraid of everything I ate, things like that. And so that was part of it. Another layer of it was the fact that my mother’s example was certainly one that made me feel I definitely did not want to be a mother. My mother had five children, all girls, I was the middle child. And my father was someone who worked in the city and commuted and came home, and my mother really had to do everything at the house for five children. And she really felt that was a lot of work for her, which it was. And she also had a small business selling clothing from a little room at the bottom of our house, because, you know, she couldn’t like go to a shop somewhere, because she needed to be at home. So, she converted this little room to like a little shop, and anyway, the issue was that my mother was very angry about the fact that she had to all this work to do, and she was pretty open about her feelings. And she would constantly tell me, you know, “Oh, you kids will be the death of me yet. If I didn’t have all you kids, I’d be the CEO of a company.” And so she would repeatedly you know, be giving us a litany, every day is, “You know what I had to do before you even get up this morning?” so I was so conscious of how much work it is to be a mother. And so, at some point in my early, I think I was probably like twelve or thirteen when I started to, you know, really talk back to her about these things, I said, something like, “Why did you have all these kids, if you really wanted to be a business woman?” Because that was quite clear. That’s really what she wanted to do. And she said, “Well, when you’re a woman, that’s when you’ll become a mother. And you’ll understand”. And I said, “No, no, I’m not going to do that”. And she said, “You’ll see when you’re older, you’ll be happy to sacrifice your life for your children”. And she said, “just like my mother’s mother sacrifice for her, and then my mother sacrifice for me, and you’ll sacrifice for your children”. I said, “Absolutely not”. I said, “I am not doing that. I said, it doesn’t make any sense”. I said, “if you’re, if your mother sacrificed her life for you, and you sacrifice for me, and it just keeps going like that, no woman child gets to live. There’s, it doesn’t make any sense. You keep sacrificing as if someone’s going to benefit from this, but it’s just sacrifices for the girls all the way down the line”. And I said, I just told her, I said, “You know, I’m going to live my life in honour of all the sacrifices that have gone before me. And at least someone is going to live”.

Zoë: I love that. I love that. Shelley. Why should anyone sacrifice their own life for something that maybe they don’t want? I mean, your mother, clearly, she wouldn’t have had children maybe if she lived in another time. And yeah, why should that cycle repeat? You know, yeah, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.

Shelley: Yeah. So, I just, that for me is a was like a turning point in my life where I really to hear her explanation, help me sort of just bring to my mind like, “No, I’m not doing that”. Because I was very aware of all the things I wanted to do. And I knew that it would take a lifetime to do them all. And that I really, I had absolutely no interest in having children. There were so many other things I wanted to do. And so, I was completely unambivalent about it, it was such a certainty that, but of course, at that time, I wasn’t sure how I could make that work. And so, really, the next turning point, was when I was a little older, I was, let’s see, I came to San Francisco, and I was nineteen. And that’s when I had a boyfriend who I got pregnant with. I was using a diaphragm, but it did not work. And this was about five years after Roe vs. Wade, in this country, which legalised abortion. And so, I was very fortunate to be pregnant at that time because I was able to get an abortion, fairly easily, at a local clinic. And that I had absolutely no, you know, ambivalence about that either, which I was glad to have. And the boyfriend was supportive, and he came with me and everything was fine. And of course, they interrogate you a little bit about, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” That was, you know, not really bad. But then, the following month, which I can’t believe to this day, it happened the following month, I was raped by someone that I had just met in a restaurant who was allegedly giving me a ride home in the rain. And so, and unfortunately, I got pregnant again, the month after I had an abortion. So, that was for me, another turning point, because I said, “Okay, I’m going to have an abortion again. Obviously, I’m going to do that”. But I thought, “I don’t want to be in this situation ever again. I don’t. I know I don’t want to have children. There’s no reason for me to keep being at risk of this happening because if I ever get pregnant, I’m of course going to have an abortion so what is the point of that?” And so I decided okay that’s it I’m going to make an appointment to find out about sterilisation and I was twenty-one years old at this point and I did my research and I found a place where they did it and I went to the doctor and I had a surgical consultation and the doctor said something like, “So you’re twenty-one, how many children do you have?” And I said, “I don’t have any children that’s why I’m here, I don’t want to have any children and I want to do this to prevent that”. And she I could tell she was like, “Oh dear, she was like well, that’s very unusual. You know, most of the women who come here have already had you know, multiple children and they just don’t want any more”. And I said, “I understand that but I don’t want any” and she put me through this whole rigmarole of interrogating me and you know all these questions of why and when did you decide this and things like, “Don’t you think you’re going to change your mind?” And “What if your husband wants kids?” and I said, “I’m not getting married either – won’t be a problem”. And anyway, it was, sort of a difficult interrogation but she agreed to do it but she said well I’ll have to contact you about and when the date of the surgery is, so then she contacted me later and said – this was at a hospital, San Francisco General Hospital – and she said, “The people at the hospital have reviewed your case. And before I can do this, you’re going to have to talk to some other doctors”. So, I had to be interrogated by two male doctors. She was a female doctor who was doing the surgery, but they wanted these two men to talk to me, so they interrogated me, and the good thing is I was very aware I had to be very calm. Yeah, I had to just repeat the story very matter-of-factly and so I did, and I was able to pass their screening and then I scheduled the date and then even on the operating table, I don’t know if they’d given me the anaesthesia yet. All I know is that I was on the operating table and someone else came in and leaned over me in their surgical masks and said, “Now we want to give you one last chance to change your mind”. And I’m thinking “You’ve got to be kidding”. So, I said “No, thank you, I have no interest in changing my mind. Please start the procedure”. So, I finally had what’s called tubal ligation. And so that was, you know, finally I got what I was hoping to get. and I never had to worry about getting pregnant again. And at that time it was, most people we’re just grateful that they had the opportunity to get abortions but I knew that I did not want children so there was no reason for me to even worry about that. And all the birth control issues, you know, it’s difficult to find something that’s consistent and works and doesn’t do side effects. So, I was glad I didn’t have to do with birth control or pregnancy or abortions or any of that.

Zoë: Yes. I mean, it’s shocking even hearing from women now the struggle that they face to get tubal ligations, I mean, back then; really, it’s very dependent on which doctor you see, and where you live. Some people will say, okay, in my country, maybe it’s a little bit more progressive, forward thinking and it’s easier, but generally, even in countries where I would have thought, well that should be, that would make sense that doctors would listen to a woman who said I want this, I need bodily autonomy, but no, they face, you know, some, some women are telling me they’re facing, you know, they go to the doctor, ten different doctors and they’re told no. And it’s, you know, it’s really shocking from, it doesn’t seem to have changed that much, the attitudes towards women who’ve decided they don’t want children it’s not, it hasn’t changed so much, it sounds like.

Shelley: So, this, when I had it done it was 1978. So that was, so many years ago, what is that, like fifty years ago? Forty years ago, but now in, I’m in the United States where they’re increasingly having these draconian laws limit abortion. And so now we’re having to fight this all over again.

Zoë: I mean, yeah, looking at the Texas anti-abortion law that just came in, I mean, you know, women are messaging saying they are terrified, they want to be sterilised because they’re worried, what if they are raped and they have to have a baby that is their rapist’s baby, and doctors won’t sterilise them. And now there’s the government is now saying they’re not going to allow them to have abortions. So, what do we do? What are we able to do? So, I mean, I think you should know what you want in your life, and you should be allowed bodily autonomy and you are so happy that, you know, even though you they made you jump through hoops, having to be interrogated by two men is still truly shocking. I still, I think when any person says I want this procedure, and because I just want it that should be enough. We don’t interrogate people who want children. So why this double standard? And I’m really glad, you must have felt so much relief after that operation.

Shelley: Oh, god, yes, I was. I was so happy. I told everyone. I was like, “Oh my god, this was the greatest thing that, is now, I never have to worry about this again”. I’ve never regretted it, I have never, it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my entire life. That’s, I can definitely tell you that. I sometimes wish I could go back to that hospital and give a presentation on it. I should probably look into doing that. Because they should know that “this is what happened at your hospital. And are you doing anything differently nowadays?”

Zoë: Yes, absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot of fear mongering around, you know, telling women, “You’ll regret this, you’ll you know, that it can cause extremely heavy periods”. Women will message me saying that their doctors will put them off having it – they’ll say, “this side effect can happen, this can happen”. And really, it’s like, we’re left in the dark. And there’s so many questions of it. So having, you know, hearing from women like yourself, who have had it, who have no regrets, who, you know, really it was the best thing for your life is just so yeah, it’s hopefully empowering to others out there to know, you know, this is how it was for someone else. So, if you want this, and if a doctor tells, you no, keep pushing. You know, it’s sad that we have to advocate for ourselves, but this is your life and your body, and you should be able to do what you want with it. I think that that would be an amazing idea. I mean, I would love to hear a bit about your work. You’re a clinical psychologist. Is that right?

Shelley: Yes.

Zoë: So, you’re, this was something you always knew you kind of want to get into? Or did you study and then yeah, tell me a little bit about how you got into this.

Shelley: Okay, so no, I didn’t think I would. When I was younger, I didn’t think about that. Because I thought to be a psychologist, you had to be some kind of perfect person. And I thought, “Well, gee, that’ll never be me”. And so, you know, for a very long time, I really had this idea of what a psychologist was, and I didn’t feel I could ever measure up to that. So, I needed a lot of life experience to realise that that is actually not what a psychologist is. But I first, I really had, because I didn’t have children, I really had the opportunity to do so many things in my life that I wanted to do. I traveled all over the US and, and parts of Europe and Canada, and I did that by myself. I had my actual first making money was I was a freelance reporter for National Public Radio here in the United States. and I did that for like seven years. But it really gave me a chance to create my own schedule, so that I had lots of time to volunteer for all kinds of other projects that I was actually interested in. And so, I worked, you know, I was involved with Women Against Rape support groups and at that time, I was involved in protesting against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant that had been built on an earthquake fault, and, you know, got arrested for that, you know, work, I was involved with what’s called Mothertongue, feminist readers theatre. I was active with disability rights at that time, there was a lot of protest about trying to create ways that people in wheelchairs could cross the street, at that time we didn’t even have those cutouts at the corner where wheelchair could roll down to cross the street. So, I was active in all kinds of things. I worked on community boards, conflict resolution service – it was an informal project where you made arrangements to work out conflicts with people, so you didn’t have to go into the expensive court system. That was a, it’s still going, it’s a free service. You know, I did so many different things at that time in my life. I could never have done any of those things if I’d been forced to bear those the child of rape. I mean, that wouldn’t just ruin my life.

Zoë: Yeah. I mean, it’s unthinkable to, you know, to really think that a government has brought in a law that would force a woman to do that. I mean, it’s just heartbreaking. And I hope they can overturn it; I hope they can stop it. I mean, do you think that times are getting better? I mean, are we making progress as women, as feminists? You know, because you’ve seen you know, the change I guess, how is it now compared to back then?
Shelley: I think it’s been you know, a step forward and a step back. I think it’s been… I think certain things have gone forward, but other things have gone backwards and so I guess that’s how it always is in the world that you know, there’s a backlash when there’s progress and so we just have to be prepared to keep fighting – none of these aspects of progress are ever permanent that you have to be prepared to fight again just you’re going to have to fight these laws again. Luckily right now here in the US they have an administration that’s willing to push back against the states but they’re spending unfortunately there’s, I think, it’s really gotten worse in the US because due to the Trump effect that it’s emboldened, all these backwards people who are now feeling they can just be out there and aggressively seize control and you know, ignore democracy. So it’s a very scary time, I think, in the country and I’m hoping that younger women, you know, just take up the mantle. I mean, it was just normal back in the seventies to be always fighting. You were always fighting something; you were going to protests every day or every weekend. It was just understood that we had to use the power of our bodies and our minds to push, push, push, because if you don’t get out in the street, they can ignore you and they don’t pass these laws and so I know that people wish they didn’t have to do this again, but it looks like we are, so that’s – I think it’s a very scary time. So yes, I ended up for a while thinking oh good you know, we’ve you know, settled a lot of these issues. But every few years things happen that show you no, we haven’t we have to keep fighting you know, the Supreme Court with Anita Hill having to go through her battles and you know, obviously all the #MeToo movement recently, there’s so many ways that it’s never, it’s never ended. There’s just an ongoing power struggle, because, you know, men don’t want to give up their power. So, they think that to share it is giving it up. That’s the problem, so we’re just trying to share, but now they don’t want to share. So teach your sons how to share. But after I got out of radio, I became the editor, managing editor of a medical journal at the University of California, San Francisco. And so, I did that for like seven years. And then I traveled to Italy, and to find my relatives there. I thought maybe I’ll move to Italy and I started learning Italian. And as you see, I had the freedom to, like, you know, do whatever I wanted to do. And so, I considered that and then learning a new language is obviously not easy when you’re an adult. So, I started thinking, “Gee, this is not going to be easy to live in Italy”. And then I met someone who was a psychologist, he was in my Italian class. And we became friends. And basically, he said, “You know, you don’t really want to do these things. You don’t want to move to Italy. So, you know, maybe you should consider being a psychologist”. And I said, you know, I explained to him that, “Gee, you know, I can’t, I’m not capable of that, etc”. And he said, you know, “I know you, you actually have the qualities that are required, you can learn a lot, you have the underlying qualities”. My radio work had taught me how to listen and ask questions and respect people’s opinions and push them when I had to, and I’d done a lot of writing. So, all these things are part of being a psychologist. And so, he said, “You know, you could go back to school”, anyway, and I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to sit in school for years”. And so, I found a school where you went to school part time, and the rest of the time you wrote papers, to show what you were learning, so that it wasn’t a full time in person school. And so, I just spent many, many years I was in school for many years, and then I had to go through earning my hours to get a license. And so, I finally became in private practice after earning all my hours and, and I was like, forty-nine years old. So, I just I thought, well, I want to try to do it before I’m, you know, by the time I’m fifty. And I did. So, I feel really good about that. And I’ve been in private practice ever since. And I work with a lot of people who have histories of trauma. And you know, and I work with all kinds of people. But what’s interesting to me is that when I encounter someone that is thinking about having a child and what’s, what I personally tried to do is really ask them, “Why do you want to have a child?” I do not take that for granted. And I think most people are surprised that someone is actually asking them that, but I really think people need to be questioned. And I don’t like to interrogate them like they did to me in the hospital, but I really just believe it’s important to be clear that you need to have some reasons, and I’ve had people say amazing things to me. They’ll say, “Oh, do I actually need a reason?” I say “Yeah, I think you do”. Yeah, I think you should be clear about if you want to have a child, Why, and what are the reasons and are they reasons that have some, you know, rational evidence to support it. You know, like I’ve actually had someone that said, “I want to have a child, so I’ll always have someone who will worship me”. And I said “Really? Is that really your reason for having a child?” She said, she said, “Yeah, my mother expected me to worship her”. I said, “But did you worship her?” And she said “No”. I said, what makes you think your child is going to worship you? And, you know, so I really try and question people, so they realise that having a child is not something that you should do, as just some kind of, because everyone else is doing it, or you’re a certain age, and that’s what you should do to prove you’re an adult. There’s so many terrible reasons people will bring up for their reasons. And so, I just try and help people, you know, analyse their reasons, and determine, are they rational? Are they irrational? Do they have some sort of, you know, logical fallacy that underlies their ideas and their assumptions and expectations?

Zoë: I love that. I love that because I think it’s really important because so many women, they are conditioned to think that’s just what we do. That’s just the way of the world, we just have children. And when you can kind of step out aside of that, and ask yourself, “Well, why do I want it?” And have some critical choice. And I think it’s so important. So, thank you for doing that work.

Shelley: I think of all the women I’ve talked to about this, I think there’s only one that definitely changed her mind and said, “You know what, you’re right, I don’t have any good reasons to have a child”. And, you know, in exploring the reality of how will this change your life,I try and ask them, “How is this going to change your life? Are you thinking about that? Really imagine your future and how it’s going to affect your daily life, for the rest of your life”. And so, in the process of these discussions, one woman realised, you know what, “No, I don’t, I’m not going to do it”. She changed her mind. And she was only doing it really, because her mother was asking her, “When are you going to have a child?” You know, you’re, you’re a certain age. And so, she didn’t really want to do it. She just thought it was expected of her. So, she realised, you know, I told her, “You don’t have to do these things, just because someone says, ‘Oh, when are you going to have a child? You’re getting to an age where you won’t be able to have it’.” And so, you know, it’s important to talk about how is it going to change your life if you have a child, how is it going to change your life, if you don’t have a child and just making it very, like, neither one is right or wrong, they’re both choices that you can make, but you should really think about the consequences of your actions and that, you know, don’t knuckle under to some sort of society pressure to do it, without really thinking it through. You know, I had someone who I asked, you know, “Have you thought about it?” And she said something like, “Oh, I deliberately didn’t want to think about it, because I knew if I thought about it, I would think I shouldn’t do it”. And I said, “Oh, really so, let me help, try to help me understand this. So, you thought don’t think about it and just do it, because if you think about it, you won’t want to do it? I mean, that doesn’t make any sense”. So you know, I hear all kinds of flimsy reasons. And it’s sad because people seem to be on automatic pilot when it comes to having children. And if you don’t really examine your choices and their consequences, that’s a setup for disappointment later. And so, you know, my belief is that you should at least feel you gave it due diligence, you know, later you may not, later you may say, “Well, I didn’t think of this, I didn’t think of that, but at least give it some thought”. Because this is your one chance before you get pregnant to really think it through and so, but it truly amazes me how many women still to this day, think, “Oh, sure, I can do it all, you know, I’m going to have kids, and I’m going to travel, and I’m going to be the CEO of a company, and I’m going to have a wonderful relationship”. And it’s like, really so you think that you get it that’s going to be easy to do? You think that’s going to be a low stress? It’s no big deal, no big deal. The reality is it is a big deal. I’m telling you, if you want to have a child, and you think you’re going to do all these things in addition to having a child, talk to other women who actually have made that choice, do some research interview, you know, do some informational interviews. Because I know if you talk to people, and you ask them to be totally honest with you, they will tell you, “No, it’s not easy. No, I can’t do it all”. A lot of things have to suffer if you take this path, and so, some women may be willing to go through that suffering, because their ideas of what a child is going to bring to their life, is that important to them. But they should, if it is that important to them, and they’re willing to do it, regardless of the consequences, they should really be aware that it is going to be extremely difficult, extremely stressful, extremely expensive. They’re going to have no time for themselves. So, people just really have to be, I think, more brutally honest, I really think people should have to go through some sort of course if they want to get pregnant. Yeah, say, look, you should be thinking about all these things. There is a good book called The Parenthood Decision, which helps lay out a lot of these ideas, so I usually recommend a book like that. But people have to really sort through their own assumptions and expectations. Because usually, nobody questions them. Somebody says, “Oh, I want to have everything, great”. Everyone just, you know, never questions them. I’m usually the first person who has ever asked them “Why, and what are your reasons? And let’s unpack those reasons”, doesn’t just say, “Oh, okay, yeah, that’s your reason that you know”, and just accept it. I don’t just accept the answer, say, “Well, let’s think about the implications of that reason. Is that really true? Is that going to hold up over time? What are the possible problems with that?” You know, so I just know that it’s just part of my life. This is not my main focus in life at all. But it’s something that’s an important part of my life. And I feel it’s important for people to talk about it. That’s why I think what you’re doing is really wonderful, because it’s putting it out there for anybody with a computer to tune in and listen to women and read their stories and show a diversity of experiences. And because, again, it gives them something that they need to think about. It’s not something you do unreflexively, you need to just, you know, realise, just because your body can do something, it doesn’t mean you should do it. It’s like, yeah, I can jump off a cliff. That doesn’t mean I should do it. My body is designed to be pregnant and carry a child. Wonderful. But that doesn’t mean you should always do that. So, I just know that I see it, as you know, my responsibility to help any woman who’s contemplating this, to really examine her decision.

Zoë: I love that. I think it’s so essential. I mean, because we do live in a pro-natalist society, you do feel that pressure and if you have family or friends who add on to that pressure, it can be a lot for anyone to push back on that and say… you know, I think women will question it. Do I really, am I saying, thinking I don’t want children, I mean, people messaged me saying, “You know, I have questions, is this really me?” And because they have that pressure from other people outside and the society saying, “No, you don’t know your own mind. No, you are wrong”. We need to stop that – we need to encourage women that they do know their own minds. You can feel it in your gut, if you want something or not, but societal pressure can really mix up those signals I guess, so we need more women like you who can just ask those questions and posit those ideas. So, I think it’s essential work that you’re doing.

Shelley: Yeah. The other thing, I think is really important that women who do not have children who’ve made a conscious decision for that, need to be more vocal, because, you know, I also encounter women in my practice, who will say, “Well, I don’t want children, but I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t. And I don’t know anyone I could even say this to, I have no one to talk to about it”, except me. So, I think it’s really sad that women are afraid to talk about this. And you’re right, there’s so much celebration of you know, “I’m having a baby”. You know, women see this, like, there’s so much approval and validation and celebration for doing this act of having children. And then the other choice to not have it is like silence. And it’s like a big void. And so, women that are thinking of these choices, really, it feels like a no brainer, like, “Well, why would I go that way? Because there’s nothing there to acknowledge my decision or validate it”, and so, it’s really, really sad, because it’s a sexist concept. Because men don’t have to, you know, go through that, people don’t question them repeatedly: “so when are you having a child? You’re at a certain age, isn’t it going to be too late for you soon?” Or, you know, “What’s your life going to be like without a child?” Men never get those questions. It’s completely sexist, I mean, it’s so unfair.

Zoë: Oh, no, the double standard is real. I mean, my husband gets zero questions and once I started to notice this, I was like, “Hang on, this is bullshit”. So, you know, this all comes from the patriarchy, and how it sees women’s place here and women who make a choice that they control their own lives and their own bodies, that’s not what a patriarchy wants. So, yeah, and we and you’re right, being vocal about it, it’s so important, because we need to make the world a better place for the young girls who come after us. And I think the only way to do that is to say, “This is who I am. I am going to live the life that I want, I’m embracing who I am”. And I hope that we can make it a little easier for those after us. And you were so strong to do you know, to go through what you went through and to, you know, have that a tubal ligation back then, I mean, you know, I could only imagine the judgment and the questions, so you were courageous and so brave. And it’s women like you who make it easier for women like me to do these kinds of projects, and to hear your story is so important. Because you have lived an incredible life, and you’re doing so much, you’re helping so many other people and other women. And it’s truly, it’s amazing to see it. And I want other women to hear from you know, that they can have these full lives. They can make difference in in other people’s lives. If it’s not with biological children, there are many, many other ways. But mainly they can live whatever life they want. And you are a testament to that.

Shelley: Yeah, I think it’s really important to, yeah that’s one of the questions I often say to people is, you know, if you want a child in your life, and sometimes people use that kind of language, like, “Well, I want to have children in my life”. That’s very different than, “I want to be pregnant and give birth to a new person”. I often talk about all the options that you can actually have for children in your life and, you know, differentiate between having children in your life, and actually bearing a child and feeling totally responsible for raising that child, at 24/7. So, you know, I really think that, again, these are questions that should be considered important, too, I think they should have a class on this, like in every high school, it should be required in high school, because that’s a time where women are very open to thinking about questions like this or fantasising about it or dreaming about it, to help them with the reality of having a child because you need to really realise how much is involved. It is it is, to me personally, it’s the most important job on the planet. And I personally feel that, yes, some women are actually very well suited to do this, they have good reasons. They understand the challenges, they really want to do this, and they’re willing to not do other things in their life, because they’re committed to doing this. Or they have careers that could work around, you know, the time required for childcare. But, you know, when I certainly see women in my practice who make it work, but I think you, if you don’t know ahead of time, all of the different aspects of it and ask yourself, “Gee, am I really suited to this? What’s my personality? What’s my temperament? Am I really suited as a person to do this?” You know, it’s really important to think about, “What kind of a parent am I going to be? And is that really a good idea for me?” And I’ve had people who say, “No, you know, I do want to have a child, but I need to work on the issues that are unresolved with my own parents first so that I’m more, I can be a better parent to my children than my parents were for me”. So, again, there’s so many aspects to this issue. And it’s to me, it’s such an important thing to be a good parent, if you’re going to be a parent. And there needs to be more education about what it means to be a good enough parent. But then, there’s a lot of people where they are like, no, they don’t want to do that there. And they have every right and they should be encouraged to really say, “You have a choice. You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to have a child to be an adult woman. You don’t have to have a child to be respected or taken seriously”. Those are not good reasons to have a child.

Zoë: No, no, absolutely not. No. I was going to ask, I mean, how were your parents when you told them that you didn’t want children? Did they know that you had a tubal ligation?

Shelley: Yeah, I told them, I told everybody. I never kept it a secret. I never kept a secret because I thought it was really important to be vocal about this, because I was appalled by the silence of this as a choice that should be validated like any other choice. So, I just was very matter of fact about it. And they knew me well enough to know, you know, don’t question me about it. You know, they were able to say, well, I think the only thing they really said was “Gee, you know, I hope you don’t change your mind later”, which is the most common, you know, response. And I said, no, “I don’t think so. I feel pretty confident about it”. And so, you know, over the years, they just realised, well, “You know what? she never changed her mind, she never regretted it, it was the right choice for her”. And so fortunately, my family, you know, didn’t like give me a lot of harassment for that. But I know some people unfortunately, women in my practice, their families do harass them. And some people, women are actually bullied into having children because they say, you know, “My mother says she needs to be a grandmother”, and, you know, it’s, they feel like really, that if they don’t do it, their mother will never forgive them or, I mean, it’s really terrible. So, some women are complicit in the pressure to bully women into having children. So, there’s so many sad aspects of this.

Zoë: Yes. Where do you think that comes from? Where do you think that kind of nature from other women who you want you hope they will support you? They might understand you a bit more than maybe a man would? And actually, yes, it seems like now that that cannot be the case as well. And women can be just as cruel to other women about this. Where do you think this comes from?

Shelley: Well, I think a lot of women, depending on their age, obviously, some women are really disappointed on themselves that they felt they didn’t have a choice. And so, you know, some women’s attitude is, “Well, I didn’t have a choice, so why should you have a choice?” And it’s sort of that, you know, intergenerational trauma of, they just passed down the abuse from one generation to another. And it’s a sad thing, because it shows, to me, those kinds of women who would behave that way, are women that felt they never had a choice. And they never, nobody ever gave them opportunities to make a different decision. And they just so beaten down, that they feel no other way to express their pain and their disappointment but by doing the same to their children. It’s very sad, because usually those people are unwilling to really open up and look at why are they taking that approach. Because it’s an existential crisis to really, you know, as an adult mother realise, “Oh, I regret the choices I made. And I didn’t feel I had a choice”. And so, you decide, you’ll double down on it and go, “Yeah, it was good. And you should do the same”. Because it hurts. You’re protecting yourself from really opening up to the fact that you feel you either made a bad decision or you wasted your life, or, you know, you didn’t get to do all these other things that you would have done if you didn’t have children. And so, it’s like opening up a can of worms, like, you just, you just don’t want to go there. So, it’s so much easier to just repeat the same things that were told to you. And you just buy into the idea of just go along with the crowd and don’t rock the boat. You know, these are these are easy, convenient attitudes, especially when a society reinforces that so yeah, and that’s why women who are making different choices or have made different choices need to be more visible and vocal and show that no, that’s not the only way to be. That is not the only choice, you can make different choices that are better for you if you wanted to do it that way. And so that’s why diversity is so important. Because to me, it’s a diversity issue. You have to be able to say, “There’s different ways to do things. There’s not one way, there’s not one true way or one right way. It’s different for everybody”. And I think people are truly scared of that much choice. I think people are overwhelmed by choice. Because it takes a lot emotionally and mentally to really examine your choices. Some people had trouble just going to the grocery store if there’s more than three kinds of, you know, yoghurt or something. So, these kinds of choices are so deep and life-changing that people tend to just say, “Well, I don’t know, just pick the one that other people are doing.”

Zoë: Yes, yeah, exactly.

Shelley: It’s easier to like to follow a crowd than to forge your own path. And so, what I try to tell women is “There is another path, you don’t have to forge it all alone. Other women have gone on this other path, it’s there. Unfortunately, you have to look a little more carefully for it. And it’s the road less-taken, but it’s available”. I’ve never had any bad things happen because I didn’t have children. I had no problems after the surgery. I’ve had no problems with relationships. There’s plenty of people that don’t want children either that you can find. There’s lots of options. And the scary thing is that in some ways, our world seems like it’s full of options. And in other ways, these kind of hidden ways where people feel like there’s no options. And so, this really is something that I do make an effort to speak out about because I think it’s so important that your whole life has changed by having a child or by not having a child and that women deserve to know this is a valid choice. It’s not unheard of. Millions and millions of women have made this decision. We may be quiet about it, but if you seek out women, you will find them. You just have to be strong enough to ask the questions, “Gee, do you know anybody that didn’t have children, or that chose to deliberately not have children?” You know, ask around. People are quite happy to ask personal questions of all kinds of things, sexually, you know, all kinds of things are out there. But for some reason, this question about, “Who do you know, that decided not to have children? I’d like to talk to them”. People act like that’s, too taboo to ask someone. I mean, that’s ridiculous.

Zoë: I think that’s it. It feels like this is like the last taboo. I mean, we need just need to be more vocal about it. And yeah, like you said, show people there is a choice. And you can go a different path, and have a really wonderful life. And let’s let people decide what is the right path for them, let’s not pressure them. And you are a shining example of, you know, what you can do if you get to choose what you want to do with your life, and it’s just incredible. I’ve just loved hearing about everything that you’ve went through, and how now you spend your time, you know, helping others to navigate all of this, and it’s just so incredible. Thank you, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story. And I’ve just loved speaking with you.

Shelley: My pleasure, Zoë. Thank you for making an effort to put these women’s stories out there. I know I’m sure that is a lot of time and effort. And so, you do it for the love of women and community and just it’s part of what all of us women who do this have to do is help each other, show, broaden that path, cut down some of the underbrush and, you know, widen the path so other women can find it. You’re shining a light on the path. So, I’m really happy that other women can, you know, see the past a little more clearly because of the lights you’ve shined on it.

Zoë: We are Childfree is hosted by me, Zoë Noble, and produced by James Glazebrook. If you liked this episode, please leave a review on your podcast app, as this really helps other people find us. Head to wearechildfree.com to read more inspiring childfree stories, find out how to share your story with me and to be first to know when the We are Childfree community launches. Speak soon lovelies :)