• Emma Palmer

Reviewing 'Mum's not the word - childless...childfree'

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

A review of ‘Mum’s Not the Word: Childless, Childfree,’ by Denise Felkin. Published by Earthworld, an imprint of Veloce Publishing Ltd.

‘Mum’s Not the Word: Childless, Childfree’ by award-winning photographer Denise Felkin is a beautifully produced book. It is one of those books that it’s a treat to unwrap and open for the first time. I fetched it from our doormat at the end of a long day at work and saved it to open with my cuppa next morning. Intuitively I wanted to savour meeting these women.

What first struck me is the book’s simplicity and boldness. Simplicity in terms of the format of each double page: one side shows a full-page photo of a naked woman lying in foetal position on her right-hand side. The facing side shares each woman’s words on being childless or childfree. I scanned the book several times just taking in the images - taking in these women.

I find it amazing how much these simple, powerful images and pithily expressed life stories convey. The stories are in turn funny, tragic, and thought-provoking; I found myself laughing out-loud in response to one or two and had tears rolling down my cheeks reading others.

The women speak of everything from asexuality and early menopause to a dread of having children, and how unbearable it is to be childless. Many are happily childfree, for example, Jennifer: ‘it never appealed to me,’ some are coming to terms with loss, in Xanthe’s words: ‘a loss that has made me face death.’ The nakedness of the women adds to the honesty, potency and embodied authenticity - I guess because bodies are speaking here, as well as words.

These are real women with real lives, rather than broad brush stereotypes which often characterise the much pigeon-holed and judged childless and childfree, for example, as: ‘selfish,’ ‘career driven’ or ‘grief stricken.’

I found myself wanting to know more about the brave women lying naked on this bed. I became drawn to their body art and barely discernible jewellery. I noticed my frustration in not being able to see their eyes - I seem to ground myself through eye contact - instead paging through taking in the different patterns and textures of the throws and duvets they were lying on. For me these became unique and fascinating ‘canvases’ for the women’s experiences.

As I started to feel more familiar with the images, I noticed the womens’ parallel power and vulnerability. I imagined how it would be to lie there myself - what would I say as a childfree woman? What would I learn, lying in the same position? I felt suddenly self-conscious and even more respect for the photographed women.

I found this sort of see-sawing tension between power and vulnerability profoundly equalising, somehow. It reminds me of how I can feel looking through another favourite photo book ‘Naked Women’ by Phil Braham. I have a sense - I certainly hope – that ‘Mum’s Not the Word’ might mean readers are less quick to judge those of us who are without child through happenstance, circumstance, loss, and choice, thanks to that paralleling of power and vulnerability.

I love love love the fact that this collection brings childless and childfree women together under one cover. This bridging between the childless and childfree, as we’re (rather simplistically) called is close to my heart; building on what unites rather than divides us.

Another theme close to my heart, having authored ‘Other than mother: choosing childlessness with life in mind,’ are the mentions of concern for society, population, and the planet, appearing more than a few times on these pages. From Veronika knowing from an early age: ‘I will not have kids. Not in this society’ to Chris: ‘being childfree in retirement gives me time to devote myself to do something to make a better future for my community, and the environment.’

It’s an honour to view and read this book, and an honour to review it. It lays bare such an intimate and personal aspect of life with beauty and sensitivity. I’m inspired and taking away the creativity of both the book and the women on its pages, a book which adds depth and nuance to a much-misunderstood area of life - and loss.

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