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  • Emma Palmer

The end of the line - or the beginning of something?

Doing genealogical research many moons ago I remember the first time I realised that in not being a Mum - at least, not physically birthing human children - my direct line of descendants came to a giddying halt. It was a stark moment of gruff-making disorientation followed swiftly by a feeling of being winded, like I’d stopped myself just short of striding into a quarry-like abyss (which I’d somehow failed to notice).


The moment shocked me. I had already decided not to have children. Having assumed I would be a mother until I was in my late 20s it was quite a process transiting to childfreedom – a story for another day, or if it’s useful you can read more here. And much respect and kindness to those of you for whom that isn’t a choice or is through circumstance - I’d hate to come across as stridently childfree for those who are childless not by choice.


As soon as I’d had that ‘end of the line’ thought doing genealogy, my ego leapt into negotiating with reality, attempting to reassure, “ah, it’s okay, my brother has children, so the line will carry on”. That’s partially true, then and now. Part of the legacy of our shared DNA will continue. Back then my brother had one son, my gorgeous nephew, who’ll bear our surname, if he decides and is able to become a dad (the proud Palmer warrior/worshipper ancestors would be delighted with that...) Nowadays my brother and his ex-partner have three more girls, too. Being an auntie rocks, five times over, remembering with love the tiny being who didn’t make it to all the way here.


A practical upshot of that giddying moment is that I take more care when I’m doing genealogical research. I slow down, paying attention to aunts and uncles, in addition to the direct links in the lineage daisy chain. I dwell awhile with the folk that didn’t have children, so they know for sure they are remembered for who they are/were, sensing our possible affinity (a warm shout out to great great auntie Alice, without child, and her creation of the free school she started here in Bristol. And I’ll get to healing your Garbutt line soon, dear Alice, your Dad keeps popping by to remind me).


Lately I’ve been undertaking a more thorough process in healing my ancestral lineages with Ancestral Medicine. It’s marvellous, the emergence of these expanding jewels, newly remembered facets in family qualities and blessings appearing day by day, radiant behind two (so far) of my family lineages, converging here in this blood and these bones. Things are knitting up in my bone marrow and I’ve so much gratitude that I stumbled across this work before I die.


It’s awe-inspiring to think, working with the healed elders who are, in turn, healing my matrilineal and patrilineal lines, that millions of humans are downstream from that healing, here and now, not just me and mine. They work away clearing up the unresolved stuckness, profound lostness and lingering heartache so commonplace amongst humans and the dead. May this healing help all of us here, where landed and rootedness can be so lacking and where we have largely forgotten how to love and tend to our dead, as well as other, precious non-human life.  


I am approaching a stage in this healing process when I start to become the face of my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s lineages. It’s a proud and humbling moment, contemplating stepping into this for my dad’s line. He’s been gone in human form for nearing 21 years. Becoming the face of his/my direct paternal line energetically reconnects us, this time him in slightly more cosmic form. He’s still him and recognisable; same smile, same love of designing and making stuff with his hands. I notice, with gladness, that the longing for us to share one last teapot of Earl Grey or one last malt whisky tasting has waned, replaced by softer love.   


Contemplating becoming the face of my Mum’s Mum’s line has felt more complex, not surprisingly, and these lines are very different. There has been more to sift through in being the face of this line, for a host of reasons. One of these things, sitting at the red, round shrine of the grandmothers - also known to me as the fire women - was realising afresh that I am the last human woman directly downstream from them.


It wasn’t a giddying feeling this time around, but quieter, more contemplative. I found myself asking my grandmothers if I have let them down in not having children. I haven’t, apparently, with the question being brushed away as soon as it was asked. I’m in awe of these women and who they were and what they survived - they are from colonised and, much more recently, colonising families in present-day Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. The horrific partitioning of these lands in 1947 ruptured these and other of my/our kin, amidst the unthinkable bloodshed and hatred it created, and continues to create.


I wanted the fire women to know that I’ve not remained without children because I’m ashamed of their lineage – shame has been a thing here, in droves, and I’ve no desire to add in mine. But no, they know my awe for them and the immense journeys they and I have made – I’m the first of their line born here in England. Midway through this healing process the fire women showed me vividly how they are rebirthing me, as I rebirth my life, in and through this ancestral lineage healing process. I was glad to witness that because I love the potential of rebirthing – after all, we’re often doing it, whether or not we notice.


This theme of not having children arose during one of the online calls for our ancestral lineage healing course this week. I’m so glad it was asked out loud – big thanks and respect to those voices. Being without child is a thing. It is a thing to face and turn towards. It’s that, especially, maybe, in this context of family healing, so I found it powerful and touching to hear it named. The more I/we don’t name being without child and the effects of that, the more swirly the waters, in my experience of working with therapy clients on this theme. Perhaps there’s routine tending to be done, whether being without child feels like a loss or a positive choice. The simple fact of it still being counter-cultural is useful to clock and acknowledge, individually and on a community level.


Thanks to pronatalism, easing but unfortunately still prevalent enough, from a societal viewpoint it's not easy not having children (it looks far from easy being a parent, too, for a whole set of different consensus reality and other factors). The pressure to reproduce is still real, as are the lingering negative stereotypes of those of us without children. Personally, since my conversation with the fire women I have noticed greater peace, as well as poignancy, in not co-creating the next branch of our family tree. In fact, dwelling with the theme of being without child and ancestral lineage, there’s a relief in me in not extending my corner of humanity’s family tree. The tree will still get huge and beautiful, it’ll just have less direct Emma DNA in it. It is the end of a line in a very particular human, blood and bone way. And dwelling a minute, maybe it’s the beginning of something new, in an area of life which is often about ‘lack’ – the possibility of form growing from what’s often viewed as emptiness.


In my ‘Other than book’ I explore the importance of new rites of passage and initiations for those of us without child – whether childless or childfree. Perhaps those of us without human children might birth such a rite of passage here, bearing fruit from our ancestral lineage healing? Who are we as ancestral lineage healers who don’t happen to be creating or have created descendants? What insights and wisdom might we have to share, realising we are in a minority, and, in that way, chiming with the first stage of a rite of passage – separation from the group (or human group, at least), before a profound pivot/transition and making a return journey.


How is it for me/us to give as much weight and respect to other things we create/birth/rebirth downstream from our lives as folk without children? The creations in our lineages of work, neighbourhood relationships, creative projects, mentorship in spiritual communities? Even everyday acts of kindness? And what about our place and cousinhood in the kinship of all life, everywhere, human, and otherwise? After all, we may be without children, but like all of us here, we’re not without kin of feather, fur, fin, rock.


I get tingly with that last one, bringing in all the possible lineages of life, with human family trees being de-centred just a tad, just for a moment. And family-centric life being de-centred just a tad, just for a moment. This is meant with no disrespect for parents, in fact, I’m sure what can amount to the fetishisation of family life in the Global North is more problematic to you human parents as it is to us without child folk.


One of my main reasons I ended up not having children was because of the pressing need for other world work which needs to be done, however that takes shape: campaigning, raising awareness, direct action, fund raising, writing, marching, petitioning, living all of it. For health and other reasons I personally I knew I couldn’t ‘do it all’, despite the late-stage capitalist ‘have it all’ myth. My world work in writing, ‘Other than mother’ was framed as environmental and ecological factors, but that’s only part of the equation.


Of course, lots of parents do tons of work within and beyond family-creating and raising, too. And I’ve known some folk who have responded to the call to world work after having children, with procreating strengthening their aliveness and connectedness. That’s not been the case for me personally, it’s been the other way around. Having said that, I know how attached I am to my human nephew and nieces and how much I am motivated in doing ancestral lineage healing work for them and their unfurling lives, and for all the children in mind, in making the world a kinder, less warring place (and what a way we’ve got to go with that right now).


What about the other-than-human children? The fox cubs born and scampering around our allotment field five minutes from here, and their ancestors of place, the fawns being born (and hunted) on the nearby Mendip hills, the Exmoor foals facing an uncertain future? How can they be even more part of my sphere of concern than they are aleady?


I’m reminded here – it’s a bit of a Muntjac leap – of something like the spiritual equivalent of making a will. Making a will isn’t the most fun of jobs, yet I’ve always made one, regardless of how little I’ve had to pass on and not wanting to leave a headache if I disappear suddenly. Will making is an extra pain – or I’ve found it so - if you don’t have children, because it takes more thinking through and a widening of the legacy of where materials things might be gifted. But maybe for those of us without child those will-making skills come in handy here, having already had to scratch our heads in knowing what to usefully do with our physical legacy and, again, facing our mortality without any human children downstream keeping us busier.


I recall the gifts and blessings and fierce love of the wise, healed ancestors I have been making the acquaintance of in the last few months. Imagine all that raining and shining down, pouring over my human nephew and nieces, as well as all the beings I’m taking increasingly seriously as my/our other-than and more-than-human kin. What a mighty thought! Looping back to my opening genealogical realisation, it’s no longer an abyss I see ahead, but a vast pantheon of animals, elements, visiting well-wishing spirts, wide snaking rivers, tiny new blades of grass and so many other beings downstream – surrounding us all, reminding us who we are and where we are. What a joy to see a family tree made of leaves, ants, sap and vast wooden arms tickling the future, as well as including human names stretching backwards and forwards through the millennia. A beautiful swirl of re-membered, right-sized humans at rest and play with all other forms of life. May it be so.


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