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Helen Allman

On 24th November I attended a one-day event at Aashna run by Emma Palmer on the theme of “otherhood”. I first came across Emma, then known as Kamalamani, about 18 months ago when I read her book Other than Mother: Choosing Childlessness with Life in Mind. The book made a big impact on me. It perhaps sounds strange, but I realised suddenly that having children was actually a choice, rather than something that I was duty bound to do with my life. The sense of relief, freedom and possibility was immense. I started tentatively exploring other paths through life that didn’t involve becoming a mother. So when I found out that Emma was running a day about “otherhood” I signed up immediately with the intention of carrying on this exploration and meeting others who wanted to do the same.

From the start, I felt very welcome at Aashna. Almost as soon as I walked through the door, I had the feeling that it was ok to be just how I was: a great start to a day exploring our experiences of otherness, which can potentially trigger so much shame. There was plenty of tea, coffee and biscuits too, which always helps me feel at home! Aashna even ordered in an Indian lunch for us all to share. Emma organised the day to make space for both a focus on non-parenthood, and other kinds of otherness that people wanted to share. Emma is a very skilful facilitator, who brought the group together in a way that made space for everyone’s unique experiences, including her own. I felt it was possible to engage freely, honestly and deeply with Emma and the rest of the group. The atmosphere was both gentle and challenging, and Emma enabled people to get in touch with intense and often painful feelings and experiences, while still leaving room for lightness and humour.

Through a combination of pair work, group discussion, and experiential exploration, including a guided visualisation, we drew together the strands of our different experiences of otherhood. Many members of the group were considering a future without children, either because of choice or circumstances. Particularly for women, living a life without children still feels very much like uncharted territory. If we don’t become mothers, then what are we? Our society doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with women who occupy this position. But this particular experience of “otherhood” intersects with all kinds of other otherness, from sexuality and gender, to class and culture, religion, colour, age, neurodiversity, health… Many of us, for many reasons, experience the feeling of not fitting in, of not quite recognising ourselves in the picture of what our society deems to be “normal”. Emma encouraged us to think about both the sense we have of being “othered” by the society we live in, and the internalised “othering” that we do to ourselves.

One of the most notable things for me was how little shame I felt in opening up in the group about some of my intensely private experiences of otherness. Some of these experiences go right back to childhood, and I had a wonderful moment of realising that one particular feeling that I very rarely reveal to anyone, was in fact shared by several others. A particularly fun exercise was positioning ourselves in the room on an imaginary line between “normal” and “other” on a variety of different topics, from our relationship status, to skin colour and education. We did each topic twice, positioning ourselves first according to our own view of ourselves and then according to what we imagined other people assumed about us. It was fascinating to see the shifts in the group, and within myself, as we viewed ourselves from the inside and the outside. I also realised that, some of the time, I choose to be other: I don’t necessarily want to fit in. There can be power, freedom and pleasure in being other, as well as pain and shame.

By the end, I felt much more familiar with my own history of otherness and more accepting of the tension I experience between longing to be normal and longing to be different. I experienced a strong feeling of belonging in the group, not just because we’d figured out the ways that we were the same, but because we were able to share and accept our many differences. It was an intensified and expanded version of the feeling I had when I arrived at Aashna, that perhaps it’s ok to be just as I am. All that pressure to conform to powerful social norms had temporarily fallen away, and I realised how much more space there is to be open to connection with others when we feel acceptable as we are.

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