I have lost friends because I don't have children
Gabrielle Monaghan talks to women without children who feel abandoned by family-orientated pals
After Lindy McDonnell moved from Dublin to London, where she lives with her husband, she discovered it wasn't just geography separating her from her friends. One by one, they had children and, as time went on, no amount of visits back to Ireland could rekindle those friendships.
The 38-year-old, who runs the McZine digital publishing company in the English capital, never felt a desire for progeny of her own. But she never expected her childfree status would alienate her from her old social circle.
"Children were the next step in their happiness and, when I go back and visit, it's very prickly and awkward – it's almost like we're strangers and they feel I haven't grown up," Lindy says. "It's hurtful.
"The issue has been brought up with them so many times. There is a friend who says 'you've been living away for 12 years and you're 38 – surely you must want children?' They can't get their head around the fact that I don't.
"If you have a strong friendship with somebody and you're not happy with their choice of partner, you see them on their own because you don't want to lose them. Then a child will come into their life and you do feel this sense of grief, like someone has died, because you know in your heart that friendship will end.
"We all still put in the effort on Facebook. I'll wish them a happy birthday or click 'like' on a photo they posted. But it's sad that that's what our friendships have become."
A fifth of Irish women enter their 40s without having given birth – double the proportion from a generation ago – either because they never wanted children, could not have them, or didn't find a suitable partner willing to parent a child.
Regardless of the myriad reasons for a life without children, many have experienced one common silent battle; feeling abandoned by friends who became immersed in motherhood. Some say they woke up one day, often in their mid to late 30s, and realised 20-year friendships have been put on the back burner because their friends had little time or, in some cases, too little inclination for a social life that didn't revolve around their young family or other mothers.
Voicing these concerns publicly is somewhat of a taboo; there's plenty of media discourse and blogs about how to balance motherhood with work, the struggles of women who seek to become parents through IVF and the dilemmas faced by women who are full-time mothers. And celebrity motherhood is fetishised in tabloid tales of the baby-making exploits of Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie's frantic rate of adoption, and speculation over Jennifer Aniston's "agony" at her childless status.
But admitting to feeling marginalised by friends for having not propagated the species is akin to outing yourself as a Miss Haversham figure surrounded by cats and knitting needles.
Fiona, a 37-year-old who never wanted children, says motherhood has been a "friendship terminator" for her. She is wary to disclose her full identity out of concern she will damage already frayed friendships. After leaving a rural part of Ireland for Dublin to attend college and later work, Fiona visited her home-town most weekends. Her friends there had settled down quickly and Fiona enjoyed spending time with them and their kids. But a gulf between them gradually emerged.
"If I hadn't called in, I wouldn't have seen them at all," she says. "There were communions and christenings that I was invited to and attended, presents were bought, and efforts were made to make sure we didn't lose touch totally. But in the end, it came down to the fact that if I didn't make an effort, no effort was made.
"It's like there's this unsaid rule – if you don't have kids, you have all the time in the world and therefore you should be the one that always pulls out all the stops.
"It's true, of course, that being childless and indeed single means you do have more free time, so I've always thought it reasonable that I make more of an effort to meet up and keep in touch. But I don't mind admitting I've consciously stopped bothering with some friends because it just started to feel like a one-sided effort, one which was rarely reciprocated.
"What happens, in my opinion, is that their lives change and if yours doesn't change with it, you're expected to fit into the new status quo.
"Kids should always come first, but I think if childless friends are making an effort, it should be met half-way – some of the time at least."
For some childless women, Ireland's baby boom has solidified the notion that parenthood is the default setting for women of child-bearing age. Ireland has the highest birth rate in the European Union, with almost 73,000 births in 2012.
Even Pope Francis weighed in on the matter earlier this month, warning in a homily that married couples who choose not to have children are heading for an old age blighted by "the bitterness of loneliness". The pontiff railed against "a culture of wellbeing" which had convinced some people they were better off eschewing procreation and getting a pet instead.
"Ireland may not be an Irish Catholic state anymore, but it is a family state," Lindy says. "There are women who are either childless by circumstance or choice who are desperate to talk about it. But when people ask, it's easier for them to say they can't have children rather than admitting they don't want them."