Childless & happy? You better believe it. . .
Published 19/02/2013 | 06:00
'Not Parent Material, not now, not ever", "My ego has no need to replicate itself" and "Oh My God, I can't believe I forgot to have children" are just some of the many bumper stickers doing a roaring trade online in celebration of a life without children.
Perhaps Helen Mirren might like to invest in one given the number of times she has to fend off questions on her fertility and failure to take on the real-life role of being a mother.
The 67-year-old actress is quoted in this month's Vogue yet again answering questions on why she never had children.
In the past, Mirren, who has been married for 15 years, has been defiant in not wanting a child, explaining that watching a birthing video 'traumatised' her and insisting "motherhood holds no interest for me".
But in the fashion tome she reveals that it was just something that never happened for her, saying: "It was not my destiny, I kept thinking it would be, waiting for it to happen but it never did, and I didn't care what people thought."
The fact that Mirren's comments on the subject of childlessness continue to make headlines, demonstrates just how big a taboo not having children remains.
Last week, broadcaster Maura Derrane told RSVP magazine that: "Having children is not a priority in my life," despite people often asking about the next stage of her relationship. "It's nobody's business. Anything to do with your private life is only your business."
Societal norms still adhere to the childhood skipping rhyme of 'first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.'
Yet for a growing number of women, marriage and the baby carriage are not inevitable.
According to the most recent census figures, there are 460,287 single women in Ireland who have not had children. Almost 100,000 women are over 40, single and have never given birth.
The number of single women aged between 40 and 44 who are not mothers has almost doubled in the past 20 years and it's estimated that one-in-five young Irish women won't go on to have a child.
It's not just singletons, either. Some 344,944 Irish couples are recorded in the census as not having children with 30pc of urban families being without child.
Interestingly the phraseology of the survey accounts for couples without children, where the female is under 40, as being 'pre-family' – the term implying that the pair are awaiting the pitter-patter of tiny feet, rather than eschewing it.
"'Pre-family' is a wonderful example of assumption," says Cork-based psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O'Reilly (sallyoreilly.com). "It betrays the existence of an attitude that won't shift unless there are sufficient complaints against it."
The label illustrates how ingrained the assumption is that women will have children. It is perceived as 'the norm' and thus anyone who deviates from that, generates a response.
O'Reilly, who has 20 years' clinical experience, says: "We are, as human beings, very fond of finding common ground with our peers; of not being too different, not being awkward or weird. At the same time, some differences are rewarded but not the choice to not have children, not in our society."
She adds: "We still hear of people who are 'barren' – an awful word – and who 'God love them' can't have children and 'that'll put a strain on the marriage'. The message is clear: there is something wrong with being childless."
Psychologist Susannah Healy (accesspsychology.ie) agrees. Part of the issue, she believes, is bound up in cultural beliefs.
"People are always interested in anyone or anything that appears different to the crowd, probably due to our evolutionary instinct to belong to a group for safety and survival," she says.
"Reproduction is an instinct, like sleeping or eating, so a suppression of this instinct is likely to generate interest."
But does the attitude, that sees women as abnormal for not giving birth, fit with the changing place of women in society? Humanity is thriving so there's no need for all of us to procreate. Moreover, today's women have independence: they can be CEOs, heads of state and award-winning actresses.
In Ireland 58.1pc of women without a child have a third-level qualification compared to 37.9pc who are mothers. And yet if a woman doesn't have children there's still a widely held perception their lives must be incomplete.
"I often hear of people accepting that a women hasn't children but qualifying that acceptance," says Sally. "For example, someone will say 'she doesn't want kids but she has a good career' so that's okay, she has something to fill that gaping hole in her life.
"I also know of women who tell their peers that they can't have children just to avoid the anticipated stigma they feel would result from simply saying they don't want children."
She adds: "They do this because they know they will be treated differently – thought of as cold, hard, selfish and other undeserved labels."
The fear of marginalisation isn't unjustified. After writing We Need To Talk About Kevin, child-free author Lionel Shriver was labelled 'hostile to family' while writer Amanda Craig recently argued that Maeve Binchy would have been a better author with a "deeper understanding of human nature" if she'd been a mother.
Historically childless figures such as British monarchs Elizabeth I and Queen Anne were frowned upon for failing to provide heirs. Even cartoon villains such as Cruella de Vil and the Queen in Snow White tend to be childless.
When it comes to individuals' hostility towards child-free women, Healy believes it's often more about the attacker than the target. She explains: "Many people hold a pre-set belief about women who choose not to have children and once we hold an opinion about something, we see the world through the lens of this perspective."
O'Reilly agrees. "A criticism always gives more information about the criticiser than the receiver," she says. "In my experience the happier we are with our own lives, the less judgemental we are of others."
People tend to view others' choices as comparable with their own. A woman with children might find motherhood so rewarding, that it's incomprehensible others wouldn't want to pursue it, or conversely see a child-free peer's choice as inferring they see her life choice as wrong.
Ultimately, a fascinating aspect of the child-free debate is that everyone feels entitled to an opinion, even though it is a very personal choice. There are many reasons why women don't have children, not least the possibility that she could be physically unable, and yet it's still something people feel they can comment on.
Mirren says she had to tell "boring old men" to "F off" when they said: "What? No children? Well, you'd better get on with it, old girl".
People think nothing of asking a woman of a certain age when she's going to "get sprogged up" (to quote Bridget Jones's Uncle Geoffrey) but no one in their right mind would ask a pregnant woman why she didn't use a condom.
Nor is it considered good form to ask ageing gents why they're not daddies yet. It's accepted that George Clooney is content to be a godfather but Jennifer Aniston, Kylie Minogue and Cameron Diaz are subjected to endless coverage on their ticking biological clocks.
"There's an undeniable gender bias," says O'Reilly. "If men don't have children it's not considered a great pity or lack of fulfilment. It is what it is.
"Women are told how to look, how to behave, how and when to have sex, how to work, how to parent. There is little assumption of choice."
Surely it's time to stop demanding Helen Mirren and Co explain their choice and just let them make it.