independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Childless by choice - the final taboo

Lots of women in Ireland have made the decision not to have children but few are prepared to talk about it. Orla Barry – herself a stranger to maternal yearnings – looks at why it is still such a contentious issue

Donna McGarry: "I've never been broody in my life, I dont know what it feels like."

'AT NO point ever in my life have I wanted to have children," says 42-year-old writer Jennifer Barrett. "But I always thought I'd have them."

The thinking may sound muddled but it's a thought process familiar to thousands of Irish women who find their reproductive years disappearing with still no longing to procreate. It's also a subject few are willing to reflect on publicly.

American statistics show that one-in-five women end their maternity years child-free, that's a jump from one in 10 in the 1970s. A more gender-balanced labour market, improved contraception, changes in family structure all account for falling fertility rates but there is little question that women are also choosing a child-free life.

What can this mean for society, what sort of lifestyles are they leading, will they regret it and is it, as some would have you believe, all just a little bit selfish?

I set out to meet the women in Ireland who have made the conscious choice not to have children. As a person who has never felt deep maternal yearnings and whose child-producing years are rapidly fading I want to see if theirs is a lifestyle I desire. Only one hurdle. Nobody wants to talk. Privately, off the record, many share their anecdotes.

"The thought of being pregnant, having something growing inside me makes me nauseous."

"I get bored around kids, that's all."

"I have such a great life, why would I turn it upside down."

All followed by a rapid – "Don't quote me".

I discover a woman who has written a blog – Childfree in Ireland. She never answers my emails. I tweet and am retweeted many times. Women in New York, Brazil and Spain contact me. I talk to a woman in London who runs an organisation for women who are child-free through circumstances or choice. She puts out a rallying cry for Irish women to speak up. Eventually they do.

Why the reluctance? Do women feel less of a woman because their womb isn't aching to be impregnated. Have we not fought for generations to be free to choose the life we want?

"I think it's because nobody told us there was another option," says Jennifer. "I grew up on a feast of Doris Day movies and musicals where the guy gets the girl, they settle down and have kids and that's the way it happens. You think that's the only end of the rainbow."

This was also surely a world where men controlled and directed the films we watched. Where their wives were busy at home rearing the children and the desire to work was still a struggle women had to campaign for. Now we have all the options.

Women, not enough admittedly, are making films and the plotlines explore non-traditional family structures. Yet the woman who stands up and says 'I am child-free and my life is fantastic' is viewed with a mixture of suspicion and irritation.

Well-known female figures known to have no children will find themselves regularly fielding intrusive questions about it in interviews.

Helen Mirren, who is now – without the intervention of scientific miracles – past the stage of procreation found herself bombarded with questions about her child-free life recently. 'Helen Mirren confronts the final female taboo' read a headline earlier this year.

When having children is such a fundamental decision in any person's life, why is the decision not to have children not a freely discussed subject? Why the taboo?

"It creates division between people," says Trish Byrne, who is married and child-free. "We don't like to talk out loud about it because people suddenly begin to sound kind of militant, no matter which side they are on."

Yet it is an adult choice taken by many after weighing up their emotional, psychological, physical and in some cases financial circumstances and desires for the future.

Sociologist Dr Niamh Hourigan thinks the reluctance may come down to a much more contentious issue for Irish people.

"I think the subject has become a contested one in Ireland because of the abortion debate."

Dr Hourigan, who is senior lecturer in sociology at University College Cork, says the abortion debate introduced the concept of choice. "When women talk about not having children, there's a fear they will be drawn back into this debate on abortion. They chose not to have a child."

Trish and her friends were all opposed to having children for "ecological reasons" through their teens and early twenties. "We believed it was irresponsible to have children," she explains.

Then the 43-year-old watched as each of her like-minded friends left college, settled down and got pregnant. She laughs. "And still I never felt the longing to have kids."

When she met her future husband in her early thirties, Byrne told him straight up that children were not on her agenda. "He said, 'I'm very happy not to have them either'." Trish never had the desire to have children. "It was never a decision I reached, I just always knew it wasn't for me."

All the child-free women I meet are surrounded by children. The analogy of the woman remaining childless because she can't stand the sight of kids doesn't hold true for any of them. "My texts are never answered so fast as when I offer to babysit," says Jennifer, who is auntie to seven nieces and nephews.

It's not just a night's babysitting, it's days hiking up mountains and afternoons shopping and weekend sleepovers. The in-laws are very happy to have an auntie who has no children of her own but will contentedly take them off their hands for a few hours.

In Germany, rates of women deciding not to have children is somewhere around 30pc.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself child-free, contributed to a national debate on the issue, suggesting improved childcare provisions to entice young women to become mothers.

In America, 'Time' magazine ran a front page cover entitled "The Childfree Life – When having it all means not having children".

The debate is being had, but not in Ireland. Here a woman's role remains that of working mother or full-time mother. Those who choose neither are on the fringes.

Dr Hourigan believes that our pro-natal society is partly to blame. "We live in a more pro-natal country than anywhere else in the EU and I imagine that increases the fear women have about saying out loud they don't want to have a baby."

Statistics bear this out. In 2010, Ireland had the highest fertility rate in the EU at 2.07, well above the EU average of 1.59.

Project manager with Lost Society, a Dublin bar and nightclub, Donna McGarry is at a point where many women are considering having their first child. The 33-year-old says neither she nor any of her friends have even discussed children.

"I've never been broody in my life . . . I don't know what it feels like. If someone handed me their baby, I'd hold it for 30 seconds, then gladly hand it back."

Having children doesn't fit into the professional careers of many of her friends. "We work in hospitality and PR, we're on call 24/7 often working from 8am until 3am."

McGarry, who's just moved back from a two-year stint in Limerick, has put her dog in kennels for six weeks. "What would I do if I had a child?"

I ask what she would do if she discovered she was pregnant. There is a long pause. Then, "I would have no excuses not to. But it's a discussion I would have to have with myself."

Examples of the child-free lifestyle may be initially hard to find but images of the woman nearing the end of her fertile years suddenly joyfully discovering she's pregnant with the help of science are everywhere.

I wonder if women who had previously thought they were not mummy material might suddenly feel pressured into having children because the advertisement of possible options like IVF and freezing eggs are everywhere.

Jennifer Barrett never thought she wanted children and never thought she wouldn't have them. So when one day it hit her that she was never having children, it still came as a shock.

Revealing it to a close friend, she found herself bursting into tears. "It was like a sudden overwhelming feeling of loss. Everywhere I looked, there were pregnant women and babies, my sister was pregnant, my best friend was pregnant, and then I knew this was never going to be me."

Barrett's reaction was to take time out from her everyday life. She gave up her job, went travelling, began photographing whales and started to write.

"I met a Christian Brother one day in India and I said to him, 'How do you deal with being alone and the thought of growing old alone'. I was thinking of myself. He said, 'I'm not alone and you're not alone. You've never felt alone up to now, what makes you think you will feel alone when you're old?'"

Less than a year later, Jennifer has published her first book.

"It's like it all makes sense now. My career is great but it's not the be all and end all. The book is a passion for me, travel is a passion to me. I do think everyone has a purpose in life but I can't believe that every woman's purpose is to have a child."

Trish Byrne's brothers both have young children. Did she ever feel under pressure to have children? "My brother said to me once, 'You know you are missing out on this great love'. I said, 'Okay, don't worry about me, I'm fine with that'."

Were you cross? "Not at all," Trish laughs. "Someone has to be the aunt in the family. Someone has to be the person the kids can turn to who has time when the mother doesn't. I'm fully expecting to answer a knock on the door in 15 years' time with one of the kids there saying 'I've run away, can I live with you'."

The one accusation that has been fired at people who decide not to have children is selfishness. A person decides not to procreate so therefore their lives must be all about themselves.

The women I meet are all involved in pursuits outside their jobs, from voluntary work to caring for family members to creative projects.

They are more involved in the community than many of my friends with kids, perhaps because they have the time but also because they have the inclination.

As we wake up to the fact that growing numbers are opting for a childfree life, isn't it time we started to normalise the issue? To say it's an option we should not be ashamed to embrace.

Don't tell everyone, but it also looks like a heck of a lot of fun.

Jennifer Barrett's book is titled 'Look Into The Eye' and is published by Poolbeg Press.

Irish Independent

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