Monday 2 February 2015

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."
Donna McGarry says her job isn't compatible with a family life. Photo: Dave Meehan
Jennifer Barrett, who is an auntie to seven nieces and nephews. Picture: Dave Meehan
Orla Barry has never had the urge to have children. Photo: Ronan Lang

'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.

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.

Irish Independent

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