Joanne McNally tackles sensitive issue of women who don't want children in new doc Baby Haters
In a new documentary, comedian Joanne McNally tackles the sensitive issue of women who don't want children. She talks to Tanya Sweeney
It's a hot-button topic that elicits strong reactions in many, so it stands to reason that professional provocateur Joanne McNally would tackle not having children in her first ever documentary.
TV3's Baby Hater - so called because it was the label levelled at one British woman, Holly Brockwell, who went public with her desire not to have children - sees the 34-year-old comedian at a personal crossroads. Joanne admits that she is 80pc certain that she does not want children - her boyfriend, incidentally, is "set against" the idea - but the niggling 20pc that is curious about motherhood still remains.
"Right now, I'm only getting started in my career, and I'm not earning big bucks, but I can afford to pick and choose the work I want," she says. "Besides, I still feel about 28. A lot of my friends said, 'you'll never regret having them, but you will always regret not having them', and that's really stuck with me. The funny thing is, the physical side doesn't put me off having kids. In fact, I'd be curious to know what type of person my boyfriend and I would make. It's the 18 years afterwards that worries me."
Aided by a roll-call of supporting subjects - the aforementioned Brockwell, a woman who admits regret at becoming a mother, a man dead set against parenthood until he had his own children, and a friend who gave birth to triplets recently - Joanne manages to get to the heart of a very complex issue. The overall result is both thought-provoking and current, shot through with Joanne's own brand of irreverent, spiky humour. "[The production company] asked me about what topics interest me, and the baby thing really does because it feels like everyone my age is having babies or miniature dogs, or not having babies," she says. "It's decision time.
"I know we're not allowed to admit that [desire to not have children] and back in the day, things were so much more mapped out for you. People didn't question it as much and people who didn't have children were seen as a bit peculiar. Whereas now, you can really make a decision about it. I think with women, not having children is seen as more of an emotional decision. I think men are almost seen as a bit foolish if they don't have kids, as in 'would you ever get a woman for yourself?'. For women though, it's like there's a sensitivity chip missing.
She adds: "I don't like when people say I'm selfish not to have kids - if anything, I think it's selfish to want kids. You're giving birth to a child and doing it to build a little army around yourself. You're doing it to have someone to love and to have someone who will love you back. Surely that's selfish?
"Of course, there's a huge amount of work and sacrifice that goes into having kids, but both having kids and not having them are pretty self-serving acts. And then I went online and found these people who regretted having kids, and that's really where the whole debate in my mind took off."
Admitting to regret over becoming a parent is one of society's biggest taboos and once Killiney native Joanne went looking for people who shared this sentiment, she was surprised to find plenty.
"A lot of it was done anonymously and it felt like one of those small SOS calls from the dark, with people saying that parenthood wasn't for them," she admits. "I think that's my biggest fear - to have a family and to lose myself so much that I feel, 'oh god, what have I done?'."
As for her own feelings about the issue, she says: "I love dogs and fish and cute things, but I have no responsibilities right now. I went to get my fertility tested for the documentary and it was interesting. When you're younger, you think if a lad looks at you, you'll get pregnant. You spend so long trying to avoid getting pregnant, mainly because my mother had it so instilled in me."
After Joanne cut a dash on the stand-up circuit - she left her PR job in 2014 to give full-time comedy a go - it was only a matter of time before she'd make her way to the small screen. She has previously recounted her experiences of bulimia with startling élan in her one-woman show, Bite Me. Her two-hander with PJ Gallagher, entitled Separated At Birth, was a similarly unflinching look at the pair's experiences of being adoptees. Blending salty humour with confessionalism has now become Joanne's stock in trade.
In a particularly touching segment of Baby Hater, Joanne's mum Patricia makes an appearance to discuss becoming a mother to Joanne and her brother Conor.
"She's a great mum and I don't know how she does it," smiles Joanne. "I mean, I could punch her in the face and she'd still come back to tell me she loves me and try to give me change for the bus. I guess in a way she's the opposite to me - she desperately wanted kids and jumped through all sorts of hoops to have us."
Job done on completing her first documentary, there are many other issues she wants to mull over in similar TV projects in the future.
"I studied sociology in college and I love the idea of studying groups of people and why we do what we do," she says. "I'm really interested in the concept of shame and how it keeps us in line in society. I have an obsession with alcohol, both drinking it and seeing the damage it's doing to me. I think in Ireland we have no idea what categorises a drink problem. We have somehow turned alcoholism into this chic 'wine o'clock' concept.
"I'd also love to explore whether the 'snowflake' generation has been bred to have no resilience. Is it damaging to be that offended all the time? Does it prepare you for life in the real world?"
Certainly, Joanne's comedy - running the gamut from dating and drinking to body issues and feminism - cuts quite close to the bone. And today's cultural climate, with its emphasis on political correctness and trigger points, has given her pause for thought. Joanne recalls a recent gig where a notice about it being a 'safe space' was taped to the door. Her routine, partly about #MeToo and abortions, didn't exactly go down too well with the crowd.
"In comedy you're supposed to push the boundaries," she says. "[Political correctness] has definitely had an impact on comedy - some would say it's for the best. At the same time, I won't sit through someone making rape jokes. But I don't know where the line is. It's getting harder to try and push things, as I'm constantly second guessing myself now when I write - will this annoy feminists?, will this annoy non-feminists? But look, they say it takes a comedian 10 years to find their voice - I've only really been doing this for three."
Late last year, Joanne signed with Off the Kerb, the UK agency that is home to Alan Carr, Jack Dee and Michael McIntyre. The plan for now is to continue developing TV documentaries and make more inroads into the UK stand-up circuit.
While being a woman in comedy, she admits, has "benefited" her in many ways (mainly because it still remains underpopulated by women), she has already come up against the sexism writ large in the TV industry.
"It's happened to me when pitching to TV people: 'we have this one woman doing the same stuff, so we're okay, thanks.' It's like they can only manage working with one woman at a time. In an ideal world, everything would be done on ability and merit, and it wouldn't matter if you had tits."
A natural progression for Joanne would be to write a series of her own. She already has, by her own admission, a rich personal seam to mine.
"With the bulimia stuff, I was so embarrassed and ashamed of that for so long, that writing the show Bite Me was like giving a two fingers up at bulimia," she says. "The weird thing is, I think people with an eating disorder probably found it funnier than people who didn't have an eating disorder.
"There's always that thing with my stuff, 'wow, am I allowed to laugh at this?'," she adds. "I'm naturally drawn to my own dark s***. I like the idea of getting out there and telling my truth."
- Joanne McNally Baby Hater: True Lives airs on TV3 on Wednesday, Jan 24 at 9pm.