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Smaller families, older mums, miracle babies


Carmel Harrington from Screen, Co.Wexford photographed with her husband Roger, daughter Amelia aged 5 years and son Nate aged 3 years

Carmel Harrington from Screen, Co.Wexford photographed with her husband Roger, daughter Amelia aged 5 years and son Nate aged 3 years

Carmel Harrington from Screen, Co.Wexford photographed with her husband Roger, daughter Amelia aged 5 years and son Nate aged 3 years

IN her candid memoir 'Are You Somebody?', the late writer Nuala O'Faoláin described how her cold and aloof mother was trapped in a lifestyle typical of Catholic Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s.

While O'Faoláin's father, the society columnist Terry O'Sullivan, lived an adventurous life, the author's mother went through 13 pregnancies and had nine children.

"She had to work the treadmill of feeding and clothing and cleaning child after child for decades," O'Faoláin wrote. In older age, "Mammy sat in her chair in a flat in Dublin and read and drank."

The writer's mother had no independent means and like most of her generation, marriage was viewed as the only escape route from the parental home. Even that was a feat in itself: Ireland was one of the most hostile countries for marriage in the world, with half the population over the age of 15 recorded as single in 1946. A church-induced fear of sex created a generation with the highest rate of permanent celibacy in the western world. In rural Ireland, where conservative values were coupled with a reluctance to subdivide farms, 58pc of men had never married.

The young women celebrating Mother's Day this Sunday would barely recognise the childbirths and domestic drudgeries of their grandmothers' households. While Ireland had one of the lowest marriage rates in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, women, once married, had the highest birth rate in the continent.

In the mid-1960s, women had an average of four babies each, compared with two nowadays, and, in 1964, 2,000 babies were born to women who already had 10 children at home. Nowadays, one in three children is born outside marriage, a phenomenon that would have been inconceivable 50 years ago; women who became pregnant then and could not - or would not - marry were compelled to give birth under a veil of secrecy in a mother-and-baby home or sent to work in a Magdalene laundry to "atone" for their sins.

In the 1950s, just 2.4pc of all registered births were to unmarried women and almost all babies born out of wedlock were put up for adoption, often against the wishes of their mothers.

Thanks to decades of contraception, the women of modern Ireland can plan the size of their families or opt not to have children at all. For the last two decades, they have had access to in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) should they and their partner experience difficulties getting pregnant.

If they don't have a partner, they can get pregnant anyway, using insemination from foreign sperm banks at Irish fertility clinics.

Of the 2,000 couples treated for IVF every year at the Sims clinic, which describes itself as the country's largest provider of egg and sperm donation, two-thirds are heterosexual couples and the remaining third are split evenly between lesbian couples and single, straight women, according to Dr David Walsh, the clinic's medical director.

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While the baby boom of the recession has subsided, Ireland's birth rate is still the second highest in the European Union, after France. There were 68,930 babies born in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the Central Statistics Office. The baby boom peaked at 74,033 births in 2011, when there were 31 more babies born than in 1980, when the record for the 20th Century was set.

Now that women have more choices than ever over their reproduction and working lives, they are increasingly having children later in life. The average age of mothers giving birth in 2012 was 32 and only a third were under 30, down from 43pc a decade earlier.

Thirty years earlier, in 1982, the average age was 29.

Mothers over 40 are also on the rise, with 5.6pc of all babies born to women in that demographic in 2012. In 1980, mothers under 30 accounted for 60.1pc of births.

The prohibitive cost of childcare is contributing to women postponing motherhood; Ireland is the second-most expensive country in the world for childcare, after the United States, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found. In a poll for the Irish Independent and Today FM in January, a third of women in their 30s said they were delaying having children because of financial pressures.

When women and their partners are finally in a position to have children, they may be too old to conceive naturally, Dr Walsh says. But they will move mountains to achieve the dream of a child of their own, incurring the financial and emotional burden of four, five or even six cycles of IVF.

The reproductive technology available to women is about to undergo a transformation, with the Government's Children and Family Relationships Bill introducing regulations for assisted human reproduction for the first time in the State's history.

The Bill, which will also give guardianship rights to unmarried fathers and legalise adoption for both same-sex partners and heterosexual couples who are cohabiting, will ban anonymous egg and sperm donation. This will give every donor-conceived child the chance to identify and possibly meet their donor once they turn 18.

Because it will become illegal for people to complete treatment with existing anonymous donations once the bill comes into effect, some 800 patients could be negatively affected by the transition to the new legislation, Dr Walsh estimates.

The Government also plans a future ban on commercial surrogacy, where the woman who carries the child is paid for her services.

However, the legislation, which is not expected to pass before the next general election, will allow surrogate mothers who carry a child for altruistic reasons to receive reasonable expenses for the pregnancy.

Most Irish people who use commercial surrogacy arrangements have had to go outside the country for this service. At least 57 children have been born abroad through a surrogate and brought back to Ireland since 2008.

The Sims clinic intends to set up a surrogacy service in Ireland when it is properly regulated.

"It's still all hypothetical, though," says Dr Walsh. "Let's say a new government does pass it into law, it would be legal in 2016, on the 100th anniversary of the Rising.

"I don't know what Dev would think of that."



Writer Carmel Harrington (44) lives in Screen, Co Wexford, with her husband Roger, daughter Amelia (5) and son Nate (3)   "MY son Nate arrived a few months shy of my 41st birthday. I can remember a few weeks before that, mam called over to visit. Whilst drinking tea and watching the antics of Amelia, my 20-month-old daughter, she said to me: 'You know, I was the same age as you are now, when I became a grandmother for the first time.'

Talk about making a heavily pregnant, hormonal woman gasp! I'd never thought of that fact before. We chatted a bit about how different our paths to motherhood had been and the huge cultural changes of the past four decades. Mam might have been a little younger than the average mother in 1971, me a little older in 2011, but we both agreed that age had not come into it for us.

To be honest, I was euphoric to be finally pregnant and I never really felt like I was too old. All things being equal, yes, I would have chosen to be a decade younger, but life had other plans for me. And now, age simply doesn't come into motherhood for me.

Here's one example - my daughter started school last September, and every morning and afternoon at the school gates, I spend time with the other mothers of the junior infant class. We are a right mix, all ages, from late 20s to quite a few in their 40s, like myself. We have all bonded over the same things, first day nerves, negotiating homework, the dreaded lice, play-dates and birthday parties. It doesn't matter what age we each are, because our love for our children is just the same - boundless.

No matter the age of a parent, there is one indisputable fact. Kids are hard work. They demand not only love, but endless patience, time and energy. They don't care if bones creak a little when standing up after a two-hour jigsaw marathon on the floor. They expect their mama to keep up with them - rightfully so.

My trade-off here, is that I no longer burn the candle at both ends like I used to in my 20s and 30s. Hangovers are a luxury as opposed to a weekly occurrence. But when I hear those wonderful words - I love you mama - I'm just a mother who loves with every part of her heart and in return is rewarded with joy, giggles, love and more happiness than she ever thought was possible. Age simply does not come into it for me."

Irish Independent