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The rise and rise and rise of the child-free couple

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Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren

Linda Martin

Linda Martin

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Helen Mirren

In a world of yummy mummies and mumpreneurs, it’s the mother of all taboos. Yet statistics show that almost one in five women here is now child-free — either by chance or choice.

Despite having the highest fertility rate in Europe at 1.96, Irish women also have the third-highest rate of childlessness in the developed world at 18.4pc, according to the OECD.

It’s certainly a far cry from 1950s Ireland, when the Irish mammy was such an institution that author Flann O’Brien quipped: “The typical West of Ireland family consists of a father, a mother, 12 children and a resident Dutch anthropologist.”

“There was a stigma [to being childless] in the the past,” says sociologist Dr Catherine Hakim, who has studied the lifestyle phenomenon in Europe. “But the contraceptive revolution has completely changed perspectives.

“Whereas before having children just inevitably happened to all people who got married or had sex, now it’s something you have to make a choice about.”

Pope Francis isn’t so sure. Last month, the Pontiff sparked outrage when he described couples who chose not to have children as “selfish”.

He said: “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies; it is enriched, not impoverished.”

If having a baby is seen as one of the most natural things a woman can do, is choosing not to, by extension, somehow ‘unnatural’?

“Traditionally in Ireland, there was an assumption that all women wanted to get married and start a family,” says Owen Connolly, consultant psychologist at Connolly Counselling Centre in Stillorgan. “Even today, going against the grain by choosing not to have children can be a bit taboo.

 “Down through the years, I’m sure there were lots of women who secretly didn’t want to have children, but ended up having them because of the lack of availability of contraception here or social norms,” he adds.

 “Young professional women now are giving a lot more thought to getting married and having children. With divorce rates the way they are, as a marriage counsellor, I think that’s a good thing.”

Childless by Marriage author Sue Fagalde Lick agrees: “In my generation, motherhood was the default position.

“If you didn’t have children, people wanted to know why, perhaps assuming you were infertile, selfish or whatever. But with today’s young women, it’s often a matter of timing and choices, and folks are starting to understand that.”

Never say never, of course, because of the 74,976 babies born in 2010, 164 were to women over 45. At 69 however, actress Helen Mirren admits to having “no maternal instinct whatsoever”.

“Motherhood holds no interest for me,” Mirren who has been married for 18 years told Vogue. “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.”

Other women, she added, never gave her a hard time: “It was only boring old men. And whenever they went ‘What? No children? Well, you’d better get on with it, old girl,’ I’d say ‘No! F*** off!’”

As their biological clock ticks its last though, could Ireland’s new generation of childfree women live to regret not becoming grannies?

“Not having children was deliberate,” singer and Eurovision winner Linda Martin, who’s in her early sixties, told the Irish Independent recently. “I began working in showbusiness at 16, and everything in my life has been dictated by it since then.

“You get to a stage where you realise it’s too late and it will never happen, but I can honestly tell you that I don’t regret the decision not to have kids. I don’t have a maternal bone in my body.”

 “Just like having a child, deciding not to have a child is not something that should be taken lightly,” adds Owen Connolly. “So I think the likelihood of childfree-by-choice women, or indeed men, living to regret their decision is slim.

 “Some people simply aren’t cut out to be parents.”

Irish Independent