'I used to have stock answers, but now I let the silence hang in the air' - Why are we still looking down on voluntary childlessness?
With a lot more women choosing not to have kids, Tanya Sweeney looks at our fascination with them
Jennifer Aniston (49) has been keeping a low profile of late, but it doesn't stop the press going wild with headlines like 'Her Latest Love!'. According to one recent report, her latest love is… well, her career. In any case, it's an excuse to rethread Jen's stance on relationships, by now her defining characteristic: "It's pretty crazy," she says. "The misconceptions are, 'Jen can't keep a man,' and 'Jen refuses to have a baby because she's selfish and committed to her career'. Or that I'm sad and heartbroken."
Many would kill for Aniston's lot in life, yet without a child in the mix, it seems she shall forever be 'Poor Jen'. And she's not alone: happily married Cameron Diaz (46) can send Insta love notes all she wants to Benji Madden, but her child-free status requires patient and public explaining time and time again.
Eileen Reilly, who runs the Child Free in Ireland blog (childfreeinireland.wordpress.com) notes: "Aniston's case highlights a number of cultural assumptions - the first is that it is acceptable to enquire into a woman's maternity status. For women who are assumed to have passed the age of having children, it is normal to enquire into why not. Aside from the obvious gender bias, this line of questioning belies another assumption, namely that marriage and family life are viewed as the proper occupation of women."
Certainly, these ongoing narratives around motherhood and those with a child-free existence seem to have endured. Where mothers are selfless, saintly and fulfilled to their baby vomit-flecked eyeballs, the latter are somehow the opposite of that: selfish, suspicious, and lacking. When it comes to preconceptions about non-mums, Marian Keyes hit the nail on the head in a brilliant tweet: "I always INSIST on paper receipts from ATMs because as a childless woman I've 'no stake in the future'. Kill all the trees cos I've no kids!" she wrote.
Fellow novelist Sheila O'Flanagan (60) spoke recently about her decision not to have children of her own: "My thing is that I had enough self-awareness of myself to know that being a mother was not something I wanted to do," she says. "People who have small families or big families, that's the choice they lead and want to lead."
Elsewhere, comedian Joanne McNally, who explored her child-free status in the documentary Baby Hater, opines that having a child is "eight pounds and three ounces of pure responsibility and commitment".
Very few mothers speak out honestly about their gripes on being parents. For that, it's seen as the most enriching thing a woman can do, and soon becomes seen as a biological instinct and the overwhelming norm rather than a cultural choice. The good news is that a growing number of women are biting back against this conceit of motherhood as an imperative. The Economist reported that Ireland's child-free rate runs at around 20pc. What's more, the average age at which Irish women gave birth to their first child rose from 24.8 years in 1975 to 30.5 years in 2014. And with visibility around the freedoms and advantages of a child-free life growing by the day, the idea of child-free women somehow being 'lesser' or unfulfilled is also being sent firmly out to pasture.
Deirdre Molloy (48), director of the Dublin Fringe Festival production Boy Child, notes that her younger self assumed she would marry and have children.
"When it didn't happen, I'm one of the lucky ones in that it genuinely didn't bother me," she says. "At 40, I remember people saying, 'you can freeze your eggs or have a baby on your own'. Right now, I love my life and can't imagine motherhood being a part of it. I admire parents hugely, but it's the hardest and most thankless job in the world."
Far from encountering countless invasive questions about why she has remained child-free, Deirdre says she doesn't come across it a huge amount. "It's there in the ether alright, but anyone who judged me for not having children would get a serious earful," she says.
Like Deirdre, renowned DJ Sally Foran (37) believed years ago that she too would eventually become a mother: "If you'd told me 10 years ago that I'd be single and wouldn't have a child, I'd be like, 'oh s***'.
"I'd say some people think I'm a bit of a party girl and to them that's why I haven't 'settled' down," she adds. "But all that's happened is I'm coming closer to the age where I'm realising it might not be that tragic if I didn't have a child." In her 20s, Sally worked as a nanny, and has a keen awareness of just how demanding childcare can be. "I'm good with kids and I love kids, but I know the work involved and I have a realistic take on things - that's why I'm not terrified I won't have children. And I have noticed fewer people asking, which is a good sign." Yet in the ongoing debate, Sally makes a strong case that being child-free is a fluid state. "If I decide to have a child, I'll be ready for it. I'm not categorically not having kids," she says.
Writer Fiona Byrne (42) married her husband seven years ago and, almost immediately, the queries about starting a family began to roll in.
"People say, 'you'd be so amazing at it', and I'm like, 'yeah, I'd be a great carpenter too'," she says. "I used to have stock answers to the questions, but now I let the silence hang in the air. I've made it clear that I don't have a child. If anything, I'm getting the flipside of the 'lesser' debate more - I get 'you're so lucky, I wish I had your life'."
There certainly seems to be a shift in the right direction, where women who haven't had children for whatever reason no longer need to be 'figured out'.
"You just don't know what any particular person is going through and I think people should be more sensitive to that," says Deirdre. "Ideally, every woman should be able to privately or publicly do what they want and not worry about how they will be judged for it. But for now, women without children are judged as either a prospective baby-maker or a failed one."
World Childless Week runs until September 16