Jennifer McShane speaks to three women about voluntary childlessness
What is it about turning thirty as a woman? A biological clock that may have been humming, undisturbed in the background can suddenly become so loud that it distracts from almost anything else. Don’t you want children? Why not? Tick. You’d better hurry up, you’re not getting any younger. Tock. And that’s without those questions coming from well-intended friends and family.[restrict]
I’m in my early thirties and I still haven’t answered that damn clock. Because honestly? I don’t know what my fate is yet to be. I thought I always wanted children. But being currently unattached and with reduced mobility means the answer was always going to be complicated (and a heartbreaking stint with a baby kitten that didn’t work out also left me doubting everything that comes with caring for a human who utterly depends on you). Not everyone was meant to partner; something I read this week that stuck with me.
And you know what?
Not every woman is meant to – or wants to – have children, either. It’s also known as Voluntary Childlessness and it’s on the increase here in Ireland.
A 2018 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that Irish women have the third-highest rate of childlessness in the developed world, with over 18% of Irish women over 45 with no children.
When I asked the question on social media on this weighted decision to not have children, I was inundated with answers from Irish women, happy to share their story, relieved that this topic was being given some light.
Below, a range of them tell me their reasons, talk of breaking stereotypes and the perception they’d like to see changed.
Gina, 44, Loughrea:
“I remember a conversation in late primary school where I thought I’d be married with children by the time I was 23, but I’ve never had an innate longing,” says Gina. “I think once I realised I got to make the choice, that choice was going to be no. There was no moment where I had a realisation or anything, it was just always going to be me.”
“When it comes to stereotypes here, there’s a small part of it that is pity and judgement, a belief that we’re too selfish to have children,” she says of how this choice is perceived in Ireland. “I have no need to add another human to this earth to make me feel complete. I love children and have great fun with them but have no desire to do school runs, change nappies. I dealt with a lot of judgement and patronisation about my decision. Once I hit 40, that all stopped, quite suddenly, but I’d spent almost 20 years hearing ‘It’ll be different when they’re your own, you’ll change your mind when you meet the right person’ and ‘Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about’. It was infuriating and frustrating. It was years of people telling me they knew my mind better than I did. I’m so glad that stopped. At least now I’m left alone with my decision.”
Of talking about her decision with partners, Gina says the response can vary and that it’s not always positive. “It has come up in conversation in past relationships but I’ve always been clear about my feelings on it. Just like friends and family I’ve gotten the feeling of ‘you’ll change your mind, etc’ even though it’s not explicitly said to my face.”
“It is improving here, but there’s quite a way to go until we are no longer defined by our offspring in the media and in life; we’ve more work to do.”
Katie, Dublin, 36:
“I suppose it would have been in my late twenties when I knew for sure that it wasn’t for me,” says Katie on her decision. “I hadn’t given it too much thought but as my friends were settling down and starting to talk about having kids, I felt I had so much more left to do – having kids was really far from my mind. I remember having the conversation with my partner at the time, now husband, and saying I was sure I didn’t want kids and that I didn’t see myself changing my mind.”
She explains something that we don’t talk about a lot; the worry and pressure that comes with talking about this to a partner: “I remember at the time, feeling like I had to talk to him about it because we were pretty serious at that stage and I didn’t want to have to deal with a sticky situation further down the line – It was a difficult conversation to have, one we continue to revisit every now and then to double-check, but the decision wasn’t hard. I knew it was best for me.”
“I’ve always been very open about my wishes,” she continued. “My parents and siblings are very supportive of whatever we want to do. I have had the odd, ‘You don’t know love ’til you have kids,’ comment but I see that as more others projecting their issues than it being my issue. I find the older generation are more interested in my choice and are inclined to make remarks about ‘you’ll change your mind,’ or ‘you’re young yet’”.
Sylvia, Kildare, 25:
“For me, this was a multi-faceted decision that developed over time and as I had more experiences with different people and in different situations,” says Sylvia, who knew early on this would be her choice. “In college, I worked part-time in a very child-friendly restaurant and those couple of years had a significant impact on my thought process. When I was a child/teen I never had the thought, “I’d love to have kids one day”. I just kind of assumed that as you got older you developed that very powerful longing that people describe, but I have yet to experience that in any capacity – quite the opposite.”
“With women who don’t have children, there is sometimes a feeling of pity, as if every woman’s base temperature is to reproduce. That’s extremely unfair, because women don’t have children for myriad reasons, and all of those are highly personal (health, sexuality, financial etc). What I would like to see change is for society as a whole to stop being so obsessed with what I do with my life or my body. As a woman in Ireland, you grow up experiencing the constant sexualisation and objectification of your body by society at large. You truly are told that your body is not your own. This, I think, is changing, but has been a distressingly long time coming and still seems to spark controversy.”
Of the pressures to explain her choice, Sylvia says it has gotten easier over time. “Up until recently, I always gave justifications to explain my stance. I had to preface my stance with “I’m worried about the future livability of the planet” or “I don’t think I’ll ever be financially secure enough to have kids,” (which is true) but now I am certain I do not have to explain my reasons. And those I have dated seriously have expressed they also do not want children. It is my choice and I do not have to enter into a dialogue with someone who is telling me what to do with my life and my body.”
Margaret O’Connor, a counsellor who set up the Are Kids For Me counselling service in 2017, agrees that stereotyping is a big issue that primarily rests on women when it comes to deciding not to have children (as opposed to men) and also that even women who decided to have children still felt unsupported.
“There is a general societal view that everyone should have, will have and wants to have children. There are many negative stereotypes – people are selfish, lazy, too career-oriented, immature, that they hate children, that you will change your mind and that you will regret your decision and so on. The reality is, most people put a lot of thought and effort into making this decision and take many factors into account – their own health and ability to provide for a child, their interest in committing to something so important and long term, the environment and sustainability concerns,” she explained.
If things are to change, she says, parenting generally as a conversation needs to be more open in Ireland.
“I conducted research in 2017 which explored the experience of women who were deciding to have children or not. Ultimately, these women found that the experience was negative regardless of what they planned to do. Women intending to have children felt as isolated and unsupported as women considering not having them,” Margaret continued. “The debate is often presented as being very binary but the assumptions about parenthood do not help parents either. We need much more accurate and honest discussions around the challenges of parenting and support to help parents.”
We also need more open and honest discussions about the alternate options and more accurate representations of society as it actually is already, with varieties of family formations which include people who choose not to have children. We need positive representations of childfree life, instead of either a lack or negative views as we generally get at the moment.”