herald

Thursday 19 October 2017

What to expect when you're childless

Women who don't have children often come up against a wall of incomprehension and pity, but more are speaking out about their feelings and experiences, writes Anna Coogan

CAMERON Diaz, one of the lead stars in the movie 'What To Expect When You're Expecting', is 39 years old, unmarried, and childless. She didn't know it was going to be this way. "I thought I was going to be married and have two children by the time I was 21," Diaz says in the June issue of Redbook magazine. "I think I felt I had to model my life after my mother's."

Cameron is one of a growing number of women suddenly talking about their experiences of being childless in a world where most woman are mums.

It's estimated up to 20pc of young Irish women will never become mothers, either by choice or through circumstances, and some are beginning to talk about their feelings around not having children.

Dublin medical professional Eileen Reilly (40), single and childless, has struggled with the realisation that she may never have a baby.

"I think a lot of women without children feel less valued by society than women with children. They feel they are viewed as 'less than' or invisible. The standard expectations are that you go to school, get a job, meet a partner and start a family ... in that order!" Eileen says.

"If your life doesn't follow that course, it makes you different. If you are single and childfree you can be made to feel as if you haven't quite become a grown-up, or you're not a proper woman. If you have chosen to not have children you can be viewed as selfish or uncaring, not a proper woman cause you don't want kiddies," Eileen feels.

"If you haven't had an opportunity to have children, whether because of fertility problems or life circumstances, you can be viewed as tragic. Pity can be hard to swallow. It is often well intentioned, but there is a world of difference between understanding and empathy and being seen as an object of pity, which undermines self-esteem," Eileen says.

Eileen has felt so isolated by her childlessness that she has sought out women in a similar situation. "I went to a workshop in London, run by a group called More to Life which supports women who are childless not by choice.



isolation

"I found it really helpful to hear other women describe their experiences, feelings of loss, isolation, the crises of identity which can come when you realise that you will never, or may never, experience being a mother and the feelings of misunderstanding and stigma that can accompany childlessness.

"It was a turning point for me because I realised I wasn't alone, that everything I had experienced was normal for a woman who was coming to terms with childlessness not by choice, and that it is possible to survive and adjust to a life without children of my own," Eileen says.

Women without children are as diverse and different as women with children. Writer and TV presenter Bibi Lynch let off some serious steam over being fortysomething and childless in a recent article in The Guardian when she wrote, "I am sick of reading about mums feeling desolate, how hard motherhood is, and how some women can't quite cope if the perfect child in their womb has a penis. Seriously? The joy around Victoria Beckham having a girl after three boys was as ridiculous as her heels. Thank God! Yes, her life making frocks in LA with David and three gorgeous boys must have been torture before

"I don't want to mum-bash, but I do want mums to open their eyes and see what they have. At the risk of being lynched -- or, worse, incurring the wrath of Mumsnet Towers ... give it a break. Give me a break. Give women like me, who wanted children but don't have them, a break. You mums do not know how blessed you are -- so quit complaining. You got the prize. You have the child. Rejoice," Bibi lamented.

Psychologist Penny Rogers says of women without children who are suddenly speaking about their experiences: "Whilst we are starting to hear from women who would like to have children, we do not hear much from the women that have made a choice that they would not like to have children.

"We often assume if a women does not have children that she is either unable to, or not been in the right relationship for this to happen. There is an assumption that all women must want to have children. Whereas it may be that she has taken a decision not to have children for political reasons.

"I knew one couple who felt that the world was already over-populated and, therefore, did not feel that could contribute further towards this overpopulation.

"Other individuals stated that they did not feel a 'need' to have children, especially as they were enjoying their life as it was. Some individuals may have had experiences in their own parenting, which has influenced their choice regarding whether or not they wish to parent," Penny says.

"We also assume that it is only women who experience this pain, but it may be that the men do not express their distress in the say way," Penny adds.

Clontarf resident and author Sheila O'Flanagan has never felt a need to become a mum. The bestselling author is in her early 50s and has lived with her partner Colm for more than 25 years, and says: "I'm childless by choice. Not because I'm a single-minded career woman who didn't want children for a while and then realised it was too late. I've never felt the need to have children.

"Through my 20s and 30s friends sometimes asked if I would change my mind, but no sudden desire for motherhood ever engulfed me and my womb didn't twang with longing whenever I saw a baby."

"There was a while in my late 30s when some acquaintances suggested to me that it was selfish not to have a child. My view was that it would be more selfish to have a child on a whim, when I knew deep down that I simply wasn't the mothering sort.

"It's not that I actively dislike children -- I have four nephews whom I love dearly -- but to have a child of my own would have been out of an obligation to other people's expectations, rather than being true to myself," Sheila says.

Sheila, whose new novel is called All For You, has never felt isolated on account of being childless.

"Maybe it was easier because within my parents' families there were women without children and they weren't treated as though something in their lives was lacking. My own friends are an eclectic mix of women who are childless and those with children. The mothers will occasionally talk about their offspring and those of us without children will ask questions about them, but there isn't an over-riding maternal agenda.

"When we meet we meet as people in our own right, not as somebody's mother or somebody's wife," Sheila says.

Chicklit author Claudia Carroll is in her early 40s, dating, and childless, and says: "Women seem to fall into distinct categories today. Firstly, you have women who are born mothers, who can't and shouldn't have to go through life without having a family. Wonderful, amazing mums, the kind that keep M & S foodhalls in business selling overpriced chocolates and potted plants come Mother's Day.

"Secondly, you have women who, although they love kids, just don't necessarily want a family of their own. This category, you'll find, tend to make the most amazing godmothers, aunties and babysitters.



cranky

"They love being around children, they get a great laugh out of them and are always on for a kiddie movie night or the panto. Equally, and more crucially, they're always delighted to hand your little darlings back to you when they start getting narky and cranky," Claudia says.

Claudia's new book A Very Accidental Love Story is out in July. "I'm just saying that I'm lucky enough to fall into category two. Now come on lads, we've already got Mother's Day and Father's day, so why can't we have Godmother's Day?" Claudia says.

Medical professional Eileen Reilly has started a new blog about her experiences of being childless in Ireland, childfreeinireland.word press.com, and says: "As a single woman, I feel lots of people assumed I have made a choice, or that I don't want children. I think lots of single women of a certain age feel overlooked or invisible, or that when childlessness gets discussed that it is often discussed in the context of couple relationships.

"I feel there's very little in the media on the subject of being single and childfree. I find this strange as it's a big issue for so many women, and yet it's hardly ever discussed. In Ireland, according to the recent census 160,000 women over 40 haven't had children biologically ... that's about 15pc of women over 40," Eileen says.

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