Journalist Áine Kenny looks at just some of the reasons Irish women are choosing to be child-free.

The topic of whether to have children or not is becoming a more open and honest discussion in 2022. There is an entire online community behind the child-free-by-choice movement, also known as voluntary childlessness.

On TikTok, women are sharing their journey of deciding not to have kids, outlining their various rationales and reasons. Some have high-powered careers and are happy to be aunties and godmothers, some travel extensively and have no time to parent, while others are trying to normalise living an 'average' life with no kids for no pressing reason other than a lack of desire.

In Ireland, the birth rate has been steadily declining since 1965, due to a number of reasons such as increased access to contraception and female participation in the workplace, leading to smaller family sizes. But what about the women who are consciously choosing not to have children at all?

Psychotherapist Deirdre O’Keeffe published a study on the topic as part of her Master's Degree with DCU’s School of Nursing, Psychotherapy, and Community Health. The qualitative research was published in 2020, it involved 15 women aged over 30, and was supervised by Dr. Rita Glover.

According to Deirdre, many women who were interviewed as part of the study described an "innate wisdom" or a feeling that having children was simply not for them. They spoke about not feeling the urge to procreate. Some of the women were in long-term committed relationships and were willing to forfeit this relationship if their partner changed their mind and decided they did want kids.

"Many also had a deep, psychological and physical fear of having children. There can be good fear, which encourages us to grow, but this was different. It was an existential fear, they felt that having children would be a threat to their own life and happiness," says Deirdre.

She adds that most of the women felt somewhat isolated because of their choice. "They felt they were being judged, as if they had not achieved the ‘ultimate goal’ of womanhood, which is motherhood, according to societal norms. They described being positioned as an outsider, an oddball. Some felt that they and their partner were not viewed as a ‘proper family’ because they had no children. Their other accomplishments were minimised. This exclusion was quite painful for some."

However, there was also a sense of freedom among these women: "Some of the women felt very positive about growing older and entering menopause, as the question of ‘when are you having children’ would stop. Many had even left space for some regret later down the line. They felt not having children was better than having them ‘just in case’ they changed their minds. They all put a lot of thought into the decision - perhaps more thought than some people put into having children," says Deirdre.

Fiona Byrne, psychotherapist and life coach from Life On A Roll, says clients often come to her for help with deciding to have children. "The most important thing to remember is that it is an entirely personal choice. The focus of the conversation is often on women - but men also make this decision too."

Fiona says she works with clients to understand all sides of the decision. She adds we are often influenced by perceived societal norms and inherited belief systems. Our decision to have children may also be shaped by our own experience of childhood, what type of parenting we experienced, and what our home environment was like.

"Deciding to have children is very emotive. I would encourage people to ask themselves the hard questions, with honesty: Do I feel maternal? What would it be like for me if I don't ever have children? What feelings might this bring up for me; being deprived, or selfish, then again, might I feel empowered? Can I straddle the tension between a sense of freedom and sacrifice? What are the potential gains and losses? What will it be like for me to confront my fertility expiration date, when it arrives?"

Fiona says the decision to not choose motherhood is unique to each individual, and at the end of the process, one should feel accepting of their choice. "There needs to be compassionate introspection and self-inquiry. It can be difficult to not subscribe to society’s ideas of womanhood, but one can give their life meaning in different ways."

Dealing with comments on the childfree choice can also be difficult, but the most important thing is to respect other people’s opinions while also being comfortable with your own decision, says Fiona.

"Having a response already formulated can be helpful. It can be something like ‘I respect your perspective, and I have put a lot of time and thought into making this decision, and I am happy to say I can give and show love in other equally impactful ways'. When we have made the right choice, we don’t need endorsement from others. Only we need to understand."

Parenting expert Sinead C Kavanagh, aka the Holistic Parent, says parenting is not an easy role - there are sacrifices involved, but there can also be enormous joy. "Society places a huge amount of judgment on parents and non-parents alike. Both women and men grapple with the decision, as having a child is seen as the ‘natural next step’ for couples, even if they don’t really want children."

For those who do decide to have children, more support is needed, according to Sinead. "Anything can happen, and the transition can be tough. We need more secular education, from a young age, on what it means to be a parent. We have to think about what the child deserves, and ensure every child is wanted."

Sinead believes parenting classes are key to creating capable parents. "In Ireland, there can be generational trauma, where cycles are not being broken. Children need to be cared for in a holistic sense, as children learn what they live, and then live what they learn."

Unfortunately, it seems that no matter what choice a woman makes, she will still be judged by society, whether it is on her lack of offspring or the way she parents. When it comes to being child-free, it seems that the focus is placed heavily on the shoulders of women. Perhaps we need to analyse our own biases and choices, before judging those of others.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views.