Choosing a different direction
Not having children leads to exclusion for couples, even more so if they have decided not to reproduce
Ask anyone who does not have children and they will be able to easily recount moments when they have been excluded from conversations. Photograph: Getty Images
Ireland is experiencing a baby boom. According to official figures, there were 72,225 births registered here in 2012, a slight decrease on the preceding year, but still a higher per capita birth rate than any other EU state.
Given the large number of youngsters in the country, it isn’t too surprising that their upbringing is a regular topic of conversation. Discussions concerning the right age to wean, the right school to attend and the right life lessons to pass on reign large. Except, that is, if you are childless.
Ask anyone who does not have children and they will be able to easily recount moments when they have been excluded from conversations and even events because they are not parents.
Not having children leads to awkwardness and exclusion for couples, even more so if they have decided not to reproduce.
Bernadette Ryan, a counsellor with Relationships Ireland, believes people generally are suspicious of those who don’t conform and are especially so in the case of childless couples.
“Our society is highly suspicious, resentful even of those who go against the norm. But when it comes to babies and children, there is an added thing as they also wonder what kind of a person wouldn’t want them?
“It is considered fine if a couple can’t have children, then we can feel sorry for them and will offer our sympathy. But if they actually do not want them, then we feel there must be something wrong,” she says.
“I think that especially here in Ireland where children are so cherished we genuinely have a difficulty understanding those who choose not to have children,” she adds.
This view is shared by Trish Murphy, chairwoman of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland (FTAI). She says couples who actively choose not to have children are unlikely to experience the same kind of bereavement issues that couples who cannot have them tend to endure. However, she says they may suffer from unwanted curiosity or comment.
“People can apply their own assumptions to those who choose not to have children and respond accordingly. This is unfair. Couples have told me that they have had people comment on their childlessness in a very insensitive manner such as ‘Any news?’ or ‘When will we hear the patter of little feet?’ Relatives or friends can be particularly forward in their commenting and be unaware of the upset or offence they are causing,” Murphy adds.
Perhaps harder to handle are the unwritten assumptions that to not want to have children means one is anti-family.
There is such concern over this that when The Irish Times tried to find childless couples to speak on this issue, most were unwilling to do so without using pseudonyms.
The couple, who have been together for 18 years (and married for 12), made the decision long ago that they did not wish to have children and are more than happy with their choice.
“We are often asked why we don’t have children, but there is no answer we can give that would satisfy people. We knew early on that we did not want to have them for a whole range of reasons and knew this without even needing to discuss it in great detail,” says Smith.
The couple says that early on in their relationship they were both focused on their careers and becoming financially secure and there has never been a time since when parenthood has been feasible or attractive enough to contemplate.
“The responsibility of having a child and of being a good parent is immense and while lots of people tell us how great we would be as parents and how we should give it a go, it doesn’t appeal,” says Gormley. “You see, some people have kids and it comes so naturally to them and I would love to be that kind of person, but I’m just not.”
While the couple are happy with their decision not to reproduce, they find others sometimes aren’t.
“Nobody questions people who are planning to have children and say, ‘Are you certain? Have you really thought about this?’.We are asked that all the time. We don’t find it mad that people would want to have children, but some find us mad for not wanting them,” says Smith.
Smith is considering donating her eggs to help childless couples achieve their dream and both she and her husband are in awe of those who do decide to have children.
“There’s nothing better than when you see parents with kids and you can see that they’re doing a really good job. That’s really heartwarming. At the same time, you see plenty of people who have children for selfish reasons and that’s depressing,” says Smith.
“I’ve had people say to me that we’re going to regret it in our old age when we have nobody to look after us.
“That seems such a strange thing – to want to have a child in order to have someone to mind you, as though they are your retirement plan,” she adds.
The couple have found that they have been excluded at times because they don’t have kids and that others feel free to comment on their decision without considering how invasive they are being.
“I’ve had people say to me that I’m being selfish in not having a child for Stephen and been accused of talking him into not wanting a child,” says Smith.
Happy as a two-some
Both partners are adamant that they will not change their mind about parenting and that they are happy continuing as a twosome.
“We’ve thought long and hard about the commitment involved in having a child; perhaps more so than some parents.
“As certain as people can be that they want to have children, we’re that certain that we don’t want them and we don’t feel that this should be seen as a problem,” says Gormley.
“We like the fact that there’s only the two of us to worry about and the flexibility that goes with this and I think it would be more selfish for us to have kids than to not have them,” he adds.