I’m not a mother. Please don’t judge me
Almost one in five Irish women in their mid-40s are childless. Why is it still such a taboo?
Bernadette Fallon: I’m the person your children can come to when they’re too scared, confused or ashamed to talk to you. Photograph: Rob Wilson jnr
“Do you have children?” she asks.
“No,” I reply and bang, bang, I might as well have shot her.
Her eyes flick away in panic and there’s an embarrassed laugh.
“You’re probably better off,” she says.
We both know she doesn’t mean it.
I was never so aware of the power of motherhood as when a close friend died in her 30s. One of my relatives asked if she’d had children. When I replied no, they shrugged and said, “oh well”, as if she mattered less because she left no children behind. Her impact on Earth was lessened because she wasn’t a mother.
Ireland’s birth rate is dropping. Despite the fact we have the third-highest fertility rate in the EU, our birth rate has fallen every year since 2009 and now, almost 18 per cent of Irish women in their mid-40s are childless.
Fewer of us are having children but more of us are judged for it. Seen as ‘career girls’, as somewhat selfish and cold, or maybe a little bit sad for not bagging a man in time
Fewer of us are having children but more of us are judged for it. Seen as “career girls”, as somewhat selfish and cold, or maybe a little bit sad for not bagging a man in time. Some women don’t want to have children, some women can’t. Others want to wait until they are in a relationship. But as there are now more financially independent single women living in Ireland than ever before, not everyone is making that relationship choice.
Growing up in the west of Ireland, one of a family of four and surrounded by a large number of aunts, uncles and cousins, I imagined I would naturally and effortlessly one day have children. I imagined long summer holidays, big Christmas gatherings, curling up on the sofa to watch The Wizard of Oz and eat Milk Tray.
What I didn’t imagine was a rare health condition that was diagnosed in my 30s. I had surgery to remove a brain tumour, followed by radiotherapy. There was a chance that the radiotherapy, in the act of killing all the bad cells, would wipe out quite a few of the good ones as well. There was a chance it would affect my fertility, that I wouldn’t be able to have children.
“Freeze your eggs,” urged my friends before the treatment started. “Then you’ll always have the option.”
But did I want to? I was 33 and, for the first time, had to face up to the reality of becoming a mother. Did I want to have a box marked “Bernadette’s eggs” sitting in a fridge somewhere for years to come, waiting for me to decide what to do with it?
People say you don’t really understand love until you become a parent and experience that absolute love for your child. I think that does the rest of us an injustice
I decided I didn’t, clinging to the thought it might still happen naturally at some point. Years passed. There was a flash of possibility once but just as quickly it was taken away and then it was all too late.
People say you don’t really understand love until you become a parent and experience that soul-crushing, totally absolute love for your child that nothing compares to. I think that does the rest of us an injustice. The world is full of all kinds of love and I’ve felt that fierce love, that compulsion to protect and nurture, to fight for somebody’s best interests, even though I’ve never been a mother.
So don’t judge me because I’m not a mother. I might not have children, but I’ve grown up the oldest of four, so I’ve changed nappies, cleaned noses and handed out advice that wasn’t asked for. I might not have children, but I do have three nephews and four godchildren, mentor young colleagues at work and volunteer on a helpline for teenagers. I’m the person your children can come to when they’re too scared, confused or ashamed to talk to you.
I can’t experience childhood again through my own children, but I can subject my nephews to endless forest walks and ice-creams in howling gales on the beach, all the fun we “enjoyed” as children.
I can never look into a child’s eyes and see my own reflected back, but I can see my father’s laughing eye-roll in my brother’s expression, and hear my granny’s voice in my cousin’s conversation, because I’m still part of a family.
I won’t find fulfilment in motherhood. But why should there be just one way in life to be fulfilled? And what sort of a world would it be if we all wanted to find fulfilment in the same thing – if we all wanted to be plumbers or tap dancers or pilots?
I won’t have children to look after me in old age, but what sort of people give birth solely to create their own carers? Instead I’m hatching a plan with other childless friends to buy a big plot of land and build our own care home, pooling our resources for staff and champagne.
I don’t know what it’s like to give up part of my life for somebody else – just as mothers will never know what it’s like not to. And neither of us will ever know what we’ve missed out on because of it.
There’s an old African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. I’m proud to be part of that village.
OTHER WOMEN’S STORIES
‘Nieces and nephews are not a substitute but are an utter joy’
Single in my late 20s and for much of my 30s, at 38 wanting a baby hit me like atrain. I had bought my own home, published my first book of poetry and felt settled for the first time in my life. I was ready and stable enough to have children. A lot of my family and friends are childless, so rather than it being “expected”, it took me a long time to trust and listen to the fact that I did want children. A hangover, perhaps, of a 1980s Irish adolescence?
After two years of dating – by turns fun, infuriating and downright appalling – I decided to go it alone and contacted a fertility clinic in Denmark. On a Friday my GP took blood tests and filled out the forms. I don’t know if I actually would have gone through with it, but that Sunday, on a blind date, I met my future husband. We spent three of our first four years together trying to make a baby.
Not having children has taught me that “mother” is a verb as well as a noun; that three pregnancies do not (necessarily) a baby make; that it can feel unbearable at times, and that it can be bearable; that knowing when to quit trying can be the biggest positive of all; that having tried helps; that the body continues to age either way; that nieces and nephews are not a substitute but are an utter joy; that there are advantages to not having children, which I make the most of; that life is rich, varied and sometimes cruel; that I am in good company.
‘I just didn’t feel that my life was stable enough’
Not having kids wasn’t a choice I made. I just didn’t feel that my life was stable enough or that I was ready to settle down and be a mother. By the time I thought I should hurry up or it might never happen, I couldn’t get pregnant. I’ve never spent much time dwelling on it. A lot of my friends don’t have children, so I don’t feel like the odd one out. At work, however, most of my colleagues have kids and I feel that they sometimes wonder why I haven’t, but it doesn’t bother me.
Not having children has given me the opportunity to travel and to keep in touch with a lot of people. I look at people with children and it seems that their time is never their own, not until the children leave home. And a lot of people seem ill-equipped to mentor other human beings. As I get older, however, I feel that I would have liked to have been responsible for somebody else. Most of all, I feel a little sad that I’ll never have any grandchildren.
‘I’m very happy being childless’
I was raised a good Catholic, so I imagined I’d be married with kids for sure, but at the age of 27 I was diagnosed with endometriosis and polycystic ovaries and suddenly it wasn’t sure anymore. I told my boyfriend and he said it was fine, he didn’t care, but six months later he did care.
So, I had fertility treatment but after three miscarriages I decided I didn’t want to continue with the pain and misery of it. I realised I was doing it just because I felt I had to – but did I really want to?
And we split up. He couldn’t cope with not having children. That was the most hurtful thing, the thought that he wanted these non-existent children more than me.
Now I’m very happy being childless though people really wind me up when they say, “Never mind dear”. It’s so patronising, as if I can never be happy without being a mother. Being childless makes life easier – so many of my friends say they love their children through gritted teeth. Now feel I was lucky not to have kids. I have a fantastic life, have travelled all over the world and am financially secure.
‘Not having children is a regret’
Having children was always important to me. I imagined having several until it was too late because I prioritised other things and always thought there was plenty of time. On the positive side, not having children has given me the time to pursue my own interests – education, work and other relationships – and I went into higher education as a mature student.
Also, friends as “family” is a wonderful thing, and something that families with children don’t seem to quite relate to. My social circles vary a lot, and I notice that friends with children often just hang out with other people who have children, and there is a lack of diversity.
Let’s not forget you can enjoy kids and give them back when they’re not yours! Your relationship with children can be a good support for the parents, and a good alternative for the kids.
The negatives are all around emotional wellbeing. I am surrounded by loving relationships but am conscious that the love of children and those relationships are unique and not something I will now experience. Not having children is a regret and it should have taught me to pursue my desires and identify them more clearly for myself.
‘People think I’m pining for children but I’m not’
People think I’m pining for children but I’m not. I did have to stop going to weddings for a while in my 30s though because I kept getting told – mainly by mothers – that I’d “find” somebody soon and have a family. I’m now helping some of those people through their divorces.
I enjoy the auntie role so I can have the joy of the kids but not the pain. I also volunteer with kids in a community garden project and I’ve been known to dress up as fairies and rabbits to entertain them. People assume I’m doing it to make up for the fact I don’t have children myself but I’m not, I just like to watch them laughing and enjoying themselves.
The garden is a great place to get children to open up and talk, when you’re weeding or planting seeds side-by-side and they feel they’re in a safe and protected environment. I’ve had kids open up about all sorts of difficult issues they’re having, from being bullied to problems with their teachers. They often don’t want to tell their parents because they feel they’ll be judged.