"People say I'd be a super mom and maybe I would be, but I just don't want to be," says Tara Mundow (44), one of an increasing number of women in Ireland who are open about choosing not to have children.
Although this decision has led to the break-up of relationships in the past, Mundow, who is the eldest of four, says she was in her late 20s when she came to the firm conclusion that motherhood was not for her.
"When I was about 27 or 28, I was with a guy who was mad to get married and mad to have kids, but I told him 'I'm not just there yet,' and we split up because of that," explains the Dundalk woman.
The 2016 census records 507,949 women and girls, or 51 per cent of those of child-bearing age, who are childless in Ireland. (“Child-bearing age” is classed as ages 15-44. It must be noted that the age of consent in Ireland is 17, and you would not expect the younger age groups to have children.)
So while childlessness is a personal choice for some, biology makes the decision for others. The HSE reports about one in six heterosexual couples in Ireland may face infertility issues with 85 per cent of couples conceiving naturally after a year of trying.
While infertility continues to cause a host of issues in relationships, including marital conflicts and emotional distress, according to Dr Rita Glover, assistant professor in psychotherapy at Dublin City University (DCU), problems can also arise in a relationship where a person is at odds with their partner about the decision to procreate.
“When a woman chooses to be voluntarily childless, she’s actually beginning to make a decision very much for the relationship as well,” says Glover, “and what you don’t want to happen is that there would be resentment build-up from the partner who gave up the choice to have children.”
In 2019, Dr Glover supervised a research study on voluntary childlessness to gain some insight into the lived experiences of women who were deciding to be childless. Conducted by Deirdre O’Keeffe, during her final year in the MSc psychotherapy programme in DCU, the qualitative research study examined women in the 30-48 age group.
Using a phenomenological hermeneutical method– which focuses on the lived experiences of participants – the analysis uncovered four common experiences for the childless women in the study, one of which was being fearful.
“Sometimes having a fear or being concerned about something is a good pointer to one’s psychological and physical survival,” says Dr Glover, “and for some women, the bit about being well in their mind and their body is tied up with being voluntarily childless.
“That is not seen to be a deficit,” she says, “and that is what we found in our study, that it’s not a deficit to really be prepared to look after your mental health and your physical health by choosing to be childless.”
Dr Glover also says there has to be an acknowledgement for women’s “innate wisdom” when it comes to making this lifelong decision.
“There can be some kind of an innate wisdom in that [choosing to be childless] for some women who on some deep level know that this is not the right choice for them, that it’s not the right thing for them to have children. So it’s almost like we need to acknowledge women’s innate wisdom by these things, and to be fearful that it [having children] might compromise your mental health or your physical health can be a good decision for women,” she explains.
Deirdre O’Keeffe, who is now a psychotherapist with TCD Student Counselling Service, was the lead researcher in this study, one of the first of its kind.
“The literature that’s currently available on voluntary childlessness – and there’s very little in terms of an Irish experience,” she says, “but the literature that is available currently doesn’t really speak to what emerged in this study because it was about the physical and psychological fears that women had around it.”
This fear was an existential warning within these women's systems saying motherhood is not the right path for me, I will lose my life if I become a mother
She says some women in the study don’t believe being a mother is a completion of their womanhood, and the fear experienced by these women is far beyond any fear felt by first-time mothers.
“This fear was an existential warning within these women’s systems saying motherhood is not the right path for me, I will lose my life if I become a mother. I will lose my identity if I become a mother. There is nothing to gain at the end of this for me. It’s not that common story of natural fear of first-time mothers and then the baby being the reward that changes their life. That’s not how these women felt about motherhood,” explains O’Keeffe.
However, O’Keeffe says there is great freedom in this choice for these respondents: “This particular cohort of women were actively looking forward to the ageing process and the onset of menopause because that would represent being free first of all of the physical capacity to become pregnant and also being free of the intrusive questioning that people in their lives, well-meaning, nice people, but people being maybe a bit nosier than they should be.
“These people insist that ‘it’s not too late, you still have time’ but science has widened that gap between when women stop getting told what they want biologically in terms of their fertility,” she adds.
This intrusive questioning is something Tara Mundow says she regularly experienced.
“I had one work friend who knew how I felt and as soon as I got married, every week, she would ask me ‘Any sign of a baby?’ The only way I could think of to get her not to keep asking me is I had to say to her ‘You do not know whether we have been trying for a baby. You do not know whether I have had failed pregnancies or whether I have miscarried. You asking me this question could be the most hurtful thing,’ and she never mentioned it after that.”
Mundow has been married for seven years and says she and her partner have a great life. She says they both feel not having children is the right thing for them and they have no regrets about their mutual decision.
“We both feel that we don’t miss out. I have nieces and nephews. My friends’ kids call me Auntie Tara because I’m there and I’m always there,” she says.
She admits that once she might have wanted children, but life experience has changed that: “I had two friends who passed away within months of each other and one left a three-month-old baby and one left two small kids so that was part of it too, I’m thinking, God, what if something happened to me?”
Commenting on her family’s reaction, she says they are more concerned about how she will feel in the future.”I just think they’re afraid that I’ll wake up when I’m 65 and feel that I’ve missed out,” she explains.
For Zsanett Vegh (37), who comes from a Hungarian family, the opposite is true, as she says her loved ones accept her decision.
“I tell my family that I’m not really mother material. I choose sports and travelling instead,” she says, “and because I think I say it in such a casual way, they don’t dig deeper into it.
“I have friends who struggled to have a baby,” she says, “but then they managed to in the end and I have friends who were considering having a baby but it never really happened and they’re absolutely fine.”
Vegh who lived in Dublin for 13 years says she always saw the “other side” of motherhood.
“People are always talking about how rewarding it is and then the only thing I saw is that you can’t even wash your hair or brush your teeth whenever you want to. You just can’t do things you want, you can’t be in love exactly the same way anymore because someone else is taking the attention away. I saw so many examples around me where couples grew apart because they just struggled to manage with minding the baby and work and all the financial difficulties,” she says.
“My mom went through postnatal depression after I was born,” Vegh says, “so she’s the type who worries and always tells me her worries. She always told me that ‘I will be so worried about you when you have a baby because it’s not easy,’ so this kind of influenced me as well.”
We can all do things that we think we should, but it doesn't necessarily mean we want to
While social pressure can influence a woman’s decision to become a mother, counsellor and psychotherapist Margaret O’Connor says “we can all do things that we think we should, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we want to”.
While studying her MA in gender studies in the University of Limerick (UL), O'Connor conducted research into the decision-making process around having children and the experience for women. She says there is a fundamental difference between doing something out of perceived necessity and doing something out of desire.
“Some people had an idea about how they felt, but the social pressure impacted their decision. So that difference between do I want to have children or not? Or should I have children or not?’ And they’re two very different questions,” she says.
What are some of the questions that are important to ask when making a decision about having children? On this, O’Connor says it’s paramount to turn to one’s value system. She says: “Try to look at what is important to you. What are your values? What are the things that you put time and effort into? Do you see children as being a part of that? Is there a strong kind of longing or desire to have children as part of that or does it feel like an add-on?
“The attitude that we have to parenthood, which is that everyone wants to be a parent, everybody will be a parent and that the only reason that you won’t be is because you can’t, that doesn’t serve anyone. It doesn’t serve people who aren’t having children but for people who do have children it makes this assumption that it’s an easy thing to do when we know it’s not,” she says.