Having babies young: how does it work out?
Doctors say Irish women should have children younger. But is it realistic? We talk to a mix of parents about having children at an early age
Martha McHale, with her daughter, Molly, and granddaughter, Mila: “I’m a granny while my friends are going for IVF.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Nikki Sheriff with her son, Pádraig: “Age doesn’t come into it: you’re either going to be a good prarent or not.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Emma Heatherington, with children Jordyn, Jade, Adam, Sonny James and Dualta and partner Jim McKee: “I have it drummed into my kids to wait to start a family.” Photograph: Peter Morrison
Brian Kilduff and his daughter Kyra: “I don’t think parents have any right to their kids: I think kids have a right to their parents.”
Philip O’Connell and daughter Danielle: “Sometimes I feel I abandoned her, that I should have fought harder.”
Kyra Jones, with husband Henry and children Charlie, Robyn and Georgia: “All I ever wanted was to have kids. I just felt that’s what life was.”
For several years experts have been doing their best to hurry women into motherhood. Hardly a week goes by without some warning about chromosomal disorders, fertility time bomb and the higher rates of C-sections that can afflict older mothers.
Most recently Dr Simon Fishel, one of the doctors involved in the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, told The Irish Times that “a woman who is in her 30s probably has about 40 per cent of her eggs having a chromosomal anomaly”.
But these well-intentioned admonitions seem to be falling largely on deaf ears among Irish parents. In 2015 more than one in three births was to a mother over 35 – higher than the European average, and up from one in five in 1999. The average age of women giving birth in Ireland climbed to 32.7.
That may be because, when it comes to family planning, the decision-making process is a bit more complex than simply choosing the optimum biological moment and cracking on with it. Not every woman has the luxury of sitting down in her early 20s in her well-appointed, affordably mortgaged home, with her lovely and committed life partner, to have a mature, considered conversation about the possibility of having children soon.
Many people want to feel that they have found a life partner before embarking on parenthood. And even then both halves of the couple may not feel the same sense of urgency. For many couples financial security, relationship health, career status and even physical health are priorities that need to be dealt with before they can even begin to consider bringing a child into their lives.
For all the dire headlines, though, younger mothers still account for about 29 per cent of births in this country. In 2015, 19,000 women gave birth before their 30th birthday, and one in 10 mothers was under 25. By contrast only 6 per cent had a baby over the age of 40.
So would parents who have been there, changed the nappies and developed the bags under their eyes to prove it recommend following the advice of experts on starting a family in their 20s or younger?
Six women and men from a cross section of life in modern Ireland who ended up, by accident or design, having a baby at the “right” biological time talk about the pros and cons of starting young.
Emma Heatherington: “I have it drummed into my kids to wait before they start a family”
I’ve had babies in my teens, 20s and late 30s. Physically, it’s tougher now, but I have more life experiences, and I feel I’m able to enjoy it so much more.
I lost my mum when I was 15, and my youngest sister was just eight months old. I still was helping my father to pick up the pieces when I got pregnant at 19, in my second year at college.
I set myself three goals: I would take only one year off college, I would get my driving test, and I would get back into my white Levi’s. I still lived at home with my dad, and basically we just all moved over in the bed. Jordyn, my baby, became the life and soul of the family, and a distraction from our grief. But it was hard. It’s a shock when you suddenly have no time yourself – things like nipping out to the shop or even reading a book become impossible.
I went on to marry Jordyn’s dad, and we had three children by the time I was 26. Jade came five years after Jordyn, and Adam 14 months later, so my 20s were knee deep in babies, and I was working full time in PR. I was so busy I think I missed out on a lot. When I was 34 I came out of full-time work to focus on writing, and shortly after that I separated from my husband.
In 2013 I met my partner – he was a single parent living in Co Clare with a 12-year-old boy. We’ve all since moved in together in Tyrone, and we had a baby, Sonny, when I was 38. So now we have five kids under one roof. It’s fantastic.
I have it drummed into my kids to wait before they start a family. I want them to get an education, travel, live a lot and love a lot before they settle down into any long-term commitment. There’s no way you can be emotionally mature enough to make those big decisions when you’re that young. It’s only in my mid-30s that I actually got to know who I was.
Emma Heatherington’s latest novel is The Legacy of Lucy Harte (HarperImpulse)
Brian Kilduff: “If you’re going to have kids young, agree first on what will happen if things don’t work out”
When I was out on my own with my daughter, Lyra, people assumed I was looking after my little sister, and that can impact your confidence a bit. I was a 19-year-old metalhead walking around in combats and boots and worrying whether I was doing the best job I could as a dad. There are a lot of communities and supports for mums, and there’s nothing really for dads, which can be isolating.
People tend to give a rose-tinted view of having kids. They’ll say, “Immediately I saw my child I fell in love, and everything was perfect.” If that doesn’t happen it can make people very guilty, which isn’t fair. The love I have for my daughter has grown with all the hard work and joy of watching her grow up.
My girlfriend and I, unfortunately, split up when Lyra was around one. I’d take her one week and my ex-partner would have her the other.
Getting guardianship can be a challenge, and there’s no practical way of enforcing that guardianship afterwards. It’s right that society sees mothers as caregivers, but that can exclude fathers, and it’s really hard to find that balance. It’s not even about fathers’ rights. I don’t think parents have any right to their kids. I think kids have a right to their parents.
My little one is seven now, and she’s curious about everything. The thing I love doing most is engaging that curiosity. At the moment we’re reading about the International Space Station. Without regular access, just being able to spend time relaxing on the couch together, that wouldn’t be possible.
I would say to anyone, if you’re going to have kids young, agree first on what will happen if things don’t work out: what’s the deal with access, what’s the deal with sharing responsibilities? Having that conversation beforehand would avoid a massive amount of stress, anxiety and turmoil in the child’s life.
Kyra Jones: “Your 20s are a great time to have a kid”
I was engaged at 22, married at 24 and had my first child, Robyn, at 26. Charlie came along two years later. I had some complications with his birth, so Georgia was a big surprise when I was 30.
All I ever wanted was to have kids. I just felt that’s what life was, and my husband, Henry, felt exactly the same. I wanted to get married, have the house with the white picket fence, be a stay-at-home mum.
Our social life wasn’t really affected when Robyn was born. We just brought her everywhere. We were the first of our friends to settle down, so everybody congregated in our house – we’d do big Sunday dinners. I’m not career-driven, though I did work until Charlie was born. I was an auctioneer in Dublin, and it was tough because the hours are long.
I don’t think career is a good enough reason to delay having kids. What are you doing that you can’t take a break in your 20s and go back to it in your 30s? The other excuse people give is that ‘I’m not ready’. The truth is that no one is ever ready, no matter what age they are.
We moved to Boston a year ago, and we’re having a great life, now that our kids are teenagers. I couldn’t imagine going back to babies and toddlers. It is hard at any age, but it must be exhausting in your 40s. But I’m looking forward to my kids having babies.
Your 20s are a great time to have a kid. That being said, you have to find someone that you want to spend the rest of your life with, and be sure they’re right. After that I don’t think there’s any reason to wait.
Philip O’Connell: “For years I carried a pair of her socks in my coat pocket”
It was the summer of Italia ’90. I was 19 and working in Derby, in England. I was due home, but I decided to hang on to see The Pogues, who were playing live.
That night I met a woman. She was four years older, and I was completely immature. Before I went to England, Tramore was as far as I’d travelled.
We didn’t plan to have a baby, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. After Danielle was born, in November 1991, I decided not to tell my family. To this day I’ve no idea why, except I was young and stupid. I thought I’d let them down.
My grandfather died when Danielle was eight months old, and I had to go home to Tipperary for the funeral. When I eventually did tell them my mother was fully accepting. She was brilliant. She and my sisters came over to meet the baby.
It was tough working completely opposite shifts, and my relationship with Danielle’s mother suffered. I was walking home one day and saw her across the street with another man. He said to me, “Look, pal, it’s me she wants, not you.”
I went home to Ireland for a month, and when I came back she had everything packed up. She told me I couldn’t see Danielle any more. I was in bits, but I went back to Ireland, and her parents and sister used to keep me up to date.
For Danielle’s third birthday my ex asked me over. We took Danielle to see The Lion King, and I remember she kept saying “Mufasa”. My ex said she wanted to reconcile. But I couldn’t do it. She told me if I didn’t I’d never see Danielle again.
My daughter will be 26 this November, and the last time I saw her she was three. For years I carried a pair of her socks in my coat pocket.
A few years ago I sent her a friend request on Facebook, and she accepted. She went to university, and she’s good at baking, which made me proud, because I’m a chef. One night last year I stupidly messaged her and told her I was her father, and she blocked me instantly. I don’t imagine she has heard anything good about me.
I don’t even know where to start trying to have a relationship with her. Each time I get close to something I pull back. I have since had five more children with my wife, but losing my first daughter has coloured my life very badly. Sometimes I feel I abandoned her, that I should have fought harder.
Nikki Sheriff: “Age doesn’t come into it: you’re either going to be a good parent or not”
It's a very lonely existence being a single mum. When you’re a young single mum it’s harder again. Everybody else is getting engaged or married, having kids and going through the whole thing together, and it’s kind of sad to do it alone. You just have to put your head down and keep going.
I had Pádraig at 22, and my aunt had her first child at 42. Age doesn’t come into it: you’re either going to be a good parent or not. Being single is what makes it tough. My son’s father has never been involved, and that’s his choice.
My son taught himself how to read when he was two. He was diagnosed with autism at six. He’s 10 now and extremely intelligent, but he is immature. He doesn’t like any change to his routine, but I’m a great believer in pushing him outside his comfort zone. I told him recently that we were going to Disneyland, and he was devastated.
I’ve always been honest with him about his father. I just said he wasn’t in a position to be there but I will help you look for him as you get older.
I was diagnosed a few years ago with cauda equina syndrome, and had surgery on my spine. I haven’t been able to work since. I’d like more children, but I’d want to be in a relationship. There’s a huge taboo about being a single parent. People should really stand back and learn not to judge so much. Like I said, if you’re going to be a good mum you’re going to be a good mum, regardless of your age.
Martha McHale: “I’m a granny while my friends are having babies and going for IVF”
I was 19 when I had Molly. I had known her dad since we were 12. We moved out to Dalkey, into a little cottage, and pretended to be adults.
We had the full support of our parents, and an awful lot of friends around. People will ask whether it’s really hard – and I’m one of those annoying people who’ll say no, it wasn’t. There was a bit of gossip, and I did feel sorry for my mum and dad.
I had finished a two-year course in fashion design, and I had no career at the time, so it was pretty good timing, if there is such a thing. My partner had a job as a kitchen porter, but they wouldn’t give him time off for the birth, so he ended up leaving and setting up his own business – and he’s done really well out of that since.
We stayed together for seven years, and it was just great craic. We were so young, it was easy. We didn’t have money, but we had fantastic support. Even when we split up it all worked out: he took her for 3½ days and I took her for 3½ days, so there was nothing to row about.
Now she’s grown, and I have freedom to concentrate on my career. I set up an interior-design business, Ms Décor. Molly is 21, and she has a little daughter, Mila. So I’m a granny while my friends are having babies and going for IVF.
It’s nice to have your kids when you’re young. I’m absolutely delighted I had her when I was that age, and I’m happy for Molly that she’s doing the same. She is the best mum ever.