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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 15°C
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Joanne McNally 'I don’t want children, but I’m not selfish'
I also have the attention span of a ferret on six nespressos, writes Joanne McNally.

I AM A childless thirty-something and I’m confident I’ll stay that way. I don’t want children, but I’m not selfish.

“Don’t you think it’s selfish to have children?” I ask Jackie, my friend with kids. “Isn’t that a selfish act in itself, to create something for your own enjoyment?” Jackie’s face dropped. “If you knew the work that goes into raising a child you’d never say that.”

Yes, the work. We’re constantly reminded that motherhood is the hardest job in the world and then we’re vilified for saying we don’t want it.

Cold hearted, hedonistic, immature?

Jackie’s not alone in her thinking, admitting you don’t want children fires up all sorts of reactions in people, but selfish is the most popular one. Motherhood is so much part of a woman’s story that to turn your back on it seems weird, unnatural, suspicious even.

You’ll be dismissed as cold hearted, hedonistic, immature. You’ll be warned that you’ll change your mind. This isn’t the fault of the confused older woman in your office who can’t quite grasp your decision and assures you, you just haven’t met the right person yet. This is bigger than Blanch.

Having children has been a woman’s ‘thing’ since time in memoriam. It’s our magic power. Our USP. Why would we not want to show that skill off? To admit you don’t want the job, is in Jackie’s eyes, just plain weird.

I’m a 34-year-old woman so all my girlfriends are either having babies or miniature dogs. The miniature dogs are usually dressed in babygrows and carried around town on their owner’s hips, so from a distance it’s hard to tell if Lorraine from school has had a human child or a chiwuahah.

I’ve the attention span of a ferret

Meanwhile, I’m having neither. I travel a lot for work and I’ve enough instinct to know that a baby doesn’t want to sit around a comedy club in Hackeny waiting for mommy to stop telling jokes about how she came in locked and almost set fire to the moses basket. Neither does a dog.

I miss flights, I’m on my 13th bank card this year. I know the number for the bus lost property office off by heart. Basically, I have the attention span of a ferret on six nespressos. Ringing up Bus Eireann and asking if a baby was handed in on the 46A is not a call I want to make.

As well as this, I don’t have that burning desire to have a baby that I thought all moms had. I don’t have a baby-sized hole in my heart. So I assumed I was missing that maternal chip, that part of a woman’s mind that lights up around babies and tiny chickens.

As more and more of my friends had babies I began asking them why. Why are you having kids? What does it feel like to want them? Their answers varied. One or two had the baby-shaped hole story. But the rest said things like: “It felt like the next stage.”

Fair enough reasons, but there was very little evidence of this burning maternal drive that I’ve heard so much about, that chip I thought all mothers had.

Every woman doesn’t want to be a mother

There’s a large lie floating around that all women are built with this innate longing to mother. That it’s all a woman really wants.

“You will eventually succumb” they tell you, you will have a baby and it will of course be hard but you will never, ever regret it because they bring so much to your life. Right? Wrong.

All across the world there are moms and dads spilling their guts in online forums like ‘I Regret Having Children’. Only a very brave few have the nerve to identify themselves. The rest type away under fake identities.

Using the boards as confessionals, where they can admit the truth and get virtual reassurance from other people that they are not alone. That the transition into parenthood was for them, a complete shit show. That they have never adapted to it or recovered from it, most of them accept their decision and they love their child and they will raise the child to the best of their ability but they know now they should never have had it.

Parenting is not for them. They regret it.

My mom’s reasons

I ask my mom why she had children, why did she choose to adopt myself and my brother? “It was what you did. You got married and you had children”.

My parents are the suck it up generation. Crap marriage? Suck it up. Hate your job? Suck it up, the world doesn’t revolve around you. This isn’t about you. The more of yourself you sacrificed the more you were respected. It was shameful to leave a bad marriage. You were seen as weak, spineless, disloyal. Now, it’s shameful to stay.

In that world, children made sense. They were part of that culture. Irish women’s raison d’etre was to prioritise other people. But this is a new era. Our generation is more self-aware. We put ourselves first. My mother thought mindfulness was an app that helped you find your car keys. Yet even with all these changes, publically admitting you don’t want the job of motherhood is still taboo.

But privately, it’s a different matter. Parents lean into me at dinner parties, and whisper wine induced warnings: “Don’t do it unless you really want it” and “It’s tougher than you can ever imagine”. Some are more direct. “Don’t do it”. Their tone is hushed, it feels like an SOS.

Why, still, in 2017 is the life I could bring into the world more worthwhile than my own life that I’m already living? Why can’t I be my purpose?

Joanne McNally, 34, from Dun Laoghaire is Ireland’s fastest rising comedy star. She is making a documentary for TV3, to be broadcast early next year, exploring the topic of choosing to be child free. 

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