Though advised by medics to start their family in their 20s, many women often feel judged for having children before establishing their career or going on a world tour. Sharon Ní Chonchúir talks to three young mothers about the pros and cons
THINK back to your 20s and you’re likely to remember years spent studying then struggling to find your feet in the workplace. You’ll probably also recall nights out with friends, carefree holidays abroad and romantic adventures.
However, doctors often say that women who spend their second decade of life in this way are making a mistake. With one in five couples in Ireland now struggling with infertility, medics advise women to start their families early, ideally in their 20s.
But the pressures and opportunities of modern life mean this is unlikely to happen for the majority of women. According to data published by Eurostat last March, 30 is now the average age for women having their first baby in Ireland.
Only 35.2% of women are aged between 20 and 29 when they first become a mother, compared with 56.2% aged between 30 and 39.
This phenomenon can be seen everywhere from maternity wards to online parenting forums.
In a recent Mum Truths podcast on the MummyPages.ie parenting website, the former master of the National Maternity Hospital Dr Rhona Mahony said that 40% of the women in Holles Street having their first child were over 35.
“She also advised that 24 was the optimum time for starting a family,” says Laura Erskine, head of community for MummyPages.ie. “However, typically this is the age many graduates get their first job or travel abroad for work and children are not a consideration for the majority.”
What does this mean for the women who buck the trend by choosing to start their families in their 20s? Here, three young mums share their experiences.
Aisling is 29 and lives in Clonmel in Tipperary with her partner Gary O’Shea and their four children, Rian, aged 4, Caoimhe, 23 months and three-month-old twins Oisín and Cillian.
She always planned to be a young mother. “My mother had me when she was 20 and our relationship is so special,” she says. “I always wanted that closeness with my children.”
She and Gary had only been together for 10 months when she became pregnant with Rian. “We had already said we’d love children and it was an important part of our relationship,” she says. “After having him, we knew we definitely wanted more and we wanted them close in age.”
This is not to say her experience has been easy. When Rian was born, she felt too intimidated to attend mother and baby groups.
“I was afraid of being judged,” she says. “Look at the cut of that young one, only with her boyfriend a year and they’ve already had a baby.” She did attend the second time around and found a welcoming circle of friends. She was glad of this because her relationship with her old friends had changed.
“I was the first of my friends to have a child and there would be nights when I’d see Snapchat messages and pictures on Facebook while I was at home with the baby,” she says. “I’d feel left out and want my old fun life back. It can still be lonely at times.”
She recognises that this is not her friends’ fault. “They still text me on Friday nights asking me to join them for drinks,” she says. “They don’t realise that they need to ask me on Monday so that I can have arrangements made in time for Friday. Gary works long hours and nights, so I can’t just abandon the kids.”
She envies other aspects of her friends’ lives too. “One has a great career with lots of money and I often think of her while I’m trying to stretch what we’ve got,” she says. “Another is always off on holidays and can get up and go whenever she wants.” McNally herself is a preschool teacher and is due back to work in April.
“I went back to work after my first and my second but we’ll have to see if it makes sense with four,” she says. “Nothing has been finalised yet but I do miss the grown-up interaction already.”
Despite the drawbacks, McNally sees more positives than negatives in being a young mum.
“I wouldn’t change it,” she says. “I am young so I have the energy for kids and my mam, sisters and grandparents are young so they get to enjoy my kids too. I also keep telling myself that once they hit their 20s, I’ll still be young and able to do the things I may be missing out on now.
“Being a young mum has given me confidence in myself. It makes me feel like an adult and I enjoy the crazy responsibilities that come with it. This is the life I have now and I love it.”
Becky from Dunleer, Co Louth, 30, is mum to Trinity, six, and Saoirse, four. She married her husband Peter when she was aged 23 and had their first daughter at 24.
“I always felt that motherhood was an important and intense stage of life and wanted to have my health and energy for it,” she says. “I wanted to be someone who could keep up with my children on a mountain climb. I also wanted to see my children’s children and to be well and healthy enough to be helpful to my daughters when they are raising their own families.
“My husband and I decided we were ready for parenthood and were delighted when we found out our first daughter was on the way.”
Her social life wasn’t affected significantly by motherhood. “A lot of my close friends had babies before I did with two having babies in their teens,” she says. “And because I was never much into the party scene anyway, I didn’t feel I was missing out on that. I still went on nights out or to shows or dinner with my friends every now and then too.”
However, she felt distanced from her childless friends at times. “I had different priorities and perspectives on life and we had much less in common than before.”
The friends she gained from joining groups made up for this. “I attended breastfeeding and babywearing groups a couple of times a week and created a virtual tribe of women around me through social media, so I never really felt isolated or alone.”
Like McNally, Durnin lists youthful energy as an advantage to being a young mum. “I can power through some of the sleeplessness of parenthood,” she says.
She also thinks the experience has changed her perception of herself. “There’s a magnificent acceptance and gratitude that comes from living in a body that grew and birthed and nourished children,” she says. “I wish more young women could stand in front of a mirror and appreciate the wonder of what their bodies are capable of like I can.”
Durnin now works as a doula supporting couples through pregnancy and birth. “The desire to welcome a baby hits different people at different times,” she says.
“I’ve supported couples in their mid-40s and that was the perfect age and timing for them. I’m glad it arrived earlier rather than later for us. We’ve been on an amazing journey so far and I feel very blessed to have two healthy and vibrant young daughters.”
Aisling is 30 and lives in Lispole, Co Kerry, with her husband Johnny and four children, Jack, 10, Jonathan, 5, Daniel, 2, and Amelia, 7 months.
“I’d wanted a big family since I was young,” she says. “There were five of us growing up as well as lots of cousins who’d be in and out of our house.”
Her relationships with her friends changed dramatically as soon as she had Jack. “My priorities changed and I didn’t want to go out drinking anymore,” she says. “But that was how you socialised then. You didn’t go out for lunch like you do now. I had no friends my age who had babies, so I ended up drifting away from lots of people.”
Some of her childless friends struggled to understand this. “They would tell me that I should make an effort and I would think that they should understand I’d had a baby,” says O’Sullivan. “As a result, my friends were few and far between for a while and although I didn’t miss the nights out, I did miss my friends.”
Like McNally, she felt too young to join any groups. “I just got on with things and as soon as Jack was old enough, I put him in a creche and got a part-time job,” she says. “That was enough socialising for me.”
One of the positives she identifies to having children early is that she never got used to having a lot of time for herself. “Because I never had much ‘me time’, I wasn’t fazed by not having any when the kids came along,” she says. “My life has always been about the kids and always will be.”
This applies even to O’Sullivan’s career plans. She was studying a beauty therapy course when she became pregnant with Jack and was unable to sit the exams because they took place five days after he was born.
“But I run the family farm now and have done so for the past few years,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll take on another job on top of the family and farming as the cost of childcare for four kids is quite steep and it’s hard to commit to an employer’s hours when it comes to school holidays, doctors’ appointments and kids getting sick so we’ve decided it’s best to have one of us about the house full-time for the next few years.”
O’Sullivan doesn’t know if it makes a difference what age you are when you have children. “It’s always going to be tough and challenging,” she says. “Today half defeated me. But it’s a blessing to have a baby at any age. Children bring so much joy and it’s beautiful to watch them grow.”
Doctor Maria Dempsey is a lecturer in applied psychology at University College Cork. She had her son aged 19 and went on to carry out research on the experience of young mothers.
“I see a lot of differences between my situation and that of friends and family who left having children until they were in their late 30s,” she says. “I had more energy than they do. I didn’t have fertility issues and because I didn’t have the same idea of ‘me time’, I didn’t find giving my routine over to a child as much of a challenge as a lot of them do.”
Those were the advantages. Her personal experience and research showed there were disadvantages too. “My research, as well as that carried out by Dr Ciara Bradly in Maynooth and Dr Sara O’Byrne’s recent Motherhood in Ireland Study, showed that young mothers are out of step with their peers,” says Dempsey.
“They’ve started a new life and a whole new way of being. Their friends are massively interested initially but that interest tends to ebb away over time.”
To make up for this, Dempsey urges young mothers to reach out and join groups in their locality. “There are so many innovative classes and events now, from music groups for babies to storytelling sessions,” she says. “Try to find the energy and courage to go to them.”
She would also like to see more supports put in place to prepare all women and couples who are about to become parents.
“There is this assumption that we all know how to parent but it’s not necessarily that easy or obvious,” she says. “Older parents can be more able on this level, having had time to figure out what sort of parents they would like to be. But every parent should be given an opportunity to look at the approaching transition to parenthood and what it actually means to them.”
No matter what age you are when you have a baby, Dempsey acknowledges that there are hurdles to overcome. “There is rarely a perfect time to have a baby and there are costs no matter what stage of life you’re at,” she says.
“It would help everyone if there was a more open discussion about parenthood and what it means to each individual person. This would help women and couples to decide if they want to have their children at a young age, at a later stage, or even at all.”