WE pity couples who don’t have children. They have love. They have a happy marriage. But not having a baby in a carriage must mean they are less fulfilled.
Celebrity magazines gossip about Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz and Angela Merkel, all of whom have successful lives and/or relationships, but must feel incomplete without a family.
A survey by the Open University turns this on its head. ‘Enduring Love’ interviewed 5,000 people in Britain and the US and found couples without children ranked the quality of their relationships higher than couples with children.
In Ireland, the latest census shows 344,944 child-free couples (married or cohabiting and the woman is aged under 45).
Counselling psychologist, Sally O’Reilly, says the happiness of these couples will depend on whether they are child-free by choice or by circumstance. “Accepting that it is not possible to have children brings lots of issues into the relationship, and how these are navigated varies hugely,” she says. “Accepting means grieving as a couple and as individuals.”
Choosing not to have children is a different scenario. “Couples making this decision will have most likely spent hours agonising, arguing and discussing and, by its very nature, this enhances the relationship,” says O’Reilly. “These intimate issues require honesty and listening. They expose vulnerabilities and the couple will most likely feel closer, simply as a result of discussing them.”
Bernadette Ryan, counsellor and psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland, identifies other reasons child-free couples might be happier.
“The arrival of children always has an impact on relationships,” she says. “Even when children are longed for and planned, a couple can find themselves struggling. There’s the lack of sleep and structure, changed finances and all the new things to be learned. Child-free couples don’t experience any of this and avoid the physical and psychological stress that goes hand-in-hand with parenting.”
They focus on other things. “Their time is their own,” says Ryan. “They can be spontaneous when it comes to nights out and trips away. There’s none of the physical toll that pregnancy and childbearing can have on the woman. There are weekend mornings in bed. And there’s a lot less to worry about. Parents never stop worrying about their children, no matter what age they are.”
This is not to say being child-free is without its challenges. Some couples worry about social isolation, especially when friends have babies.
“Couples with children have greater opportunities to gather at school, in the playground and at birthday parties,” says Ryan. “But I don’t think child-free couples will necessarily be isolated, as we all tend to gravitate towards groups with similar interests and they will probably be drawn to like-minded friends.
“In fact, they are likely to have better social lives than couples with children, because they don’t have the additional bother or expense of babysitters.”
A worry for child-free couples is who will care for them in their old age. Bernadette scoffs at this idea. “Anyone who is expecting their children to look after them when they are older may be in for a bit of a land,” she says.
The main problem child-free couples encounter is the judgement of others. Some see their decision as selfish and unnatural.
Here in Ireland, the presumption that all women will have children is so ingrained that child-free couples are referred to in the census as being ‘pre-family’.
“Our societal norm is to have children,” says O’Reilly. “Even at a constitutional level, it is seen as the basis of society. We are taught this from a young age. We present little girls with baby dolls and socialise them to associate motherhood and child-rearing with positive feelings like fun and reward.”
Those who choose another path can be judged harshly. “Child-free couples get it from all sides,” says O’Reilly. “In particular, women who choose not to have children are seen with a mixture of suspicion, jealousy and disdain. In my experience, many lie and tell people they are unable to have children, in order to avoid this judgement. Men are not subjected to the same judgement, but they don’t escape it entirely.”
Couples must be sure of their decision not to have children, if they are to overcome this together. “The sooner we allow ourselves to make decisions that are right for us, the higher we will all score on satisfaction-rating questionnaires, such as the Open University Study,” says O’Reilly.
Another recent study points to this. Researchers from Princeton and Stony Brook Universities analysed the Gallup Healthyways Wellbeing Index, a survey of 1.8m Americans who evaluated their daily emotional experiences between 2008 and 2012. They found little difference between the life satisfaction of parents and people without children, once income, education, religion and health were factored into the equation. What mattered was choice.
The traditional nursery rhyme may no longer tell the tale of all couples in Ireland today. First comes love. It may be followed by marriage. But some happy couples may not want that baby in a carriage.
Natasha and John have been married for four years. Both are 35 and living in Dublin, they are certain they will never have children.
“I always knew I didn’t want children,” says Natasha. “I never considered it a life choice that would allow me to be happy.”
John arrived at his decision over time. “I’d been on the fence until meeting Natasha in that I got on well with kids but knew it was a huge undertaking,” he says. “We discussed children once we started going out. I knew Natasha was ‘the one’ and I now value our freedom and choices entirely.
“We spoke extensively before we married as this is something central to a couple’s relationship,” says Natasha.
“I don’t believe in doing something just because everyone else is. I make informed decisions in life. I think a lot of bad parenting is caused by people not thinking, assuming parenthood is the only choice or that it will make a bad relationship better. It isn’t and it won’t.”
They have encountered some negative reactions. “I keep getting asked ‘what if you change your mind’, which I find insulting,” says Natasha. “At 35, am I not capable of making a decision?”
Some mothers see her as a threat. “They can see a child-free person as an insult to their decision to have a family,” she says.
Their families have reacted in different ways. “My mother was very supportive, saying that she had never seen it in me or in us as a couple,” says Natasha.
John’s parents are less so. “My mother had always assumed I would have a family,” he says.
“She was very disappointed with the announcement. But you don’t have children for your parents, you have them for yourself. They have had to accept our choice.”
These challenges aside, neither doubts their decision.
“We have time for each other and for ourselves,” says Natasha. “We have the time and money to enjoy life. We can give our relationship 100%. We can put time into our careers and education. I can’t see any cons to our way of life.”
Lindy McDonnell is from Harold’s Cross in Dublin and works as a book publisher in London. She is 37 and has been with her husband for 12 years.
For a long time, she thought she would have children. “I thought being married and having a family was what I was on this planet to do,” she says. “I even convinced my husband, Brian, that having children would be on the cards.”
Her perspective was to change. “Time passed and my career and happiness took precedence,” she says.
“Eventually, I realised I didn’t necessarily have to have children. Now, hand on heart, I don’t feel I am missing out on anything. I feel I am just beginning to know myself and am looking forward to my future.”
She and her husband are confident in their choice but not everyone has had the same reaction. “A lot of people think it’s a phase I’m going through,” says Lindy. “Others react out of envy and more are defensive and judgemental. Overall, society has a lot of learning to do.”
Her family are more under-standing. “I get their full support when it comes to my life choices,” she says.
“I felt pressure from myself to give them a grandchild but that’s not a good enough reason to have a child. The birth of my nephew a year and a half ago was a great joy for them and I’m looking forward to being his aunty.”
Overall, she believes their decision not to have children has made her relationship with her husband better.
“It makes us work harder at keeping the relationship happy and loving,” she says.
“We talk. We share and we take care of one another. That’s more than enough for me.”