What makes a family? Only a generation ago, Irish families mostly consisted of married men and women and their children. Single parents were shunned. Same-sex couples weren’t considered candidates for parenthood. And those who struggled to conceive often did so in shame and silence.
While the traditional nuclear family is still the norm, modern Irish families are becoming more diverse. The 2016 census showed that of the 862,721 families with children; 568,317 were married parents; 75,587 were cohabiting couples; 218,817 were single parents; and 591 were same-sex couples.
Jane Gray is a sociology professor at NUI Maynooth (NUIM) and co-author of Family Rhythms: The Changing Textures of Family Life in Ireland, a book that charts the evolution of Irish families from the early 20th century to the current day.
She believes that shifts in attitudes and improvements in fertility treatment have driven many of the changes. Technology has opened up the possibility of parenthood to more people, says Gray. “Our families have changed accordingly and become much more flexible as a result.
“With new fertility technologies, blended families, and step-families, family has become something that can be created rather than something that is given by law and custom. It’s about the relationships between people.”
The shape-shifting nature of the family proves to Gray how resilient it is as a social structure. “Despite all the changes in society over the years, the importance of family remains,” she says. “It’s how many of us still choose to live. It may not always look the way it did generations ago, but we have adapted our families in keeping with the realities of modern life.”
Here, three couples tell us about their modern non-traditional families.
Siobhan, 42, and Paul Hunter, 45, live in Letterkenny with their two longed-for children, Maia, four, and Ruairí, four months.
They married in 2011 and started trying for a family straight away. A year and a traumatic ectopic pregnancy later, their doctors recommended IVF.
“Our hopes were high for that first cycle,” says Siobhán. “We got 14 eggs, nine were fertilised and eight made it to the transfer stage. I remember the nurse saying we had a football team right there.”
However, their first transfer failed. So did the second. Two embryos were transferred on the third attempt, which did result in a pregnancy but eventually ended in miscarriage.
Further tests revealed that Siobhán suffered from two syndromes that made conceiving and carrying a baby to term unlikely.
“Basically, I’m like Monica from Friends,” she jokes. “I have a hostile uterus.”
With the odds against them, the couple made one last-ditch attempt to get pregnant. “We wanted to give our last remaining embryos the best chance of life, so we decided that if the next embryo transfer failed, we’d try surrogacy,” says Siobhán.
It did fail and shortly afterwards, they contacted a surrogacy agency in America, matched with a surrogate and had their embryos flown across the Atlantic.
The couple documented every step of their journey. “We wanted to be able to tell the kids the story of how they were born,” says Paul. “So, we even have a video of the embryos being dispatched from the clinic.”
They travelled to America to meet their surrogate and to be there for the embryo transfer. “We transferred two and lost one early on,” says Siobhán. “Our hearts were in our mouths for the rest of the pregnancy, wondering if we’d ever get lucky.”
They finally did – Maia was born in August 2017.
The following year, they started the process once more, hoping for a sibling for Maia. It was even more challenging this time. Their last remaining embryo didn’t survive the thaw, which meant another round of IVF. The first embryo transfer from that cycle resulted in a miscarriage. And then the pandemic hit.
“We thought our dreams of a sibling were over,” says Siobhán. “But our doctors got back in touch in autumn 2020 and in November 2021, Ruairí was born.”
It took the Hunters a decade and €270,000 to become a family. “We’ve had to make sacrifices over the years,” says Siobhán.
“We moved from Dublin to Donegal and took on lots of overtime. We drive a clapped-out car and haven’t taken holidays in years. But nothing is as important as family. I’d live in a tent to pay for it if I had to.”
They have advice for others on the same journey. “Pick an agency with a good track record,” says Siobhán. “Communicate with your surrogate as much as possible and reach out for support as there’s lots out there.”
And don’t worry about judgement. “We’ve been shocked by how supportive and open people have been,” says Paul. “Surrogacy is becoming more normalised here in Ireland, now all we need is to get it properly legislated for.”
The last word goes to Siobhan: “I was so broken after my infertility, but here we are today, so grateful for our beautiful family”.
Katie had always wanted children, but before meeting Rosy, she’d only been in relationships with women who didn’t. This meant that her biological clock was ticking loudly, and she didn’t want to waste any time.
“I asked her if she wanted children on our second date,” she says. “I was in my late 30s. Time was increasingly against me, so we set about trying to have a baby within a year of meeting.”
The first step was choosing a sperm donor. “We looked through profiles to find someone who had common interests to ours and physical attributes that we would both be attracted to,” says Katie.
Then, in September 2020, they started IVF. Their first three cycles failed but the fourth attempt, in June 2021, resulted in two embryos and they transferred both.
“One survived and the other didn’t,” says Katie. “But the embryo split, and we ended up with identical twins. All at once, our family was complete.”
She and Rosy plan to be entirely open with their girls. “We have a letter and a voice recording from our donor,” says Katie. “We also have photos of him as a child as well as a full profile that includes his medical history, occupation, and a family tree of sorts. When they’re 18, they’ll be able to go looking for him if they want.”
This transparency is important to the couple. “I listened to a podcast about children who were conceived using donor sperm and many had major identity issues,” says Katie. “I noticed that the children who struggled had lots of secrecy around their conception. We won’t have that.”
They are open in their dealings with people outside their family too. “We haven’t experienced prejudice or negative reactions from anyone,” says Katie. “Mostly, people are just curious to hear our story.”
They urge anyone thinking of embarking on fertility treatment to prepare themselves for significant challenges. “There’s the cost,” says Katie. “Our insurance covered some of the expense, but we still spent €24,000. Ireland is one of the few European countries that doesn’t subsidise IVF and that needs to change.”
There’s the emotional toll too. “It’s a rollercoaster,” says Katie. “I found it a dark journey at times so find support where you can. The Ireland IVF and Infertility Support Group on Facebook is a great place for answers and advice.”
The couple had always wanted children. “I just had to meet the right person to have them with,” says Mark. “Me too,” says Damien. “My brothers and sisters all have kids and I love my nieces and nephews. I wanted one of my own.”
They started planning their family in 2016 when they were both living in Australia. They decided to work with an agency in America, where they were matched with a surrogate and set about choosing an egg donor.
The next step was flying to America to meet their surrogate, make semen deposits, and start the IVF cycle. “We used both our sperm to fertilise 18 eggs and got eight embryos,” says Damien. “We transferred two, one fertilised by each of us, and one was successful. We don’t know which yet, but we will find out at some stage.”
The following months passed in a blur of Zoom calls and baby bump photos until the time came for them to fly over for the birth.“It was such an emotional experience,” says Damien. “Our surrogate was in such pain and was doing it all for us.”
From the moment she was born, Izzy’s dads were right by her side. “We were helping to feed, change, and bathe her right from the start,” says Damien.
Ten weeks later, they stopped off in Ireland on their way back to Australia. “Izzy met my family, and we had her christened here,” says Damien. “We were so warmly welcomed everywhere we went. Even the monseigneur who christened her had no issues with us as her parents.”
In fact, they have rarely had negative reactions from people. “We were on holiday when Izzy was two and there was a lady who always waved to her at breakfast time,” says Damien. “On the day she left, she came up to us to say that, as a Christian, she’d been against same-sex parents, but having watched us, she had changed her outlook. She realised there was more to being a family.”
Izzy isn’t fazed by her non-traditional family. “She tells people she has two daddies and a tummy mummy,” says Damien. “Our surrogate is part of our family, and we speak to her regularly and we chose an egg donor who is open to communication so if Izzy ever wants to meet her, she can.”
Mark and Damien are now trying to have a second baby. “We’re doing it in Canada this time as it’s cheaper,” says Damien. “We spent €120,000 on Izzy and although she’s worth every penny, it is very expensive”
They have advice for other couples considering surrogacy. “Do your research and then go with your gut and what feels right for you,” says Mark. “Decide at the beginning what’s important to you and don’t feel that you have to compromise on that.”
Be ready for emotional turmoil too. “It can be a long and draining journey,” he says. “Keep communicating with each other through the highs and lows.”
Reach out to others too. “Sharing experiences can save you time and money,” says Damien. “We’re happy to help and give advice if we can.”