WHO do you turn to if you’re not sure about having kids? Your family is often off-limits, particularly if there is an expectation you are going to deliver up a grandson or a niece.
Friends with kids of their own can be quick to judge, particularly if they got 37 minutes’ sleep last night and you’re just back from a weekend break in Rome. So where can you get decent information and guidance in this situation?
These were the kind of questions that prompted Margaret O’Connor to found Are Kids for Me? in 2018. A qualified counsellor and psychotherapist, she set up the service in Limerick, offering information and counselling to couples and individuals wondering if kids were right for them.
I interviewed her at the time, when we discussed her own decision to be childfree — I checked if that was still the case when we talked recently over the phone.
“No change of mind there,” she replied with a grin in her voice, adding that she doesn’t discuss her own personal circumstances with her clients.
“I try not to discuss my own situation. As a counsellor you’re not supposed to.
“I’m always upfront if people ask, but it’s important to say ‘I have no agenda’. I am not looking to convert people to the childfree life, I am purely looking to put information out there that will help people.
“There is so much information on parenting, and that’s absolutely fine, but I’m just trying to balance things up a little bit.”
Having built her practice up over the past few years, she is now launching a podcast, Are Kids For Me.
“Two things I’ve noticed: people can feel very isolated, they feel like they are the only ones having these kinds of questions or doubts. And then, the lack of information. So that’s what I’m trying to do in the podcast, put it out there, in an Irish context.
“There is more information out there for other countries, but not in an Irish context, this is the first Irish podcast on the topic as far as I know.
Even if you’re just thinking about the issue, it’s important to know you’re not the only one having these concerns.
She has some well known people lined up for the podcast, she explains.
“I want to speak to as broad a range of people as possible. It’s aimed at people who have decided they don’t want children, but also people who are unsure.
“I speak to people who have made the decision, people who are still making the decision.
“It’s a range of interviews, people that I know, sportspeople, authors, LGBT couples, people who were unsure and then went on to have children.
“I will be speaking to women who have endometriosis; a GP discusses contraception options and we examine the issue from the point of view of people with disabilities.
“I’ll have a few well-known figures on as well, like author Emilie Pine.”
It’s not like there is a shortage of demand for the service that Margaret offers.
The latest figures from the OECD show that 19% of women aged 40 to 44 in Ireland are childfree, which is among the highest in the world. (Britain is 20%, US is 18.8%.)
So how are people presenting themselves to the service?
“I have seen a steady flow of enquiries and clients, individuals and couples from all over Ireland, I’ve been really happy with how it’s gone.
“People might enquire and they mightn’t actually come for a while. For other people it’s urgent and they want something straight away, because of an issue in a relationship, or some external circumstances.
“The stereotype is a couple where the woman is keen to have kids, while the man wouldn’t mind another few years of staying up all night playing Call of Duty.”
Video games aside, is that her experience?
“I have had men contact me. You can really never predict, sometimes it’s the men that want to have children and the women aren’t sure, sometimes it’s the other way around. There’s very little pattern — apart from a real sense of uncertainty.”
The reasons for this uncertainty are understandable, she says.
“People might come to you and say, ‘I’m 60 or 70 per cent thinking I won’t have children, but it’s hard to accept that or to figure out what will that look like, what will I do with my life?’
There is a void of information around what does childfree life look like.
“If you’re having children there is a path to follow, your time is filled, but on the other side, without that, what do I do, how can I get meaning in purpose in my life? That’s something I really want to address in the podcast, to show what people are doing.”
Her counselling process has moved online as a result of Covid-19.
“Everything is online now of course, because of Covid-19. I was doing that anyway, as part of my practice.
“I’m very comfortable with it, there are a lot of advantages, like convenience, and a lot of people are comfortable with it.
“It’s however much support the person or couple want. I’d typically see them every two or three weeks, maybe suggest to people something they should read in between, along with exercises.
“The exercises involve identifying life goals and values and looking at different scenarios, seeing how they react.
“Some people like doing that in the sessions, some prefer taking it away and doing it themselves.”
Often there’s a sense that people are under pressure to have kids.
“They can be. It goes back to that expectation that at some point they are going to have children, so it can be hard to explain to family or friends.
“To even say that you might be uncertain, that can be very difficult for people, and that can be where the isolation can come in. If the vast majority of your friends and family are doing the usual thing of marriage, house, job, children, and you are the only one who is going to be different, that can be quite difficult. For some people there is a lot of anxiety around this, if they can’t decide.”
In terms of her approach, there isn’t one type fits all.
At times there’s a formal, structured approach, or it can vary.
“It depends on the person, and their main priorities.
“I’d always be trying to slow things down, to get back to the core issues for them, what are their priorities in life, what are their gut reactions to things.
“So, getting pregnant, giving birth, toddler, teenagers, what does that feel like, compared to a childfree life.
“Picture the two scenarios and see which one sits better. We’re looking for the best solution for that person, from an emotional and practical point of view.”
Covid is affecting people’s mindsets, she says.
“I think it’s definitely having an impact, positive and negative. It’s making everyone question their priorities in life, what we have control over and what we don’t.
It’s created space for people to think about their priorities. There’s a big practical aspect: people had planned to buy a house or change jobs or get married, those might not happen now.
“I haven’t seen that coming through yet, but I expect that it will.”
She’s not wrong there. A report carried out by the London School of Economics earlier this year surveyed 18-34 year olds on their plans to have kids, across France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Britain. The results found many are postponing, with a sizeable minority (27% in Italy, 29% in Spain, 19% in Britain) saying that they are abandoning plans to have kids altogether.
This might be a short-term reaction to the pandemic, but there is also also a growing instance of people deciding against kids because they feel over-population is hurrying us towards an ecological disaster.
As the old norms and expectations change, there will be more and more people looking for guidance in this area.
I ask Margaret how she feels about the various forums and social media groups that discuss childfree life.
“The theme that comes out of the podcast interviews I’ve done so far is connection, finding like-minded people. But, as with everything, there can be some groups that can have much stronger opinions.
“My view is that everyone’s view is right for them. There are some groups and forums that have strong agendas.I wouldn’t steer people towards those.”
- The ‘Are Kids for Me’ podcast is available at the podcast page here, or you can check for it wherever you get your podcasts.