So I’m Not a Mom

Being a childless woman in your thirties isn’t always easy. I mean sure, I can sleep through the night, drink tequila on a Thursday and decide without any planning to go line dancing or ice-skating, if those were things I wanted to do. But there are downsides to my childlessness: namely, the presumptuous comments of some (of course, not all) mothers I speak to. Because I’m not one of them, I must have a wonderful life. I have such freedom, after all. I must have boundless energy. If I say I went out to the pub for a drink with friends, I’m met with ‘imagine being able to do that’. If I say that I feel a little tired because I’ve had so much overtime, I get ‘just wait till you have kids.’

Shockingly, there are women who are my age who simply don’t want to have children. That’s totally fucking fine. Not every woman has to be a mother. Not ever woman wants to be a mother. That doesn’t make her selfish or vain or proud. And what about the women who can’t have children? I can’t imagine how much senseless comments like the ones I hear on at least a weekly basis must hurt them.

Women who don’t have children are still loving, caring and compassionate. We’re not any more or any less selfish than anyone else. We have as much empathy as the next person. I remember telling someone once that I was anti-capital punishment and their response was ‘you’d think differently if you had kids’ as if I’m somehow incapable at arriving at a reasonable conclusion on the matter because I’m lacking some kind of empathy or sense of outrage that is unique to parents. Lately, I told some colleagues that I was re-reading the novel Room by Emma Donoghue. The plot is admittedly disturbing and the subject matter is dark and distressing. But it is also a well-written novel, about issues (kidnapping, rape) that occur whether we want to think about them or not. My colleagues (whom I really like, respect and get along well with) told me that they couldn’t even bring themselves to read the book. Fair enough, I thought. It is a tough read and not for everyone. But then the conversation turned into six mothers versus me. They told me that because they’re mothers, the thought of reading such a novel is particularly disturbing. I agree; it would be very difficult and you would naturally think of your own children in such a situation and that would be enough to cause you to avoid such narratives. But they didn’t stop there. I was met with comments like ‘you’ll understand when you have kids’ (which I probably just should get tattooed on my forehead) and ‘ god imagine being able to read books like that!’ I was made to feel as if I was some sadistic, voyeuristic sociopath who thrives on the suffering of fictional children. I just choose not to shield myself from difficult realities in life. Paintings by renaissance or impressionist artists can be disturbing and convey great suffering but they can still be beautiful. The same goes for literature and for movies. Appreciating them doesn’t make me some kind of psychopath.

And just because I don’t have children does not make me immune to outrage, shock, pain, compassion or disgust.

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m having a go at mothers or motherhood. Most mothers I know (my friends and my sister and sister-in-law, for example) serve as great inspirations to me. They’re exactly what I aspire to be if and when I decide to have kids. Even the mothers that do pass thoughtless comments don’t do it out of malice or spite, I know that. Mothers can be wonderful, resilient, kind, beautiful, brave people. Non-mothers can be just as wonderful, just as resilient, just as kind, beautiful and brave.

We are all women, different and the same, and we need to support each other and each other’s choices.

Why I am Not Proud to be Irish Today 

Today, March 17, is St. Patrick’s Day; a day where Irish culture and heritage is celebrated in countries all around the world. Here in Ireland, we use it as a day to celebrate and explore our own relationship with our country. We partake in parades and wear shamrocks, a traditional symbol of Irish-ness and our relationship with Saint Patrick. We drink excessive amounts of alcohol, celebrate into the wee hours of the morning with our friends and regret our over-indulgence the following day. In recent years, I have found myself dancing in bars adorned with tricolour flags to traditional Irish music and drinking bad Guinness. But not this year. This year I don’t feel like celebrating. I don’t feel like drunkenly acquiescing with strangers that we do indeed have “a grand little country”. This year, when I think of our history and our relationship with Christianity (which, in essence, is what Saint Patrick’s is at least supposed to be about), I don’t feel a surging sense of pride. 
I feel shame and disgust. 

Our country has had a tortured and somewhat masochistic relationship with Catholicism. In the twentieth century, this relationship with the Catholic Church seemed to be at its zenith. Our most famous Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and later president, Éamon de Valera enshrined the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church in our country’s constitution. In 1932, the 31st International Eucharistic Congress of the Catholic Church was held in Dublin and attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators. It is estimated that 25% of the country’s population attended a mass held in Dublin that day. This was truly the apex of the Church’s influence over both culture and politics. Church doctrine seeped its way into all aspects of Irish life. Our schools and hospitals maintained their intrinsic link with the Church. The twentieth century was when the marriage between church and state was really cemented. 

This influence wasn’t just evident in the political sphere, however. The people of Ireland aimed to live their lives according to what they were taught at school and mass by nuns, brothers and priests. An odious sense of piety and sanctimony permeated many societal groups. Sexuality morality among all people was something that bishops and nuns obsessed over. There was, as our current Taoiseach Enda Kenny notes, ‘a morbid fascination with respectability.’ 

Contraception was illegal in Ireland between 1935 and 1980 and families, despite widespread poverty, grew large in keeping with traditional Catholic teachings. Sex outside marriage was considered inherently sinful, however. Of course, it still happened and with contraception not being widely available, many women found themselves in the worst possible situation in a repressive, judgemental and unforgiving society. These women were treated as little better than criminals; shunned by their communities and often sent to Magdalene asylums and so-called “mother and baby homes”. Here, they gave birth to their babies, who were subsequently taken away from them, and often never seen again. In the Magdalene asylums, women were worked like virtual slaves to atone for their grievous sins. 

One such mother and baby home was established in Tuam, County Galway by the Bons Secours religious order. Here, unmarried mothers gave birth to their babies, who were then taken from them and raised in a separate part of the Home by the nuns. The children were often later given up for adoption, and often without the consent of their mothers. For their part, the mothers remained in the Home for a year, working unpaid hours to reimburse the nuns for their “services”. 

Tragically, that isn’t the most infuriating or heartbreaking part of the Home’s sadistic history. It was well-known in the local community that there was an undisclosed number of foetal remains close to the site of The Home, which had been abolished in 1972. It was unclear to many, however, just what a gut-wrenching and shameful story lay behind these remains. Thanks to the tireless work of local historian Catherine Corless, however, the story is public. And now, it cannot be silenced. 

Corless discovered that throughout the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that 796 babies and young children died at the Home.

796

Although infant mortality rates nationwide were indeed higher in the mid-twentieth century than they are today, this number is still considered abnormally high. The infants’ death certificates stated various medical reasons for their deaths, including tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough and influenza. One thing is evident: these children were not treated like human beings. They were treated as they were perceived: as a remnant of their mother’s sin and sexual immorality. And for that, they were punished. 

The nuns left these children in unmarked mass graves. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes recently found that the remains were discovered in structure that seems to be “related to the treatment/containment of sewerage  and/or wastewater.” These babies were left to rot in a mass grave, buried without dignity or humanity. 

So today, I don’t celebrate. I don’t feel an overwhelming sense of pride in my nationality. I feel a measure of pride in the sense that justice is finally being sought for these babies, who were never before given a voice. I feel proud of the inimitable Catherine Corless, the woman who never gave up fighting for the defenceless. But I don’t feel proud of my country’s insidious past. I won’t wave a tricolour or drink a pint because I don’t feel like it. I am frankly too disillusioned, too ashamed and too heartbroken. Instead, I will think of the 796 babies lying in the cold ground in County Galway. Babies like Anne Heneghen, who died in 1954 aged 3 months. Or Dermot Gavin who died in 1956, aged 2 weeks. Or Baby Lyons, who died in 1949, aged 5 days. Or Kathleen Murray who died in 1947 aged 3 years. I could go on, but it would take some time. I ask that those of you who read this to please look at this full list of their names. They were invisible while they lived, forgotten and neglected by a society that deemed them an inconvenient truth. 

We cannot and will not ignore them now. 

Mothers Always Know Best

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*For the purposes of this post and your imagination, this is my mother

Most people see me as a paragon of calmness; a level-headed, laid back Zen Master. Except that last week, I had a freak out. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a freak out of Danny Bonaduce proportions, but compared to how I normally compose myself, I might as well have covered myself in green paint and beat my chest with Black Hawks.

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In a certain light, we’re virtually indistinguishable

It all started when I was waiting in the car for my boyfriend, who was off doing boyfriend things (code for “I can’t remember what he was doing”) and I decided to peruse my Facebook newsfeed. As I scrolled through the mundane ‘1 like=1 prayer’ melodrama, I noticed that one of my friends had gotten engaged. ‘Huh,’ I thought, ‘good for her’ as I dutifully clicked the ‘like’ button.

I continued scrolling. ‘Huh’, I mumbled again, albeit this time in a more high-pitched tone, ‘Katie is engaged too. Oh, and Emma. And Marie just had a baby.’ I sunk back in my seat. I tried very hard to feel happy for these girls I had once attended school with. They’re nice girls and they deserve to be happy. So why was I feeling like someone had punched me square in the uterus?

As my boyfriend nonchalantly sat back into the car, he noticed I was staring into space (at this stage, I was possibly imagining an older version of myself knitting clothing for my sixty cats).

‘What’s up?’ he asked me, possibly expecting me to refer to the fact that he had earlier hidden my Abba Gold collection.
I didn’t want to say anything. Besides the fact that I didn’t exactly know what was indeed wrong with me, I’m not the passive-aggressive, manipulative, reverse psychology type (you know the ones, they’re all over your Facebook) and I really didn’t want Jack thinking that this was all a clever ruse to provoke him into action.

What could I say? ‘Oh all my friends are engaged and having babies and we’re sat here eating drive-thru and debating whether we’ll watch Iron Man or Spider Man when we go home.’

All he would infer from anything I could possible say is that I was pressuring him to propose to me. And that’s not what I want. Don’t say women aren’t complex creatures…wait, who actually says that, ever?

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I’m sayin’ nothin’

We’ve been together for eleven years now. We’re in our mid to late twenties. Marriage just seems like the next step.

Except we can’t afford it. Readers, I’m being so honest with you that you might as well be cradling my head in your lap and singing lullabies to me. We know that we want to marry each other eventually, and we will, but right now, it would seem like a gigantic expense that we couldn’t justify. And marriage seems so grownup and real, sometimes I just don’t feel mature enough for it. I’d be a ‘Mrs’ for the love of Jezabel.

So I have to admit, the marriage thing wasn’t what was bugging me. Nor was the fact that my friends could now probably run a small crèche between them. No. It was the fact that their lives were taking shape; that they had a sense of direction, of purpose. (The following should be accompanied by cheesy dramatic music and narration by Cameron Diaz) I started to feel like I was in a maze and I had no idea which way I was supposed to go.

To my horror, I noticed tears running down my face. Actual real, giant, salty tears. ‘Oh Jesus,’ I muttered, as I used the end of my sleeve to aggressively dab them away. I’m the sort of person who really hates to cry, so when I inevitably end up sobbing I mutter things to myself like ‘Oh stop it, you big baby!’ which actually makes me sob more because I’m being mean to myself. And myself is quite sensitive.

‘Love, what is wrong?’ my boyfriend asked again, this time showing genuine concern. I can imagine a montage of all his misdemeanours playing though his head: toilet seat left up, clothes balled up on bedroom floor, pizza box in living room, expensive conditioner used as body wash, again…

‘I don’t know really. I just… Sometimes I see other the lives of everyone else taking shape at our age and we’re just kinda stuck in this never ending cycle of debt and takeaways. I feel aimless sometimes, I suppose. I know I wouldn’t exactly consider myself a conventional person, but I have to admit Jack, sometimes the conventional looks pretty comfortable.’

I could see Jack’s eyebrows rising and falling, which I know means he as confused as Kim Kardashian in an art gallery.

‘Sooo, I didn’t do anything?’ he asked gingerly. I leaned over and kissed him.

‘No,’ I smiled through my tears ‘you didn’t.’

Great, I noted wryly to myself, now he thinks you’re on your period.

As we continued our journey home silently, Jack dispensed some pretty good advice.

‘You should talk to your mother. I think it would help.’

At the time, I wasn’t sure. At my age, Mam had a house that she fully owned, a child and she was married. I don’t even own a subscription to my local video store. But as I mulled over whether I should ask my mother for advice that night in bed, I resolved to ring her the next morning. I told myself that she’s a pretty good listener and if anything, she would comfort me.

So I called her and told her that I was doing good but that lately I’d felt a little down. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m known for being the one in my family who normally dispenses the advice rather than receives it, so my mother was a tad surprised. I also felt slightly guilty that this didn’t exactly appear as a ‘real’ problem. There are people out there in debt, suffering from depression or ill, and I’m just some middle class white chick with first world problems. Still though, I knew she wouldn’t want me feeling so aimless and underwhelmed with my life.

‘I don’t know how this has really happened’, I began (although I did know, and I silently narrowed my eyes at an invisible Mark Zukerberg) ‘but lately I’ve just been feeling like I’ve, I don’t know…like I’ve wasted my twenties. Like my life hasn’t really even begun yet. I mean, I love Jack and I’m so happy with him, but I feel like a home for us, and children and all that, is so far out of reach. And everyone else seems to be settling down. And when you were my age, you were married, with a house and a kid and you had everything. I just feel like I’m missing out on all that.’

There was a long silence at the other end of the phone. Great, I thought, I have literally bored her to death.

I heard her take a sigh. She began: ‘firstly, when I married your father it was 1980. In Catholic Ireland. I had a job but I felt I had to leave it. Times were very different. I was expected to get married. There was no such thing as living with someone first, and women were expected to have children.
You don’t have those expectations anymore. You get to keep your job, which you love. You don’t have to have children by a certain age to keep your parents happy. And you’re angry because these societal expectations are gone? What is that?!’
She was half laughing, half incredulous.

She continued:
‘You are so lucky. You’re not tied to a property. You’re not expected to play the part of dutiful housewife. Don’t get me wrong, I love the three of you (my siblings and I, I’m guessing) more than anything, but my god how I would have loved some more time. I would have loved to eat pizza on the floor (how does she know?) and come home at eight o’ clock in the morning after a house party, but I couldn’t. I had responsibilities. And I was so young.
And, my dear, you are forgetting the most important fact of all: if my life was so perfect, why did our marriage break down? Hmm?’

She was right. My father and her had separated a few years ago. Was she saying that it was because they married too young? Was it because she didn’t get to experience enough of life in her twenties?

‘Look’, she interrupted my reverie ‘I was happy. I was. I had three beautiful children. And you can have that too. Except you can also go and live some of your life first. Who says marriage and kids qualifies you as an adult, hah? Ok, so yes, you still wear Minnie Mouse onesies, but you’re a grownup with or without marriage and babies. And you’re doing a pretty good job at this adult malarkey. You have a career, a stable relationship with a great man and you seem happy, most of the time. What more could you want? The grass seems perfectly green where you are.’

‘Oh Jesus.’

‘WHAT?’

‘Im crying again,’ I mumbled. And I was. The warmth of her words surrounded me like a blanket. As I say there, ensconced in her rationality, I knew she was right. She’s my mother; she’s always right.

I need to be thankful that I live in a society and in a time where I’m free to do as I like (within reason of course, yes I’m talking to you: the guy removing his clothes and planning to run naked through Walmart). I also realised that I just need to calm the eff down. I’m twenty-six. I still sleep with a nightlight on after watching horror movies. I don’t think I should be thinking about babies juuuust yet. Of course, it’s a personal thing, but I have to admit, I’m pretty content with life at the moment. There’s plenty of time for marriage and children. I don’t need to waste these years by inventing societal pressures.

Until then, I’m going to continue putting dresses on my male Westie because, well, I can.

And also, this is me:

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