Two, four, six, none? Most of the time the amount of children we have, if we have them at all, is dictated not necessarily by our perfect number, but a host of conditions that can end up deciding for us.
“I couldn’t manage having more than two kids,” a friend told me recently, because she stressed, trying to maintain her own identity and hold on to any space for herself among the clamber of two young boys was hard enough. And it’s something that many women can relate to. Two kids is now a full family unit, a full house, literally, and about as much as many couples with today’s demands, and expectations, can manage.
Yet, for every woman, and possibly man, who feels she has reached her maximum parenting capacity, there are many who yearn for more, beyond the time where that may be possible or viable. There are the obvious factors in this, having kids later can simply mean you end up running out of biological road. Large families are now often the preserve of the well-off, who, if fortunate enough to be sheltered from the demands of having both parents working can focus more on raising a family. There are just the small details too of being able to feed and clothe everyone, never mind getting them through school and into college.
Finances and age are the big deciders, but there is another more societal undercurrent at work. I recently spoke to a woman who was returning to work after her fourth child, and felt stigmatised by it. The assumption was, she felt, that having deigned to have more than the average 2.1 children the unspoken expectation was that she would/should stay at home full-time. It really struck me, and I realised that there has been an invisible ceiling set for women who want to have families and a career, to go beyond that is to appear somewhat selfish, the message being that you can have it all, as long as it’s the amount other people feel comfortable with.
All this comes in the context of what is now, and certainly going to continue to be, one of the hottest topics of our times, that of continued falling fertility, something Ireland has always prided itself on bucking, but the fact is we are below average in our birth rates in the EU- the UK is higher. I am pretty sure, as Dearbhail McDonald pointed out in her really wonderful speech here, that the big conversation is going to be in the coming years about how we encourage women to have more children. The planned state-funded IVF programme is just the beginning of this.
And the irony is, there are lots of women who given the circumstances, would gladly have more. If Kate Middleton lived in a terraced house in a city and was married to just a regular man called William, she might easily be a 2.1er like the majority of her subjects. Yet, she has, to all intents and purposes, an extremely charmed life, and is content to add to her family at regular intervals. Many women who enjoy parenting, are in a loving relationship, and for whom money was no object would do the same. But a large family is something many look on with envy now, a privilege.
It’s true, not all couples agree on whether they want children at all, or how many are enough. In fact, it’s probably more unusual to be in complete agreement on this. A deal may have to be struck, and someone is going to have to compromise. I know if I mentioned adding a third to our domestic set up, I’d probably find my other half hiding down a tunnel in the Yemen. I accept that my yearnings are impractical, and at 42 with a four and two-year-old, I also accept that I am really really knackered a lot of the time.
If we had been able to have kids younger, things might be different. Who knows, the options would certainly be greater. The women I know who are also having to step off the reproduction roundabout are doing so also because of age, but not just theirs- at times it is their partners, who just don’t want to be older dads.
Wanting to have kids for those that do is as powerful an impulse as they come, and something we should all have the freedom to fulfil and support, as we should those who would prefer not. We need to challenge our still very traditional ideas of family to do this. If you want six kids and to run for Taoiseach/President/office manager, then it should not be a question of judgement. If you want to have your family young and yet not be seen as somehow odd or unambitious then that should be your right too.
What being an older parent has certainly taught me is that you shouldn’t wait and go by the accepted norms. In total contrast to my own experience, I will be encouraging my daughter and son to have their family younger, if they want it. But when I look down the line, at the legacy coming, I still haven’t seen a real change from anywhere among the powers-that-be to help me make that more possible for them. But then I look at them again, and I see mostly male faces, quite possibly shielded by the work their wives do from handling the daily challenges of a fractured early childcare system and who rarely, if ever, get asked if, when, or how many children they are going to have, and if they are going to return to work after having them. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem.