Voluntary Childlessness in Contemporary Ireland

Women's Experiences

by Joan Cronin (Author)
©2020 Monographs XIV, 192 Pages


This book explores the experiences of women who are childless by choice in contemporary Ireland, to gain a greater understanding of the factors that influence their decision making, to examine how others react to that decision, and to consider the strategies women engage in to manage the reactions of others. The book is based on detailed in-depth interviews with a group of twelve Irish women who have consciously chosen not to have children. The women speak of their childhoods, personalities, relationships and careers and describe how these shaped their decision making. The book links the women’s accounts with literature on the values and belief systems around procreation and motherhood which were prevalent throughout Ireland and chronicles the stigma and negative appraisal associated with women’s voluntary childlessness.
Although the book is written from a sociological perspective, the merger of theory and practical insights make it accessible to a wide audience. The aim it to foreground the women’s voices and generate a greater awareness and understanding of women’s voluntary childlessness.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: History of Irish Sexuality
  • Chapter 3: Understanding Women’s Chosen Childlessness in Ireland
  • Chapter 4: Researching Women’s Chosen Childlessness in Ireland: Background Factors
  • Chapter 5: Women Choosing to be Childless: Motives and Rationale
  • Chapter 6: Conscious Reflexive Biography Making
  • Chapter 7: Women Choosing Childlessness and the Associated Stigma
  • Chapter 8: Conclusion
  • Bibliography

←xii | xiii→


At the outset, I wish to express my deepest thanks to the twelve voluntarily childless women who shared their experiences with me; without their contribution, I would not have been in a position to complete my original research or this publication.

I wish to sincerely thank my academic supervisors, Dr Máire Leane and Dr Jacqui O’Riordan, for their invaluable guidance and support throughout the writing of my original dissertation, and for their enthusiasm and genuine interest in the topic of women’s voluntary childlessness.

To family and friends past and present, some of whom did not live to see the publication of this book, I hold you in my heart and sense your immense pride in me.

I reserve the greatest thanks for my wonderful parents David and Noreen, for the ongoing sacrifices they have made on my behalf, and for their endless support and encouragement.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge Jackson, George and Ted, my St Bernards, for their unconditional love.

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The phenomenon of women’s voluntary childlessness in Ireland is largely unexamined, perhaps in part because of Ireland’s strong association with pronatalism, the origins of which lie in the belief that motherhood is natural and that all women have an instinctive desire to procreate. Historically in Ireland there was a limited range of roles available to women, with priority being given to marriage and motherhood. However, changes to the Irish landscape, the introduction of free secondary education in the 1960s, the lifting of the marriage bar in 1973 and the legalization of contraception in 1979 created possibilities for lifestyles outside the realm of motherhood and family. Women today have significantly more choices available to them to determine the course of their own life paths. Yet, in spite of this, high costs of living and limited and expensive childcare options make it increasingly difficult for women to reconcile motherhood with paid employment (Department of Justice, 2017; Murphy-Lawless et al., 1994). As women reflect on the choices available to them, a growing number are consciously choosing to reject motherhood. It is estimated that 20 per cent of women between the ages of 25 and 49 are childless in OECD1 countries. Rates are particularly high in Austria, Finland, Germany, and Greece, where in excess of 40 per cent of women aged between 25 and 49 are childless (OECD, 2011). Without children, women have greater autonomy and control over their lives and thus have more opportunities to plan and negotiate their own childfree biographies.

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However, research indicates that women who are childless by choice are viewed more negatively and experience social pressure to re-consider their decision (Park, 2002; Peterson, 2014). The reasons why women are choosing to be childless, the decision making process they engage in, and the reactions of others to same are largely unexamined in the Irish context. Using data collected from twelve semi-structured qualitative interviews with women who are childless by choice in Ireland, and informed by conceptual insights from theories of individualization, reflexivity, stigma, and stigma management, this book explores and seeks to understand the factors that shaped the women’s childbearing decisions, the nature of the decision making process, societal and family reactions to the decision, and strategies for responding to same.

Childless by Choice: Contemporary Overview

My interest in this topic arose from my personal experiences of being a woman who is childless by choice in contemporary Irish society, and my wish to consider my experience in the context of wider explorations of the issue. Searches for literature revealed no Irish examinations of the topic, despite the growing number of women in Ireland choosing this life course. Although it is difficult to get an accurate figure due to difficulties in distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary childlessness, it is estimated that between 15 and 25 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 50 are childless in Western society (Blackstone and Stewart, 2012; Iwasawa, 2004; Merlo and Rowland, 2000). A European study by Tanturri et al. (2015) found that rates of voluntary childlessness have significantly increased, especially among women born around 1965. It is estimated that 25 per cent of that particular generational cohort of women are childless in Italy; 20 per cent in Germany and Finland; and approximately 15 per cent in Austria, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Wales, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden (Tanturri et al., 2015). It is further estimated that between 23 and 28 per cent of women from Austria, England and Wales, Finland, Germany, Italy, and Poland, ←2 | 3→from the generational cohort of those born in 1975, will remain childless (Tanturri et al., 2015). In a recent study on Childlessness in Europe, Kreyenfeld and Konietzka (2017) reported that in excess of 20 per cent of women in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria who are nearing the end of their reproductive cycle will remain childless. These estimates suggest that childlessness may be an experience for approximately one in every four women across Europe at present and into the near future.

Given that there are no figures available in Ireland, which directly indicate rates of childlessness for women (there are only figures for couples, which suggests a bias toward two-parent families in Ireland), it is not possible to determine if these are voluntarily or involuntarily childless. Nonetheless, the available figures clearly show an increase in the number of couples registered without children in Ireland, which had risen from 313.3 in 2011 to 323.1 in 2016 (CSO, 2016). Also, almost 80 per cent of same-sex couples (4,787) were cohabiting without children, while 656 of same-sex couples – 10.9 per cent – were married without children (CSO, 2016). The other set of figures that would indicate growing levels of decision making around reproduction are the ones that show decreases in birth rates. Again, it is not possible to determine the extent to which these decreases are accounted for by women having fewer children or increasing numbers of women having no children. Miettinen et al. (2014) reported that between 2000 and 2010, proportions of childless women in Ireland between the ages of 30 and 34 years was 43 per cent, that was higher than in any of the thirty-two other European countries included in the study. In 2015, there were 65,536 live births recorded in Ireland, this was 6 per cent lower than the corresponding birth rate, which was 14.6 per cent per 1,000 of the population in 2014. In 2016, there were 703 fewer births in Ireland compared to the same period in 2015, registering a drop of 0.7 per cent (CSO, 2016). There were 62,053 births in Ireland in 2017, compared to 63,897 in 2016, registering a drop of 1,844. This corresponds to a birth rate of 12.9 per cent per 1,000 population, a rate decrease of 0.6 from 2016 (CSO, 2016).


XIV, 192
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XIV, 192 pp., 9. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Joan Cronin (Author)

Joan Cronin is a part-time lecturer and programme co-ordinator at the Centre for Adult and Continuing Education in University College Cork. She has a PhD in Applied Social Studies/ Social Policy. Her research interests include; gender, feminism and identity. She is childless by choice and lives with her two St. Bernard’s in the South of Ireland.


Title: Voluntary Childlessness in Contemporary Ireland
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