The traditional nature of the Irish family is changing. Kathy Donaghy meets two parents who have championed alternative set-ups
Seismic changes in our societal landscape – including the introduction of same-sex marriage – mean that Irish families are more diverse now than ever before.
Family law expert Geoffrey Shannon says the softening of attitudes to lone parenthood, the increasing availability of contraception and the unmarried mothers’ allowance introduced in the 1970s all played their part in changing the nature of family life here.
While the most up-to-date picture on family structure in Ireland will become clearer when the Central Statistics Office publishes the breakdown of Census 2016 figures in relation to households and families in July of this year, anecdotal evidence suggests that increasingly women are embarking on motherhood solo, either through adoption or through IVF using donor eggs.
Earlier this month, model and TV presenter Vogue Williams said that she has decided she will become a single parent if she doesn’t have children by the age of 35.
“A lot of people seem to find this odd, but to me it makes the most sense in the world,” she wrote in her Sunday World column. “Instead of seeing being single as a negative, I realised that if children were what I eventually wanted, I could do it alone.”
In Canada, friends Natasha Bakht and Lynda Collins made legal history in February when they adopted a child together. They are not romantically involved with one another, they are simply friends who decided to become co-parents and raise their son Elaan together.
While their unusual family set-up is a first in legal terms – they are the first platonic friends to co-parent a child – the ground-breaking set-up could become a part of the landscape of modern motherhood.
Anne O’Neill knew she always wanted to be a mum and have a family. But while she had been in relationships, the breakdown of one serious relationship left her feeling that if she wanted to become a mum, adoption might be a good option. A solicitor based in Cork, Anne had been involved with a number of voluntary organisations and charities including Women’s Aid and International Orphan Aid. A contact in the latter organisation told her that China’s one child policy was affecting lots of baby girls who were filling orphanages all over the country. It planted the seed of an idea in Anne’s mind that she might look to China to fulfil her dream of becoming a mother and nearly 20 years ago, when it was almost unheard of for a single person to adopt, she began the process of trying to adopt a baby.
It was a journey that in 2001 took her to Changsha, a city of 10 million, four hours south of Beijing and the hometown of Chairman Mao.
While the adoption process is notoriously slow, in Anne’s case it moved relatively quickly. One day a letter arrived from China with a photograph of a baby girl. She was eight months old and Anne couldn’t believe her luck. Within a few months Anne had travelled back to China where Jiang – which translates to English as ‘River’ – was handed to her.
“I was completely overwhelmed. I was jet lagged and I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to do this at all. Jiang had a cold and she was wrapped in five layers,” says Anne, recalling the day almost 15 years ago now.
Adjusting to early motherhood was difficult for Anne. She was on her own. Her old life of work, training for marathons and going to the gym changed overnight.
Some people’s attitudes to the fact that her daughter didn’t look like her took a while to get used to as well. “An American friend said to me, I don’t envy you this – the looks you are getting are very strange. It didn’t bother me as much as it bothered her. I suppose I had always stood out from the crowd… being different was something I embraced,” says Anne. Now 15, Jiang goes to St Aloysius School in Cork and Anne says while she’s a typical teenager, she’s also very conscientious and different to how she herself was as a teen.
“She has a big open smile and she’s so lively. She is loving her life and she has notions about what she wants to do with it. She wants to go to university in California – she’s oriented towards science and medicine.
“I can’t imagine my life without her. She has given me more of a purpose. I was so lucky. My own parents were in their 80s when I adopted and Jiang had a terrific relationship with them,” says Anne, whose father Brian passed away five years ago while her mother Clare died only recently.
“I remember one day sitting in the back of the car when my mother was having a conversation with her friend. I think they forgot I was there. My mother asked her friend what she thought about what I was doing and her friend said it was great. My mother said she thought it was amazing. I remember my father saying ‘You will never regret this’,” she smiles.
When Jennifer Phillips from Dunboyne, Co Meath, found herself in her late 30s and single, she knew she’d have to take matters into her own hands if she was going to be a mother.
“I had been in relationships but by my mid 30s I felt if I didn’t meet someone in the next year or so, it wasn’t going to happen. I knew I wanted children. Some people go down the sperm donor route but for me the first thing that came to mind was adoption,” says Jennifer, who works as an accounts assistant.
In June 2006, six months after she informed the HSE that she would like to adopt, she got called to an information meeting. Two years later, in August 2008, she got her declaration allowing her to legally adopt a child. The road wasn’t smooth and while Jennifer originally decided to adopt a child from Vietnam, changes in the arrangements between Ireland and Vietnam meant this door shut. She turned to Bulgaria but realised that this could take years.
She’d met another single woman who was hoping to adopt a child from Ethiopia and in May 2012 Jennifer made her first trip to Ethiopia. After months of waiting and phone calls, Jennifer was sent a photograph of her little girl. A year later, she was given a date for a court hearing in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, for the formal adoption. “It was totally overwhelming when she was put into my arms. It was all surreal. I always had the name Holly in my mind. When she was put into my arms, I felt I was her mother. All the years of waiting were forgotten. My mum, who was in her 70s, was with me and she was so supportive. From day one all my family have been unbelievably supportive,” says Jennifer. She also had huge support from the other mum on the same journey, whose own little girl was adopted on the same day as Holly. The two had shared a cot together at the orphanage and still have a special bond today.
“I’ve explained to Holly that her birth mother kept her safe in her tummy for nine months and she got her to a good care home where she would be adopted. She’s very aware she was born in Ethiopia,” says Jennifer.
Holly slept through the night from day one and four years later she’s blissfully happy. Jennifer is now an active member of the International Adoption Association of Ireland.
“There are a lot of one parent families now,” she says. “The next generation is going to be very different. Years ago there was a stigma about single parents. I never feel uncomfortable saying I’m a single parent. I just feel so lucky that I eventually got to have a daughter. I feel really privileged.”