The upcoming fertility-fest organised by Jessica Hepburn has the CRR buzzing with excitement, the wide variety of speakers and exhibits on topics which many of us have spent several years researching is a rare treat for us as academics. I was however recently lucky enough to get something of a sneak peek at one of the acts presenting at the festival; the stage play by Joanne Ryan called ‘Eggistentialism’.
Conceived during an ice breaker at a theatre development scheme, and reflecting the thoughts and feelings of many women in their 30s, the play sees Ryan share her ambivalences about the possible role which motherhood may one-day play in her life. Musing on her own reproductive future the play examines the sexual as well as social politics of contemporary motherhood and through the use of an animated slide slow, maps key moments in the history of Ireland between 1916 and 2017. With a focus on the politics of the family, reproduction and sexual relationships, the play examines emotive and distressing topics such as the forcible removal of babies from unmarried mothers, poor access to reproductive and sex education for young people, repressive legal barriers to contraceptive technologies, and the denial of access to safe and legal abortions for tens of thousands of women in Ireland which still continues today.
In the play Ryan draws a comparison between the reproductive and mothering experiences of the older women in her family and herself. In doing so, she notes how the comparatively liberal experiences of her generation who had access to reliable contraception and seemingly egalitarian relationships with intimate partners, has meant that she is now part of the first generation of women for whom the experience of motherhood is not considered a simple inevitability, but a ‘choice’ which she is able, but also required, to make for herself.
The play begins with Ryan waking up on her 35th birthday with the hangover from hell, the type of hangover which makes you question your life choices, and the decision about whether she wants to become a mother rests firmly at the forefront of her mind. Aware of her advancing age, and fearful that she may not have ‘enough eggs left over to make an omelette’, like many women before her she takes to the internet for advice about her fertility and possibility of motherhood in the future. What results is a particularly funny skit which sees Joanne’s computer screen quickly overrun by alarmist media headlines about fertility decline and older motherhood which cascade before the audiences’ eyes to the rumbling overture of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Finding that the decision about whether or not to become a mother has not yet been made for her by ‘Mother Nature’, Ryan decides to undergo an ovarian reserve test to assess the state of her fertility and is told that she is still within the normal range for a woman of her age. With no moment of clarity provided by the results of these tests, Ryan ponders what her life would look like should she remain childfree. She concludes that she wouldn’t need to have a child in order to experience fulfilment and happiness but remains anxious about the thought of entering old age without building a ‘legacy’ and a family who could care for her should she become unwell or infirm. She also notes how despite growing numbers of women coming to the end of their fertile lives without becoming a mother, the language used to describe such women often remains derogatory (selfish, shallow, bitter, self-absorbed) with connotations of incompleteness and lacking in essential qualities of femininity; such a fact troubles Ryan.
However, Ryan’s personal ambivalence about motherhood appears to centre on what she perceives as the pressures of modern day motherhood, remarking that during her grandmother’s lifetime keeping a child alive, well fed, and warm appeared to be the extent of a woman’s mothering responsibilities. By contrast she notes how contemporary motherhood is characterised by what she describes as an ‘endless triage of difficult decisions a woman is constantly judged for’. Evoking the notion of the ‘mummy wars’, it appears that Ryan’s ambivalence about motherhood is at least in part shaped by her anticipation of engaging in, or being required to engage in, a process of intensive mothering (Hays, 1998; Baldwin, 2017). This expectation of mothering intensively leads Ryan to note how becoming a mother would almost certainly see the end of her much beloved ‘city breaks’ as the demands of motherhood would require not only a complete reorganisation and reorientation of her life, but would also entail a high degree of personal sacrifice and altruism in putting the needs of her child before her own. The perceived demands of motherhood also lead Ryan to worry about ‘losing herself’ in the process of becoming a mother. Most significantly however Ryan notes how the transition to motherhood would change her life completely as the burdens of raising a child would more than likely fall disproportionately on her shoulders, by comparison she notes that for her partner Rob, it would be ‘business as usual’.
The fear that the burden of parenting, and other associated domestic tasks, would fall disproportionately to her is perhaps not unwarranted given the context in which she makes her decision. After all, it was only in 2016 that men in Ireland were first able to take state mandated paternity leave (with shared parental leave still not available), and whilst maternity leave is accessible for many women, it is often only paid at a statutory rate with employers not required to top up women’s income as seen in England. Ryan also cites statistics which paint a depressing picture of the low rate of Irish men’s involvement in domestic tasks and in the delivery of unpaid care. This leads her to fear that should she and Rob decide to become parents, the egalitarian relationship which they have enjoyed thus far would be disrupted with Rob being applauded for ‘babysitting’ his own child whilst she faces her career being side-lined and independence marginalised. In raising these issues Ryan recognises the deep gendered inequalities parenting can bring to a previously equal intimate relationship which Ryan is perhaps the first in her family to enjoy.
I am not going to spoil the ending of the play for you by divulging what Ryan eventually decides, you will have to attend the Fertility Fest to see for yourself, but I can thoroughly recommend the play as a wonderful mix of both a hilarious stand-up routine and a personal monologue which is emotionally honest, intelligent but also highly engaging and entertaining.
‘Existentialism’ is running at the Bush Theatre on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th May, for more details see https://www.fertilityfest.com/ or follow @eggsplay on Twitter.
HAYS, S. (1998) The cultural contradictions of motherhood: Yale University Press.
BALDWIN, K. (2017) ‘I suppose I think to myself, that’s the best way to be a mother’: how ideologies of parenthood shape women’s reproductive intentions and their use of social egg freezing. Sociological Research Online 22 (2), 1-15