Joanne Ryan on Eggsistentialism

Joanne Ryan based her award-winning show Eggsistentialism on her comical journey to decide if she should have a baby. Here she discusses the show and why, despite all the best-intentioned advice, we should all ultimately listen to our heart.

On a cold, January morning in 2015 I sat in a room with 5 other writers and first shouted the words “I don’t know if I should have a baby!”

It was the first icebreaker on a theatre development scheme: rant for 60 seconds about things that make you angry and at the end of my rant, as a joke really, that’s what I shouted. Everyone laughed but the joke was on me because as soon as I said it I realised it was true.

I was about to turn 35, a fact my Irish Catholic mother had been blessing herself in disbelief about for weeks. 35 is the magical age when according to magazines and the Internet, women’s fertility falls off a cliff. Maybe if we stopped scaring 35-year-old women about their egg reserves they’d be less inclined to fall off cliffs. Who knows. But there I was; at the coal face of the cliff edge and without a fecking notion what I should do.

I felt no different physically, mentally or emotionally than I had 10 years earlier and had no idea whether or not I wanted kids but suddenly felt under pressure to figure it out. Not thinking about it would be a decision in itself if my time ran out and something I might regret down the line. So I did what anyone would do in that situation; I wrote a play.

I knew I wasn’t the only one facing this conundrum. I knew it was a political-charged issue that no one was talking about it – certainly not on stages anyway –  and the more I thought about it the more complex and fraught and fascinating it became. As a theatre maker, I wanted to investigate, unpick, document and make some jokes. As Joanne, I was hoping it would help me decide.

The fact I get to decide at all is a luxurious problem. I am part of the first generation of humans in the history of humans who have a choice. My mother didn’t – condoms were still illegal in Ireland when I was conceived – my grandmother certainly didn’t. I wanted to know what the consequences of the choice might be, what do you lose and what do you gain?

A great fringe benefit of writing a play was that it gave me license to go to forensic extremes in my journey without looking like a total nutjob. It wasn’t madness, it was “research”. I wasn’t bonkers, I was “being thorough”.

Oh no, I’m not crazy. This is for a play!

In the early stages of writing I met my current boyfriend. “I’m getting my eggs counted”, I told him cheerily on our 3rd date. “For a play.” He said it was a great idea – that as a man of the same age he was facing the same issue, without the time pressures maybe, but still needing to weigh it up and make a choice. He came on the journey with me.

In the course of writing this show over two years I spoke to lots of doctors and fertility experts. “Hurry up!” some said. “Relax!” said others. I spoke to friends and family who told me all about having kids and not having kids and all they had lost and gained either way. I ravaged the darkest recesses of the Internet. I had ultrasounds, blood tests, counselling. In a particularly desperate moment I even went to a fortune teller.( “Don’t pick up anything heavy,” she cautioned sagely before relieving me of a cool €50. “You might put out your back.”)

My favourite part was the hours I spent sitting with my mother – who has turned out to be the hilarious scene-stealing star of the show –  hearing about her life and choices in a different, and not so different, country and world.

Did the whole madcap odyssey help me make my own decision? Well, you’ll just have to come along to the show to find out of course! What I can say is that it has given me lots of fascinating insights into the most fundamental human question of all; to baby or not to baby?

Eggsistentialism plays at Arcola from 30 January – 3 February 2018. Tickets are available now.