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In our society it is accepted and celebrated when a woman decides to have a child. It is considered normal and obvious, even expected, that women want to marry and raise children. But what if a woman decides that motherhood is not a role she wants to pursue? It often then becomes an issue of social concern when a woman makes public her decision to remain childfree. Women who are voluntarily childless are often faced with disbelief and disapproval from friends, family, and society in general. The terms "woman" and "mother" have become very related in our society, so that it would seem to most people that you couldn't be the former without being the latter.
To many women without children, there is a big difference between being "childless" and being "childfree." To be called "childless" would imply that something is missing from their life, that something is wrong. Women who are infertile are pitied and receive sympathy. They are then medically treated, as if diseased, to try to bring about a pregnancy and birth. This paper focuses on the voluntarily childless, who often prefer the more positive term "childfree" because the lack of children is their choice. This term does have its problems though. It can be associated with being "carefree" and that in turn implies a childlike state. In effect, no children equals no responsibilities equals being childlike...a stereotype many childfree people are placed with (Leatherby 721).
In recent decades the rates of voluntary childlessness among women has risen. This could be due to a number of factors. One of these includes recent reproductive technologies now available to women, such as birth control and safe abortion procedures, which allow them to more efficiently determine whether, when, and in what context they have children (Gillespie 225). There are also a number of reasons people choose to be childfree that are often rational or ideational in nature.
Current Trends In Voluntary Childlessness
The World Health Organization has estimated that 88% of the world's women will have at least one child by the age of 45. Only a small percentage of the remaining 12% are voluntarily childless (Campbell 156-157). In the United States the rates of childlessness have increased substantially since the 1970's from 10% in 1976 to almost 20% in 1995 for women aged 35-39 (Hird 351). In a similar study by the US Census Bureau, they showed that childlessness among all women aged 40-44 increased from 10% in 1980 to 19% in 1998 (Bachu). There is one study that states that the rates of childlessness tend to respond to economic and social conditions by fluctuating accordingly. For example, childlessness was at 15% for women born in the mid-1880's, and up to 25% for those who reached childbearing age during the Depression (born in 1910). It dropped again to 10% for those women born in 1935, reaching childbearing age during the baby boom, but is now rising again in recent years (Holland 531).
While some would agree that factors such as race, age, education level, and social class don't impact childlessness, others disagree (Hird 351). Patterns tend to vary by race, with African-Americans having half the levels of childlessness than whites among women aged 40-44 (Bachu). Economic status may also play a small role, but there is not much evidence to support or disprove the theory. Education may influence attitudes and behaviors regarding childlessness for non-economic reasons. Women may delay or forego parenthood to obtain an education. Women may also alter their beliefs on the importance of children and be offered alternative goals while obtaining an education. The trend is, the higher the level of education, the higher the likelihood of voluntary childlessness. Commitment in a relationship is also important in childbearing decisions. Studies show that most childbearing still occurs within committed, usually married, relationships (Holland 532-533).
Explanations and Motivations for the Childfree Choice
There are probably as many reasons that people choose to be childfree as there are childfree people. There are, however, a number of common factors reported. Freedom is often one of the most valued aspects of being childfree. Adult-centered living allows for spontaneity, and the money, time and energy to pursue personal interests (No Kidding homepage). Being able to pursue education and career goals is a frequently stated reason to be childfree. Others state the financial benefits, such as economic security, the ability to save for retirement, and the funds to pursue personal interests, as a reason while others see it as more of a perk than a deciding factor. Some people choose to be childfree because they feel that children detract from the intimacy in a marriage and don't want to share their partner with a child (Hird 352).
There are a number of social factors that may influence one's decision to remain childless. Overpopulation, depletion of the world's resources, and environmental reasons are concerns for some, while others are pessimistic about the future. They may feel it is unfair to bring a child into an inhospitable world where they will be faced with social problems such as drugs, violence, and STD's (Hird 353). More personal reasons can also be important in the childfree choice. Very few people state a strong dislike of children as a main reason, but a few do. A minority states that childhood and familial experiences such as having an ill or handicapped sibling or parent or witnessing divorce were important in their decision. Some feel anxiety about their parenting ability and feel they are unable to live up to their own parents, or fear repeating their mistakes (Hird 353-354).
Attitudes Towards Childlessness
Women who decide to remain childless are seen in a number of negative ways, including that they are selfish, maladjusted, incomplete, unloving, irresponsible, immature, unnatural, materialistic, individualistic, too career oriented, lonely, unhappy, child-haters, and even psychologically unstable (Hird 354). They are often plagued with unwelcome and uninvited advice and comments about their reproductive desires and abilities, and met with scorn and contempt (Leatherby 721). These women experience feelings of anger, pain, frustration, and helplessness because they are not taken seriously, especially by the medical field if seeking sterilization (Campbell 14).
People express disbelief at a woman's choice to be childfree. Their explanations for their choice are recast as more legitimate, such as infertility, or they are written off as a "hard-nosed career woman." By consistently disbelieving women's reasons for voluntary childlessness, the ideas of motherhood as natural, desirable, and central to femininity remain intact and unchallenged (Gillespie 227-228).
The choice to be childfree may be disregarded by others who believe that they will eventually change their minds. Women seeking sterilization are often denied because they are seen to be too young. They are told to come back when they are older, or had a child. Their reasons for wanting sterilization are trivialized, dismissed, or reinterpreted by doctors. As one woman, when speaking about the choice to get sterilized, stated, "If a woman...can decide to have a baby, then a woman...should be able to decide not to. After all, both decisions are irreversible (Campbell xiv, 34)." It is believed that they have not yet passed into the "normal" adult female role and made the "normal" decision for children, reinforcing the idea that childfree women are themselves childlike (Gillespie 228-229).
It is sometimes suggested that a woman only needs to find the right man, and then she will change her mind. Others disregard it by believing that the voluntarily childless will ultimately regret their choice. This reinforces the idea that a woman can only be truly fulfilled through motherhood. Linked to this is the idea of children as company and caregivers in old age, as well (Gillespie 229).
Childlessness is linked with deviance in a number of ways. Both voluntary and involuntary non-mothers are considered outsiders, but the voluntary are seen as strange, or as "black sheep." The childfree are often met with confrontation, resentment, and conflict because they reject the norm (Gillespie 229-230). They are pressured by society to conform by being told that they will regret not having children, that they owe their own parents the chance to be grandparents, and that they will have no one to care for them in their old age (Morell 88).
As previously mentioned, motherhood is closely tied to what it means to be a woman. The idea of "normal" femininity is that motherhood is a natural part of life for a woman. For many women though, being childfree becomes a way of describing who they are; it becomes part of their femininity. Many voluntarily childless women strongly reject the idea that their lives are barren in any way, or that being childless is flawed femininity (Gillespie 223, 231). Other childfree women report that their femininity is undisturbed, and it may even be enhanced by their childfree life. They associate femininity with other things, such as sexuality, rather than motherhood. They claim that they can take better care of themselves and maintain their womanly shape better without children (Hird 360).
Childlessness and Feminism
Modern feminist movements have largely failed to accommodate the experiences of the voluntarily childless. Much of the liberal feminist struggle has focused on attaining 'woman-friendly,' flexible work practices. They want women to be able to combine work and family, creating dual roles for women (Gillespie 230). Traditionally, feminism advocates better childcare services to give women the opportunity to participate fully in the workforce, and they fight for equal pay and maternity benefits (Hird 355-356). They should also spend time fighting for the childless women who are denied job opportunities and promotions because it is assumed that they will only eventually leave to have children. It is argued that it is crucial for feminism that the lives of non-mothers are respected and validated as well as those of mothers (Gillespie 228, 230).
The Childfree Lifestyle
Those who are childfree live life differently than parents. They are able to be spontaneous, can pursue personal interests, and are able to have an uninterrupted telephone conversation. But being childfree has its problems when it comes to relationships. Often, non-parents claim that their relationships with friends who have children suffer, and sometimes it is hard to find a partner that shares their childfree views (No Kidding homepage). Many of them still have contact with children through friends and relatives, but many childfree women feel like outsiders when conversations turn to childbirth experiences and childrearing techniques (Morell 106).
As previously mentioned, those with children often give childfree women unwanted advice and comments. Conversations can sometimes lead to frustration and anger when their choice is consistently disregarded. It is understandable then, that they may seek out other childfree people, and this has caused the creation of childfree social groups. One such group is No Kidding, founded by Jerry Steinberg in Vancouver, BC in Canada. The club is open to any childfree person regardless of age, race, ethnicity, marital status, religion, or sexual orientation. He started the club so that childfree people could find others with similar interests, and engage in childfree activities. They have multiple activities every month that cover a wide range of interests. There are now divisions all across Canada and the United States (No Kidding homepage).
Other organizations related to voluntary childlessness exist as well. Childless by Choice provides information to anyone interested in voluntary childlessness, including students and researchers, men, women, and couples. They answer questions people may have about the childfree choice and educate potential parents of issues involved in parenting. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) encourages people to stop reproducing so that humans will die out and the earth can return to its natural state. They believe that ceasing to breed will allow the earth's biosphere to return to good health and that crowded conditions and resource shortages will improve as the population becomes less dense (Knight website).
Ideas that motherhood is fixed, natural, fulfilling, and central to feminine identity have become ingrained in western society (Gillespie 224). As Williams said, "Our society still takes for granted that 'woman' equals 'mother' equals 'wife' equals 'adult,' and this presumption still remains part of medical, political, and public discourses (721)." Every day women are subject to strong messages that to be a mother is natural and part of their future life; that it is a goal to aspire to at almost any cost (Campbell 157). Yet, the fact that a woman is a mother is no indication of whether or not she wanted to be one.
In recent years women have been presented with other options besides motherhood. They have greater involvement in paid work, and human relationships are changing. With television shows like Ally McBeal, Ellen, and Friends, and magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue, the media is showing a greater acceptance of changing women's roles as well (Gillespie 225-226). A fuller understanding of voluntary childlessness can contribute to a more in depth understanding of feminine identity, but also desperately needed is research on childlessness amongst men and the relationships between masculinity and fatherhood (Gillespie 232-233). References
Bachu, Amara. 1999. Is childlessness among American women on the rise? U.S.
Census Bureau, Population Division, Fertility and Family Statistics Branch.
3 September 1999, &http://blue.census.gov/population/www/documentation/
twps0037.html< (8 April 2001).
Campbell, Annily. 1999. Childfree and sterilized: Women's decisions and medical
responses. New York: Cassell.
Gillespie, Rosemary. 2000. When no means no: Disbelief, disregard, and
deviance as discourses of voluntary childlessness. Women's Studies
International Forum. 23 (2): 223-234.
Heaton, Tim B., and Cardell K. Jacobson. 1999. Persistence and change in
decisions to remain childless. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 61 (2): 531-
Hird, Myra J., and Kimberly Abshoff. 2000. Women without children: A
contradiction in terms? Journal of Comparative Family Studies. 31 (3): 347-
Knight, Les U. 2001. Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, &http://www.vhemt.
org/< (8 April 2001).
Leatherby, Gayle, and Catherine Williams. 1999. Non-motherhood: Ambivalent
autobiographies. Feminist Studies. 25 (3): 719-728.
Morell, Carolyn M. 1994. Unwomanly conduct: The challenges of intentional
childlessness. New York: Routledge.
No Kidding. &http://www.nokidding.net/< (8 April 2001).
introduction society accepted celebrated when woman decides have child considered normal obvious even expected that women want marry raise children what woman decides that motherhood role wants pursue often then becomes issue social concern when woman makes public decision remain childfree women voluntarily childless often faced with disbelief disapproval from friends family society general terms mother have become very related society that would seem most people couldn former without being latter many women without children there difference between being childless being childfree called childless would imply something missing from their life something wrong infertile pitied receive sympathy they then medically treated diseased bring about pregnancy birth this paper focuses voluntarily often prefer more positive term childfree because lack children their choice this term does have problems though associated with carefree turn implies childlike state effect equals responsibilities equals childlike stereotype many people placed with leatherby recent decades rates voluntary childlessness among risen this could number factors these includes recent reproductive technologies available such birth control safe abortion procedures which allow them more efficiently determine whether when what context they gillespie there also number reasons people choose rational ideational nature current trends voluntary childlessness world health organization estimated world will least child only small percentage remaining voluntarily campbell united states rates childlessness increased substantially since from almost aged hird similar study census bureau they showed among aged increased bachu there study states rates tend respond economic social conditions fluctuating accordingly example born those reached childbearing during depression born dropped again those born reaching childbearing during baby boom rising again recent years holland while some would agree factors such race education level social class impact others disagree hird patterns tend vary race african americans having half levels than whites among aged bachu economic status also play small role much evidence support disprove theory education influence attitudes behaviors regarding economic reasons delay forego parenthood obtain education also alter their beliefs importance offered alternative goals while obtaining trend higher level higher likelihood voluntary commitment relationship important childbearing decisions studies show most still occurs within committed usually married relationships holland explanations motivations choice probably many reasons choose however number common factors reported freedom most valued aspects adult centered living allows spontaneity money time energy pursue personal interests kidding homepage able pursue career goals frequently stated reason others state financial benefits such security ability save retirement funds personal interests reason while others more perk than deciding factor some choose because feel detract intimacy marriage want share partner child hird influence decision remain overpopulation depletion world resources environmental concerns some pessimistic about future feel unfair bring into inhospitable where will faced problems drugs violence personal important choice very state strong dislike main reason minority states childhood familial experiences having handicapped sibling parent witnessing divorce were important decision feel anxiety about parenting ability unable live parents fear repeating mistakes attitudes towards decide remain seen negative ways including selfish maladjusted incomplete unloving irresponsible immature unnatural materialistic individualistic career oriented lonely unhappy haters even psychologically unstable plagued unwelcome uninvited advice comments reproductive desires abilities scorn contempt leatherby these experience feelings anger pain frustration helplessness because taken seriously especially medical field seeking sterilization campbell express disbelief explanations recast legitimate infertility written hard nosed career consistently disbelieving ideas motherhood natural desirable central femininity intact unchallenged gillespie disregarded believe will eventually change minds seeking sterilization denied seen young told come back older wanting sterilization trivialized dismissed reinterpreted doctors speaking sterilized stated decide baby then should able decide after both decisions irreversible campbell believed passed into normal adult female role made normal reinforcing idea themselves childlike gillespie sometimes suggested only needs find right change mind disregard believing ultimately regret reinforces idea only truly fulfilled through motherhood linked idea company caregivers well linked deviance ways both involuntary mothers considered outsiders seen strange black sheep confrontation resentment conflict reject norm pressured conform told regret having parents chance grandparents care them morell feminine identity previously mentioned closely tied what means femininity natural part life though becomes describing becomes part femininity strongly reject lives barren flawed other report undisturbed even enhanced life associate other things sexuality rather than claim take better care themselves maintain womanly shape better without feminism modern feminist movements largely failed accommodate experiences much liberal feminist struggle focused attaining friendly flexible work practices want able combine work family creating dual roles traditionally feminism advocates better childcare services give opportunity participate fully workforce fight equal maternity benefits should spend time fighting denied opportunities promotions assumed eventually leave argued crucial feminism lives mothers respected validated well those mothers lifestyle live differently parents spontaneous interests uninterrupted telephone conversation problems comes relationships claim relationships friends suffer sometimes hard find partner shares views kidding homepage them still contact through friends relatives like outsiders conversations turn childbirth experiences childrearing techniques morell previously mentioned give unwanted advice comments conversations sometimes lead frustration anger consistently disregarded understandable seek other caused creation groups group kidding founded jerry steinberg vancouver canada club open person regardless race ethnicity marital status religion sexual orientation started club could find similar engage activities multiple activities every month cover wide range divisions across canada united homepage organizations related exist well provides information anyone interested including students researchers couples answer questions educate potential issues involved parenting human extinction movement vhemt encourages stop reproducing humans earth return natural believe ceasing breed allow earth biosphere return good health crowded conditions resource shortages improve population less dense knight website conclusion ideas fixed fulfilling central feminine identity become ingrained western williams said still takes granted equals mother wife adult presumption remains part medical political public discourses every subject strong messages mother future goal aspire almost cost fact indication whether wanted years been presented options besides greater involvement paid work human changing television shows like ally mcbeal ellen magazines like cosmopolitan vogue media showing greater acceptance changing roles fuller understanding contribute depth understanding feminine identity desperately needed research amongst between masculinity fatherhood references bachu amara american rise census bureau population division fertility family statistics branch september http blue census population documentation twps html april annily sterilized decisions medical responses york cassell rosemary means disbelief disregard deviance discourses studies international forum heaton cardell jacobson persistence change journal marriage myra kimberly abshoff contradiction terms journal comparative studies knight human extinction movement http vhemt april leatherby gayle catherine williams ambivalent autobiographies feminist morell carolyn unwomanly conduct challenges intentional york routledge http nokidding april
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