By the time I was in my early twenties I was confident that having children was not going to be part of my life plan. I made no secret of this fact, and I started to notice that other people often seemed to have something to say about my decision. Their responses intrigued me. What was particularly noticeable, was that lots of women around me seemed to want to convince me that I should change my mind, and assumed that I would inevitably want to become a mother in the end. Most commonly they’d make reference to my ‘biological clock’ and tell me that I’d want children someday, or that I’d be bound to regret it if I didn’t have children.
But now, in my late thirties, my feelings about becoming a parent haven’t changed. Instead, I’ve become more confident that having children is not for me. And, as a psychology researcher, I’ve become particularly interested in researching other women’s experiences of not wanting children. Do they feel as confident as I do? Do they get responses from others who seem to find the idea so incomprehensible? And why the expectation that every woman will become a mother, or live to regret it if they don’t?
I started to read what psychologists had to say about women who don’t want children. As is often the case, the ideas that I found most interesting came from feminist researchers; since at least the 1970s motherhood has been a central issue for feminists. In her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Adrienne Rich suggested that motherhood was ‘an institution’. Motherhood is so taken for granted that it becomes understood as entirely ‘natural’ and an ‘essential’ part of being a woman. It’s assumed that there is an internal biological drive for all women, and that motherhood is a natural part of women’s gender development and ‘gender role’. Therefore, women’s identities become reliant on them being mothers – to the extent that women are understood to become adults only when they become a mother. This means that within western societies it’s expected that all women will want, and have, children. Or at least, young, able-bodied, heterosexual women, (and perhaps white and middle class). The expectation that most women will have children has been called the ‘motherhood imperative’ or ‘motherhood mandate’.
So if women don’t become mothers, they’re understood to be breaking the rules. And this understanding, and their resistance to the ‘motherhood mandate’, may explain why they’re not always seen in a good light by other people. Some psychology researchers have asked about other people’s perceptions of women who decide not to have children. Their findings suggest that women who are voluntarily childfree are seen as deviant, unstable, unfeminine, unnatural, and unhappy, not to mention immature, selfish and self-centred.
But some of that research is getting a bit old now, and maybe things are changing. When I started talking about my plans to research this topic, the responses I got were different from those I received when I was in my twenties. Some women told me that they didn’t want children either and were enthusiastic about the research – often expressing an interest in taking part. And through the academic literature I realised that there’re lots of forums and blogs out there (such as The Childfree Life) where women are talking about, and sharing their experiences of, being ‘childfree’.
Perhaps here is a good time to talk about terminology. Feminists have highlighted some of the issues with the terms we use to describe those who don’t want to have children. In particular, the term childless seems to suggest that women are missing something from their lives. On the other hand, some women don’t like the term childfree either, as it seems to suggest celebrating not being mothers in a way that doesn’t quite resonate. And both terms imply that women who don’t have their own children, don’t have any children in their lives. This is clearly not the case for everyone, for example, those who work with children or whose families have children. Terminology is tricky territory and it seems that there isn’t really a satisfactory word that suits everyone. What about you? Do you plan to have children? Do you prefer childless or childfree – or maybe you’ve got a better way of describing your status?
But as I said, maybe things are changing and perhaps the motherhood mandate is becoming less pervasive that it once was. Certainly childlessness is increasing in lots of places around the world – the UK, US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand. And while it’s hard to know just how many women have actually made an active decision not to have children, it seems to be the case that voluntary childlessness is also on the rise. So I’ve been working with a team of psychology researchers – Victoria Clarke, Sonja Ellis, and Gareth Terry – to explore women’s experiences of being childfree. Funded by The British Academy, we’ve interviewed women who are heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, and queer, to find out more about their lives and their experiences of being childfree. We’re now in the process of analysing what they say and writing up our results. We particularly wanted to know what it’s like to be non-heterosexual and not have children. Traditionally, it’s been assumed that women in same-sex relationships won’t have kids, but maybe lesbian, bisexual and queer women are also starting to feel under pressure to have children.
We were also particularly interested in exploring whether women are still stigmatised by others for being childfree. It seems that these women could tell us stories about other people’s stigmatising responses. But interestingly, they downplayed these and made more of the advantages of not having children than they did of the stigmatisation they experienced, perhaps to emphasise to us that their decision to be childfree was valid and that their lives were valuable. Perhaps it’s the way that childfree women are still stigmatised that makes some women reluctant to identify with any labels, like childfree or childless. It certainly seems to be the case that childfree women are still seen as outside the norm and still required by those around them to explain and justify their decision.