The article below was first published in 'Therapy Today', journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, in July 2009. I've published it below as it is no longer available online.
An increasing number of women in the UK, Europe and the USA are choosing to remain childless for a wide range of social, cultural, political, environmental, spiritual, economic and technological reasons. As a 38 year old woman who has chosen a childfree path this lifetime, for several years I have been living with the implications of this decision on a personal level, experiencing first hand the responses, doubts and questions (my own and others’) to my own voluntary childlessness and researching and reflecting upon this changing social phenomenon. This seems a timely theme to bring into the therapy arena.
Of course, it raises more questions than it answers, given the lack of detailed research in this area. What are the implications of this social and cultural trend in our work as therapists? How do we best understand and support those who decide to remain childfree? How can we best support that decision making process clients in making sense of living their lives in a society which is still largely pro-natal? How do we work with female clients in the face of the wide-reaching – although now perhaps more implicit and covert - societal assumption that motherhood remains central to adult female identity and notions of femininity and maturity? How do clients respond to those of us who have decided to remain childless if it’s a very different path from the one they have chosen?
The growing trend of voluntary childlessness
“More women in England and Wales are reaching the end of their reproductive careers without having had a live birth. The figure rose from one in ten women born in 1945 to around one in five women born in 1960…the 2002-based national population projections assume that the percentage of women remaining childless will increase a little further, to about 22 per cent of those born in 1990 and later[i]” (Berrington *)
These figures give a sense of the increasing trend of voluntary childlessness. Yet this phenomena is still extremely under researched and as McAllister and Clarke (1998) point out, studies have often failed to distinguish between voluntarily and involuntarily childless women. The area of childlessness is a very sensitive area, particularly for women who are involuntarily rather than voluntarily childless, which is not the main focus here. The fact that much research has neglected to distinguish between the voluntary and involuntary aspect of this decision is reflects the lack of detailed understanding of the process behind deciding whether or not to try to conceive. The area of voluntary childlessness seems to provoke strong views from both mothers and non mothers alike. So my aim here is to highlight some of the themes for exploration and greater awareness within and outside the therapy room, rather than to add to the generalisations, polarisations and misunderstandings which are sometimes encountered
Defining voluntarily childless women
To begin with, the definition ‘childless’ itself points to what a woman lacks, rather than her breadth and depth of qualities as a human being. This notion of absence is central to the debate around childlessness. Williams (1999, pg *)[ii] points out that voluntary childless women are often seen as selfish. She says that mothers are seen as ‘proper’ women, whilst childless women are seen as improper and treated as ‘other’. The use of the word ‘childfree’ implies a positive choice not to have children, which again, many consider a selfish option. ‘Childfree’, as Letherby and Williams continue to point out, has associations with ‘carefree’ which implies a childlike state. Lisle (1996) prefers the term ‘nullipara’ women for women who remain childfree. For the purposes of this article I have opted to use the word ‘childless’, specifically meaning voluntarily childless.
Choosing a life without children
“Few people had made an early irrevocable decision not to have children. Deciding not to have children was a process that took place in the context of other life events, particularly partnerships” (Rowntree report).
There have always been a minority of women who have chosen a life without children; most visibly those historically drawn to religious and other vocational life. There are a very wide range of motivations as to why women and their partners decide to remain childless. Laurie Lisle cites UK research undertaken in 1983 by Frances Baum which divided childless couples into four groups based upon their temperament and circumstance: altruistic idealists, easygoing hedonists, partisans of a particular lifestyle and ill or older people.
Ireland (1993)[iii] makes three distinctions between women who remain childless; those who are traditional, transitional and transformative. Women in Ireland’s ‘Traditional’ category are not childfree by choice. These are women who have been unable to have children for biological reasons. ‘Transitional’ women are in Ireland’s words “living in the stream of social change. They want to pursue the social and career possibilities that are now open to women, but they also want, or think they might want, to have a family”. For a wide range of reasons, ‘Transitional’ woman delay childbearing until it is too late to conceive. ‘Transformative’ women are those women who positively chose a childfree life and would be defined as ‘active’ decision makers, often deciding in childhood to remain childfree (Gillespie, 1999). So women appear to arrive at a decision as to whether or not to have children in very different ways, from ambivalence through to a definite decision made early in life.
Whilst it is interesting to look at peoples’ reasons for not having children, it can sometimes become a little arbitrary to try and categorise an individual based on one life choice (deciding to remain childless) or categorise women together when their decisions seem similar enough, when each of our lives are so rich, with a multitude of choices and possibilities. There is the inherent danger of missing out capturing the diversity of an individual’s life, because you are choosing to look at it from one particular angle, when in fact most lives are a more complex web of interconnected events, people and phenomena.
Beyond stereotypes and labels
“We are self-centered, immature, workaholic, unfeminine, materialistic, cold, neurotic, child-hating”[iv] Page xiii reports Terri Casey with regards to the responses towards herself and the childless women she interviews and writes about in ‘Pride and Joy’ which beautifully records the lives of twenty five childless women. Unfortunately, this list concurs with some of my own experience of others’ responses to my choosing childlessness; a sense of misfortune about my life and my choices. The fact that I have committed my life to practising Buddhism adds to this sense of being ‘other’; slightly alien to some, so familiar territory for me.
Voluntarily childless women have been reported as ‘deviant’ and presumably, a threat to the status quo (see Veevers, 1972). As therapists, I’m sure we would have the awareness to look beyond such strong judgements. A further stereotype – particularly perpetuated in the mainstream media - is that women who choose not to have children tend to be career-driven “superwomen” in high powered jobs. This is not borne out in the studies that have been undertaken. A 1998 survey undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree foundation reports that: “highly qualified women are more likely to remain childless but career identity did not emerge as central to personal identity or personal fulfillment for the majority of voluntarily childless people. On the contrary, early retirement proved a popular goal”.
Morell (2000, pg 314) points out that an unexpected finding of her study of childless women in the US was that 75% of the participants described themselves as coming from poor or working class backgrounds. The participants themselves commonly linked their upward mobility directly to their decision to remain childless.
A further dimension to this stereotype is research undertaken by Sylvia Ann Hewlett into 1,168 of the highest earning US women executives who wished to bear children, but were unable to for a range of reasons. She found that “the brutal demands of ambitious careers, the asymmetries of male-female relationships, and the difficulties of bearing children late in life conspire to crowd out the possibility of having children” (pg 68). So perhaps this is the shadow, unseen and for the individuals involved, very sad aspect of the stereotype of the oft-called ‘selfish’ career woman.
“Most cultures position women primarily as mothers” (Morell, 2000)
“Through motherhood, every woman has been defined from outside herself: mother, matriarch, matron, spinster, barren, old maid – listen to the history of emotional timbre that hangs around each of these words. Even by default motherhood has been an enforced identity for women, while the phrases ‘childless man’ and ‘nonfather’ sound absurd and irrelevant to us” (Rich, 1978, pg 261).
What are the implications for voluntarily childless women given that women are still primarily defined in relation to motherhood or non-motherhood? How do the growing number of women who choose not to become mothers make sense of their place and identity in the face of a pronatal, or even new pronatal (Morell, 2000) culture? This will be of particular interest to those therapists who work explicitly with clients around issues of identity linked to gender, culture and sexuality. They are also questions which acutely affect those who are involuntarily childless.
Gillespie (2000, pg 232) points out that resistance towards pronatal cultural discourses amongst the voluntarily childless women she interviewed, signifies the potential for the transformation of these discourses. Yet, I agree with her in saying that there are high personal costs in being in this ‘resistance’ role, without coming across as reactive, polemical or reinforcing one’s ‘otherness’ (particularly if the ‘deviant’ label lingers). I am aware of this in my own personal experience of being a childless woman. I have absolutely no interest in going round preaching the benefits of voluntary childlessness, as I see this as personal decision and I would prefer it if my decision-making process and final decision to remain childless is equally respected.
I find this one amongst many fascinating areas of debate at the interface of our public and private realms. Personally, I choose not to question a person or couple’s decision to try to have children (unless they were close friends who were seeking advice or in working with a client, and then I would still tread very carefully!) so I am intrigued as to the social rules that apply that mean a relative stranger feels free to question my decision – often very directly – to not bear children or to tell me with certainty that I shall live to regret my decision. As a curious person, I suppose I am intrigued that very few people who question my decision are sufficiently curious to ask what I have chosen in my life as an alternative path, or in fact, whether I wished to have children but was unable to do so, as would be the case for someone who was involuntarily childless.
Of course, cultural factors have a strong bearing upon the issue of voluntary childlessness. For therapists from some cultural backgrounds the concept of not becoming a mother is beyond belief, often for what are sound economic reasons - the survival of the family and the individuals within that family. Having had the very good fortune of working with women throughout sub-Saharan Africa in my twenties and early thirties, I am well accustomed to being met with complete disbelief that I had no plans to marry and have children. The disbelief often dissolved into good humoured “well, you’re a very sensible women!” and a strong sense of connection. These cultural factors and assumptions and norms have a strong bearing upon this issue and I have found it very useful to reflect as deeply as I can on this changing social phenomena more broadly in the light of my own cultural, religious, social, political and economic conditioning.
Ideas around identity and childlessness – or many other themes - are complex. As Gillespie (2000) points out, “cultural discourses on femininity and identity may never have adequately encapsulated what it means to be a woman, in childless women and equally importantly in mothers” (pg 233). As therapists, it is highly likely that we work with women living with their ambivalent attitude towards motherhood, a recurring theme in my therapy room. As Campbell (1999) points out, the fact that a woman is a mother is no indication of whether she wanted to be one, so the decision as to whether or not to try and bear a child and living with that decision is a lifelong one. This also raises interesting questions around identity and how we may confirm to and be affirmed by socially ascribed roles, whilst feeling a great deal of intra-psychic conflict in that role.
In the therapy room
So where does this leave us in our work in the therapy room, working with both women who are deciding whether or not to try to conceive and men who are deciding whether they wish to be fathers? The obvious starting point is to know our own conditioning, biases and preferences and to be aware of how these can subtly and energetically affect our work. This theme understandably engenders strong feelings and emotions and it can take courage to face those feelings in ourselves, about these pivotal matters of life and creation. These matters extend from the personal right through to archetypal dimensions of what it means to be. They have certainly challenged me to look deeply at my own conditioning, assumptions, belief and purpose and those of others around me.
Perhaps it’s particularly important to be very honest about how we each feel with regard to the potentially deviant or ‘otherness’ of this cultural phenomena, especially working with clients who don’t fit into the standard, more traditionally socially acceptable category of those who choose to remain childless roles e.g. nuns and vocational workers.
In working with clients facing the decision as to whether they wish to try to conceive (after all, the other often made assumption is that we/I are actually fertile) perhaps the most important thing is to provide a spacious context for this process. This is a complex decision-making process which can have many twists and turns. As with all our clients, perhaps providing the conditions for them to become more authentically who they are is most significant, rather than living ascribed roles and rules. Supporting conscious decision-making about whether or not to have children seems like an incredibly important role for therapists, particularly at this moment in global history, given that it is a private decision with such public consequences. As with every client that enters our therapy room, each person’s story is unique. As I draw to a close, I am reminded of some research by Anderson & Hopkins (1991) interviewing women for whom childbirth was a gate to the divine. They conclude that it is but one gate to the divine, ending with a quote from a former nun who had borne several children:
“The whole universe is a miracle. The idea of an infant developing in you being a special mystery…well that’s no more wonderful than it would be developing in somebody else…Why can’t we become ecstatic over developing life, period! We’re constantly participating in it whether we’re pregnant or not!”
Anderson, S.R. & Hopkins, P. (1991) The Feminine Face of God: the unfolding of the sacred in women. Gill & Macmillan. Pg78
Berrington A. (1990) “Perpetual Postponers? Women’s, men’s and couple’s fertility intentions and subsequent fertility behaviour”, UK Statistics Authority.
Campbell (1999) Childfree and Sterilized: Women’s decisions and medical responses. London: Cassell.
Baum (1983) “Orientation Towards Voluntarily Childlessness”, Journal of Biosocial Science, Vol 15, No 2, pg 153.
Letherby, G. & Williams, C. (1999) ‘Non Motherhood: Ambivalent Biographies’, Feminist Studies, Fall*.
Ireland MS (1993) “Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity”, The Guilford Press.
Casey T (1998) Pride and Joy: The Lives and Passions of Women Without Children, Beyond Words Publishing, page xiii.
Hewlett SA (2002) “Executive Women and the Myth of Having it All”, Harvard Business Review, ** April, pg 66-73.
McAllister F and Clarke L (1998) Choosing Childlessness: Family and Parenthood, Policy and Practice. London: Family Policy Studies Centre.
Lisle L (1996) Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness. Routledge.
Veevers JE The Violation of Fertility Mores: Voluntary Childlessness as Deviant Behaviour, in Boydell C et al (eds), Deviant Behaviour and Societal Reaction, pg 571-592. Toronto: Holt, Rinehard and Winston.
Morell C (2000) “Saying No: Women’s Experiences with Reproductive Refusal”, Feminism and Psychology, Vol 10, No 3, pg 313-322.
Rich A (1978) ‘Motherhood: The Contemporary Emergence and the Quantum Leap’, pg 259-273 in Rich A (1984) On Lies, Secrets and Silences: Selected Prose 1966-1978. London: Virago.