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Case File • Childfree: Between Freedom and Stigma

19 September 2019
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To learn more about the editorial policy of Les 3 sex* and the selection process for articles, click here.

 

 ☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].

Translated by Zoe Yarymowich

Choosing not to be a parent is one of the “remaining taboos” in our society (Baribeau, 2015).

It is for this reason that Les 3 sex*, pursuing its mandate to promote sexual health and rights, has addressed this issue.

From this perspective, it seemed essential to us to put forward the voices of people living without children by choice. Why did they decide not to have children? What are their experiences, opinions, and perspectives? What is their reality? What challenges do they face?

To collect these experiences, Les 3 sex* organized a call for texts to gather stories of people who identify as childfree.

Several people replied to this call. You can now read their stories here.

This case file will first offer you a contextualization on the subject in the form of an article. What is the childfree movement? Who belongs to this movement? Why do certain people decide to live without children?

In a quest to exchange co-constructed knowledge where highlighting sexual health issues is at the heart of our mission, Les 3 sex* offers you this case file to better understand the society in which we operate.

 

The publication of this case file coincides with the World Childless Week which aims, among other things, to highlight the experiences of childless people. This choice is conscious, since non-parenthood is subject to stigma, whether it is by choice or not. However, it is important to stress that these two realities differ and that this case file is only about childfree people. For more information on childless people and the World Childless Week, click here.

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How to Navigate the Subject of the Childfree Movement and its Derivatives

The term “childfree”, sometimes referred to as “childless by choice” or “voluntarily childless” (Verschaeve, 2018), is often confused, both in scientific literature and in current usage, with the term “childless” (Blackstone 2014; Vinson et al., 2010). The former pertains to people who have made a conscious choice not to have children, whereas the latter alludes to those who do not have children, but want them (Blackstone, 2014; Blackstone & Stewart, 2016). It is important to note that some authors question this classification and assumptions made from it, as it “reflects a pronatalist and patriarchal culture in which children remain at the core of identity” (Harrington, 2019, p. 23, translated) The following text will only deal with the reality of people who identify as childfree.

In recent years, media attention around people who identify as childfree has significantly increased (Blackstone, 2014). For example, in Quebec in 2018, the journalistic laboratory Rad by Radio-Canada conducted a series of interviews on the subject, while TABLOIDE published a report on obstacles young people who do not want children and who wish to seek sterilization face. However, the movement is not new. While the term “childfree” did not appear before the 1990s and 2000s (Blackstone, 2014; Blackstone & Stewart, 2016), the scientific community had already expressed interest in people who chose not to have children since the 1970s (Ashburn-Nardo, 2017; Blackstone & Stewart, 2012). It was during this decade, specifically in 1972, that the National Organization for Non-Parent, aiming to present non-parenthood as a valid lifestyle choice, now bearing the name the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood was created (Berman, 2015).

In the last forty years, the birth rate in North America has dropped significantly (Blackstone, 2014). Moreover, the choice not to have children is growing in popularity (Ashburn-Nardo, 2017). In 2016, in Quebec, couples without children represented approximately 43% of all couples, as compared to 37% in 2001 (Institute de la statistique du Québec, 2018). This trend, therefore, merits further attention.

Rationalizing the Lack of Desire for Children

The reasons for choosing not to have children are many and variable, with some being more common than others. First, childfree people often cite their desire not to lose their personal and financial freedoms, their independence, not to give up important activities or their current lifestyle (cultural activities, habits, travels, etc.), and to remain free from constraints and parental responsibilities (Blackstone, 2014; Verschaeve, 2018). Clémence, in her lyrical testimony, offers her thoughts to remain free (of children).

Second, the desire not to break the bond, intimacy, and sexual satisfaction with one’s partner is often mentioned as a reason for not having children (Blackstone 2014; Verschaeve, 2018). Many consider children (and/or pregnancy) to be an obstacle to their sexual satisfaction and marital well-being (Debest, 2014; Verschaeve, 2018). This is notably the case for Maritza, who mentions enjoying a fulfilling sex life thanks to the different sexualities offered by not being a parent (and not wanting to become one).

Third, environmental arguments are also becoming increasingly popular (Ancil, 2018) to support abstaining from procreation (Verschaeve, 2018). Although the calculation of a child’s environmental impacts may vary depending on the study, the authors of a meta-analysis based on 39 scientific articles estimate this impact to be 58.2 tonnes of CO2 per year (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). By comparison, a transatlantic flight is valued at 1.6 tonnes of CO2. That is to say, that having one less child would have a much greater impact on the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than combining the impacts of becoming vegetarian, avoiding all transatlantic flights, and living without a car (Cliche, 2018; Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). However, this way of calculating GHG emissions has been criticized (Cliche, 2018). Elodie mentions exactly this argument as one of the reasons which led her not to have a child.

Fourth, the aesthetic or physical argument is also often mentioned, especially among women (Verschaeve, 2018). Some of them are scared or disgusted by pregnancy and/or childbirth, as well as all the physiological and anatomical changes and consequences that accompany them (Verschaeve, 2018).

Fifth, childfree people also mention choosing to live without children to avoid harming their personal and/or professional development (Verschaeve, 2018). However, in some cases, the opposite occurs, as witnessed by Marie. That is, childfree people experience discrimination, tension, and injustice at work because they do not have children. One example would be accommodating schedules and vacation periods for parents in accordance with school vacations, or collective costs for providing daycare services and scholarships, etc. Verschaeve (2018) explains this, as society puts moral pressure on its citizens to procreate. Lastly, some people simply do not have the desire to have children, it is as simple as that. This is the case for Sylvie, who expresses her powerful and very present lack of desire to have children.

In short, the reasons pushing people to live without children are diverse, plural, and can vary by gender (for example, women more often say that they do not want children to develop their careers, whereas men say they prefer to live childfree to have more financial flexibility; Blackstone, 2014). Besides those mentioned above, many of which are the case for Marie-Pier, a plethora of other reasons are put forward by childfree people. Sara makes an exhaustive list of them in her story.

With Great Ailments, Come Great Remedies: Voluntary Sterilization As a Radical Contraception Method

According to the scientific literature, as well as the testimonies collected during our call for texts and those on the internet in general, it seems evident that childfree people must constantly justify their “deviant” choice, in addition to facing judgments and preconceived notions. Women in particular, often face several myths, such as the idea that they will all eventually change their minds (Blackstone, 2014; Harrigton, 2019; Verschaeve, 2018). However, for many childfree people, the decision not to have children is final and irrevocable, to the point where they seek sterilization, as Malicia did, whose experience can be read here. However, obtaining this type of procedure is far from easy, especially for women and particularly those under the age of 30. On the other hand, it is sadly ironic that hundreds of Indigenous women were revealed to have been forcibly sterilized in Canada dating back decades (Stote, 2019).

Officially, the Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists of Canada recommends that permanent sterilization be offered to women regardless of their age (Ehman & Costescu, 2018). Despite this, many women without children are refused sterilization by their doctor. In Canada, less than 1% of sterilizations are performed on women who do not want children (Richie, 2013; Verschaeve, 2018).

The barriers that stand in the way of women wishing to resort to sterilization are multiple and are, for the most part, moral and not legal (Richie, 2013; Verschaeve, 2018).

According to Richie (2013), there are two reasons why the medical corps are so reluctant to grant sterilizations to the women requesting it: if the patient requesting the intervention is too young (it is difficult to define “young” here) and if she is nulliparous. It is therefore understandable that doctors fear the apparition of regrets from the woman who have requested to be sterilized. However, studies show that the choice of non-parenthood is, in the vast majority of cases, a long-considered choice, sometimes since childhood or adolescence and few come to regret this choice later in life (Debest, 2012, 2014; Delyser, 2012; Doyle et al., 2012; Harrington, 2019; Verschaeve, 2018). Verschaeve (2018) suggests that in underlying these more “applied” reasons, there is the idea that women are inherently associated with the motherhood role and that this association has become a social, political, cultural, and sometimes even religious institution and that this, above all, explains the refusal of health professionals to grant sterilizations to women who request them. This is what Isabelle cleverly denounces in her testimony.

Stigma, Judgments, and Prejudice: When Childfree People are Put on the Outskirts of Society

The stories presented in this case file wholly reflect the stigma concerning the choice to live without children. While reading posts on childfree Facebook groups, in media, and on various blogs, it is evident that judgments, prejudices, stereotypes, and intrusive questions faced by the authors who submitted their stories to Les 3 sex* are common for people who identify as childfree. Following the publication of an article in La Presse on voluntary sterilization which recounted the experience of Isabelle Arcoite (one of the authors who submitted testimony to Les 3 sex*), Internet users made comments such as: “For sterilization paid by the state, not below 4 children! Sterilizing a woman who has not had a child is criminal!” and “Well, [it is] a bit like saying ‘amputate my right arm’. Yes, it is your body, but you may not be  all there in your head”. Comments following the publication of her interview with QUB radio were equally contemptuous. Even Pope Francis has spoken out on the subject of people living without children by choice, saying that they are doomed to “grow old in solitude and the bitterness that comes with it.” (Blackstone, 2014, p.70)

The body of scientific literature concerning childfree people indeed reveals all the stigma, discrimination, and hostility they experience (Ashburn-Nardo, 2017; Blackstone, 2014; Debest, 2014; Harrigton, 2019; Morison et al., 2016; Verschaeve, 2018; Vinson et al.,2010).

Researcher Leslie Ashburn-Nardo (2017) explains that in our society, parenthood is seen as a moral imperative and those who shirk it by violating their prescribed social role are negatively judged and perceived as emotionally perverse (Koropeckyj-Cox et al., 2018; Harrigton, 2019; Vinson et al., 2010).

Their choice is seen as atypical and wrong, provoking indignation, anger, disgust, and disapproval from communities (Ashburn-Nardo, 2017; Harrington, 2019). Women living without children by choice, in particular, are seen as selfish, narcissistic, less of a woman, immature, neurotic, and cold (Avison & Furnham, 2015; Blackstone, 2012; Debest, 2014; Verschaeve, 2018; Vinson et al., 2010), and are excluded or ostracized based on their lifestyle (Debest, 2014; Verschaeve, 2018). In some cases, this leads many to feel guilty about their choice not to have children (Moore, 2011), such was the case for Nancy who recounted her reflection on the fact that she is childfree.

The Reproduction Injunction

Parenthood, as a moral imperative, is a concept that resonates in much writing, scientific or otherwise. In 1976, N.F. Russo spoke of a “motherhood mandate”, the social belief that women’s raison d’être is motherhood and that all women, without exception, feel the desire and pressure to have children (Harrington, 2019).

In psychoanalysis, “parenthood, and in particular motherhood, is seen as a stage of development” (Harrington, 2019, p. 24).

The idea that “being a mother is the hardest job, but the most important one in the world” is still ingrained in popular culture (Harrington, 2019). Harrington (2019) explains that the parenting imperative somehow seeped into our culture and has been internalized by individuals, rendering childfree people pariahs in their pronatalist community in which reproduction is central. Time Magazine, in an article on the creation of the National Organization for Non-Parent, mentioned above, wrote in 1972 “the cultural bias against childless couples is so strong that husbands and wives cannot choose non-parenthood freely; they know they will be branded as selfish, shallow and neurotic” (Berman, 2015). This is undoubtedly the reason why it can be difficult to come to terms with the decision to live without children around others who often judge or do not respect it, which Marjorie talks about in her text.

Being Childfree in the Era of the Internet

There are a multitude of web platforms, blogs, and Facebook groups for people who identify as childfree. Facebook groups, in particular, are especially active. They generally present themselves as a place of support where members discuss the difficulties they experience and strategies to put in place to combat prejudice and stereotypes regarding their situation (Morison et al., 2016).

These support groups help meet the need for recognition, legitimacy, solidarity, and visibility of childfree people and studies have shown the importance of such groups. However, as with many places on the internet, a darker side emerges from these support groups. Often, these also serve as a virtual place where it is possible to “vent” or “let off steam”. Some groups tend to mix the lack of desire to have children with sheer disdain for those who do, ranging from fatphobic jokes about the bodies of postpartum mothers to those about the death of children. One group, in particular, indicates that “terms that refer to childbirth as: whelping (mettre bas), calve (vêler), lay eggs (pondre) [etc.] are accepted and acceptable by default. They denote the disgust that some of us have for this act, and therefore do not deserve to be censured”. Much of the posts on this group are aimed at pregnant women, mothers, and babies, followed by comments of disgust and irritation. The publications from another group targeting Quebecers living without children by choice are very critical of the behaviours, attitudes, and practices of parents, some comments characterizing parents as “unconscious” or “completely stupid”. Verschave (2018, p.50), in her thesis on the topic of childfree women and their presence on the internet, mentions that “childfree [people] have high regard for parenthood, with an ethical function that requires great self-sacrifice”. Some childfree people see parenthood as an enormous responsibility, a full-time job in its own right, and judge the parents who are unable to keep up with their parental tasks “properly”, even going so far as to say that some are not made to be parents and/or should have refrained from reproducing (Debest, 2010, 2014; Verschaeve, 2018). Ultimately, the enormous responsibilities that some childfree people attribute to parenthood are also one of the often-cited reasons for their unwillingness to have children (Verschaeve, 2018). This being said, it still seems surprising to see so much discrimination and judgment against parents from a group that lives with such a great deal of discrimination themselves.

Morison and colleagues (2016) explained this by the fact that childfree people use certain scripts to assert their childfree identity, positively portraying their childfree life and juxtaposing it with negative descriptions of parenthood, which degrades parenthood and valorizes non-procreation. This way of being acts as a defense mechanism, a way of dealing with the stigma that they already face (Morison et al., 2016).

Harrington (2019) denounced this problematic situation in qualifying it as counterproductive because it perpetuates the limits of “reproductive freedom” and the binary classification of parents/non-parents, which ultimately promotes stigma.

All in all, it seems clear that people living without children by choice form a group that is misunderstood, judged, and sometimes even stigmatized within our pronatalist society. Although the choice to live without children is becoming increasingly popular (Blackstone, 2014; Verschaeve, 2018), it remains a marginal choice and, for the most part, is still frowned upon. It is for this reason that Les 3 sex* hopes to make the voices of childfree people heard, to make their reality known, and to ultimately, normalize it.

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References
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To cite this article:

Gareau, E. (2019, September 19). Childfree: Between Freedom and Stigman. Les 3 sex*. https://les3sex.com/en/news/794/dossier-childfree-entre-liberte-et-stigmatisation

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We invite you to continue this read by taking a look at the stories. You will find more than ten stories collected as part of the call of texts of Spring 2019. Those stories allow us to understand the opinions, experiences, and perceptions of people identifying as childfree as well as getting a more personal, anecdotal, and subjective touch, to complement the article above. Les 3 sex* wants to thank everyone that submitted their story during the call of texts on the childfree theme and wants to highlight their work and time invested in the publication process. Thank you to Clémence, Elodie, Isabelle, Malicia, Marie, Marie-Pier, Maritza, Marjorie, Nancy, Sara et Sylvie.

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Free ➤ Clémence's story
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Single and Childfree: Why Justify Ourselves? ➤ Elodie’s story
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Being a Woman ➤ Isabelle’s story
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A Real Woman Has to Become a Mother. Or Not. ➤ Malicia’s story
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Childfree for Life ➤ Marie’s story
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Do You Want Kids? Because I Really Don’t. ➤ Marie-Pier’s story
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New Perception of Sexuality ➤ Maritza’s story
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We Are Not Mean Witches ➤ Marjorie’s story
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The Choice of my Life, the Choice of One’s Life ➤ Nancy’s story
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Kids, Not for Me ➤ Sara’s story
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I Don’t Have Kids? So What? ➤ Sylvie’s story
childfree, childless by choice, voluntary childless, freedom, stigma, discrimination, judgment, women, parenthood, maternity, social norms, pronatalist society, voluntary childless, choice, sterilization, definitive contraceptive method, motherhood mandat

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