Pronatalism is a word that undoubtedly most have never heard and a cultural force that most have never contemplated, yet this powerful force defines womanhood and shapes our assumptions of what a woman should be. It makes assertions about what provides a woman’s ultimate fulfillment in life, and what her destiny will be. It is a force that has permeated so deeply into the fiber of our unconscious that it as almost as imperceptible as breathing. Most people don’t notice it, don’t question it, and don’t give it a second thought.
Pronatalism refers to any attitudes or policies which encourage reproduction and exalt the role of parenthood (Peck). The forces of pronatalism are particularly salient to women as it is the ideology responsible for the pervasive idea that a woman’s destiny and ultimate fulfillment are wedded to childbearing and motherhood. Pronatalism stresses the advantages of having children while minimizing the disadvantages (Veevers). It creates the motherhood mandate – the idea that regardless of whatever else she chooses to do in life, a woman’s role must involve maternity (Russo, 1976). The force of pronatalism informs public policy, resulting in institutional incentives which encourage and reward reproduction, while simultaneously discriminating against those who do not have children (Park). It comes at us from every angle, from religious imperatives to mother, to psychological theories which define maternity as a requirement for healthy female psychological development (Daniluk, 1999; Ireland); to medical imperatives in which childbearing is encouraged and women who wish to be sterilized are turned away (Daniluk, 1999; Gillespie, 2000; Hollingworth; Morrell, 1994; Tyler May; Veevers) . It is at work in the media – on television and in magazines in the media’s obsession with celebrity pregnancy “bump watches” and in its failure to show the unpleasant side of mothering. It is the idealization of maternity in art, song and poetry (Hollingworth) and of female archetypes such as Virgin, Venus and Mother Earth, who are bound to reproductive functions (Landa). It is evident even in the minutia of everyday life – from the mother who tells her daughter, “when you have children some day…”, to the looks of suspicion and disbelief between women in the face of one who boldly announces she does not wish to have children; to the silence women keep about the harsh realities of motherhood. Pronatalism is everywhere.
Because motherhood is so idealized in our culture and in cultures across the world, it can at first be difficult to perceive the dangers inherent in pronatalist ideology. As Peck explains, the danger of pronatalism is that it “denies or at least limits choice to individuals…and compromises opportunities for individual freedom and reproductive choice” (p. 2). It stigmatizes those who are childless, whether by circumstance or choice, and creates an environment in which women who are not mothers are pitied or vilified and in which incorrect and unfair prejudices and assumptions are made about them (Gillespie, 2000). It defines womanhood as motherhood, thus limiting a woman’s capacity to be fully realized, appreciated and defined by qualities, aspirations, endeavors and accomplishments outside the boundaries of maternity. Its dangerous impact is felt environmentally in an exploding population that the earth cannot necessarily sustain, as evidenced in part by our current crisis of global warming. It leads the childless and childfree to be unfairly discriminated against with a heavier tax burden, fewer tax breaks, and a shouldering of the burden of other public subsidies for which they have no use (childcare, flextime benefits, adoption subsidies, maternity/paternity leave, etc.) (Burkett; Peck; Russo, 1979).
The repercussions of pronatalism are felt most keenly by the intentionally childless; hereafter referred to as the childfree. Having turned their back on society’s maternalist expectations, childfree women come up against pronatalism face-on in their everyday lives. By refusing to accept the pronatalist definitions of womanhood and instead, explore and express themselves through their many other potentialities, childfree women reject the idea that a life without children is one of loss, but rather embrace it as a self-determined life of growth and opportunity; hence their rejection of the term childless.
What is interesting about pronatalism, and what makes it a fascinating subject of study is that it creates conditions in which women are pressured into believing that motherhood is essential for a happy and fulfilling life; yet most childfree women are living happy and fulfilling lives while being free of the many burdens and sacrifices involved in childrearing. Additionally, childfree women enjoy many benefits and experiences that mothers must forego in order to take on the tremendous responsibilities of parenthood. Despite these benefits and opportunities, our culture treats the childfree lifestyle as one solely of lack and one that is not a viable option for women. The childfree lifestyle is either ignored or outright condemned and women who choose the childfree lifestyle are usually perceived as misguided, confused and selfish. This discussion will expose our culture as rampantly and unnecessarily pronatalist and will argue that such rigid and limiting lifestyle requirements for women have no place in a society built on the ideal of self-determinism. It will also illuminate the real-life experiences and perspectives of childfree women, exploring their feelings about the joys and challenges of being childfree.
To accomplish this goal, I conducted an in-depth investigation into the area of intentional childlessness to uncover the academic research that has been conducted to date. I was specifically interested in research and writings on the subjects of pronatalism, the experiences of childfree women, and comparisons between the lifestyles of parents and the childfree. As a married, childfree woman who lives a very full, active and happy life, I was interested to see if the research confirmed my suspicion that the pronatalist motherhood mandate insisting that women can only find ultimate happiness and fulfillment through motherhood is selling women a “bill of goods”.
I also decided that it would be a benefit to this project, and the community at large, particularly the childfree community and those contemplating the childfree lifestyle, to conduct written interviews with childfree women and to publish this project, and their interviews in web site form. To accomplish this, I posted a request for female childfree-by-choice participants on two childfree weblogs as well as on a women’s health and fitness discussion board. The participants responded via e-mail and were directed to a survey web site where they completed the survey. The survey consisted of ten open-ended questions touching on such areas as the factors that influenced their decision to be childfree, the kinds of reactions they received to their decision, the way society perceives the childfree, as well as asking them to compare the advantages, disadvantages and overall life satisfaction of the childfree and parental lifestyles. My instructions to the participants informed them that their written interviews would be published on my project’s web site and gave them the option of remaining anonymous by using a fictitious name. I was delighted by the swift and very enthusiastic response I received. With minimal promotion, I received a total of fifty-three participants through the internet, and an additional two through in-person associations with childfree women who asked to participate. Out of the fifty-five completed surveys I received, four were eliminated due to the respondents’ indication that they wished to have children in the future. This left me with a total of fifty-one female childfree-by-choice participants. Excerpts from these interviews will be used throughout this project. The full, unedited text of all fifty-one interviews may be viewed here.