The Many Forms and Expressions of Pronatalism

The forces of pronatalism which construct cultural discourses on femininity around motherhood take shape in many forms, but these can be generalized into three categories: the glorification of motherhood and children; powerful religious, psychological, medical and social imperatives which steer women toward mothering and away from the childfree lifestyle; and societal incentives and rewards for mothering.

The Glorification of Motherhood and Children

The glorification of motherhood and children is evident in all areas of our lives and is expressed in persistent messages about what it means to be a woman; that a woman receives ultimate fulfillment in life through mothering (Veevers); that womanhood equals motherhood and a woman is not completely a woman until she becomes a mother (Veevers; Daniluk, 1998 and 1999; Morell 1994; Gillespie, 2000; Hollingworth; Landa), that a woman’s feminine identity is derived from motherhood (Veevers; Landa); that motherhood is a beautiful, wonderful, enjoyable and fulfilling role for women (Hollingworth; Maushart, Daniluk, 1998, Knowles, Morell, 2000; Russo, 1976); that children are wonderful; that motherhood improves a woman’s life and makes her a better, healthier and more noble person (Morell, 1994; Veevers, Earle, Burkett), and finally, that the rewards of motherhood are well worth the sacrifices.

In this glorified portrayal of motherhood exists the “parenthood mystique” which Veevers describes as the belief that children are not only compatible with self-fulfillment but are necessary for it. Parenthood is depicted as the healthy and preferable lifestyle, promoting and strengthening marriage and adjustment to marriage, proving femininity, demonstrating normal mental health, social maturity, stability of personality, while fulfilling religious and civil responsibility (p. 4). Womanhood is equivocated with motherhood and those who are not mothers are deemed to not be “complete” women. Landa sees childless and childfree women in danger of internalizing notions that they are not real women:

While raising children in our society is difficult and many of us may envy non-parents their freedom, it also seems likely that most of us have accepted cultural formulations which define femininity in terms of fertility: a woman is a mother; a non-mothering female is an insult to her gender. While manhood is not defined in terms of fatherhood, the female archetypes remain bound to reproductive functions: Virgin, Venus, Mother Earth. Childless women…feel defensive about the confounding of womanhood with motherhood, but they are in continual danger of internalizing the prejudicial stereotypes. (p. 146)
Survey respondent, Sharla W., 28 comments:

A dominant cultural belief is that children are irrevocably tied to womanhood –not only do ALL women want children to the point of irrationality, but you’re not a real woman unless you’ve given birth to a child or somehow nurtured and raised a child. Motherhood itself is marketed as the most sacred of all bonds and ‘nothing’ can compare to the joy and love between a mother and child. This is a powerful, influential message because it is tied to women’s own identity and sense of self-worth. The woman who cannot or will not conceive is viewed either with pity or as an unnatural monstrosity, respectively. Womanhood and the gendered concept of ‘femininity’ are not, of course, tied in any way to fertility – babies are simply a reproductive function of all sexual animals, and in no way tied to a person’s identity, value or sense of self-worth.
Motherhood is also glorified in being “inextricably linked with a woman’s creative capacity” (Ireland). Since a woman is endowed with the ability to create life, she is required to demonstrate and express her creativity through reproduction. Respondent Danee D., 37 feels there is danger in linking creativity with reproduction and not encouraging other avenues of creative expression in women.

….we as human beings have an innate need to create. The most popular way to do this is to procreate, but there are many other options that we as a society do not value or even mention. The perception that a woman is not really a woman and that her worth is derived from having children does a great disservice to young women who are struggling to find and build self-esteem. This can go even further for poor women who may find the only time they qualify for subsidized programs is when they’re pregnant or have children.

The glorification of parenthood is rampant in the media, from advertisements and television shows which portray happy, loving families, well-behaved children in neat and tidy homes (while failing to show the not-so-rosy side of family life), to our media’s obsession with celebrity breeding and pregnancy “bump watches” to endless coverage of a celebrity family’s every move and loving moment with their child(ren). Maushart discusses the media’s obsession with celebrity moms and its unrealistic portrayal of motherhood:

In traversing the distance between June Cleaver and Murphy Brown, we’ve come a long way, baby, without making any appreciable progress at all. Today’s media has shifted to the celebrity Supermom, She-who-has-it-all. The headlines tell us ‘Celebrities’ Lives Change Completely After they Give Birth’. Kathleen Turner volunteers for library duty at her child’s school. Meg Ryan takes her kids along on shoots. Julie Walters’s newly-delivered daughter smelled so ‘divine’ that she ‘wanted to lick her all over’. With such tales of metamorphosis to sustain us, it’s no wonder we’re starving to death. Such images are the maternal equivalents to Playboy bunnies, nicely proportioned lives with soft curves in all the right places. Trouble is, they bear about as much relation to reality as backlit, airbrushed cleavage does to a set of lactating glands with cracked nipples.” (9)

Advertisers tailor their marketing to families with children, even when the advertised product has no particular relevance to “family” life, as pointed out by respondent Claire T., 32:

…advertising seems to be needlessly oriented toward moms. Like one time I saw an ad for Suave shampoo. And the message was something along the lines of, ‘perfect for busy moms’ and I thought, ‘…this is a shampoo.’ I can understand marketing diapers or baby food to ‘busy moms’ but when they advertise SHAMPOO as being ‘perfect for busy moms’ I find it off-putting. The end result is that I draw the conclusion that this shampoo is NOT perfect for ME, and I choose another product. It would be nice if advertisers didn’t make the assumption that all or most women are moms, because so many every day products seem to be marketed only to moms.
With or without dominant pronatalist messages glorifying parenthood, most people are well aware of the positive and rewarding parts of mothering – the love between a mother and child, the reward of guiding and shaping a developing person, the pride in (hopefully) watching the child blossom into a productive citizen, the possibility of future grandchildren. What is missing from our understanding of motherhood is “the extent to which it is a painful relationship and an exhausting, often thankless, occupation” (Knowles) and the tremendous sacrifice and losses incurred in the selection of the parenthood lifestyle. This fact is not lost on the childfree respondents to my survey. Respondent, Helen Q. points out, “Advertisements use kids a lot. A visitor from Mars viewing them could conclude that everyone lived in a happy Kodak family with two parents and two kids. The bad parts of being a parent are not mentioned though the evidence (screaming kids, smell, mess) is everywhere.” Respondent Phoena G. comments:

Movies and t.v. shows make having children out to be easy (for the most part). Children are generally well behaved and you can easily reason with them. Even when they make a mistake, there is a loving moment where the parent explains what the kid did wrong, and everyone understands and hugs and that’s the end. That’s not even moderately realistic. Having children is a lot of hard work, but the movies don’t show you that…the women lying to each other about what motherhood is like and pretending it’s so glorious…just look at the number of kids on (prescription) drugs to control their behavior with ADD…and whatever else. The movies and the other women don’t tell you THAT – that you could get stuck with a kid with some undesirable disorder.
Theresa K., 33, comments

The message all around us is BREED. Babies are fun and cute and they will all cure cancer…[these messages] are complete claptrap…The reality is dirty, grubby, expensive, tiring, screaming…they don’t show that it in all its grittiness. ‘Cute’ baby faces covered in puke and screaming do not adorn billboards.

Sharla W., 28 agrees:

The media promotes to people only one image of ‘family’ – an idyllic image of smiling parents with attractive, healthy, laughing children who all get along and share in life’s tenderest moments. People are spoon-fed this image and want its perfection; they are only shown, however, the perceived ‘best possible moments’ of parenthood. The media certainly doesn’t show the children’s inevitable bad behavior, boredom, fighting with parents, constant craving for attention, demand for toys, yelling and destruction of property; nor the parents’ exhaustion, financial sacrifices, loss of freedom, and meeting constant demands – certainly a misleading picture if ever there was one.
Peggy N. explains, “I think the only commercial that came close to telling the truth about ‘real’ motherhood was the Calgon commercial where the house is in chaos and the mother screams, ‘Calgon! Take me away!”

In addition to portraying parenthood in its best light, the media also portrays motherhood as bringing out the best in women and making them softer. Daniluk cites the examples of television shows Murphy Brown and Grace Under Fire. However, when they do not become mothers, they are often portrayed as embittered and angry. These women pose a threat to home and family (as in the case of Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction). These portrayals of the childless woman “represent the most negative version and feared outcome of a stereotype of the childless woman: a socially isolated, career-driven woman consumed by fatal jealousy and envy of motherhood and the nuclear family. Portrayals such as these imply a subtle (and occasionally obvious) belief that women who are not mothers must have fewer and/or poorer relationships, or at least value relationships less.” (Ireland, p. 8). The implicit message is that, even more than marriage, motherhood is essential to fulfilled womanhood.

Author Susan Maushart, herself a mother, explains in The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and why we Pretend it Doesn’t how the glorification of motherhood extends to the unattainable “Supermom” or “have-it-all” ideal which she asserts amounts to “‘doing it all’ – and ‘doing it all’ means doing none of it particularly well.” She also describes the silence women keep about the non-rosy realities of motherhood as:

…an assemblage of fronts – mostly brave, serene and all-knowing – that we use to disguise the chaos and complexity of our lived experience…the mask of motherhood is what mutes our rage into murmurs and softens our sorrow into resignation…the mask keeps us quiet about what we know, to the point that we forget that we know anything at all…or anything worth telling. (p. 5).
Respondent Phoena G., 34, notices that mothers who are open about the difficulties of mothering will back away from their stance when their audience perceives their statements as being anti-motherhood:

Women…lie to each other about [family life]. I might be sitting in a room full of women bitching about motherhood and if I say, ‘Wow, makes me glad I don’t have kids’, they quickly switch gears and start lying to me about how it’s the most wonderful thing in the world and how much joy having kids will bring me and how my life is incomplete without children. Wait, this from the same women who were just bitching about motherhood? On the other hand, I love my husband and my pets, and you will rarely hear me bitch about either. I don’t have much to complain about because I’m happy with my home life and family.
Mel H., 42, reports similar experiences:

It’s funny. Parents bitch constantly about their kids and I’ll say ‘maybe you shouldn’t have had kids’ and they look aghast and back-peddle ‘oh, no I LOVE my children. It’s just that we’re having a hard day/week/month.’ But once the kids are grown and out of the house, suddenly they come clean: ‘I would never have had them if I’d known…’ ‘I wish I never made that mistake.’ ‘I love her but I wish I could go back in time.’ But they only make these statements once they are ‘free’ of the children. It’s like they are afraid to admit the truth while the child is at home and really, who can blame them? It’s not like you can give them back…But yes, once the kids are gone, they all say ‘I can’t believe how nice it is to have time to myself’ and ‘I understand now why you didn’t want to give this up.’ But only once the kids are out of the house. I’ve NEVER had any of them come up and say, ‘you know, I’d do it all again.’ NEVER.

Price sees the silence women keep about the “much bleaker” side of motherhood as stemming from a rosy “male mythology” of motherhood which mothers know is wrong, but who tend to keep silent. To “speak against the myths [of motherhood] risks the individual woman being branded a bad mother.” (p.125) Perhaps this fear of being a bad mother is what keeps women silent about the harsher realities of motherhood, or results in them backing away from their critical statements of motherhood when they do take the opportunity to be open about the downside of parenting.

Religious Imperatives to Mother

Motherhood and womanhood have been intertwined since the Garden of Eden and most traditional religions throughout the world still reinforce this link (Daniluk, 1999). Judeo-Christian religious constructions of woman as mother place an emphasis on bearing children (and the associated pain) as God’s curse on Eve for her sins. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is held up as the perfect mother and woman – obedient, passive and open to God’s will (Gillespie, 2000). Dominant religious groups in North America support the directive of “be fruitful and multiply” and all define parenthood a religious responsibility (Veevers). The Catholic Church continues to sanction only marriages in which the couple agrees to reproduce while the traditional Jewish faith continues to define childbearing as a woman’s highest achievement (Daniluk, 1999; Gillespie, 2000). Some Eastern religions encourage polygamy in order that their wives may bear more sons and a woman who is infertile is considered useless (Daniluk, 1999). American fundamentalist religions and conservative political groups continue to exert pressure to restrict women’s reproductive rights (Daniluk, 1999; Gillespie, 2000). Emphasizing “family values”, these groups reinforce the motherhood ideology. Religious beliefs contribute to the many ways in which women are defined by a “destiny” of motherhood, and thus access to contraception and abortion is institutionally controlled (Earle and Letherby).

Psychological Imperatives to Mother

Pronatalism has also found a voice in traditional psychological theory. Influential theorists such as Freud, Erikson and Benedek promote motherhood as essential for a woman’s healthy psychological development and “these theories persist despite criticism for their phallocentric and sexist assumptions and their lack of empirical validity” (Daniluk, 1999). Most theories reinforce women’s natural inclination toward motherhood and caretaking and “maternal ambivalence is seen in some ways as pathological, as a woman’s denial of her ‘natural’ impulses and inability to come to terms with her ‘real purpose’ (Ireland). Classical psychoanalytic theory has depicted childless women as deficient and unable to fulfill their feminine role. According to Freud, a girl’s desire for bear a child stemmed from penis envy with the child being a substitute for the missing penis. Adult women who did not seek to become mothers, were suffering from unresolved penis envy and a masculinity complex. “While fatherhood and male reproductive functioning has never been the centerpiece of adult male development theory, female reproductive capacity and maternity have been central and definitive for normal female development” (Ireland, p. 7).

Medical Imperatives to Mother

As far back as 1916, scholar Leta Hollingworth identified pronatalism as being enforced by ‘social guardians’ – highly influential and powerful members of society, including doctors. The medical field continues to be a key player in pervasive pronatalist influence, interpreting a woman’s failure to become a mother as a physical or psychological illness. Infertility “is dominated by medical discourses associated with abnormality, treatment and cure. Once diagnosed, the usual course of action is medicalisation and treatment and the hope of bringing about a pregnancy and birth of a child.” (Gillespie, 2000). The medical field continues to encourage “women to relinquish their bodies to years of medical tests and experimentation, pushing the age limits on the ability to bear children and making it increasingly difficult for some women to have closure on this aspect of their lives.” (Daniluk, 1999).

While medicine focuses its resources and technologies on fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization and embryo implants, funding for the development of safe and effective methods of birth control has decreased while the struggle over laws protecting women’s right to abortion has been ongoing (Morell, 1994). Tyler May wonders why so much scientific attention is paid to fertility technology when there are many more pressing medical and social issues at hand:

It is well worth asking why so much scientific expertise and so many medical resources have been devoted to costly, risky, and painful procedures that may enable the infertile to procreate, at a time when so many other health problems need attention, such as the scandalously high infant mortality rate in this country. Many of the children who have already been born need better health care, and we certainly do not need more children. Children rarely make economic contributions to their families; as everyone knows, they are a significant economic drain. And the nation surely does not need more children to consume resources, strain the school system, and pollute the environment. So why has so much energy been devoted to enabling more people to have more children – and why these self-defined ‘childfree’ Americans have to defend their position against the still-powerful pronatalist norm.
(p. 11)
Medical pronatalism creates roadblocks for childfree women who wish to exert control over their reproductive choices. One of the medical hurdles childfree women come up against is the refusal by doctors to perform sterilization procedures. Annily Campbell (2003) conducted a study on 23 childfree women who chose to become sterilized. Their subjects described encounters with (mostly male) doctors in which they were put in the position of explaining their desire to become fertilized and convincing the doctors that their decision was well thought out and not whimsical and ‘spur of the moment’. Many reported “being laughed out of the surgery”, meaning the doctor would not take them seriously and dismissed them as foolhardy. Tenacious subjects reported having to persist through multiple refusals by doctors before being approved for the surgery.

Understandably, women put in the position of having to seek permission to exert control over their reproductive choices experience a multitude of negative feelings including the feeling of being infantilized, feeling humiliated, angry, frustrated and enraged. A respondent to my survey, Brigette, 30, expresses anger at the fact that “no doctor will agree to ‘fix’ me as I have not popped out anything, although this country readily taxes [me] to feed an ever increasing number of welfare mothers every year”. Anne H., 31, sees it as discrimination when “[childfree women] try to get sterilized and are denied authority over their own bodies. While choosing to have children is instantly accepted, choosing not to have children defies belief.”

Social Imperatives to Mother: Pro-Motherhood

In addition to the glorification of motherhood, other social imperatives to mother exert powerful pronatalist influence on girls and women pushing them toward motherhood.

Powerful social messages convey assumptions that all women should and will reproduce. From the time a female baby is born, powerful sex role socialization conditions her to develop expectations of what women can and cannot do, should and should not do, and the most powerful socialized expectation of girls is that they eventually become mothers. Traditionally, “the personality of a young girl has been shaped so that she is more likely to tend to be dependent, passive and conforming, making it more difficult for her to free herself from the demands of a pronatalist social context.” (Russo, 1976). Role models in school, in books and the media tend to reinforce motherhood while the growing trend toward single and/or childfree lifestyle is unmentioned (Russo, 1976; Peck). As previously mentioned, celebrity mothers and their babies are all over the news; their roles as mother glamorized and glorified, but completely absent in the coverage of celebrity lifestyles is even the mention of the choice by many celebrities to live happy and fulfilling childfree lives (Oprah Winfrey, among many others). Representations of childfree women and the childfree lifestyle are absent from social representations of womanhood “…There are few role models of women leading satisfying and fulfilling lives outside the role of mother, and there are few stories of the life paths of childfree women.” (Danikuk, 1999)

Pronatalist conditioning exists in the encouragement of little girls to play with dolls at the limitation of other toys as well as the repeated “when you have children some day”, which reinforces the inevitability of motherhood (Peck). During their growth and development, girls and women are persistently delivered the message that motherhood is their destiny. Even feminism, which has made great strides in the past forty years to broaden opportunities for women, has been oddly silent about childlessness as a viable possibility for women (Morell, 1994). A woman can opt out of higher education or a career, but what has not been encouraged is for women to opt out of motherhood. Motherhood must be one of her roles. Daniluk (1999) notes:

In continuing to promote motherhood as women’s destiny and primary justification in life, the social construction of mothering within patriarchal societies necessarily informs and shapes the experiences not only of women who mother, but also of women who do not. In the absence of societal reinforcement of women’s many other life paths and creative labors, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood remain an intrinsic part of all women’s experiences, regardless of whether or not we decide to give birth to children. The ‘women-as-mother’
assumption continues to persist, despite substantial gains made by the feminist
Social imperatives celebrate motherhood and assess non-motherhood as a sorry state. Pregnant women are showered with praise and compliments, thrown parties and showered with gifts to celebrate what is deemed an esteemed accomplishment, yet equivalent praise and celebration are rarely heaped upon women who pursue alternative paths and achieve other fulfilling accomplishments. The social reinforcement shapes women’s ideas of what is good and praiseworthy about being a woman, and according to our culture, this is motherhood.

Social imperatives to mother are so powerful and far-reaching, that all women are assumed to either be mothers or be on the road to motherhood. Childfree women constantly come up against these assumptions.

Caroline N., 32, comments:

When I remodeled my kitchen, I was trying to decide if I wanted a plain or fancy edge on the granite countertops, and the sales person advised me that at my age, I should get the plain edge because it’s not as painful as the fancy edge when kids bump their heads. I’m still annoyed by this stranger’s assumption that I was or was going to be a mother. If I could have gotten that particular stone somewhere else, I would have!

Denise D., 43 bristles at the notion that she should have children because she can:

…someone told me I was ‘going against God and nature by not having kids’. This is how I tried to explain it to him. Just because I have the parts, doesn’t mean I am meant to reproduce. It’s kind of like saying, ‘Because you have two hands, you must be a plumber.’ Well, no, because to become a plumber, you must first have the desire to do it, and you must have some bit of innate skill for it, and are going to have to put a great deal of money into it in order to learn to do a
proper job of it. But no one would ever argue, ‘Well, you have two hands, so you must become a plumber.’ So why the attitude that because you have the reproductive organs, you must reproduce? I believe you must also have the desire, an innate skill at it, and the financial means to do a proper job.

Even mothers are not exempt from feeling the pressure of social pronatalism. Mothers are pressured to have more than one child due to the pervasive myth that an “only child” is likely to be spoiled, maladjusted or otherwise disadvantaged. This myth persists “despite evidence that such children are more likely to possess many valued qualities, including independence, high self-esteem, social acceptance and sociability.” (Russo, 1976; Clausen & Clausen, Terhune).

Social Imperatives to Mother: Anti-Childfreedom

The successful operation of pro-motherhood imperatives can only succeed in the existence of equally powerful imperatives condemning the childfree lifestyle. These anti-childfree imperatives can be summarized into two categories – negative attitudes and opinions of the childfree lifestyle and childfree individuals, and the marginalization of the childfree and childfree lifestyle.

The childfree lifestyle is not conceptualized as a viable or appealing choice and is perceived as an empty, meaningless lifestyle. Childfree individuals are ascribed a number of negative characteristics, the most common being the perception that they are selfish, child-hating, cold, uncaring, lonely, bitter, hateful, unfulfilled/deficient, strange/deviant and immature. In Wonder Women: The Myth of Having it All, author Virginia Haussegger describes the stereotype of the childfree woman:

While the non-mother remains invisible to the healthy ebb and flow of public discourse, she nevertheless remains highly visible in the negative. When the glare of public spotlight is shone on her, what is projected is not an image of ‘woman’ as a whole, but rather woman with a hole. The stereotype of the childless woman has become so highly pathologised it is a wonder the poor dear isn’t made to wear a womb bandage and perhaps a neck brace to stiffen her spine. One the one hand, the childless woman suspected of being childless by choice, is typecast as the selfish, materialistic, career hungry, predatory deviant. On the other, if she is perceived to be involuntarily childless, she is seen as one to be pitied – a half-woman who is grieving, unfulfilled and barren. Either way, the pathologisation of non-mothers keeps them separate and out of the way. As such, society can avoid dealing with the messy ‘complication’ non-mothers present to our old-fashioned notion of what a woman should be. (p. 280)

LaMastro conducted a study to determine the perceptions of voluntarily childfree married couples compared to parent couples and concluded that childfree-by-choice couples were perceived more negatively and were ascribed poorer marital status and as less caring, sensitive and kind than parents. Similary, Earle and Letherby studied women without children and found that childfree-by-choice women were viewed as “selfish and deviant and portrayed in ways that emphasize this: as aberrant, immature, and unfeminine”. Lampmann and Dowling-Guyer conducted a similar study and concluded that childfree couples were rated less favorably than parents on characteristics such as drive, caring and emotional health. The childfree were perceived as lazy, insensitive, lonely and unhappy. Jamison, Franzini and Kaplan, found that a childfree, sterilized wife was rated as less sensitive and loving, less typical an American woman, more likely to be active in women’s liberation and less happy, less well-adjusted, less likely to get along with her parents and less likely to be happy and satisfied at age 65 when compared to otherwise identically-described mother of two. Park, who interviewed 24 voluntarily childfree women and men reported that the vast majority of her participants experienced being seen as selfish, cold, materialistic, egotistic, peculiar and abnormal.

My survey results supported these findings with most of my respondents reporting having experienced being perceived negatively by others for being childfree. Close to half of them mentioned that “selfish” was a common misconception about them and a number of my respondents found this attribute particularly distressing. Some found it difficult to understand why the childfree lifestyle is considered selfish. Clio H., 30, notes: “I don’t understand [it] at all, as our income and free time allow us to do many things for our communities that people with children don’t have the time or resources to do.” Rebecca E. is equally perplexed. “I have never been able to understand how choosing not to have a child is selfish. I am not keeping something from someone else.” Sharla W., 28, sees the parallel attribution of selflessness to parents as misplaced:

A dominant message is that somehow parents are less (or not) selfish than those who have not had children. By sacrificing personal freedoms, spare time, and interests for the sake of having a child, parents feel as though they become less selfish than people who refrain from having children and maintain these things. What parents don’t realize is that they have made a conscious decision to give up these things in exchange for the perceived benefits of having a child. They have purposely exchanged one thing for another. Meeting a child’s needs by sacrificing aspects of your own life does not somehow make you less selfish than other people – it is your responsibility as a caregiver to meet those needs, and you are fulfilling needs that were created by your own choice…it is simply responsibility for your own actions. Childfree people are not selfish for having these personal freedoms, spare time, and interests given up by parents; they have simply made a different conscious decision to not create a need that they must fulfill.

Other respondents replied angrily about the selfish label and feel it more aptly belongs to parents. Amy B., 40 notes that “…I see most families/parents acting with the most bloated sense of entitlement. Time is given to workers for children’s activities, sicknesses, vacations. However, if my dog is suddenly ill, the time I take is my own without pay.” Tina D., 33, comments, “Women who choose not to have children are deemed selfish, although one could argue that it is a selfish act to produce children as a means of insurance of having someone return love out of obligation.” Caroline N., 32 feels that true parental selflessness is accomplished through adoption instead of through the expensive fertility treatments pursued by many couples today:

I think the biggest misconception about the childfree is that we’re selfish, but… if parenthood [was] really just about caring for another person, more people would adopt versus spending tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments in hopes of conceiving a little clone. Many childfree people give their time and money to causes and charities. Many of us are more ecologically minded than parents, which is really a paradox since parents are the ones whose children will inherent an ailing planet.

Jasmin S., 42 also balks at being labeled as selfish when the selfish aspects of parenting go unacknowledged:

Because we choose to live the life that makes us the happiest we are selfish, yet nobody ever questions the selfishness involved in having kids – wanting someone who adores you, who will take care of you in old age, who will carry on your name, who you can mold into a little ‘Mini-Me’ to satisfy narcissistic desires.

Another persistent negative misconception about the childfree, and particularly about childfree women, is that their lives are empty, deficient and unfulfilled. Because most adults’ lives revolve so completely around childrearing, they find it difficult to comprehend that a childfree adult life could be anything except empty and lacking. Sharla W. 28:

Yet another misconception is that childfree people lead empty, sad, lonely lives; we are missing out on children, and every adult’s life should revolve around children. Because parents’ lives are so wrapped up in their children(since children require constant time and attention), they feel as though a person whose life is not run by children would just have a big empty space inside it. Of course, what they do not realize is that that space is filled up with things they have lost; friendships, hobbies, education, personal time, and career. Our lives are not empty; they are filled with the very same things parents gave up before their lives became child-centered.

Morell (1994) finds it interesting that the public discourse about mothering focus on the self-doubts, regrets and loss of the woman who does not have children, yet “mother’s rumblings are a very small part…The implicit suggestion is that non-mothers think (regretfully) about not having children but mothers don’t consider possible losses incurred by their choices. Thus, motherhood is reinforced.” (p.143). Likewise, she points out that while selfishness, materialism and mass-consumption are readily ascribed to the childfree, “there is rarely a focus on the selfishness, consumption and materialism of parents. Parenthood is seen as the way to demonstrate a selfless character, and yet many childfree individuals report they are able to reach out to others in ways that parents might find difficult given their family responsibilities.” (p. 78).

Several of my respondents complained about the fact that they are frequently called on to account for their choice to be childfree, yet nobody ever questions a parent about their choice to have children. Some are distressed by the frequency with which they are pitied and patronized and treated as thought they do not know their own minds. Anne H., 31, complains:

I think the reaction I dislike the most is when people patronize me. I get this reaction from a lot of casual acquaintances. It’s very frustrating to have someone assure you [that] you don’t know your own mind, or foist their pity on you for a choice you’re actually happy about. I’ve actually had people pat my hand and tell me, ‘don’t worry, your time will come’ despite any protest I make that I’m really very content and very serious in not wanting children.

Sara D., 38, voices a similar complaint:

At first we got the ‘oh, don’t be silly, you’ll change your mind’ reaction, the knowing looks among each other like we were dummies who would wake up any day now and begin procreating. I’ve gotten very few outright rude comments, although I suspect now some people at work avoid the topic with me as it makes THEM uncomfortable to think about a smart, well-educated woman not wanting babies.

Another common misconception about the childfree is that they are child haters. While certainly a percentage of childfree individuals do not like children, most like them, but are simply not interested in the parenthood lifestyle, do not have a desire to be a parent, would rather engage in other pursuits, or simply do not deem the rewards to be worth the sacrifices. Many are devoted aunts and uncles, teachers and volunteers who are actively involved in children’s lives. Colleen G., 36, comments “I work with very young children every day, and I LOVE my job and I love children. We love our nieces and nephews. But whenever we are with them, and when I am at work, we are always extremely happy that we get to go back to our life with no kids [afterwards].” Morell (1994) found that three-quarters of her subjects either worked with children, did work that benefited children or spoke of friendships or special relationships with children. “Such relationships with children allow childless women to comfortably join in nurturing activities without becoming mothers, at a level of involvement that suits them.” (p. 120)

In addition to the negative misconceptions already mentioned, other negative characteristics that are frequently ascribed to the childfree are that they are hedonists, had an unhappy childhood, have a life filled with regret, are psychologically maladjusted, career hungry, unable to sustain or develop personal relationships, have unhappy marriages, are immoral, irresponsible, loose/promiscuous, unfeminine, vain, misguided/foolish, “bad parent material” and shallow (Cain, Morell, Daniluk, Park, Veevers, Haussegger, Ireland).

Childfree individuals and the childfree lifestyle are marginalized in every corner of society. As previously discussed, the childfree are rarely able to find role models in the media and when models are present, they are depicted negatively. Childfreedom is never conceptualized as a viable or appealing life choice, if even mentioned at all. With the exception of the internet where childfree discussion boards, weblogs and other supportive communities have begun to flourish, the childfree are virtually ignored in society. Businesses go to far lengths to create a “family-friendly” environment, but the needs of those who prefer an adult environment are often ignored. Even definitions of life stages such as midlife revolve around parenting (“the empty nest”). In such definitions, non-mothers are erased. “The experiences of non-mothering women have yet to be named. Our lives remain untheorized.” (Morell, 1994, p. xv)

Societal Rewards for Mothering

While the glorification of motherhood and the social, religious, psychological and medical imperatives to mother would most certainly be enough to ensure the ongoing success of the motherhood mandate, parenthood is further reinforced through additional societal rewards and incentives for those who reproduce.

Federal and local tax laws provide tax benefits and rebates to those who have children, while discriminating against those who do not. In 1999, for example, a childless couple earning $70,000 per year, paid $10,455 in taxes, whereas a couple with two children paid $7,915, a difference of $2,540 (Cain). Cain reported that she spoke with a tax agent who told her, “Social economics dictates everything the government is going to allow you to take as a credit on your income taxes. What the government likes you to do, you get a credit for – such as buying a house or having children; what they don’t want you to do – such as gambling – they don’t allow.” (p. 157).

Parents with children have additional tax-related benefits. Since most local property taxes are allotted to the funding of public schools, parents get fuller value for their property tax dollars. Despite not using the public school systems in their localities, childfree and childless households are expected to shoulder the same (or sometimes higher) property tax burdens as households with children.

Tax discrimination was one of societal rewards for parenting that my childfree respondents felt most upset about. Caroline N., 32, comments:

When the Town Council votes to raise property taxes, it’s almost always to raise money for the schools. Parents receive easy income tax deductions despite the fact that a lot of tax revenue goes toward programs and services that the childfree don’t need or use. I resent that my husband and I are financially penalized by the federal government for not having children and forced by our local government to pay ridiculous taxes to support a school system that we’re never going to use.

Carol H., 37:

I do not believe a person without children should pay as much property tax (if the area’s taxes are mostly given to the schools) as parents. I don’t mind paying reasonable taxes as it does benefit society as a whole, but I object to the fact that I am paying MORE than most parents whose kids use the system. I also feel it is inherently unfair that parents get large federal tax breaks because they reproduced. We have a very, very (unsustainably) large population. Do we really need to reward people for having children?

Lynn D., 45, also questions the reasoning behind rewarding reproduction:

Considering the state of the environment, the decline in farming, the poor economy and the inflated costs of everything, why are we still giving incentives for having children? Haven’t we evolved past that in government and society? My husband’s friend has two children and has mortgaged his home 4 times trying to give them everything. He has high blood pressure and works three jobs but it’s never enough. His family, his church – his environment have him completely indoctrinated that this is what a ‘good’ man does. He gets married and has children –even if he can’t afford them. If we altered our perception of normal and took the stress off that everyone has to own a house, a car and 2.5 children, perhaps we’d all be happier.

In addition to tax breaks and tax rewards, other forms of economic discrimination persist in favor of those who wish to have children. Women who opt to have children are able to utilize their medical insurance for medical care related to pregnancy and childbirth, however as of 1999, less than two-fifth of insurance companies provided coverage for abortion services. Additionally, with the exception of cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s life is in danger, abortion is not among the medical procedures covered by Medicare, the federal-state program that provides health care to many poor women.

The workplace is another area where parents receive special treatment and where the childfree and childless often feel they are subject to discrimination. Some companies offer adoption assistance, paying employees thousands of dollars to help them adopt a child, and yet the childfree and childless employees receive no equivalent compensation.

Parents are frequently accommodated when needing to rearrange their schedules, leave early, take time off and are given preferential treatment over the childless and childfree in the selection of vacation time. Childfree individuals are expected to “pick up the slack” for absent parents and are not granted similar flexibility, consideration and accommodations. As Lela B., 25, comments:

As far as discrimination is concerned, I do see it in the workplace. This applies particularly to parents leaving early or not coming in because of their children and the childfree being left holding the bag. It seems to be a common misconception that if you don’t have kids, you must not have a life outside of work or any valid reasons to take time off.

Mel H., 42, feels the same, “Childfree misconceptions that drive me crazy include: You can do all the extra work or work overtime because since you don’t have kids, you don’t have anything really IMPORTANT that you are doing with your time anyway…”

Several of my respondents commented on the preferential treatment families get across the board; from restaurants and other places that go out of their way to be “family-friendly” often at the expense of an enjoyable atmosphere for other patrons, to special “stork parking” for pregnant women and women with small children. Mel H. comments:

There are children’s menus, children’s chairs, children run amok with corporate permission even in what should be adult-only venues like museums and formal concerts. After all, ‘they are just children’ and God forbid you comment or complain about a child’s behavior, because everyone will look at you aghast because, after all, they are ‘just children’.


Prior to the 20th century, the option to forego motherhood was not possible for women and only became possible with the onset of urban industrialization (which created more jobs for women), the advent of birth control (which allowed women to control when they had children) and the suffragette movement promoting women’s rights.

A changing cultural context has slowly emerged during the 20th century and into our present decade in which the choice to forego having children has become a social and psychological phenomenon (Ireland). The seeds of this phenomenon can be traced to the World War II era when women entered the work force and got a taste for having a valuable role outside of motherhood. While women were pushed after World War II to resume their role as homemakers, women’s experiences from the war inspired the second wave of feminism in the 1960s in which views on race, gender roles and sexuality were forever changed, resulting in an alteration of the usual notions of coming of age. No longer were the ideas of previous generations taken for granted. The 1960s expanded ideas of what was possible and therefore, people were encouraged to think and choose carefully, because choices have consequences.

As women began to think about their roles and the expectations foisted on them over the course of generations of patriarchal oppression, the cultural landscape of the second half of the 20th century permitted them to “sidestep the limited female identity their mothers were less able to overcome” and to reconstruct social perceptions of what it means to be a woman (Ireland). Central to these new personal freedoms was (and still is) contraception which allowed women to be sexual without being mothers. Because a woman could now have sexual relations without the risk of pregnancy, sexuality could be separated from motherhood, something that had never previously been conceptualized. This separation is crucial to the emergence of the childfree lifestyle as a viable possibility for women.

As the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s kicked into high gear, suddenly women were encouraged to “have it all” and expand their roles beyond the confines of motherhood and homemaking to a combined role of mother and career woman. Many women embraced this new dual-role. Suddenly women found themselves working two full-time shifts – full time career woman during the day, and full-time mother and homemaker in the evening and on weekends.

Over the last couple of decades, this dual-role remains common for women (for many, out of economic necessity; for others by preference). However, a number of women are opting out of the “have it all” lifestyle. Having been raised by mothers who “had it all” and having watched their mothers struggle with resulting physical, psychological and spiritual exhaustion from being pulled in multiple directions, many modern women are questioning whether that lifestyle is the ideal it has been promoted to be. As a result, in recent years there has been both a resurgence of women choosing to be stay-at-home mothers and also a steady increase in women who are choosing to remain childfree. In both cases, women have evaluated that while they can “have it all”, and are happy to live in a culture where such a choice is possible, some women are questioning the impact such a lifestyle might have on quality of life. Many modern women are choosing to select one role and forego the other, assessing that their quality of life (and the quality of life for their husbands and children [if they have any]) might be higher by not spreading themselves too thin. In this context we also may interpret the growing popularity of the childfree lifestyle as a response to the expansion of women’s roles over the past century, transitioning from one in which a woman can be a mother only, to one in which a woman can be a mother in conjunction with other things, to the childfree role in which a woman can pursue roles completely outside the realm of motherhood and forego motherhood altogether.

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