Nov 15, 2014 - Voluntary childlessness as women's ultimate liberation. Helen Peterson. University of Gothenburg, Department of Sociology and Work Science, ...
Women's Studies International Forum 53 (2015) 182–191
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Women's Studies International Forum journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/wsif
Fifty shades of freedom. Voluntary childlessness as women's ultimate liberation Helen Peterson University of Gothenburg, Department of Sociology and Work Science, Sweden
a r t i c l e
i n f o
Available online 15 November 2014
s y n o p s i s Freedom is an often mentioned motive for remaining childfree. However, there is a lack of systematic approaches attempting to disentangle the situated meaning of freedom in voluntary childless women's lives. This article draws on qualitative semi-structured interviews with 21 Swedish childfree women in order to further research how they understand and define freedom. The analysis identifies two different discourses of freedom relevant for the construction of the childfree position. The first discourse includes positive experiences of freedom aspects that the childfree women enjoyed in their everyday lives. This discourse also defines freedom as part of a deep-rooted identity that also involves other life choices, besides rejecting motherhood. The second discourse comprises negative opinions about children as risk, motherhood as time-consuming and parents as “trapped”. The article contextualizes these discourses within the contemporary Swedish welfare society. © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Introduction American family researcher Margaret Movius argued in an early research article on voluntary childlessness that “the childfree alternative” should be viewed as “women's ultimate liberation” (Movius, 1976: 61). According to Movius, the childfree lifestyle offered a woman advantages including: “[…] enough time to have a life of her own, an equal sex role status to men and a more successful career life” (Movius, 1976: 62). Clearly, changes in the cultural climate as well as social and political reforms have transformed most Western societies since Movius wrote about voluntary childlessness 40 years ago (Mätzke & Ostner, 2010). Welfare policies such as financial support to families with children, long parental leave with high level of economic compensation and public, subsidized childcare have lowered the “opportunity costs” of childbearing for women that participate in the labor force (Haavind & Magnusson, 2005). This kind of welfare system has made life less limited for mothers as it becomes possible for many of them to participate more actively in society outside the home (Van Lancker & Ghysels, 2010). Freedom, referring to social and financial independence and personal fulfillment – before only http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2014.10.017 0277-5395/© 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
available for childless women, according to Movius – now seems obtainable also for (working) mothers. However, more recent research on voluntary childlessness persists to report on how women describe the attraction of remaining childless in terms of freedom, signifying increased opportunities, autonomy and wider choices (Gillespie, 2003). This article sets out to explore what “freedom” means in voluntary childless women's lives. Is voluntary childlessness still perceived as “women's ultimate liberation”, regardless of social, cultural and political changes? Inspired by a discourse analytical perspective the article uncovers how a group of voluntarily childless Swedish women understand, explain and give meaning to their childfree lifestyle by way of reference to freedom. Freedom was not an a priori theme in the interviews, generated from an already agreed on definition. Instead, freedom emerged as a prominent themed induced from the empirical data. Consequently, the article provides an empirically grounded analysis of what freedom means in these women's lives. The more specific research questions that the article addresses are: How do Swedish voluntary childless women define their needs of freedom? In what ways do they consider that a childfree lifestyle fulfills these needs, while having children would threaten them?
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The article is structured as follows. The next section introduces previous research on voluntary childlessness and the theoretical framework. The subsequent section presents the methodological considerations and describes the empirical material. After that the findings and analysis are outlined. The article ends with a concluding discussion of the most relevant results and proposals for future lines of research. Theoretical and empirical framework Previous research on voluntary childlessness One of the main areas of research in previous studies on voluntary childlessness is the reason behind the decision to forgo parenthood (Agrillo & Nelini, 2008). Studies using a qualitative approach have identified a wide range of different motivators for women, such as; lack of “maternal instinct”; dislike of, or disinterest in, children; fear of painful childbirth; humanitarian concerns about population growth; career orientation, and; a more satisfactory marriage (Callan, 1986; Park, 2005; Peterson & Engwall, 2013; Somers, 1993; Veevers, 1980). The most frequently mentioned benefit of remaining childless is the feeling of freedom it affords (Houseknecht, 1987). The repeated references to freedom can partly be explained by the fact that freedom is used to refer to a multitude of different aspects, such as; greater opportunities for self-fulfillment; improved financial position; decreased domestic responsibilities; wider opportunities to be spontaneously mobile and trying new experiences; greater opportunities to socialize, entertain friends and build and sustain social networks (Abma & Martinez, 2006; Dykstra & Hagestad, 2007; Morell, 1994; Tanturri & Mencarini, 2008; Wood & Newton, 2006). Feminist writers have also suggested that motherhood restricts women's freedom in a more symbolic and normative way (Letherby, 1999). Motherhood, as manifested in our society, has been condemned as part of the suppression and control of women and as preventing women to develop subjectivity (Veevers, 1979). Practices and symbols associated with biological and cultural motherhood have been understood as constituting: “the central core of normal, healthy feminine identity, women's social role and ultimately the meanings of the term woman” (Gillespie, 2000: 225, emphasis in original). From this follows that voluntary childlessness could be interpreted as an expression of women's ability to challenge suppressive feminine norms and create identities independent of motherhood (Wood & Newton, 2006). Empirical results from studies on voluntary childlessness support the idea of non-motherhood as positive and liberating for a feminine identity. The British childfree women Rosemary Gillespie (2003) interviewed associated motherhood not with fulfillment of their identity but with loss of identity, something Gillespie interprets as a manifestation of the emergence of a positive feminine identity separate from “the hegemonic ideal of motherhood” (Gillespie, 2003: 134). Most studies on voluntary childlessness depict it as a growing phenomenon in Western societies and predict that the voluntary childless population will continue to increase due to social, cultural and economic changes (Albertini & Mencarini, 2014; Abma & Martinez, 2006; Agrillo & Nelini, 2008; Mulder, 2003). It is not possible to differentiate between voluntarily
and involuntarily childless status in demographic statistics but because childlessness has increased it is assumed that the number of voluntarily childless individuals have increased proportionally (Roy, Schumm, & Britt, 2014). Generally, the proportion of voluntary childless women is estimated to between 4 and 7% of the 1960 cohort in Western, industrialized countries such as Sweden, Italy, the U.S. (Persson, 2010; Tanaka & Johnson, 2014; Tanturri & Mencarini, 2008).i The distinction between voluntary childless, involuntary childless and so called postponers is not easy to make in qualitative research either (Hoffman & Levant, 1985). The definition of a voluntary childless person as a person presently without biological children, who expects none in the future, and has an intention or choice not to have children might seem straightforward, but can refer to a very diverse and multifaceted set of life circumstances (Dykstra & Hagestad, 2007). Some women make an early and permanent decision to be childless, others simply postpone having children until age, careers, education and established lifestyle significantly reduces the possibility of having children (Heaton, Jacobson, & Holland, 1999; Kemkes-Grottenthaler, 2003).
The individualization thesis Research on voluntary childlessness resonates with the individualization thesis that recently has become a dominant theme in contemporary family research (Brannen & Nilson, 2005; Smart & Shipman, 2004). The individualization thesis suggests that our lives are gradually more dependent on individual decisions and choices, particularly with regard to family formation (Bauman, 2002; Giddens, 1992). Demographic trends such as the postponement of childbearing and marriage, increased divorce rates and cohabitation, have been interpreted as manifestations of the increasing individualization in late modern society and a postmaterialist era (Beck-Gernsheim, 2011; Tanaka & Johnson, 2014). Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002: 127) also forecast that in highly industrialized and individualized societies: “the news of falling birthrates will be with us as the stuff of everyday lives”. Increasing individualization entails that having children ceases to be the one supreme goal and life accomplishment and instead becomes: “the object of conscious planning and calculation, hopes and fears” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 126). This historical shift towards “post-materialist” values implies that children stand in the way of individual fulfillment and liberty (Esping-Andersen, 2011; Tanaka & Johnson, 2014). Becoming a parent is no longer a self-evident part of life but rather a choice that needs to be made, after careful considerations of the occupational, financial and existential risks associated with parenting in our society (Maher & Saugeres, 2007; Mcquillan, Greil, Shreffler, & Tihenor, 2008). For women, increased individualization means that they are no longer defined as much as they used to be in terms of family life. The contraceptive revolution has provided a “stepping stone for female emancipation for all women” (Te Velde, 2011: 6). With today's widespread birth-control facilities the freedom of choice for women has grown considerably and they have gained a greater right to autonomy over their own body and over their own life and future perspectives (Beck & BeckGernsheim, 2002). The consequence for women is a shift away
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from “living for others” towards “a bit of a life of our own” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 55).
marginalization, and stigma management, also in Sweden (Peterson, 2011). Methodological framework
The Swedish context Sampling techniques Although this article is not based on a cross-cultural study it attempts to contextualize and situate the analysis of voluntary childlessness in the contemporary Swedish society while comparing the results to international studies in order to understand how motivators and facilitators for the decision to remain childless may vary. Many previous studies on voluntary childlessness have been occupied with investigating different psychological aspects of the phenomenon (Agrillo & Nelini, 2008). Little attention has been devoted to understanding how the decision to be childfree can vary among industrialized countries depending on the social, economic and political preconditions. Just as Maura Kelly (2009: 161) notes, the accounts of voluntary childlessness in these previous studies are “remarkably similar” across the countries in which the phenomenon is studied. However, focusing on such remarkable similarities might conceal some of the more intricate nuances of voluntary childlessness. More research is needed to identify how differences between industrialized and other societies as well as within industrialized ones influence the social reasons for decisions to remain voluntary childless (cf. Engwall, 2014). Sweden constitutes an interesting backdrop for investigating freedom and women's voluntary childlessness. The Swedish welfare society is characterized by “women-friendly” dual-earner and dual-carer policies that support less traditional gender roles and gender equal parenting (Korpi, Ferrarini, & Englund, 2013). Sweden was for example the first country in Europe to introduce parental leave for both mothers and fathers (Van Doorne-Huiskes & Doorten, 2011). Long parental leave with high levels of economic compensation and access to high-quality, subsidized, childcare enable parents to combine parenthood and paid work (Haavind & Magnusson, 2005). Some researchers have seen plausible connections between women-friendly public policies and a relatively high fertility level in Sweden (Esping-Andersen, 2011; Hoem, 1993). Statistics show that the percentage of childless women is not that high in Sweden (14%) if compared to other European countries and has not increased to the same extent as for example in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK (where the proportion of childless women is between 17 and 20%) (Esping-Andersen, 2011; Persson, 2010). Processes of modernization and emancipation in more gender equal countries such as Sweden seem to have led to a higher acceptance and tolerance of voluntary childlessness (Merz & Liefbroer, 2012). Research shows that strong pronatalistii norms in a country often (but not always) correlate with high total fertility rate (Tanaka & Johnson, 2014). However, this is not a development that is described straightforwardly by all researchers (Fjell, 2008; Rowlands & Lee, 2006). Tangible state-provided assistance, such as women-friendly policies, has been described as likely to exert even greater pronatalist force than a familistic system based on that families provide care and economic help (Albertini & Mencarini, 2014; Tanturri & Mencarini, 2008). Moreover, research shows that voluntary childlessness continues to be associated with stereotypes, pronatalist pressure,
This article draws on qualitative in-depth interviews with 21 Swedish women who defined themselves as voluntarily childless. A purposive sampling technique was used in order to overcome several different recruitment obstacles (cf. Guest, Bunce, & Johnson, 2006). Voluntarily childless women can be considered a hard-to-reach, “hidden population” because openly identifying as childfree means transgressing dominant societal norms (Wejnert & Heckathorn, 2008). To overcome problems with definitions and access, an online network for voluntarily childless women was used to recruit interviewees. The network consisted of about 35 members and a letter was posted to the mailing list informing about the aim of the study and asking the members to volunteer to be interviewed, which about one third of them did. In addition, a handful of women were contacted after they appeared in media where they talked about being voluntarily childless. A couple of women volunteered their participation upon learning of the study through media or online. Finally, a handful of women were recruited using snowball techniques (Browne, 2005). These purposive sampling techniques are consistent with the rigorous selection criteria often employed by other researchers but can be criticized for excluding individuals with more ambivalent attitudes towards childlessness and childbearing, the so called “transitional women”, “postponers” or “passive decision makers” (Houseknecht, 1987; Morell, 2000; Ramu, 1984; Veevers, 1980). However, studies like this do not attempt to be statistically valid or exhaustive about selecting proportionally from all groups of childless women. The informants As a result of the sampling techniques the 21 women interviewed were more or less committed to the childless decision and could be defined as “transformative women”, “early articulators”, “early deciders” or “active decision makers” (Callan, 1986; Ireland, 1993). The participation was not restricted in any way besides that the women defined themselves as voluntary childless. The group of women interviewed was therefore heterogeneous in aspects such as age and socioeconomic background, although homogeneous when it came to ethnicity as they were identified as white, European women. Previous research has emphasized that the chances are greater that a woman will remain voluntarily childless if she is getting closer to her final reproductive years (Campbell, 1999; Morell, 1994). The mean age of the women interviewed in this study was 39.6 years old with a range of 29 to 54 years. All women presented themselves as heterosexual in the interviews. Nine of the women were singles and only one of the 21 was married at the time of the interview. However, three more had been married before but were now divorced. Seven of the interviewees were cohabiting with a man. Four of them lived in long-term relationships with a man without sharing household with them. Most previous research has been based
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on married couples and intentionally excluded single women, although being unmarried is one of the strongest predicators of childlessness (Lee & Zvonkovic, 2014; Mulder, 2003). All of the informants, but one, lived in larger urban areas although many had moved there from the countryside or smaller communities where they grew up (cf. Persson, 2010; Tanturri & Mencarini, 2008; Veevers, 1979). The spread was greater in terms of education and occupation: physician, actress, author, engineer and project leader are some examples of their occupations. All women interviewed were promised confidentiality and detailed information about them, or their real names, will not be revealed. The interviews 14 of the 21 interviews were conducted as face-to-face interviews, lasting for between one and a half hour and two hours. In addition, four interviews were conducted as telephone interviews in order to overcome large geographical distances (Bjørvik, 2007; Trier-Bieniek, 2012). The different modes of interviewing did not yield any significant differences as both the telephone interviews and the face-to-face ones produced detailed accounts of the interviewees' experiences (cf. Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004). Three of the 21 women answered the interview questions in writing. They received the questions in an e-mail and returned their replies in an electronic document within a week (Reid, Petoce, & Gordon, 2008). The interviews were semi-structured, encouraging the women to reflect on their own perceptions and talk freely about their childfree life (Scheibelhofer, 2007). The aim of the interviews was to explore the lived experiences of voluntarily childless women in contemporary Swedish society. The questions asked were based on an interview guide covering themes such as; motives for remaining voluntary childless; attitudes towards voluntary childlessness; how being voluntary childless affected their relationships with partners, friends and family, and; their attitudes to contraceptive alternatives, including abortion and sterilization. The 18 oral interviews were recorded and fully and verbatim transcribed according to guidelines about naturalness and authenticity (cf. McLellan, MacQueen, & Neidig, 2003). The interviewer followed feminist principles about conveying understanding and acceptance while being an attentive listener, in order to facilitate openness concerning a private and personal subject (Parr, 2013). At the time of the interviews the author herself was white, heterosexual, aged 35 and childless. Although the interviewees were not informed about the childless status of the interviewer some seemed to assume it due to the topic of the research, which might have contributed to creating an interview environment where the interviewees felt open to share their views (Browne, 2005). The analysis The analytical process started with the author reading the interview transcripts carefully in order to identify salient issues and noting response patterns for each of the questions (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). A range of techniques such as coding, categorization and theme formation were used in order to discover common narratives and different discourses (Ryan & Bernard, 2003). Each interview transcript was re-read and
original codes were revised while others were collapsed into new categories prior to final analysis. During the whole process the author conferred with previous research in order to provide frameworks for the analysis. The analysis in this article highlights how the women responded to interview questions concerning what they most appreciated in their lives and what they valued as most important in their lives. The article applies a discourse perspective, focusing on narratives as everyday practices of meaning making (cf. Bacchi, 2005). It identifies competing and dominant discourses on voluntary childlessness and the subject positions shaped through these discourses that the women either occupied and assumed or distanced themselves from (cf. Miller, 2007). The next section will expand on these discourses and situate them in the Swedish current society and analyze them using the theoretical framework of the individualization thesis. Results and analysis A life of one's own The article identifies two different, yet interrelated discourses through which the women conceptualized voluntary childlessness as “liberation”. One of these discourses concerned the attraction, or pull, of being childfree, while the other one involved narratives about the rejection or the push away from motherhood (cf. Gillespie, 2003). The former of these discourses focused the benefits of the childfree life and referred to the childfree lifestyle as necessary in order to protect these benefits. The women who used this discourse assumed a position in which they spoke positively about the rewards of the childfree life. This discourse is reminiscent of how Movius (1976: 62) described the rewards of voluntary childlessness being “enough time to have a life of her own”. The discourse also reflects the individualization thesis. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002) explain that the intensification of individualization processes in Western societies entails that “the most widespread desire in the West today” is “a life of one's own” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 22). More or less all responses to the two interview questions: “What is the best thing with living a childfree life?” and “What is most important in your life?” involved references to freedom defined as “living a life of one's own”. Gaby described the greatest advantage with remaining childfree in a way that is representative for many of the interviews: “The greatest advantage is the freedom. That you are not trapped. You can do whatever you want to do” (Gaby). Investigating freedom more in detail reveals how the childfree lifestyle allowed the women to have freedom in every aspect of their lives: “As childfree I'm able to sleep at night. I save money. I can eat whatever I want and socialize with whoever I want. Yes, it's everything!” (Diana). The childfree lifestyle hence allowed the women to feel free in the most fundamental aspects of life — when it came to be in control of their eating and sleeping habits: I give priority to sleeping and eating. Parents with small children… they are always tired. I'm never tired. I think it's fundamental to be able to sleep enough every night and eat good, nutritious food. These are basic things that I really give priority to. [Beatrice]
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Freedom, defined as having time of their own, was a continuous theme in the interviews when the women explained in more detail what freedom in the daily life meant for them: “I can decide over my time and don't feel imprisoned in any way, neither in opinions nor physically… or when it comes to my time. It's crucial for me” (Mia). Remaining childfree meant they had time to focus on their own wellbeing: “I can give priority to myself” (Hanna). Freedom in this aspect became associated with staying healthy: I give priority to myself. I'm never jealous of parents because they never have time for themselves. Health is important to me. I walk a lot and I visit spas. [Ewa] Another aspect of freedom that the women enjoyed in their everyday lives concerned geographical mobility (cf. Callan, 1986; Veevers, 1979). Gaby explained what she most appreciated with her life: “After work I'm completely free and can be much more spontaneous. I can go away for a weekend and visit friends. I can do things I like” (Gaby). It was not just the freedom to travel during weekends and holidays that was considered important. Another aspect of geographical mobility involved freedom to be mobile when it comes to where to work and live: “I've been thinking about moving abroad. How do you manage that when you have a family?” (Mia). The childfree lifestyle made this kind of spatial freedom possible: “I can live wherever I want. Move whenever I want” (Fanny). Sandra actually lived and worked in another European country at the time of the interview and she replied to the question about what she most valued in her life: “I value to follow my life where ever it takes me. I can live my life on my premises. I can move to the US tomorrow if I want to” (Sandra). Instead of traveling some of the women gave priority to have time for creative and intellectual pursuits (cf. Ireland, 1993). Beatrice explained how important it was for her to find time to write: “I write novels in my spare time. It's very important for me to find time to do that” (Beatrice). Yvette answered the question about what she appreciated with her childfree life like this: “I can work very intensely and put all my focus on that, and all my time. Or focus on hobbies… I've written a book for example” (Yvette). Previous research on voluntary childlessness often refers to the freedom to pursue professional possibilities as one of the main reasons for women's decisions to live without children (Agrillo & Nelini, 2008). However, career orientation was not a prominent theme in the interviews in this study. Only one of the women mentioned work when she was asked what was most important in her life: “My job actually. I'm kind of a careerist” (Kristina). For her, the need to be a part of an environment where she could get “intellectual incentives” was essential in order “not to go crazy” (Kristina). Besides Kristina, the women strongly objected to being career-oriented. On the contrary, for some women, being childfree meant that they could escape the pressure of pursuing a career: “I'm free to make my own decisions, in all aspects of life. I don't have to keep a steady wage to support someone else. If I want to quit a job I quit” (Fanny). Fanny here uses a discourse previously reserved for men when she refers to the pressure of the breadwinner role (Terry & Braun, 2012).
Besides these narratives about freedom in the daily life the interviews were permeated by a less practical but equally important aspect of freedom. Lily explained what was most important to her in the following way: “My personal freedom. That I'm entitled to do almost whatever I want to do. This freedom that I have, not being controlled by something. That's such an important part of me” (Lily). Mia described in a similar manner how central freedom was to her: “I love freedom. Freedom on multiple levels is the most important thing in my life” (Mia). For most of the women, considerations concerning freedom in their lives was a significant factor in their decision not to have children. The need for freedom was often even constituted as the most important facilitator of voluntary childlessness: “Freedom has been the most important thing for me. The feeling of freedom. I'm not controlled by someone or something” (Alice). Freedom in this sense translated into “being independent” and “being autonomous”: “I've always been independent” (Ewa). This freedom was described as a part of their deep-rooted identity and as an important part of their personal identity construction. References to freedom was a way for these women to define themselves and who they were. The interviews reveal how choosing to remain without children concerned deeper layers of self-images and identities in line with the individualization thesis that emphasizes that this is a choice that raises questions about: “Who am I?”(Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 105). Fanny explained what she meant with freedom in this sense: “I've been very independent in all my life and gone my own way without listening to anybody” (Fanny). In this way, the childfree position was understood and explained as a manifestation of an inherent drive for freedom that characterized all aspects of their lives: “Being childfree is a necessity to me. Freedom is necessary for me to be able to live and feel good. So it's like breathing the air” (Mia). The importance of freedom in the construction of a positive childfree identity was also manifested when they explained how they preferred to call themselves “childfree”: “Because it indicates that there is a choice. I have made a choice. I have chosen not to have children. It hasn't been a struggle… it's just that I chose this instead” (Hanna). Some of them therefore strongly objected to the concept “voluntarily childless”: “I wouldn't use ‘voluntarily childless’. I would never say ‘childless’ because it implies missing something. No, it's ‘childfree’. I'm free from that burden” (Diana). “Voluntarily childless” was perceived as problematic because it implies a sense of loss or deficiency and reflects the “hegemonic ideal of motherhood” (Gillespie, 2003: 134): “‘Childfree’ sounds better and more positive than ‘childless’. Just like if there is something one misses, and there isn't” (Beatrice). It was hence important for the women to make the distinction between “childless” and “childfree”: “It's all about attitude. Because the childless is without something. She wants something that she misses. But the childfree is free. It's a nuance in the language” (Alice).iii The expressions of freedom as a part of a deep-rooted identity were especially pronounced among 12 of the women when they discursively positioned themselves as ‘early articulators’ through a specific type of childhood narratives. Previous research has usually defined the group of early articulators as those who have an intention to remain childless relatively early in life (Veevers, 1973). “Early” has there been defined as “even before marriage” (Houseknecht, 1987; Park, 2005). However, in these childhood stories “early articulator” was given a new
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meaning: “I've never wanted children and I said that already when I was nine years old” (Fanny). These childhood stories often included references to a lack of interest in playing with dolls: “Actually, I've never wanted children. I didn't even play ‘house’ when I was a kid” (Sandra). Some of the women referred to their mother as an observer when they recalled how they articulated their rejection of motherhood at a very young age: Ever since I was born, according to my mother, I've always been tremendously independent. I need a lot of time and space for myself. I get my strength from within… from being alone, spending time with myself and do what I want. [Cecilia] This way of framing the choice to remain childfree with reference to their childhood and upbringing, portrayed the choice as necessary, essential and inevitable (cf. Gillespie, 2000; Ireland, 1993). As such, the childhood stories were a part of narratives that constructed voluntary childlessness as a rational choice for a woman who wants “enough time to have a life of her own” (Movius, 1976: 62). The childless alternative was recognized as a legitimate alternative at the same time as the childfree women themselves were portrayed as rational decision-makers. This position stands in sharp contrast to how voluntary childless women have been stereotyped as selfish, neurotic, unnatural and immature (Letherby, 2002). Voluntary childless women's risk biographies The discourse about the positive and cherished (child) freedom was closely intertwined with a negative evaluation of motherhood and a problematizing discourse on children as circumscribing that kind of freedom. The women drew on this discourse when they expressed clear ideas about what they were free from in their everyday, childfree, lives. In contrast to the freedom associated with the childfree life, the women interviewed understood motherhood as exceedingly timeconsuming (cf. Movius, 1976). This discourse involves narratives about avoiding the penalties of motherhood and describes the push away from motherhood. The discourse depicts motherhood and activities associated with motherhood as involving a loss of control and even loss of identity for women. Motherhood was thus understood as conflicting with the desire of a “life of one's own”. This discourse frames voluntary childlessness within the theories that identify risk as the basic feature of the individualized society (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). Our lives become risky projects when everything is a matter of unavoidable and rational decisions at the same time as situations are permeated by a high level of uncertainty. As self-focused individuals we have to create our own risk biographies through responsible decisions and calculations of the possible consequences (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). Childrearing consumes time, physical and mental energy, material goods, financial capital, and other resources and “nearly always means a considerable restriction of everyday movement and future possibilities” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 70). Within this discourse freedom was defined in terms of: “not wanting to give priority to someone else, not wanting to take
responsibility for someone else” (Beatrice) and: “listen to my own needs and put myself first” (Iris). Several of the women explained that they were pushed away from motherhood due to the wish to: “not feel trapped by anything” (Ulrika) and motherhood became the definition of being trapped. Mothers were understood to be trapped because of the need for parents to “give priority to the children” (Victoria) and forsake their own needs, wants, wishes, desires and dreams, even the most basic ones: “It's more important to feed the children than eating yourself” (Beatrice). Motherhood was perceived as restricting women's freedom in the most fundamental aspects, necessary in their lives: With children, you really don't have a life of your own. You aren't entitled to have time of your own. You aren't in possession of your waking hours and hardly your sleeping hours. You don't own your ﬁnancial resources. You don't own your future or your dreams. You don't own anything at all. You have to dedicate everything to the child. [Alice] While the childfree lifestyle was depicted as a way to protect and uphold an independent and autonomous identity and live a life characterized by freedom the women understood becoming a mother as meaning “that you lose a part of yourself” (Iris). Some of the women acknowledged that motherhood was a life changing experience that “changes you as a person, partly” and entails that “your priorities change” (Lily). But motherhood was still mainly associated with “sacrifices” because although life changes “you will still have your dreams and wishes and you will be prevented from fulfilling them” (Lily). The sacrifices and responsibilities associated with motherhood and childrearing were estimated as too large in relation to the benefits of remaining childfree: “I really don't want to be trapped. You can't just stop existing as a person just because you have a kid” (Nora). Nora explained how she understood motherhood as involving: “to always keep a watchful eye on children”, something that was understood to prevent mothers from relaxing and “having fun” (Nora). Kristina exclaimed: “shit, the boring lives people live” (Kristina) referring to the lifestyle of nuclear families. She continued to explain what she associated with that kind of “boring” life: “Their lives are so extremely planned in detail and strictly limited. And all that planning… I don't want to feel trapped. That kind of life is not for me” (Kristina). Here, freedom is defined in terms of lack of routine in everyday life and a lack of a rigidity and determinism that was understood as restricting time and space for parents. The childfree women perceived the “boring” life that parents were “trapped” in as restricted and full of obligations: “Well, it just sounds like a lot of hard work. [laugh]” (Gaby). When answering questions about what they mostly appreciated with a childfree lifestyle the women also brought up that children affect the equality between woman and man in a relationship negatively. The women were aware of that becoming a parent had gendered consequences and influenced the freedom of women and men differently. The risks involved with motherhood increased for women due to lack of gender equality. Tania explained that her childfree choice was influenced by “the fact that it's so unequal” and that “women had to take the blow” (Tania). Just as Tania, Diana, had reflected
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over that a previously gender equal relationship was no guarantee that men would share childcare responsibilities, even if: “Swedish men are better than other men” (Diana). Johanna stated in a similar way: “Becoming a parent is not gender equal even if it's better in Sweden”. She continued to express with determination: “I'll certainly not become some kind of housewife” (Johanna). Childfree women are sometimes accused of being “childhaters”, and previous research has documented that some of them actually openly do dislike children (Mitchell & Gray, 2007; Veevers, 1979). The discourse that depicted children as risky ventures also included negative accounts of children: “Children think that the universe revolves around them and that they always have to be in the centre of attention and always come first” (Ewa). The risks associated with how children restricted the freedom of parents were viewed as exceedingly severe, presented as potentially threatening parent's health: “Children are like torture. Depriving someone of their sleep is a method of torture. Parents never have time to take care of themselves and they are always tired” (Ewa). However, besides these statements from Ewa, most of the childfree women interviewed objected to the accusation of disliking children. The results illustrate that it was not children per se that they disliked. Although being childfree was a necessary condition for the women in order to realize freedom in their daily lives, it was not a sufficient condition. To realize this kind of freedom and independence also other life choices had to be made. Consequently, they argued in similar ways about being “trapped” by pets. Being responsible for pets was also perceived as restricting the owner's freedom and independence as it would mean that someone was “dependent on me” (Gaby) which made them “feel trapped” (Cecilia) and prevented them from feeling “spontaneous” (Beatrice): “It's important for me not to have responsibility for someone else. I don't have any pets either because I don't want to be responsible for it” (Beatrice). Contrary to the popular myth about childfree women's attachments to pets as unhealthy and as substitution for the missing child, these women also disliked pet ownership because they understood it as decreasing their freedom (cf. Bartlett, 1994; Campbell, 1999; Morell, 1994; Veevers, 1980). Besides children and pets, also intimate relationships were understood as risky ventures. Previous research has highlighted how childfree women are more likely to reject marriage and prefer to remain single, thereby achieving social and economic independence (Dykstra & Hagestad, 2007; Houseknecht, 1987). Although living as a childfree, cohabiting couple has been described as a living arrangement that allows for almost the same kind of freedom and independence as living alone, cohabitation was rejected as a preferable option by some of the interviewed women. Their great need for independence and freedom influenced how they practically arranged and organized their intimate and affective relationships. Four of the women found that there was an inherent contradiction between keeping their independence while at the same time living together with a man. Fanny explained: I have this great need to be alone and be on my own. A great, great need. And it just doesn't work with kids. And it's the same with boyfriends. Living apart together is the only option. [Fanny]
Living apart together replaced cohabitation or marriage as a long-term couple form for these women. Paula also expressed the advantages of this kind of relationship: I'm in control over my own time to 100%. I have a real strong need to be alone. That's why we are still living apart together. I need to be in control of my alone time. [Paula] Not being married or not even be cohabiting increased the women's feeling of being able to be independent to the extent that they needed. Concluding analysis and discussion This article has examined the different meanings that freedom has in the narratives of a group of childfree women in Sweden. It contributes to previous research on voluntary childlessness by illustrating the nuances in how freedom is used to constitute the childfree position. Two main discourses have been identified — the freedom discourse and the risk discourse. The first discourse displays the wide variety of aspects of freedom that the childfree women enjoy in their everyday lives. The analysis has focused on how this freedom discourse emerged from the interviews rather than how it appeared in the individual women's stories. Although outside the scope of this article, it is important to note that how freedom is defined within this discourse differs due to the women's current position taking into account for example age, relationship status, background and occupation. In order to continue to investigate these discourses, future studies should be mindful to adopt an intersectional perspective that further can draw attention to, and explain, these differences between women (cf. Engwall, 2014; Ludvig, 2006). Drawing on a small qualitative study the results are of exploratory character and the aim of the article is not to provide new theory or to attempt to produce generalized knowledge about the experiences of voluntary childless women. Instead, the exploratory approach tries to identify and discuss some key variables that shape the experiences of voluntary childless women and situate these experiences in the Swedish society. The goal is to contribute to a better understanding of voluntary childlessness and to suggest new perspectives on the topic and draw attention to aspects important to further investigate. It is important to note that these freedom and risk discourses are not encompassing all the multi-layered motives that inform women's decisions to remain childless. Furthermore, these discourses also include what appear to be rationalization and justification of the decision after they reached the childfree position and started to reflect on benefits of the childless lifestyle that they enjoyed (cf. Houseknecht, 1987). Using the individualization thesis as the theoretical framework to analyze the interviews proved constructive. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002: 105) describe how the question of children raises questions that concern gender-specific ideas of equality and justice and about what constitutes a “modern woman” and “the right way to live”. When investigating stigmatized choices and marginalized groups in society it can therefore be fruitful and interesting to draw attention to what is absent in the material and thus made invisible or taken for granted (Peterson, 2014). Notably, references to freedom to
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seek out career opportunities were scarce in the interviews and these results need to be contextualized in the Swedish welfare society. Although the career oriented position has been a popular position for childfree women in many other countries, for example in the U S (cf. e.g. Somers, 1993), women in the Nordic welfare societies are expected to combine children with a successful professional career (Elvin-Nowak & Thomsson, 2001). Women and men both are expected to have a professional career just as they are increasingly expected to share the care responsibilities for children (Fjell, 2008). Being career oriented is thus not a legitimate explanation to voluntary childlessness and might not be accepted as a motive for childfree women (Wager, 2000). Consequently, other reasons must be given by Swedish childfree women to explain their decision. Dislike of children was another explanation that was rare in the interviews and therefore can be considered as not accepted as an explanation to the childfree decision. Instead, the freedom discourse framed voluntary childlessness within a broader context of freedom in the women's lives, weaving together stories about a lifestyle permeated by choices based on a need for freedom in relation not only towards children, but also pets and partners. This study thus illustrates how the women wanted their childfree decision to be understood less within a framework of dislike of children but more within a framework of several different lifestyle choices, where remaining childless only is one of several aspects. However, drawing on freedom discourses can also be controversial and can promote and reproduce stereotypes about childfree women. Previous research shows how childfree women often are stereotyped as being selfish, egoistic, selfcentered, immature and self-indulgent (Callan, 1986; Dykstra & Hagestad, 2007; Rich, Taket, Graham, & Shelley, 2011; Veevers, 1979). The interviews highlighted how this stereotype was present in the childfree women's lives: “You hear that a lot: ‘it's so egoistic not to have children’” (Beatrice) although it was rewritten and reframed by them as they discursively separated “freedom” from “selfishness”. “The worst comment I know is when people call me egoistic. To whom? Am I egoistic towards the unborn child? I think it's a ridiculous comment” (Nora). The source of these stereotypes is the pronatalist belief that motherhood, associated with being mature, nurturant and unselfish, is the primary role for women (Letherby, 2002). In contrast, childfree women become viewed as deviant, selfish, aberrant, immature and unfeminine (Letherby, 1994; Rich et al., 2011). The need for freedom also disagrees with the expected and accepted female norm and promotes these stereotypes of childfree women. The analysis in this article suggests that the stereotype about selfishness is based on an understanding of independence, autonomy and freedom as utterly unfeminine characteristics, needs and behaviors. That freedom is not a gender neutral category but a typical characteristic of masculinity is illustrated if comparing the results to those of Terry and Braun (2012) who interviewed childfree men in New Zealand. The men, who had “preemptive” vasectomies, described themselves and their lifestyles as “selfish”. Although the women in this study and the men in Terry and Braun's (2012) study seem to draw on similar neoliberal discourses about choice and personal responsibility men's privileged position is apparent in the ease with which the men access the discourse about
freedom — and selfishness. Being a woman is still closely intertwined with the role of being a mother and accessing a discourse about disliking children, being uninterested in children or just not good with children, is less provocative for a man than for a woman (Terry & Braun, 2012). When drawing on the freedom discourse childfree women thus fail to conform to the feminine ideal about attachment, connectedness, dependence and concern for others. The decision to renounce motherhood must be placed within a social context where motherhood still is constructed as an essential part of the identity of (ideal) womanhood. Childfree women, striving to remain free and independent, become a threat, to heteronormative values, to parenthood as an ideal, and to the patriarchal structure in society (Frisén, Carlsson, & Wängqvist, 2014). Interestingly, the risk discourse has also been identified in interviews with young adults in Sweden who planned to become parents in the future. They used it in order to refer to the need to focus on their own hopes and dreams while young when explaining their reasons for postponement of parenthood (Frisén et al., 2014). However, unlike these emerging adults that postponed parenthood instead of rejecting it, the childfree women in this study described this self-focus more as a personal trait than as a temporary and transitional phase during a short period in their lives. Although drawing on the same discourse, these two groups come to very different conclusions and decisions. Further research is needed to facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of why voluntary childless women and mothers make these different choices regarding family formation although identifying similar risk scenarios. Asking questions not only about why some women choose not to have children but also about why some women choose to have children is less normative and a way to avoid to reproduce the pronatalist assumption that voluntary childlessness is abnormal. Do mothers understand motherhood as positive risk-taking while voluntary childless women fail to recognize the benefits and rewards of motherhood (cf. Tulloch & Lupton, 2003)? Instead of acknowledging that becoming a parent can be positive for personal development the voluntarily childless women emphasized that children constitute an obstacle to their self-actualization process (cf. Frisén et al., 2014). This discourse incorporates ideas about the necessity of the mother's accessibility and closeness to the child reproduced within the discourse of intensive and “good” motherhood (Maher & Saugeres, 2007; Miller, 2007). This is a discourse about children that has been identified as dominant in Sweden (Elvin-Nowak & Thomsson, 2001). The women also drew on the Swedish discourse of equality that positions mothers as employed women (Elvin-Nowak & Thomsson, 2001). However, the childfree women found the planning and the rigid structure that was needed in the everyday lives of mothers to balance the caring for the child and a professional career as limiting the freedom to have spontaneity in their lives and have time to focus on themselves. They also seemed aware that despite the dual-earner model being normative in Sweden, women still work part-time more than men, and take care of family, children and housework more than men do (Lister, 2009). However, in contrast to previous research (cf. e.g. Ireland, 1993; Movius, 1976; Veevers, 1979) the problem with lack of gender equality was not located to the labor market
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or attributed to lack of policies in support of gender equality. Instead the problem was located to the private sphere and the negotiations between the parents about sharing the responsibility for care of home and children equally (Bernhardt, Noack, & Lyngstad, 2008; Frisén et al., 2014). Have new lines of biographical development emerged for women as suggested by the individualization thesis? The use of discourses on freedom and risk, associated with men's life courses and positions, can be interpreted as reflecting that the increasing individualization has: “brought the normal life story of women closer to that of men” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 54). These discourses make it possible for the voluntary childless women to challenge, rather than become positioned by, stereotypes about voluntary childless women as selfish. However, the prevalence of pronatalism and stereotypes that blames voluntary childless women for being selfish imply that these women are caught between “no longer” and “not yet” and encounter ambivalence and contradictions (Beck & BeckGernsheim, 2002: 56). The lack of explicit references to ambivalence in the interviews can be explained with the essentially self-selected sample. Those who experienced ambivalence might not want to participate in a study such as this and share more painful experiences of hesitation or regret. Without disregarding the criticism aimed at theories about the increasing individualization in society, this article concludes by suggesting that voluntarily childless women constitute a particularly interesting group to study in order to provide some empirical support for the individualization thesis and that they can be considered as in the front of individualization processes. Acknowledgments The author is indebted to the two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments and helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this article. Research support from Forte: Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (grant number 2012-1159) is gratefully acknowledged.
Endnotes i This article draws on articles published in English-language journals and with few exceptions (cf. Riessman, 2000; Tanaka & Johnson, 2014) deals with voluntary childlessness in Western, industrialized countries. ii The concept “pronatalism” refers to the ideology which places a high value on procreation and on parental roles (Veevers, 1979). The term is frequently used in literature on voluntary childlessness to explain the stereotypes surrounding voluntary childlessness and the negative attitudes that voluntary childless women and men face (cf. e.g. Houseknecht, 1987; Koropeckyj-Cox & Pendell, 2007; Park, 2005; Tanturri & Mencarini, 2008). iii There are a variety of terms denoting the status of choosing not to parent, for example “voluntarily childless”, “intentionally childless”, “childless by choice”, and “childfree” (Dykstra & Hagestad, 2007; Kelly, 2009). The concept "childless" implies being without a child, being bereft, as in the meaning of being homeless or friendless. The concept “childfree” is more positive and implies emancipation from children, as compared with carefree. The term “voluntarily childless” is thought to be more neutral while the term childfree is more political. The childfree community exclusively seems to prefer “childfree”. For example most internet-based discussion groups and networks refer to “childfree” rather than “childless”. Due to the fact that the participating women themselves so strongly expressed their preference, the term “childfree” will be used in this article. However, this should not be understood as suggesting a denigration of the choice to mother. The term “voluntary childlessness” will also be used as this is more common and established.
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