In her chapter of our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Avivi writes as follows:
Masking the CF part of a woman’s identity can be interpreted as an attempt to avoid having to acknowledge the existence of more than one possibility. The idea that someone could be happy without children can be intimidating because it suggests multiplicity. In this context, the old social order has less power to restrict; choice itself emerges as an option. For those who cannot tolerate closeness to someone radically different from them, that multiplicity can be unbearable. For them, the solution might be to cancel the validity of the childfree woman’s difference and label her as deviant. In that, her subjectivity is denied and she becomes an object used to restore a sense of control and safety for others. As a further result, the wealth of alternatives is decreased, and with it, for those accepting the default path, so reduced is any anxiety stemming from the need to acknowledge that one’s mode of operation is not necessarily the best and only one. Reduced as well is the need to mourn the loss of the unchosen option. In other words, denying the legitimacy of child freedom prevents the narcissistic injury from the loss of omnipotence.
Indeed, the women in this study disclosed that they had to continuously negotiate whether to mask their child freedom or demand others acknowledge their identity. They routinely had to decide between honesty and self-censorship when talking about parenthood, feeling hesitant to be open and honest, anticipating that others would try to impose the notion that parenting was the only legitimate choice. In fact, even in a group with a majority of CF friends, participants stated that they evaded the topic if they feared the discussion would make non-childfree people uncomfortable:
S2: “I have other friends that are CF, but as we all usually hang out together, even [with] the over-sensitive future mom, we tend to censor ourselves.”
S7: “I have a few close friends who are hugely supportive, and I can be very open with them, but not with most.”
S10: “I also want to add that communicating online with other childfree women is important to me since I know no other childfree women offline.”
S15: “[My partner and I] have often felt isolated because of this and spent time with only each other. That used to bother me before finding other CF people online. Simply having that connection to other like-minded people has helped me be more comfortable (as) just the two of us.”
In his discussion of intersubjective relationships, Gerson (2004) claimed that meaning in each person is not created independently, but it is rather entangled in the inevitable interactions with others. In his discussion of different usages of the concept of “the third” or “thirdness” in psychoanalysis and specifically in intersubjective discourse, he found numerous definitions of this abstract notion variously employed by different writers. He identified three main usages of the concept: “the Developmental Third, the Cultural Third, and the Relational Third” (p. 64). When talking about the Cultural Third, he notes that this is a third entity that intrudes on the dyad and shapes its interaction. It is not a product of the meeting of two subjects, but what colors that meeting. By that, the third is the creation of a connection that contains cultural forces (Benjamin, 2004).
Gerson (2004) states that the Relational Third (p. 78) is not a third entity, concept, language, or person interacting with the dyad, but rather a product of the dyad. This, he claims, is the most common use of the “third” concept in intersubjective discourse. I understand the Relational Third as a process created by the ability of each subject to contain her own desire to both connect and maintain independence at the same time, as well as contain the other’s desire to both come close to her and maintain distance. In that, I feel mostly influenced by Benjamin’s (1988) writing about intersubjectivity as the ability to tolerate the “paradox of recognition” (p. 36) that is, the movement between the wish to control the other and the need to experience the other’s humanity, independence and freedom. It is of note that intersubjectivity in this sense is a process, a dynamic interaction — not an end result. According to Benjamin (1988, 1995, 2004), in order for an intersubjective encounter to unfold, individual similarities and differences must be tolerated.
THe Cultural Message
The childfree women in my study face a unique challenge in creating a Relational Third with others because the expectation and assumption that they will mother — furthermore, that they want to mother — colors their meetings with other subjects. That cultural message can be a form of Cultural Third that constructs the space between them and others, making their child freedom a stranger. In their meetings with others, there is an aspect of themselves that is at times completely outside of the realm of the dyad (or group) or is incomprehensible by the other. In more concrete terms, CF individuals who shared information about their child freedom with others were at risk of being criticized, insulted, and alienated in important relationships. In intersubjective terms, others wanted to control the childfree individual, to change who she was, and to demand that she be more similar to them. Others wanted to subjugate her so that her choice would no longer threaten them, placing her in the category of “not-me” (Sullivan, 1953 p.162-164.)
Benjamin, J. (1988). The Bonds of Love. New York: Pantheon Books.
Benjamin , J. (1995), Like Subjects, Love Objects. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press .
Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. 73, Issue 1.
Gerson, S. (2004). The relational unconscious: A core element of intersubjectivity, thirdness, and clinical process. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73(1), 63-99.
Sullivan, H.S. (1953). Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry: The First William Alanson White Memorial Lectures, W. W. Norton & Co, New York.