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Understanding the Child-free Identity

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) author Adi Avivi writes as follows:

The women in my study reported on their experience meeting other childfree individuals online, receiving support, information, and a safe place to discuss their thoughts and feelings regarding child freedom. They discovered that although they were all CF, they reached that identity through different paths. Becoming self-aware and introspective about the CF identity was a process some made quickly while others were still engaging. Some viewed child freedom as a defining part of themselves, while others claimed it was not necessarily the most significant piece of their identity. As one of the subjects said:
S18: “I think it is important to note that you can’t paint all CF women with the same brush. We have all made the same decision, but we have all had drastically different paths that lead us to that decision. It’s very interesting to speak with other women who have had very different life experiences than I have, but who have also decided not to bring another person into this world.”

A Sense of Confusion
One of the aspects within this construct was the sense of confusion many of the subjects felt due to the gap between what they wanted or considered preferable—namely: not to mother children—and what they thought was possible and acceptable. Although some of the women—especially those who knew from a young age that they did not want children—responded with frustration and anger toward others who questioned and criticized them, others questioned themselves and assumed motherhood was a must.
S20: “I think that until I was about 25, I absolutely dreaded the possibility of having children and felt no desire whatsoever for it, but I still assumed that it was going to happen someday, simply because there seemed no other option (certainly not in the society in which I grew up, which is totally fertility-obsessed).”
The self-identified “early articulators” expressed confidence in their lack of desire to have children; however, they did not necessarily believe they would be able to follow that desire. Growing up, these individuals were aware that their choice was unfamiliar, as they did not have examples of women who elected not to mother in their respective cultures. Others’ reactions were often dismissive or critical, leaving the CF child or teenager without role models or mentors to guide her in discovering the CF aspect of herself.
S21: “I didn’t have anyone — a mentor, teacher or family member — once tell me, “You have a choice in the matter, and whatever you choose is okay.” I looked at parenthood as something that was necessary — something to dread.”
The lack of familiar examples such as famous people, pop-culture references, or texts that normalized child freedom could account for the above mentioned assumption of some participants that parenting was a must. The lack of CF cultural content may also explain the experience of participants who were not sure about their child freedom from an early age. For them, the decision was more complicated, requiring deep self-exploration before coming to terms with not having children. They sought therapy, talked to friends and family, had long discussions with their spouses, and sometimes had to cope with emotionally challenging soul-searching processes. Such an emotional process was presented in Safer’s (1996) account of her decision not to have children. She described a long journey in which she and her spouse engaged in continuous conversations until they decided to remain CF. Safer also talked about a period of mourning over the lost opportunity of motherhood, although she was content with her choice to remain CF.

Psychology: Little Attention to Child-freedom

Psychoanalysis and psychology in general also provide little information for the CF. Even in critical and feminist psychoanalytical theories, the focus on motherhood did not change; rather, the perspective on parenting expanded, included fathers to a larger extent, and incorporated social, political, and cultural ideas that viewed motherhood in context (Chodorow, 1978; Benjamin, 1988, Fast, 1984). There are some indirect notes on the possibility that motherhood is not for all women. Benjamin (1988), in her criticism over psychoanalysis’ association between femininity and nature, stated that some feminists’ equation between womanhood, motherhood, and nature was a problem rather than a way to empower women, because just like men, women were social and not just biological, and their intersubjectivity lay within their social interactions (p. 80). Chodorow (2003) also noted that she did not believe motherhood is a “natural destiny” (p. 1185) for all women. Furthermore, she stated that she did not believe that not-mothering is inherently pathological. This being said, she chose to explore the experiences of women who regretted choosing not to mother and analyzed the psychological dynamics that played a part in their arriving at the conclusion that they wanted children when it was too late. Chodorow can hardly be accused of seeing motherhood through a traditional and patriarchal lens (see Chodorow, 1978), and one could safely assume that she would support CF women and legitimatize their choice. Still, there appears to be a lack of space to explore the CF choice as positive and promising of happiness. As one subject in my study stated:
S21: “I think that younger women need us older gals to step up and say, ‘Hey, you CAN get through this stage of life. Don’t let it get you down!’ Hence, why I drop into CF forums.”
It is also important to note that despite often being warned that they will regret their child freedom, CF individuals do not typically experience regret, even later in life (DeLyser, 2011).
One psychoanalytic article that concentrated on women who chose not to mother is Hird’s (2003) “Vacant Wombs.” In this article, Hird explored the psychoanalytic approaches to reproduction and motherhood and gave a psychodynamic viewpoint to her prior work on child freedom (Hird & Abshoff, 2000). She advocated for an inclusive approach that took into account CF women within psychoanalysis, claiming that such inclusion would enrich the field and create space for diversity. Such inclusion might allow women to reach their CF with less turmoil, as some of the women in this study experienced:
S21: “Sometimes I still get that feeling that there’s something ‘wrong’ with me for not wanting to be a parent. Checking in with other CF folks makes me feel more ‘normal’.”
S9: “[Engaging in CF forums] also helped me to stop beating myself up for not being ‘normal’. I felt less like a freak of nature.”

A Safe Haven in the CF Online Community

For many of the women in my study, finding a CF community online was the first encounter with others who did not want to parent. With the discovery that others were like them, they also discovered how different they were, sometimes finding that they had nothing else in common. Much like parenting, non-parenting is a choice that evolves in a plethora of ways and is uniquely executed in each individual’s life. This variety could attest to the wellbeing inherent in this choice; it is not the product of some misfortune or failure, but a natural outcome for a range of life routes.
Another interesting aspect the CF identity was the approach the women took to their bodies’ potential for pregnancy. As one develops her identity and finds that she does not want to have children, she is faced with some decisions regarding her body (Peterson and Engwall, 2013; Richie, 2013). The mature female body is not physically consistent with the wish not to become pregnant, if biologically healthy. Thus, for most, the CF identity requires significant prevention measures. For some of the participants, cementing their choice through sterilization became part of their journey. Richie (2013) explores personal, legal, and medical aspects of sterilization for childfree women. She notes: “Barriers to the chosen method of birth control are constantly being encountered by capable women who are certain that they do not want children. This is seen in both the stories of women who seek support for finding a provider to sterilize them and in the sparse data on childfree sterilized women” (p. 42).

References:

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Benjamin, J. (1988). The Bonds of Love. New York: Pantheon Books.
Benjamin , J. (1995), Like Subjects, Love Objects. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press .
Chodorow, N. J. (1978). The reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press.
Chodorow, N. J. (2003). ‘Too late’: Ambivalence about motherhod, choice, and time. Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, 51(4), 1181-1198.
DeLyser, G. (2011). At midlife, intentionally childfree women and their experiences of regret. Clinical Social Work Journal, 40, 66-74.
Fast , I. (1984). Gender identity. A differentiation model. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
Peterson, H., & Engwell, K. (2013). Silent bodies: Childfree women’s gendered and embodied experiences. European Journal of Women’s Studies. 20(4), 376-389.
Richie, C. (2013). Voluntary Sterilization for Childfree Women: Understanding Patient Profiles, Evaluating Accessibility, Examining Legislation. The Hastings Center

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Understanding the Child-free Identity

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.


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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). Understanding the Child-free Identity. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 25, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/see-saw-parenting/2019/01/understanding-the-child-free-identity/

 

Last updated: 24 Jan 2019
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