What's Not Being Said about Childlessness

February 27, 2014

Nearly 1 in 5 women in most Western countries today do not bear children.  What should we make of this trend?  What implications does it have for ourselves and for our future? 

 

Most commenters tend to examine only a few implications of childlessness--notably, its effects on work and its relationship to the timing of childbearing.

 

Work lies at the intersection between the labor market, state policy, and choice. For some the market is liberating women to pursue high-powered careers: women want to work, and the labor market has welcomed them. For others, the labor market is constricting women’s choices: The economic downturn has led prospective parents to delay children. Still others argue that the demographic imbalance that childlessness will bring threatens to put our economy, and especially our social welfare programs, into disarray.

 

The timing of childbirth involves biology, technology, and choice. Commentators tend to see changes in fertility as the result of recent changes in technology, notably the availability of reliable contraception. There is an awful lot that is still unknown about fertility (after all, as Elizabeth Gregory points out, you cannot do a scientific experiment to determine when fertility drops off) and a lot of uncertainty about fertility treatments, their effectiveness, cost, and morality. Some commentators peddle in fear mongering: Women who postpone children need to wake up to the reality that they won’t be fertile forever, and they had better get busy. Others look to technology to allow fertility to continue far longer.  Women are counseled to freeze their eggs now, while they can, in the hopes that they could lead to children years down the road.

 

At the heart of both of these issues--work and timing--is the notion of choice.  But most commentators do not probe the concept of choice very deeply. They assume that women exercise either a lot of choice, or not very much choice at all. On the one extreme, women are seen as autonomous individuals who makes autonomous choices, and for many, this choice is a recent phenomenon that comes out of 1970s feminism and today’s consumer culture. Many assume that women should be able to get everything they want, just maybe not all at the same time.

 

On the other extreme, and often at the same time, women are seen as victims of the labor market or even of their own bodies and choices. They either don’t know what’s best for themselves, or they are stymied by external forces.

 

I would like to expand the discussion on childlessness to include a wider range of issues, such as households and the stuff that passes through them; relationships over the lifetime with extended family, the state, intentional communities, and future generations; and the narratives we tell about ourselves regarding choice, ambition, work, vocation, creativity, and legacy. And I would like to explore the notion of choice more carefully, as we are always torn between our own will and the culture and society in which we live.

 

To explore these implications, we need a timeframe that extends earlier than the 1970s. That is what this blog is about.

 

 

 

Further reading:

 

Elisabeth Badinter, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, trans. Adriana Hunter (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011).  Graph is based on page 20.

 

Corinne Maier, No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children, trans. Patrick Watson, (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009).

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