Voluntary and Involuntary Childlessness

Cover of Voluntary and Involuntary Childlessness

The Joys of Otherhood?



Table of contents

(19 chapters)


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Section I Theoretical Perspectives on Voluntary and Involuntary Childlessness


Existing reviews of research on voluntary childlessness generally take the form of narrative summaries, focusing on main topics investigated over time. In this chapter, the authors extend previous literature reviews to conduct a systematic review and content analysis of socio-historical and geopolitical aspects of knowledge production about voluntary childlessness. The dataset comprised 195 peer-reviewed articles that were coded and analysed to explore, inter alia: the main topic under investigation; country location of authors; sample characteristics; theoretical framework and methodology. The findings are discussed in relation to the socio-historical contexts of knowledge production, drawing on theoretical insights concerned with the politics of location, representation and research practice. The shifts in the topics of research from the 1970s, when substantial research first emerged, uphold the view of voluntary childlessness as non-normative. With some regional variation, knowledge is dominated by quantitative, hard science methodologies and mostly generated about privileged, married women living in the global North. The implications of this for future research concerned with reproductive freedom are outlined.


Becoming a mother is a significant transition in adult development. For women who wanted to have children but found themselves unable to do so, life without the fulfilment of motherhood can affect meaning-making in everyday life. Although increasing numbers of studies concerning childlessness have been carried out, much of this research has tended to focus on infertility and issues around fertility treatments. Little is known, however, about the psychological impact childlessness can have on women in midlife and how they experience the absence of children. The aim of this chapter is to offer readers an overview of psychological understanding in current research trends by reviewing papers that focus on women in midlife who are involuntarily childless. Findings from the 40 most relevant papers will be discussed under one of four key features: (1) psychological distress: medical consequences of infertility, (2) childlessness: life-span perspectives, (3) involuntary childlessness: psychosocial perspectives and (4) coping: ways of building resilience. The findings point to the dominance of quantitative approaches in researching infertility, while confirming that little has been carried out that looks at lived experience of involuntary childlessness. I hope the findings shown here will point to the necessity of psychological research applying qualitative experiential approaches that can facilitate a deeper understanding of women facing this challenge.


In this chapter, I consider how voluntarily childless (VC) women can respond not just to master narratives of mandatory motherhood, but to their own internalised narratives of wantonness – of not desiring something they ought, or of being ambivalent about motherhood altogether. This chapter, then, is about the practices of choosing and endorsing one’s desires, however clear or ambiguous, about intentional childlessness, and in the process, of learning to hold oneself as a valued moral agent, as a dissident, but non-wanton, self. Secondarily, it is also about challenging Frankfurt’s claims that the formation and maintenance of moral identities require a kind of wholeheartedness that admits of no doubts. First, I begin with a personal story of my struggles with desiring my choices – of coming to endorse, however not-wholeheartedly, my non-wanting of motherhood, and thus rejecting the pronatalist narratives that marked my first-order desires as mistaken, and my second-order ones as deviant. Second, I offer an overview of voluntary childlessness as experienced by women most pressured to reproduce in the context of the bad moral luck of pronatalism. I note that my approach, grounded in philosophical feminist value theory, is focused on women who are not involuntarily childless or infertile, and who, because of social, economic and other privilege find themselves to be the targets of pronatalist narratives of ‘desirable’ motherhood. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of the dissident practices of identity-creation through which women can embrace both their certainties and ambiguities about their VC status by offering counterstories in response to accusations of wanton-hood, or of improperly, unnaturally or heretically motivated wills.

Section II Structure, Agency and Childlessness


Explanations for voluntary or intentional childlessness range from macro-level forces, such as feminism and access to contraceptives, to micro-level or individual preferences, such as the prioritisation of leisure time over childrearing. However, some researchers contend that the decision (not) to have children is likely impacted by overlapping factors rather than a dichotomised characterisation of internal or external factors. This debate similarly reflects Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘third way’ theoretical and methodological orientation. Bourdieu argued against a false dichotomy between the influence of structure over an individual and the ability for individuals to make active, free choices. He instead claimed that the social world consists of a complex interplay of both individual and structural factors, which he conceptualised as habitus, capital and fields. This chapter initiates the link between current understandings of childbearing preferences with Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus (our taken-for-granted, internalised ideologies or identities), capital (economic, social, cultural and symbolic resources) and fields (the external social structures or institutions in which we interact) and proposes quantitative measures of childbearing habitus and capital.

This chapter consists of an exploratory comparison of characteristics of non-parents in relation to childbearing preferences, suggesting measures to identify deeply rooted childbearing habitus and the relationship between access to various forms of capital and the habitus. This study utilises survey responses from a sample of 972 childless men and women between 25 and 40 years of age, assessing measures of social support, cultural norms and economic resources in relation to participants’ preference to have or not to have children in the future. A multivariate nested logistic regression was conducted to explore the odds of identifying as voluntarily childless (VC) (not wanting or probably not wanting, to have children in the future) based on socio-demographic factors, as well as various measures of social, economic, cultural and symbolic capital. Findings indicate several variations in significant factors contributing to a preference to remain childfree. Measures of cultural capital, including gender ideologies and pronatalist ideologies, appeared to be the greatest predictors of childbearing habitus. These findings support research suggesting that VC adults are more egalitarian and less traditional in gender relations as well as pronatalist assumptions.


Women’s reproductive circumstances and choices have consequences for their experiences of social connectedness, inclusion and support across the life-course. Australia is a pronatalist country and women’s social identity remains strongly linked to motherhood. Yet the number of women foregoing motherhood is increasing. Despite this, women without children are perceived as failing to achieve womanhood as expected by pronatalist ideologies that assume all women are or will be mothers. Defying socially determined norms of motherhood exposes women without children to negative stereotyping and stigma, which has consequences for their social connectedness, inclusion and support. This chapter examines theories of social connectedness, inclusion and support, drawing on Australian empirical data to explore how women without children experience social connectedness, inclusion and support in a pronatalist society within their daily lives.


In childlessness literature, researchers often engage in a discussion of why some women (and men) intend or choose to remain childless, with an emphasis on macro-level or interpersonal experiences. However, further research is needed to identify the ways in which voluntarily childless (VC) adults actively negotiate the social world among structural influences that simultaneously value parenthood and place complex burdens on parents. Utilising the Bourdieuian concepts of habitus, capital and field, this chapter contributes to a shift in the conversation from ‘why’ individuals remain childless towards an understanding of ‘how’ childbearing preferences impact individuals’ lives in practice.

This research compares experiences and characteristics of non-parents in relation to childbearing preferences. This study explores a sample of 972 participants’ responses to two open-ended questions addressing particular social arenas or experiences where they feel pressured or encouraged to have children as well as those where they feel pressured or encouraged not to have children. Responses were coded using a general inductive approach to identify emerging themes regarding the social fields and the nature of the interactions relevant to childbearing preferences. A between group comparison of temporarily childless (TC) and VC participants indicated a number of similarities and differences that highlight the contradictions, hardships and benefits of actively deciding to delay or forgo having children.

Both groups frequently indicated family, friends, work or school, public spaces and other structural and cultural factors pressuring or encouraging them to have children, but also indicated pressures or encouragement within similar fields advising them not to have children. For both groups, many of the responses highlighted the contradictory nature of these messages. The similarities and differences between groups also highlight ways in which the current status of non-parent can lead to certain similar social experiences, regardless of personal preference for the future, while also showing a number of ways these encounters are experienced or perceived differently, based on this preference.

Section III Intersectional Perspectives on Childlessness


Discourses on ageing and childlessness coalesce around the notion that childless women will experience regret and loneliness in old age. In the United Kingdom, the idea that children (mostly women) will provide care in old age tends to be normalised and underpins social care provision. In recent times, media coverage of childless women has also tended to sustain and promote this. This discourse occurs within a context where childlessness is on the rise and where there is little academic interest in the topic.

Our chapter will report on a constructivist grounded theory study with women who choose not to have children. A key aim of the study was to explore the consequences of participants’ choices on their lives. Twenty-one women aged between 45 and 75, from across England, Scotland and Wales participated. The age criteria were chosen to reflect the category that is used by the Office of National Statistics to denote that women’s reproduction ends at 45. This also helps to construct a social norm that women aged 45 and over are seen as older women. Findings reveal that most participants experience no regrets following their choice not to have children. Some express ‘half regrets’ while all challenge the societal expectation that without children there will be no one to care for them when they are older.

This supports the limited, mainly autobiographical literature, on loss and regret. It also refutes the unquestioned and widely believed assumption that women who choose not have children will live to regret it. For participants, the choice for motherhood was but one choice from a menu of many others. Their choice was for something more meaningful for them rather than a choice against motherhood. Consequently, participants had no reason to experience loss or regret. These findings also question the discourse, which implies that children will ensure care in older age. It presents a challenge to the myth that the family is a haven of happiness and support in an ever-changing world. Crucially, it supports calls for more inclusive policy making to address the care needs of all older people.


Although childless women comprise around 17% of women aged 65 and over in the US (Census Bureau, US, 2016) and up to 20% in other places in the world (Dykstra, 2009), the intersection of childlessness, female gender and old age has not been as widely explored as is necessary; older women have historically been and continue to be overlooked in feminist research compared to other groups of women (Browne, 1998; Ray, 1996; Twigg, 2004). Therefore, how childlessness affects identity and identity, childlessness in later life is not well understood. Our analysis considered: How do never-married, childless women identify themselves in terms of age? What are the key features of such an age identity? And, do these identities align with progress narratives or narratives of decline? For this chapter, interviews with 53 older women (22 African American, 31 White) aged 60 and over, who described themselves as never married and without biological children, were analysed. Questions were semi-structured and open-ended and covered background health information, a life story interview, questions about social networks, various forms of generativity and the sample’s views about the future. Overall, these women negotiated their age identity not necessarily in relation to others (e.g. child, spouse) but in relation to themselves as social actors with an orientation towards the future – what will tomorrow bring? These forward-thinking narratives point to a new and important way to consider progress narratives and to rethink trajectories of the experience of aging.

Section IV Lived Experiences of Childlessness


This essay examines the lives of opposite-gender, cisgender, heterosexual married couples who have no children by choice, why the intentionally childless marriage lacks acceptance in society, and what is necessary for full societal acceptance. It discusses how intentionally childless married couples make the decision to have no children; the nature of their married lives and what a fulfilling marriage means to these couples; how these married couples are misperceived, stereotyped and why; the social and cultural pressures these couples face as well as ways they can address this issue in their personal and professional relationships; the research debate on whether marriages with children or without are happier; and the lives of these married couples in their elder years. In addition to relevant feminist theory, it discusses pronatalism as a powerful influence on why intentionally childless marriages remain judged and criticised. It looks at the societal progress that has been made to accept this kind of marriage, makes recommendations on what it will take for it to be accepted in society, and what today’s men and women can do to further promote its acceptance. The essay draws on: (1) research for Families of Two: Interviews with Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice (2000) which included interviews with 100 happily married opposite-gender, cisgender, heterosexual couples across the United States and in-depth interviews with 40 of them who span a wide range of ages and lifestyles; (2) relevant research discussed in The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World (2012); (3) grounded theory qualitative data collection since the year 2000; and (4) recent research literature in this area of study.


This chapter explores an aspect of voluntary childlessness that has been neglected in previous research; how voluntarily childless (i.e. childfree) women engage in partnership formation processes and how they perceive that these processes become influenced by their voluntarily childless status. Drawing on interviews with 21 voluntarily childless, heterosexual, Swedish women, this chapter highlights how their childfree decision(s) impacted their partnering behaviour, their chances to form an intimate relationship and their preferences concerning partners and partnerships. The results show some of the challenges these women faced as they engaged in partnership formation processes concerning; for example, constraints in partner availability and potentially conflicting preferences regards autonomy, reproduction and intimacy. In addition, partnership formation was complicated due to a lack of communication, misunderstandings and disbelief in their childfree choices. The analysis illustrates that it was of utmost importance to these women that their intimacy goals were respected and protected during these processes but that some of them were also willing to negotiate their partner ideal. Nevertheless, this chapter ends with a discussion of relationship dissolution due to ambivalence concerning childfree choices and intimacy goals both on behalf of the childfree woman and her partner.


Whether or not women have children has profound consequences for their employment experiences. Employers may see women with no children as conforming more closely than women with children (and yet not as closely as male employees) to the pervasive ‘ideal worker’ stereotype of a full-time, committed worker with no external responsibilities. However, managers and co-workers may also perceive women with no children as deviating from prevailing pronatalist norms in Australian and other comparable societies, which construct and value women as mothers and stigmatise and devalue women with no children. Accordingly, women with no children may be rewarded or penalised in different employment contexts at different times according to the degree to which they conform to or deviate from the most salient characteristics associated with the ideal worker and mothering femininity. This chapter explores patriarchal and capitalist configurations of femininities, masculinities and workers as drivers of employment experiences among women with no children. It then discusses empirical research from Australia and comparable countries, in order to elucidate the diversity of employment experiences among women with no children.


The growth in women’s entrepreneurship that has been witnessed recently in regions such as the USA has been lauded by scholars and policymakers alike. However, women continue to start businesses in sectors that reflect the kind of work that women do in the home, such as cooking, cleaning and catering. Research shows that women’s ‘choices’ for female-typed businesses are driven by their need to accommodate domestic responsibilities – that is, caring for children. This raises questions about whether women without such responsibilities are freer to start businesses in the types of industries (e.g. high technology) that have long been dominated by men. Furthermore, given pronatalist assumptions, there are questions about the extent to which childfree women operating businesses in male-dominated sectors are perceived as legitimate by their business relations. Taking these questions as a starting point, this chapter examines the way in which the intersections of parental status (mother/other) and gender role (in)congruence (congruent/incongruent) make the entrepreneurial experiences of women working in male-dominated/masculinised industries and sectors qualitatively different from the experiences of women working in female-dominated/feminised industries. Focus is upon the resources (i.e. social capital) that women entrepreneurs are able to secure from their social network, for the ability to secure such resources is a prerequisite to business success.

Section V National Perspectives on Childlessness


We chose to analyse Hungarian childlessness in order to map whether there is any voluntary childlessness at all in a society which is characterised by strong traditional family values and the widely accepted social norm that everyone should become a parent.

To answer to this question, we applied both quantitative and qualitative methods. First, we analysed the first three waves of the Hungarian panel survey ‘Turning Points of the Life Course’ conducted in 2001, 2004 and 2008. The focus is on men and women who were childless in 2001 and were still childless in 2008. To have a better understanding of the background of the quantitative results, we have also analysed 55 life-history interviews conducted with heterosexual men and women, who were recruited by using chain-referral sampling.

According to the qualitative findings the categorisation of childless people is quite fluid. For example, postponers became definitely childless while some originally voluntarily childless respondents became parents. However, the qualitative analysis allowed us to understand the mechanism behind this. In addition, using mixed methods also highlighted some inconsistencies between the qualitative and quantitative results.


Japanese women’s life courses have changed dramatically in recent history. Yet, transformation of the meanings and experiences of childlessness did not follow a linear, one-dimensional path. Childlessness in Japan today – strongly influenced by Western, modern education after the World War II – can indeed be interpreted as a form of liberation from a restrictively gendered life-course. However, in Japan’s pre-modern period, there were in fact alternative paths available for women to remain childless. As Japan became nationalised and the meanings of Japanese womanhood shifted, childlessness became increasingly stigmatised and notably, stigmatised across social classes.

This chapter provides concise accounts of the social meanings of marriage and fertility from the Tokugawa period through the Meiji period and continues with analysis of pressures faced by contemporary Japanese women who are childless. Also highlighted are the particular socio-demographic contexts which have brought involuntary childlessness, too, into the realms of public discussion and expected action on the part of the government. Through its account of the Japanese context, this chapter emphasises the larger theoretical, sociological argument that the historically placed social construction of childlessness – and thus, of the experiences and identities of childless women – always occurs through particular intersections of cultural, political-economic and demographic conditions.


Over the last two to three decades, European welfare states have witnessed fundamental changes in both family and labour market structures with many more women being in the paid labour market. While this was seen to address previous problems linked to women’s disadvantage, it has also been argued to give rise to new risk and social inequalities, including falling fertility rates and increasing childlessness. Research has identified the lack of affordable childcare as a key factor in childlessness leading to a strong EU focus on early childhood education and care. Since 2000, the EU has played a more proactive role in policies and initiatives aimed to address decreasing fertility rates with greater pressure for convergence among member states. However, there has continued to be a large degree of variation between countries. This chapter thus examines the case of Germany which has one of the highest levels of childlessness in Europe. It focuses on the intersection between childlessness and childcare provision in Germany and analyses the existing childcare arrangements with a view to understand how they influence childlessness. Particular attention is given to the role of the German government as the main actor in the process to explore ideology-related explanations of German policy-makers which led to contradictory policies. Relying on an extensive review of the related literature and policy documents, together with the personal interviews with policy-makers, academics and women’s organisations, this chapter concludes that the relatively conservative outlook of the German government which prioritises the motherhood and caregiver role, and the dominance of the corporate welfare system, has limited developments to improve access to childcare resulting in ‘a culture of childlessness’ in Germany (Kreyenfeld & Konietzka, 2017).


Pages 387-401
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Cover of Voluntary and Involuntary Childlessness
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Emerald Studies in Reproduction, Culture and Society
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Emerald Publishing Limited