'The Question of Children': Individualization and Voluntary Childlessness
Department of Technology and Social Change The Tema Institute Linköping, Sweden
This paper draws on semi-structured interviews with 19 Swedish, voluntarily childless (or 'childfree' as they preferred to call themselves), heterosexual women between 29 and 54 years of age. International research has addressed the subject, but in Sweden voluntary childlessness has been overlooked, although reproductive decision-making has attracted a lot of attention recently. In the public debate, childlessness has been recognized as an increasing problem (which sometimes almost also has been depicted as 'alarming') in the contemporary Western world, being an unwelcomed consequence of postponed parenthood. This paper contributes to the debate by highlighting the voluntarily childless woman's experiences of being negatively stereotyped, ignored, accused, shamed and called into question as a 'normal' woman. The decision to renounce motherhood should thus be viewed in the light of a social context where a 'fertility norm' is prevalent and motherhood is seen as an essential part of the identity of women.
However, according to some researchers, norms concerning (particularly women's) reproductive behaviour are challenged under the condition of growing individualization. It is suggested that women today experience a tension between their wish to have children and the possibility to have a 'life of their own'. In line with this, having children ceases to be a natural part of life and becomes 'the question of children'. Hence, women are forced to reflect over children and motherhood as an occupational, financial and existential risk.
This paper takes individualization as a theoretical starting-point when addressing the question: Can women's decision to renounce motherhood be interpreted as a decision influenced by the increasing individualization and as an expression of women's extended possibilities to break free from traditional, circumscribed ways of living? The main findings of this study show that the interviewed childfree women presented their choice to remain childfree as a result of a rational, conscious and deliberate decision-making process, involving for example considerations about identity and personal freedom (although not so much professional career). These childfree women also positioned themselves in relation to mothers (and fathers) who, according to the interviewed women, omitted to reflect over what the transition to parenthood really entails before becoming parents.