July 18, 2006

How do we define "Childfree"?

In the course of doing research for my book on couples who are childfree by choice, I interviewed Duke University demographer and sociologist Dr. S. Philip Morgan. He asked how I determined who was childfree. I responded that my survey respondents were self-identified based on my main qualifier which was: Are you childless by choice, rather than circumstance?

I did not exclude singles or stepparents in my research and survey but, by intention, the subjects of my book and documentary are married or in partnerships in which both parties have chosen to remain childfree. I did this because these couples grapple with the stigma of childlessness to a greater degree than do singles or stepparents. I did exclude from my survey those who had intended children but lacked the opportunity or were infertile. I determined that these folks did not have the means or the opportunity to be biological parents and therefore were not really free to choose.

Yet, they are free to be childfree. In the past few years, I have met infertile couples who describe themselves as childfree. I have met stepparents who are childless by choice. I have met childfree singles. Much has to do with intention or attitude as we cannot predict with 100% percent accuracy who will be childless at the end of life. Some people who intend to have kids change their minds and some who intend to remain childless end up having kids. All might have identified as childfree at one stage in their lives.

So is childfree a process, a state of being or an attitude, or is the term reserved for those who intended to be childless and remained so for the rest of their lives? I invite your responses.

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Andrea Lawrence-Stuart said...

You might be interested in women's activist Gloria Feldt's articles in the ILF Post, which is the latest project in the International Leadership Forum's (ILF)program. I am referring Gloria to this blog as well because she will be interested in reading your post! It's http://www.ilfpost.org.

Teri said...

LauraS -- You asked...

"So is childfree a process, a state of being or an attitude, or is the term reserved for those who intended to be childless and remained so for the rest of their lives?"

I suggest that a more generous application of the term is best; that it is inclusive, not exclusive to those early articulators who are much focused on in the books that have already been published. I also think it is an attitude. I wanted children at one time and circumstances and my choice in partners dictated otherwise. I decided to be childfree over time, so I think is can also be a process.

Even in creating the term Purple Women, I learned that my initial definition of childfree was not broad enough. I had not included step-parents who considered themselves childfree. What's most important is how we define ourselves.

My two cents. What do others think?

Andrea -- Thanks so much for sharing the URL for this interesting article from the International Leadership Forum which has some rather well-noted authors on its panel. I will put a link to it in a short post on the front page so it is just a click away. Riveting read.

Tiara Lynn said...

I agree with LauraS on this one. I think it's incredibly valuable to explore the circumstances that led people like Chase and Robin, ladies who would be excluded from your definition, to lead childfree lifestyles. I think your intention, to deal with the stigma couples face, and that limiting your sample is important for focus, but it's very important to make it very, very clear that a Purple Woman is a Childfree woman, and the circumstances like those that Chase and Robin are dealing with don't make their decision any less important.

I think childfree can apply to anyone who hasn't had children with one major caveat -- they don't have a lingering longing and desire for children. Those are the people who are "childless". Many childfree women struggled against their biological clock (while some of us are fortunate to never hear the ticking), and to say that a requirement to join this exclusive club is a complete, lifelong lack of desire to have a child runs the risk of trivializing how difficult this choice is to make and live with.

LauraS said...

Andrea, Teri and Tiara,
Thanks for your comments and links! Meeting so many people who identify as childfree in the "big tent" sense got me thinking about the nomenclature, and how social scientists define us.
Your comments and this dialogue can expand our thinking around voluntary childlessness so that we can be, like Teri said, more inclusive.

ChrisR said...

Tiara's hit the nail on the head, I think.

It's the 'not wanting' part that makes us childfree and (especially for women) marks us out as somehow aberrant in society. We're supposed to want children and we don't.

The sense of community I get here stems from other people's responses to that.