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1In this book, based on her doctoral thesis, Charlotte Debest puts forward a sociological analysis of SEnVols – a suggestive acronym [1] she found to designate “voluntarily childless” persons; that is, who have chosen not to become parents. She draws on a set of 51 life accounts of men and women over age 30, all of who responded to her call for interviews and therefore described themselves as voluntarily childless. Debest’s respondents either did or did not have an intimate partner and were included regardless of sexual orientation or conjugal situation.

2The book fills a gap in our scientific knowledge on the question, and in so doing attests to the invisibility in French society of the absence of desire for children. That invisibility is an effect of social pressure. Voluntary childlessness levels, which can be thought of as a symmetrical assessment of fertility levels, have only been investigated in France since 1995. According to the results of the 2011 Fecond survey (Fertility-contraception-sexual dysfunctions), 5% of persons aged 18-50 and 3.5% of persons reporting an intimate partner are voluntarily childless.

3In her review of the French context, where pro-birth policies together with relatively late birth control legislation have tended to favour parenthood, Debest demonstrates that social norms are always inscribed in specific historical dynamics. France seems particularly attached to an essentialist vision of the family structure, in which having children is often perceived as a natural, logical step in the transition to adulthood (p. 129). The author’s research not only performs the valuable service of exposing the forms of our French social organization, but also situates them in a gender system that “ascribes the reproductive sphere to women and … the productive sphere to men” (p. 15).

4The notion of “reconciliation”, especially of family and work life, is useful in understanding how SEnVols come to conceptualize sexual inequality in the parent relationship. Mentioning examples of mothers in their families or among their friends, the women interviewed cite the constraints imposed on those women by the tasks of rearing and caring for children. More women than men report “having other priorities”. But their criticism of compulsory motherhood based on observed experience is also philosophical; in other words, these women refuse to be assigned a status that would prevent them from defining themselves as individuals. They also mention unequal task sharing, wherein women are the ones forced to reconcile their occupational, parental, conjugal and personal lives. To support this argument, they cite several examples of women – and women only – who chose part-time jobs or a fall in occupational status when their children were born. Conversely, fatherhood does not seem to require men to change their schedules: a large majority maintain the same degree of involvement in their job. This explains why, in interviews with childless men, the issue of reconciling family and work life does not come up, a sign that these men do not project themselves into daily parental functions that are not first and foremost theirs. These accounts illustrate particularly well how, for the women questioned, not becoming a mother can represent the possibility of realizing individual aspirations similar to men’s.

5But though these criticisms are indeed mentioned in the study, they are far from being decisive in the choice of the women questioned. The strength of Debest’s book also lies in her deconstruction of the prejudices associated with childlessness, notably the assumption that childless people lead sad and solitary lives. What comes through in this book is a positive vision of not wanting to have children, one where considerable importance is attached to the ideas of greater individuality and “freedom” in the sense of having time for oneself. Positive also because this choice enables people to refuse to take on the responsibilities involved in determining the life of another human being, in raising that person and therefore being a major source of his or her potential suffering. Also, contrary to widespread representations, the survey shows that a majority of childless individuals have and live with an intimate partner – whereas the tendency in France is to associate conjugality with fertility. The fact that couples choose not to become parents is here considered decisive in overcoming societal injunctions for women to fit into the “image of the ideal woman who combines professional, parental and conjugal life while fulfilling herself personally”, with all the difficulties this entails (p. 167).

6The book also analyses childless respondents’ trajectories in interaction sociology terms, specifically Howard Becker’s “deviant career” concept. SenVols assume the role of “outsiders” over a series of stages. The first is coping with social pressure that reminds them from the age of 25 that they are expected to become parents as this is the natural course of events. Questions from family and friends are therefore more focused on when they should have children than whether or not they want to, as this is taken for granted. After having to face – and declining to respond favourably to – these “calls to order”, SEnVols are called upon to “accept the label” they are then assigned and to develop strategies either to circumvent or directly confront the stigma that falls on them. By deferring the matter until some undetermined moment in the future, simply not answering questions about it, or answering with arguments in favour of their chosen way of life, they seek to define themselves as “singular individuals”. Their “deviant career” continues to develop when they are assigned a type of personality in the course of social interactions – as if, by its very essence, their life choice implied certain personal traits. SEnVols are regularly assumed to be “selfish”, “not to like children”, and “to be sexually different”, i.e., unconstrained by the conjugal framework. Last, the feeling of belonging to a group, one that they describe in opposition to the group “parents”, seems confirmed by the fact that they construct relational networks made up primarily of persons who also have chosen not to have children. As a complement to the author’s enlightening analyses of deviance from the norm and perceptions of it, this last observation supports theories of homophily by way of a seldom-cited variable: parenthood.

7Here again we see that social pressure is heavier on women; the question of desiring children is addressed more specifically to them, as they are also considered “responsible” for that desire. Wanting to become a mother is a sort of guarantee of a woman’s femininity, whereas absence of that desire raises suspicions about her in that regard. Men are certainly not exempt from these injunctions, but the question of fatherhood gets played out in somewhat different terms: their assigned function is transmission to descendants, and, in patrilineal societies particularly, transmission of the family name.

8The shift of focus proposed by this book in its study of a “marginal” category in France powerfully reveals the operation of a norm that too often goes unmentioned. It also reveals gender asymmetries in representations of parenthood. However, as the author is fully aware, her sample is quite particular in that it is composed primarily of highly educated individuals who therefore possess strong argument skills. This limitation raises the question of how the discourse of not wishing to have children gets formulated among persons whose resources and educational attainment are lower. The work of creating and managing a deviant identity may vary by social milieu; also by political socialization and/or socialization through friendship. People’s abilities to define themselves outside the norm and to cope with and parry labelling or stigmatization represent blind spots in Debest’s analysis, in turn due to the methodology of finding respondents through a research call for interviews. Those abilities are likely not to be homogeneous.


  • [1]
    [SEnVol stands for sans enfant volontairement, i.e., voluntarily childless. The French verb s’envoler means “to take flight”. A French speaker reading the acronym is put in mind of the verb and its meaning – Trans.]
Gaëlle Meslay
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