CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Drawing on interviews she conducted with other sociologists (Pascale Donati and Charlotte Debest in France) and a considerable body of literature, Anne Gotman analyses the discourses of people who “desire not to procreate”. The presentation of the sociological context provides the backdrop for an analysis that takes into account two conflicting perspectives: political discourse, arguments and justifications of individuals without children; and the psychoanalytic approach, which holds that childlessness necessarily implies a lack or renunciation. The work is devoted primarily to analysing personal discourses, a process that reveals a broad diversity of situations, histories and attitudes toward childlessness.

2Gotman recalls that after hitting historically low levels among men and women born in the 1940s in most developed countries (the childlessness figures for France were 10% of men and 12% of women), childlessness, chosen and not chosen, is now rising again, moderately in France and more sharply in Northern countries and Western Europe. Childless people are an extremely heterogeneous group. Numerous typologies have been put forward in France, ranging from hostile (in 1936 Paul Popenoe found childless people to be self-centred couples, two-income couples, and neurotic individuals) to strongly empathetic (in 1975 Jean Veevers distinguished two groups: the proactives, and people who ultimately give up on having children). Gotman adopts the second distinction between people who decide early in life that they do not want to have children and people who postpone becoming parents because the right conditions are not in place and then realize it is too late. In the current context, being deliberately childless has assumed a new dimension. Thanks to birth control, young people bent on attaining set educational and occupational outcomes are less likely to have children, and the question of whether or not to do so is asked later in life. This results in the postponement of first births and higher male and female infertility, modulated nonetheless by social policy, economic conditions and how individuals go about reconciling family and work life.

3The question of childlessness concerns women first and foremost, especially in the current context. Medical contraception methods and access to abortion have enabled women to choose childlessness, while the task of reconciling occupational life and raising children still rests primarily on their shoulders. The stakes are lower for men, and it is not really up to them to decide. The normative pressures that women experience are therefore quite different from those affecting men.

4Having established this general overview of the situation, Gotman proceeds to distinguish between two types of positive discourse. The first emphasizes respect for individual choices; in this case the choice of personal freedom, the decision to escape work-related discrimination, which often targets women as potential child-bearers, etc. The second type of argument is environmentalist and cites the excessive growth of the world’s population and the planet’s limited resources as reasons for behaving in a way that runs counter to the prevailing pro-birth attitude in France. The accusation of selfishness or self-centredness can therefore be turned around: whereas being childless is a way of caring about the future of the planet, parents are blinded by the importance they attach to their children – and having them. Gotman does not take either of these types of arguments – which are in fact inconsistent with each other – very seriously. The first, she explains, reveals the (condemnable) liberal values behind individualist positions while the second is fuelled by “dirigiste”, “soft eugenics” impulses with no scientific basis, despite the fact that it is important that the population stop growing. These discourses, she explains, are first and foremost rationalizations of resistance and of a demand for freedom to behave in a way that is still perceived in France as outside the norm, particularly for women.

5According to the psychoanalytic perspective, meanwhile, which can readily prove normative and conservative, not having children is a symptom, “the result of intra-psychic conflict” that prevents people from assuming the risks associated with being a parent. According to this argument, people who feel no personal desire to procreate (or say they have been liberated from such desire) are people with long-standing complaints against their mothers (or fathers) who therefore refuse to reproduce a parental role they have themselves rejected; they are people who have either turned their back on their parents or who, by not having children of their own, manage to maintain what are fundamentally unsatisfying ties to those same parents. Gotman distances herself from this discourse, with its underlying assumption that, unbeknownst to themselves, childless individuals are suffering. Whereas psychoanalysis would claim that the term “nullipare” reflects a lack in the person to whom it applies, childless persons do not express a sense of lack and actually appear more satisfied with their condition than parents are with theirs, at least according to wellbeing studies such as the World Value Survey. Gotman hypothesizes instead that it is precisely “to avoid suffering” that childless persons “renounce a desire they cannot really take responsibility for”. More importantly, not having children is a way of escaping gender stereotypes and so situating oneself outside the category of “woman” or “man”. We can therefore take seriously childless women’s claim that theirs is a positive rejection of motherhood, especially since “maternity itself is marked by strong inner conflicts” – though it appears such a positive experience that those conflicts are not studied.

6Behind both of these stereotypical discourses and analyses, respondents’ positions are not so clear, and the interviews bring to light several contradictions and shared perspectives between parents and non-parents: it is important to see that the opposition between them is in part artificial. The first thing to note in careful analysis of the discourses of childless persons (most of whom, here, are urban, working women, managers or people working in the “intellectual professions”) is that some respondents simply refuse to answer, either because they do not want to discuss their own family history, implicated in their desire not to have children, or because they have not really formulated the question for themselves. The interviews were conducted with men and women familiar with and relatively skilled in using socially constructed discourse, and they only account for or do justice to the most visible, fully developed components of discourse on non-fertility. Up against heavy social pressure to procreate, respondents often have difficulty expressing their personal desire to remain childless or their lack of any intention to procreate without drawing on standard political discourses. Instead of trying to express the inexpressible, they seek to justify themselves, either defensively (they plan to have a child later; they have medical problems; they might adopt) or actively, in the form of resistance. If motherhood or fatherhood is thought of as a compulsory service, then the childless can be thought of as conscientious objectors – envied for escaping the destiny of parenthood. This discourse, characteristic of upper-class individuals engaged in gratifying, relatively prestigious occupational activities or working for associations, includes references to the great variety of situations found among childless people – which respondents mention in order to escape the judgment that they themselves are “outside the norm”. Respondents may also emphasize their strong relationships with other people’s children (nieces or nephews, friends’ children), as this gives them a role in keeping with the logic of generational transmission; or they may minimize such ties (saying, for example, that stepparents are not obligated to raise their partner’s children). Some simply say they want a life without the constraints or hindrances of children.

7The rationality of would-be coherent and convincing discourses on childlessness may suggest a fear of strong, permanent ties with other human beings, the constraints associated with those ties, and the degree to which they escape individual control. Being childless may be more of a lasting state than an explicit choice, even though childless people rationalize this fait accompli. On the contrary, some respondents explain that they have not been able to form a couple or that the couple they do belong to is fragile, making it impossible for them – sadly – to have a child.

8Economic rational choice theories are not very useful for interpreting these discourses. Indeed, the decision to have children may be just as difficult to explain, as a choice, as childlessness, beyond citing the notions of transmission and the pact between generations that inscribes each person within one or more family lines. The arguments used by childless persons are more explicit, but material constraints or attaching great value to personal freedom does not suffice to explain the recent rise in childlessness. For Gotman, we are perhaps at the beginning of a new era where the “désir d’enfant” has become optional and where the intergenerational pact can be circumvented by developing relationships with the children of a life partner or of family and friends.

9In conclusion, Gotman explains, childless people describe their lives as a project, a becoming, not as an inheritance that needs to transmitted or converted. The demand for individual freedom and the other arguments childless people put forward do not reflect any particular psychic difficulty, but rather the need to construct a discourse to justify themselves against what is still a powerful norm, especially in France. The book offers a broad overview of the great diversity of people who have voluntarily chosen childlessness. It might usefully be supplemented by specific analysis of men and women from other social categories, as they would very likely describe the constraints of daily life differently. The vast range of sources and the diversity of approaches discussed make this an indispensable work for understanding childlessness, a behaviour that continues to be stigmatized in France while currently rising after a period of marginality.

Uploaded on on 26/06/2018
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