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‘Environmental Childlessness?’

Mathilde Krähenbühl

3. Childlessness is on the Rise

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1While there is a recent tendency to account for a dramatic rise in ‘childlessness’, this is far from a new phenomenon. As highlighted by Michaela Kreyenfeld and Dirk Konietzka (2017a, 5), historical demography indicates that in many European regions in the 19th and early 20th centuries, about 20% of women remained childless. However, to relativise the novelty of this demographic trend does not prevent us from recognising a recent increase in childlessness and its expansion to countries that historically indicated low rates such as Italy (Ibid, 3-4). In Switzerland, alongside Germany and Austria, the childlessness rate is high (Kreyenfeld and Konietzka, 2017b, v). In 2018, in the 50-59 age category, 30.5% of women and 27.6% of men with tertiary education were childless (OFS, 2019). While the results are 10 points below for women who completed compulsory schooling, the difference is less apparent for men. When it comes to reproductive intentions, 9.7% of women and 8.0% of men in the 20-29 age category intend to remain childless. Despite the lack of statistical evidence distinguishing between involuntary and voluntary childlessness, the literature agrees that the latter represents a “major development of the modern family” (Agrillo and Nelini, 2008, 347–48).

2Meanwhile, world population numbers are getting ambiguous: rapid decline in particular countries coexists with the exponential increase in global numbers. On the one hand, childlessness is part of the ‘demographic transition’, a process which started in Europe in the middle of the eighteenth century. Resulting from mortality decline, this transition transforms the demographic landscape through centuries from societies with many children and few elderly to societies with few children and many elderly (Reher, 2013, 24). Following this model, birth rates will continue to drop, and concerns about economic growth and social security systems replace worries about ‘overpopulation’. On the other hand, world population is expected to exceed 11 billion people by 2100, only if birth rates continue to decrease (Clarke, 2018, 1). Announcing this number always goes hand in hand with recalling that world population is estimated to have been 1.6 billion only a century ago. Here, fertility decline is welcomed to secure healthy development.

3Beyond the scope of this research, these demographic debates nonetheless stand in the background and inform the antinomic (and often anxious) views regarding the rise in childlessness. According to Charlotte Debest, specialised in the particular case of France where birth rates remain high compared to the rest of Europe, the phenomenon is mainly media-driven: there is no crisis of desire for children (Desprez, 2019). In this regard, the next sections discuss why voluntary childlessness generates such anxieties and what propels people to opt out of parenthood in a context where such decisions are not encouraged.

3.1 Social Change Explanations and Persistent Pronatalism

  • 1 There is no single demographic transition theory but multiple and competing explanations about the (...)

4Following demographic transition theories,1 social change explanations such as women’s increasing professional opportunities and improved reproductive technologies are commonly mobilised to explain the rise in voluntary childlessness since the mid-twentieth century in Euro-American countries. Feminist movements are usually targeted to explain why more and more women and couples have progressively decided to have no or less children. Indeed, particularly during the 1970s, childbearing and family were pointed to by feminist movements as institutions that impede gender equality and women’s emancipation (see Weeks, 2021). Nonetheless, whereas scholars initially concentrated on explaining why childlessness was on the rise, they then had to solve the paradox between the relative rarity of this lifestyle and the higher projections made in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982, Sharon K. Houseknecht identified that the decrease in the voluntary childlessness rate observed in 1975 was paradoxical if we consider that the phenomenon is primarily correlated with women’s education and employment, variables that were continuously on the rise. To solve that paradox, she drew from what Howard Becker (1960) has called “normative reactions to normlessness” to explain why the weakening of the nuclear family that occurred during the 1960s was directly followed in the mid-1970s by a strong need to reaffirm its values. In other words, researchers mobilised theories that emphasise cultural attachment to traditional motherhood and femininity to account for the only limited rise in childlessness (e.g. Ashburn-Nardo, 2017).

5This limited rise reveals the persistence of pronatalism – understood as a meaning system that values procreation – in a western context where we tend to assume that women now ‘have the choice’. As underlined by Kristin Park (2002, 22), pronatalist pressures may have been more substantial since the 1990s than they were thirty years ago. Indeed, voluntary childlessness may have benefitted from the new social movements that emerged in the 1960s, including second-wave feminism, zero population growth, and reproductive justice movements (Ibid). Operating at different levels of society (see Heitlinger, 1991), pronatalism is a driver of critical assumptions that construct normative expectations of parenthood, family, and gender roles: parenthood is seen as natural and located in human instincts and biology, it is considered as a milestone in the normal progression through heterosexual adulthood, and it is seen as personally fulfilling, essential for a happy and meaningful life (Morison et al., 2016, 185). It is not a coincidence that a significant part of the preliminary inquiry of childlessness focused on its consequences, often assuming that different levels of happiness would be observed between parents and childless people (e.g. Callan 1987; Somers 1993; McMullin and Marshall 1996).

6Therefore, looking at alternative lifestyles such as voluntary childlessness appears as an analytical strategy to delineate the changing contours of pronatalist social norms. For instance, Gillespie (2000) studied the emerging contradiction between cultural discourses of motherhood and femininity and the experiences of an increased number of women. She asked “to what extent and in what ways might cultural discourses of motherhood and femininity have declined or transformed as women’s lives have changed” (Ibid, 223). Observing through her participants’ stories that childlessness was generally met by disbelief, disregard, or seen as deviance, she argues that traditional injunctions to motherhood instead became more subtle in the ways they continued to project a pronatalist mandate through the “having it all” discourse – i.e. women should now be mothers and workers.

7Studying the “procreative norm” – a concept that describes the socially determined “good conditions” to have children – Nathalie Bajos and Michèle Ferrand (2006) test the existence of the ‘having it all’ discourse in France. Looking at women who have had abortions, the authors analyse the factors mentioned to explain what are the best conditions to ‘enter parenthood’. Charlotte Debest (2014, 33–34) summarises: parents must be neither too young nor too old (women particularly), should have finished their studies, have found a well-paid job, be in a heterosexual, cohabitant, and stable couple, and they should desire their future child. Interestingly, the authors observed that women aged between 25 and 34 minimise professional issues in their decision to abort: either they decide to have children when it was not planned and abandon their professional career, or they explain the decision to abort emphasising other factors such as relationship instability. On the contrary, women under and above that age category often mentioned professional reasons to postpone or avoid pregnancy. Not only does this reflect that ‘maternal obligations’ are difficult to combine with work, it also highlights how the procreative norm is intrinsically linked to a persistent sexual division of labour. Despite the ‘superwomen’ rhetoric, material conditions make it harder for women to undertake productive work and, therefore, they valorise reproductive work in their discourse to make sense of their situation. In other words, they tend to value motherhood and tone down its professional disadvantage rather than voice their incapacity to reconcile contradictory injunctions.

8Pronatalist norms and injunctions are compelling because they delimit and recreate gender identities. Historically, the nuclear family – and reproduction at its core – played a crucial role in attributing particular roles to men and women. Imbricated in the larger functioning of the economy, women were assigned reproductive tasks and responsibilities within the household. Not so long ago, the primary essence and social role of women was considered to be their reproductive roles. For that reason, although pronatalism promotes images of parenthood and the family in general, women face greater pressure than men when it comes to procreation. The ongoing feminist struggle for reproductive rights – i.e. unconditional access to contraception and abortion – reflects that reproduction can hardly be disentangled from patriarchy.

9This being said, it does not mean that all women are forced into motherhood. Reproduction is not a patriarchal mandate in and of itself. Indeed, reproduction is a complex phenomenon as it is simultaneously individual, social, biological, cultural, political, and environmental (Clarke, 2018, 26). By contrast, lack of alternative models and repeated injunctions to motherhood are manifestations of our patriarchal and pronatalist society. For instance, whereas the ambivalence about motherhood is probably easier to voice today than in the past, the increased availability of reproductive technologies likely reinforces the pressure some people feel when it comes to having children (Letherby, 2002, 17). Furthermore, reproductive technologies play a role in reinforcing normative social norms of parenthood. Since women can decide to abort, the best circumstances have to be met more than ever (Bajos and Ferrand, 2006, 92).

3.2 Choice and Desires of Parenthood

10The difficulty in distinguishing between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ childlessness not only limits statistical analysis but also tells us that ‘childlessness’ is hardly definable. It is necessarily embedded in a vast array of life experiences and combines voluntary and involuntary factors. Researchers generally differentiate people who express the intention to remain childless relatively early in life (“early articulators”) from those who arrive at that decision through a series of postponements (“postponers”) (Veevers 1973; Houseknecht 1987). Recognising that most women belong to the postponer case (see Mcquillan et al., 2012) blurs the boundary between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’. Intentions do shift and the stories we tell about our lives are highly adaptive: what we may initially narrate as a desire to meet better circumstances to welcome a child can be reinterpreted later on, in the case where the awaited moment never came, as a deliberate choice and vice versa. People who are biologically unable to have children can also adopt the ‘childfree’ identity. For that reason, it is perhaps more appropriate to refer to a continuum of childlessness to break down the binary (Letherby, 2002).

11Nonetheless, the lack of appropriate vocabulary to describe this complexity persists. As noted by Rebecca Harrington (2019, 23): “´Childfree´, with its neoliberal implications, suggests choice but can also (falsely) imply a negative attitude toward children, while ´childless´ signifies an absence or infertility.” In other words, both terms mirror a pronatalist and patriarchal culture wherein having children remains the norm (Ibid). Following these terms, people necessarily do not want children or cannot have them. Therefore, the desire not to have children is necessarily portrayed in negative terms. Despite these unsatisfactory formulations, I usually use the term ‘voluntarily childless’ to describe my interlocutors. First, it merges the ‘voluntary-involuntary’ and the ‘childless-childfree’ wordings. Furthermore, as discussed in chapter 6, my interlocutors generally did not embody the childfree identity. Finally, the notion of choice is particularly ambiguous when we think of reproductive intentions amidst ecological crises.

  • 2 The participants’ words have been translated from French into English by myself.

12Julie exclaimed during the interview: “I don’t feel like we have the choice (raise of voice), but rather there is no possible return towards an environment… mmh… as good as the one of our parents.”2 To her, the situation is just too bad to have children. In a more nuanced tone, Thomas expressed that he does not face a real choice. He wished he could ask himself the question of parenthood in better material circumstances (his words) – namely, in a world that would take serious action to avoid ecological disasters. Nonetheless, he recognised that these material circumstances did not fully constrain him. He could have opted out of parenthood even in a stable world. Therefore, having children is simultaneously a personal choice and an impossible one, at the nexus between agency and structural constraints. Differently, Thaïs and Odile told me that if they really wanted kids, they could have them despite the environmental and social context. Thaïs expressed: “I am not necessarily angry about the fact that [environmental changes] keep me from dreaming of myself as a mom […] If I want a kid, I can also have one… I would just have to seriously think about what I have to offer them and all.” As opposed to Julie and Thomas, she does not experience climate change as materially preventing her from having children, and she considers that she has the choice to start a family or not.

13Besides the idea that choice may be constrained by degrading environmental circumstances, other elements blur the ‘voluntary-involuntary’ distinction. On the one hand, most of my interlocutors understood procreation as the result of a conscious choice that they have to make at some point. “I don’t feel like it is a surrender, I really don’t. It’s more like affirming a choice…” exclaimed Val during her interview. Similarly, Odile confided that she likes to control her life and would not claim that opting out of parenthood was not a genuine choice. It is the reason why she informs herself a lot and regularly sets out the pros and cons of starting a family. Reflecting on the fact that having children is a socially constructed phenomenon, highly encouraged by society, Noé underlined the necessity to ask oneself: is it my own choice or not? In this regard, my interlocutors’ conceptions largely recall the notions of the “procreative norm” (Bajos and Ferrand, 2006) and “stable environment” (Dow, 2016). People must reflect on their decision to have children, and it seems reasonable only when the living conditions of the future child are optimal.

14While these understandings convey the idea that my interlocutors’ childlessness is voluntary, the question becomes more complex when introducing the notion of desire. For instance, Alix first explained during the interview: “I quickly realised that I didn’t have that need in me.” At the same time, she added later that having children was not a matter of instinct any more, as opposed to earlier times. The same holds for Val. She simultaneously asserted a choice and explained that she had never had a maternal instinct. Simply put, neither Alix nor Val desired to become mothers, and they transformed a state of things – desire – into a conscious choice.

15We will return to the desire-choice continuum in chapter 6 since it also refers to the “burden of proof” that my interlocutors face to explain their positions regarding parenthood. What is important for now is recognising that my interlocutors experience various levels of desire to become parents – a key element in understanding their paths towards ‘environmental childlessness’. To start with, Antoine is the only one who clearly stated that he has always wanted children and still does. Marie similarly expressed desire, but she instead projected that it might increase in the future. Then, Louis and Noé admitted that having children might be a great experience – though Noé is sure that he will not have children. Odile and Marion both used to imagine they would have children but realised that they would not necessarily as they were not sure of their desire. Finally, the rest of my interlocutors belong to the “early-articulators” category. They recounted that they more or less never wanted kids and are more confident about remaining childless than the rest of the group.

3.3 Multiple Pathways toward Childlessness: Autonomy, Self-Optimisation, and Resistance

16With regards to the weaknesses of the social change explanations and pervasive pronatalism outlined above, scholars have generally underlined the necessity to understand what is propelling people to adopt a childfree lifestyle. Having discussed the concept of ‘choice’ – central to Western representations of parenthood – I will now underscore the multiplicity of voluntarily childless people’s motives. On the one hand, the search for greater gender equality and the restructuring of the family continue to be advanced: greater freedom, nourishing relationships with partners, career considerations and monetary advantages. On the other hand, motives such as general dislike of children, doubts about the ability to parent, concerns about population growth and concern about physical aspects of childbirth also appear in the literature (see Houseknecht 1987; Park, 2005; Tillich, 2019).

17According to Volsche (2019, 87), the reasons for living the childfree life have not changed since the first half of the twentieth century and reflect the emergence of an autonomous, postmodern self. She describes childfree people as individuals who appear mostly adjusted to social norms while finding happiness outside the dominant cultural script and who embrace the opportunity to live a life for oneself seeking autonomy, authenticity, and efficacy (Ibid, 14-15). Similarly, Debest (2014) argues that the decision to remain childfree particularly underlines the tension between liberal and family values. Here, voluntarily childless people are conceived as performers of neoliberal values based on the improvement of one’s capacities and life. It also strongly underscores Emma Tillich’s (2019) conceptualisation of sterilisation as a manifestation of a subversive culture of self-optimisation. Optimising contraception is a way to optimise life and to keep control over the procreative body so that unexpected and undesired pregnancy cannot disrupt the course of life.

18Gillespie (2003), on the contrary, tries to counter explanations that tend to depict new forms of ‘neoliberal individualism’. She hopes to offer a fuller account of the meaning given to ‘voluntary childlessness’ by the women concerned. She suggests that even though some women forgo motherhood for motives such as career and enhanced financial position – or broader advantages associated with a childfree lifestyle – a more radical rejection of motherhood is taking place for other women. To her, this rejection informs considerable changes in social understandings of gender identity: motherhood does not unanimously stand at the cornerstone of feminine identity (Ibid, 123).

19Following a similar feminist perspective, Tracy Morison et al. (2016) looked at childlessness under the prism of resistance, as they understand responses to the pronatalist mandate as “discursive practices that either reinforce or resist dominant norms, and in so doing shape the reproductive possibilities available to people” (Ibid, 184-85). By playing with the malleable notion of ‘choice’ – either mobilising a “childfree-by-choice script” or the “disavowal of choice script” – participants in the study reinforce the idea that parenthood is a rational, reasonable, and reflexive choice or the idea that they have not really chosen but are simply not made for parenting. While I support the idea that some voluntarily childless people understand their reproductive decisions as a form of political resistance to dominant social norms, this approach flirts with the over-simplifying agency-domination dichotomy. It is reductive to imagine that having or not having children and the discourse adopted to motivate that decision are either reinforcing or resisting dominant social norms. Gillespie (2000, 232) described voluntarily childless women as constructing their identity by drawing on certain cultural stereotypes while resisting others, a process that exemplifies how difficult it is to break away from dominant cultural discourses.

20In the image of the diversity underscored in the literature, my interlocutors referred to multiple reasons to opt out of parenthood throughout the interviews: Emile mentioned visceral disgust for pregnancy, Noé confided that he felt incapable of raising a child and of limiting the suffering inherent to existence, Marie feared failing to reproduce the environment in which she grew up, Louis felt uncomfortable with the idea that parents influence their children to become something that they expect. Such diversity is not surprising if we recall that the only ‘recruitment criteria’ to this study was that ‘they interrogate parenthood based on mainly environmental concerns.’ However, alongside these motives, which emerged here and there during the conversations, a few elements appeared more systematically.

21Following the research presented above, my interlocutors mentioned autonomy and flexibility. “Not having children is really a guarantee that you will be able to make all the choices you want, within the limits of society”, explained Julie. Val valued the possibility of suddenly changing the direction of her life and travelling the world (using a slow-travel mode, she specified). Thomas valued the freedom to work abroad. Overall, they celebrated the possibility of managing time, money, and opportunities without constraints (except Antoine who did not see any advantage to childlessness). Nevertheless, my findings suggest that the homogenised portrayal of the ‘autonomous’ and ‘individualistic’ self inaccurately describes my interlocutors. First, the notion of ‘freedom’ surfaced when my interlocutors were asked about the advantages of living a childfree life and was not mentioned as a motive. Second, they anchored the desire to benefit from their time in their wishes to pursue their political activities or to adopt radically alternative lifestyles in the future. Third, following Gillespie (2003), I could discern more radical and politicised rejections of parenthood.

22Regarding the last point, widely-shared feminist concerns mainly occurred among women. For some of them, feminism played a major role in their awareness that they did not necessarily aspire to motherhood. Thaïs explained that she first became aware of motherhood when she realised around the age of 16 that society expected her to become a mother. Denouncing the symbolic meaning attached to motherhood, Julie similarly expressed:

“I was tired of the questions… of this idea that a woman must necessarily go through motherhood to be fulfilled […] So it’s a way of saying: ‘Here, no, I’m a woman, and fuck you and I won’t have children!’”

23Odile, Thaïs, Marion, and Julie further emphasised that women remain the principal worker in the family and are held responsible for most of the education. ‘Motherhood’ is a commitment that pushes women to forget about themselves. Similar rejection of the heteronormative nuclear family characterises the group. For instance, Louis primarily factored in the fear of reproducing both gendered parental roles and education: “To what extent will I be able to not recreate a couple that has children with all this gender stuff that is attributed to this or that thing.” Overall, they found the dominant model of ‘making family’ unattractive and individualistic. They negatively depicted the traditional pathway towards adulthood: ‘find a partner, a job, a dog, a house and, finally, a kid’ on several occasions. They often offered detailed descriptions of their friends’ lifestyles to explain that it sometimes seems unsatisfactory. For example, Marion recounted that one of her friends became very closed in on herself, afraid of doing things with her child and that it affected their relationship. She observed:

“I say to myself ‘fuck but all this is really the opposite of the world I want’ […] I’m looking for models of couples who are a bit different from that […] I know that there are also couples who decide to sell their house and, I don’t know, to go and travel even with a small child… but I don’t have any of them around me at the moment.”

24 The subsequent chapters further develop why the autonomous and individualistic picture of childfree people does not captivate my interlocutors. Indeed, the significant weight of environmental and ethical considerations inscribe their childlessness within dynamics of resistance to global environmental changes and dominant ways of living.


1 There is no single demographic transition theory but multiple and competing explanations about the importance of economic development, education, employment, contraception etc. (see Mason 1997). Nevertheless, the certainly over-simplifying link between ‘development’ and fertility decrease is observed.

2 The participants’ words have been translated from French into English by myself.


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