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‘Environmental Childlessness?’

Mathilde Krähenbühl

6. Mobilising the Environmental Motive

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1While research in the 1970s described intense stigmatisation of voluntarily childless people, it has changed slightly since then. For instance, a quantitative study of university students’ perceptions of parents and childless couples showed persistent negative stereotypes of the childless along with negative perceptions of parenthood when it comes to stress and marital strains (Koropeckyj-Cox et al., 2018). Nonetheless, following the pronatalist context described in chapter 3, normative heterosexual gender roles and family expectations continue to constitute a discriminatory register against those who choose different pathways. As noted by Morison et al. (2016, 186), “it is precisely because their reproductive status is interpreted as a wilful deviation from the norm that childfree people are open to stigma”. Indeed, it has been observed that those who are voluntarily childless face greater stigma than those who are involuntarily childless (Veevers 1980). In other words, it is the absence of desire for having children that is stigmatised rather than the absence of children itself. In this regard, being childless is an ambiguous social status as the uncertainty over the intention protects the voluntarily childless (Park, 2002, 32). Because of such uncertainty, the voluntarily childless may be responded to with sympathy or silence rather than disapproval (Ibid). However, this ambiguity does not prevent people from assuming that people desire children and repeatedly materialising these expectations during social interactions. This chapter discusses how my interlocutors dealt with social pressure and attempts to overcome the idea according to which the environmental motive would be a ‘stigma management strategy’.

6.1 ‘So, when is the baby coming?’: Dealing with Social Pressure

2My interlocutors often referred to social interactions that assign them to specific gender roles. Reflecting on the fact that motherhood is understood as a women’s project – when for men it is work – Val denounced the fact that people ask her how many children and when is the time rather than ‘do you want children?’ People assume that she desires motherhood and the main response she gets is the traditional: “But you will change your mind”. Every time, she is surprised by how quickly the topic of children comes up with strangers even though such questions are quite intrusive. Although women in the group explained that they felt assigned to a specific role, men also underlined the existence of social pressure to start a family. Thomas recounted:

“there's the ‘you say that, but you'll see’, there's the ‘are you sure you won't regret it later when you're old’ uh... or like ‘oh but you shouldn't say that, but you'll see, you'll change your mind’ or ‘yeah but [children] are only about happiness’, etc.”

3Voluntarily childless people navigate social pressure by adopting different strategies. While the terminology sometimes differs from one piece of research to another, the highlighted strategies are the same and can be classified into two broad categories: the rejection or acceptance of difference (see Veevers 1975; Morison et al., 2016; Matthews and Desjardins, 2016). Due to its comprehensive view of the different strategies, I decided to focus on the work of Kristin Park to offer an account of my interlocutors’ experiences. Drawing on Goffman’s (1963; 1975) work on stigma, Park (2002) distinguished different ways through which childfree individuals control the information they provide to others (passing, identity substitution), justify their choice (condemnation of the condemners, self-fulfilment, or appeal to biological drives) or redefine the situation.

4First and foremost, it is essential to note that most of my interlocutors recounted that they seldom publicly display their decision and interrogations about parenthood. With the exception of Val and Marion, who conveyed that they like to provoke debate, others said that they had discussions about parenthood mainly with people by whom they would most likely be understood. Most families had accepted my interlocutors’ decision and were understanding. In this regard, Julie is the exception. She told me that she would never tell her mother that she decided to undergo sterilisation. Although she has not told her mother about sterilisation and the irreversibility of her choice, Julie recognised that her mother probably knew that motherhood was not a priority in her life. This is a great example of information control through “passing” – i.e. when young people say that they do not want to have children now or do not feel ready yet. Another good illustration is the case of Louis. He explained that the kind of reasons he would mobilise depend on his interlocutor. Sometimes he mentions the political reasons behind his childlessness, and sometimes he does not:

“[Sometimes I say] ‘yeah, actually I don't want to’, ‘I don't have the time’, ‘I don't feel like committing myself too much’, and sometimes I tone it down a bit by saying ‘no, but I'd like to’... but yeah, of course, it depends, I don't allow myself to say things that might be offensive to people if I know they're not ready to hear that kind of thing.”

5 Alongside “passing”, “identity substitution” refers to “presenting a stigmatised failing as another less stigmatized attribute” (Park, 2002, 33) – i.e. mentioning infertility or drawing attention away by focusing on marriage. A recurring component of my interlocutors’ stories was that their childlessness is part of a larger package that generally makes it implicit that they do not necessarily want children. As we have seen, most of them have already opted out of the traditional ‘job, partner, cohabitation, marriage’ pathway. The way Odile presented it as a strategy is particularly enlightening:

“[I]n order not to be stigmatised, I had to get out of everything. That is to say, I dress as if I were years younger [...] I go out with these people who are a little bit younger [...] now it would seem strange to people to ask me why I don't want children, they can see in my life why I don't want [...] so I have protected myself a little bit from that by adapting my lifestyle so that it is obvious that it is not a question that has to be asked... and people don't ask it so much.”

6Voluntarily childless people are often asked why they do not want children and face the so-called “burden of proof” (Overall, 2012, 3). From what my interlocutors told me, they either expose their feminist and ecological motives or evade the question by saying ‘I’m not interested in starting a family’. While Morison et al. (2016) distinguished between people who mobilise choice or escape it to minimise stigmatisation, my interlocutors generally referred to both when recounting their interactions. Indeed, they would say for example ‘I do not want children, I do not find it appealing, and it is my choice’. Thus, what seemed more decisive was the distinction between the ‘elaborated line of argumentation’ and discourses articulated around the tropes of choice and desire. As we have seen with Louis’ example, this greatly depends on how much their interlocutors might understand the different arguments. Some of my interlocutors recounted the tensions at stake during such demonstrations of their motives. Thaïs reflected:

“In fact, it's as if you were telling [the parents] that they were bad people and that they had made the wrong choice... and that I find violent to do... and at the same time I find it violent not to be able to say why you decided not to do that... knowing that they really think you're... in general, people find that a little strange.”

7 The demand for justification emerges from Thaïs’ feeling of being misunderstood. The impossibility of defending her own choice without embodying a position of superiority appeared in other interviews. Recalling the previous research of Veevers (1972), Park (2002, 25) argues that “parents find the voluntarily childless threatening as their lifestyle challenges parents’ sense of distributive justice, their convictions that the rewards of their choice offset the sacrifices and that marriage and children are the best routes to personal happiness.” Denouncing these dynamics, Louis complained: “In fact, you just want to say ‘well, can't we just accept it?’ I don't give a shit about what you do, so let it be reciprocal!”

8 Having presented these examples, it is not surprising that my interlocutors constructed some of their rhetoric in response to reactions they often receive. Park called this way of justifying one’s decision “condemnation of the condemners”. The most typical example, also mentioned in Park’s article, is the selfish-altruist debate. Namely, with regard to the idea that childfree people are selfish because they have chosen to fulfil their lives without returning the life that was given to them, Park underscores examples of people who explain that having children may also be a selfish act – i.e. because one fears loneliness or wishes to reproduce a new version of oneself. Furthermore, as observed by Veevers (1975, 486): “The accelerating impact of population pressures has begun to shift the burden of proof away from questioning the rights of persons to remain childless to questioning the rights of persons to procreate.” Therefore, in a context where my interlocutors anticipate dark futures, the question of selfishness becomes even more present since my interlocutors negatively perceive the future. As displayed by Emile: “[T]o me if there's the ability and the tools to make the connection between what's going on in the world and what it means for the life of the child you want to bring into the world... then there's a fundamental selfishness in making the decision to do it anyway.” Val asserted: “I don't think [it's selfish not to have a child] because (emphasis added) it's for climate considerations.”

9Another key argument in “condemning the condemners” is the rhetoric according to which parents have children without necessarily thinking about it, recalling the requirements of the “procreative norm”. If we remember the solid ethical take of my interlocutors, they unsurprisingly conform to the image of the reflexive individual who has closely thought about the consequences of their decision. Even the validity of ‘desire’ as a sufficient explanation for having children is challenged. For instance, Noé stated:

“[F]or me [having children] is a pleasure that is justified, that is there, and that should not be denied, but I just can't. [...] it's just that there's an economic, environmental, moral context that means you can't just say to yourself ‘I want to, so I'm doing it!’ And I have the impression that this is a bit the problem with people... it's a bit ‘oh yeah we wanted a child, so we made one.’”

10 Differently, Marion argued that parents should stick to ‘desire’ to explain their decision to have children rather than looking for rational explanations. For instance, an inescapable argument on the parents’ side is that all ecologists should not stop having children. A great majority of my interlocutors have been confronted with that narrative and were opposed to it. More precisely, Marion thought that it was a classist argument that reproduces the mandate according to which some lives are worthier than others.

11While some of my interlocutors articulated narratives that characterise parents as selfish or irresponsible to varying degrees, I also found several examples that contradict the idea that they “condemn the condemners [to] take on the morally superior identity of reflexive decision makers” (Park, 2002, 35). For example, even though his last quote suggests that he performs such superiority, Noé mentioned several times throughout the interview that his environmental awareness is only the result of a succession of random experiences – i.e. a particular encounter, cleaning up a forest. According to him, he could have been a completely different person and he could have relates to his environment in very different ways if he had not been through these moments. Furthermore, he explained that it is important to remember ‘where you are coming from’ in order to find the arguments to convince people of the necessity to change some of their habits. Marion also explained that she realised how much her perspective on children could be violent for her close friends who have decided to start a family. Overall, my interlocutors were tired of justifying and preferred to limit their public accounts to a narrative of ‘desire’ rather than perform a somehow superior moral identity. Such limitation results from both a willingness to get rid of “the burden of proof”, and to avoid hurting their friends. They also mentioned that their social circles had significantly changed in response to their friends’ misunderstanding and divergent interests.

6.2 Looking for an Excuse?

12As I have exposed so far, reproductive decisions are complex sites of negotiation of social norms and identity amidst a pronatalist and discriminative context. Therefore, it is helpful to approach the environmental motive in relation to this context. Building upon the great emphasis on ‘stigma management strategies’ briefly exposed in the previous section, one of the first reactions to ‘environmental childlessness’ activates the idea that voluntarily childless people are looking for an excuse or justification. During an interview, Edith Vallée, a French psychologist who specialises in childfree people, foregrounded the hypothesis that ecology is socially more accepted than the desire to be childfree (Rambal, 2016). In her review of 47 studies on childless people, Houseknecht (1982, 378) advanced the same idea to explain why females were much more likely than males to express concern about population growth. Because the rejection of motherhood is associated with more severe sanctioning, women might provide a greater effort toward legitimisation. This greater effort manifested in my group of interlocutors as people belonging to gender minorities tended to offer more detailed accounts than men. When the former multiplied the arguments, most men – except Louis – focused on the environmental dimension.

13Because the majority of my interlocutors did not call parenthood into question exclusively based on environmental considerations, it is possible that they progressively found a convincing argument in the environmental discourse. Indeed, I emphasised earlier that my interlocutors framed the environmental motive as a rational explanation that underlies hardly tangible sensations and desires. From this perspective, the environmental motive is almost ‘instrumentalised’ to explain voluntary childlessness. For instance, Val explained that when she started explaining her decision to her mother using the environmental motive, she was taken more seriously: “[I]t's not just that it annoys me when I see a child crying, it's really more thought through than that, and it goes deeper [...] and yeah when really I put out more arguments [...] I think it shook her up a little bit”. Additionally, the ethical take of my interlocutors made them sound distant and almost ‘calculative’. However, it is useful to distinguish ‘finding an excuse’ from ‘developing awareness about the environmental situation’. ‘Finding an excuse’ underscores the idea that my interlocutors actively looked for a justification – similarly to the notion of “stigma management strategies”. However, in what follows I expose why their experiences tend to dismiss this line of argumentation. Indeed, it is unlikely that they would take the time to develop well-constructed narratives and tell me of their experience if it was not anchored in fundamental considerations about the environmental and social climate in which we live. Moreover, that my interlocutors did not change their narratives during the collective discussion also reveals that they are consistent and confident in their positions.

14Firstly, not only do my interlocutors limit the public display of their interrogations, but the environmental dimension does not present a particular advantage. While Val seemed to recognise the advantage of offering a detailed explanation to her mother, she also recounted how she sometimes avoids disclosing such arguments to strangers:

“I'm already categorised as a vegetarian, activist [...] feminist, because I'm in the women's strike collective (haha). So sometimes I already have so many labels that I say to myself ‘well, come on, I'm not specifying that’ when of course I would want to... well I'm not ashamed of it and I think it's good to tell people that climatically having kids is maybe not ideal.”

15Alix similarly recounted that her family probably stuck to the fact that she does not desire children rather than the environmental motive. This is the case because, according to her, it is harder to defend: “[T]here are more attacks when you say ‘yeah I think we're too many on Earth, I don't want kids’ than when you say ‘oh I just don't want kids.’” These accounts recall the disapproving and mocking tone of some press articles mentioned in chapter 4 and some reactions I myself received when presenting my research topic.

16Secondly, whereas my interlocutors controlled the information they provided during social encounters, they do not hide the fact that children do not necessarily move them in order to perform a superior moral position. As mentioned in the last section, they expressed that they were tired of occupying this position. As a precise example, Val explained that most of the time she starts with the idea that the future is too dark. And then, she is not ashamed to add:

“Of course, I would also add that it has never been a dream, that I have never planned to have a stroller, that I have never played with dolls, in other words, little things that underline that I don't have that maternal streak, so I don't have the impression that I'm giving up on anything either.”

17Thirdly, if the environmental motive does not present an advantage in justifying childlessness, Antoine confirmed that, in fact, the reverse was true. Calling parenthood into question appears as a powerful argument to raise awareness about climate change. If the case of Antoine is special since he has always wanted children, the symbolic power of parenthood has been mobilised by other actors as discussed in chapter 4. In this regard, more than an excuse, the environmental motive is a political tool of resistance.

18Furthermore, as described throughout the whole dissertation, the environmental dimension behind childlessness is a complex assemblage of elements that my interlocutors embodied in various aspects of their lives. According to scholars who have tried to overcome “stigma management strategies” to explain why people perceive stigma but remain unperturbed by social pressure, voluntarily childless people evolve in a variant belief system (Veevers 1975; Matthews and Desjardins, 2016; Tillich, 2019). Assuming that the nuclear family is the norm, Matthews and Desjardins (2016) observe how voluntarily childless people attempt to find a place in the cultural meaning system wherein their status is understandable and acceptable (cultural realignment), or rethink cultural expectations and generate alternative categories of normalcy (cultural transcendence). For instance, Tillich (2019) looked at how sterilised women transform a body state that is considered ‘deviant’ into an empowering self-optimisation by recreating a new hierarchy of values within which procreation occupies the lowest rank. By re-crafting meaning systems, people also renegotiate their identity, the sense of ‘who they are’ and ‘what is their purpose’. Indeed, central to such transformation is that these women affirm their singularity and uniqueness rather than asserting their deviance. By being outsiders – i.e. persons who do not fit normative social expectations – they become individuals (Ibid, 790).

19The ‘childfree’ identity was not central to most of my interlocutors’ narratives in the sense that they would not necessarily reclaim it, nor do they vehemently oppose parents. Similarly to Park’s (2002, 23) research participants, it can be described as a ‘background’ identity that re-emerges as salient throughout the life course, through responses to others, or in the rehearsal of anticipated encounters. Nonetheless, I could grasp some ‘identity dynamics’ similar to those described above. For example, Marion explained that childlessness had become both a way of identification and a decision she wished to make ‘normal’:

“I had a moment where I felt like it was defining me, you know? To tell myself ‘I'm alone, I'm single, and I don't want to have children, and that's cool’ you know [...] I claim it loud and clear that I don't want to have children, as if it was something I wanted to fit into the current norms, so stop bothering us with this question!”

20 Fitting Tillich’s analysis, part of these identity processes is a desire to do things differently. In this regard, the example of Odile is striking. She confided: “[I]n fact by putting myself on the margin, I'll say, I'm... I'm protecting myself, I'm always remembering who I am... because I fall back too quickly [into the system]”. To her, one thing that makes parenthood attractive is the possibility of proving to people that she could have children while being in polyamorous relationships and living in a community. Indeed, she expressed:

“I like the fact of being outside the system and showing that you can still live in a nice way [...] It's stupid, but as I said before, I don't want to be like the masses... I also know that I like this thing of being a bit at the forefront on these issues.”

21 Following her reflection about why the destructiveness of capitalism forces individuals to become more responsible, Julie also explained that making alternative lifestyles is what makes people’s individualities:

“I think it's also reaffirming a kind of independence because the individual is so... a little... crushed in this society, well we are all conformed, normalised, a little bit the same. [...] so in fact it's also a way to still exist in this system that erases all individuality.”

22With regard to these examples, more than an excuse, the environmental motive belongs to frames through which my interlocutors understand the world, their identities, and generate new meaning systems. We cannot separate their views about parenthood and family-making from their larger worldviews and ecological practices. In these re-crafted worlds, childlessness is attractive and parenthood is problematic for all the reasons developed so far. Key is the example of Antoine, who still hopes that he will have children at some point. Because the decision to have children progressively stands in contrast with his values and worldview, he somehow anticipated negative reactions coming from the ‘environmental childlessness’ point of view. Antoine negotiated his responsibility by openly saying that he knows that it is a selfish decision to have children amidst uncertain circumstances. By explicitly stating the selfishness of his choice, he secures his ‘good’ and reflexive activist identity. Regarding the role of identity-making processes in childlessness, it is central to remember that these dynamics result from a pronatalist context where the “burden of proof” still weighs on my interlocutors. Those who referred to identification processes or expressed more negative views towards family norms are those who also referred the most to social pressure.

23Finally, I argue that we should consider the role of uncertainty because my interlocutors were trying to secure their decision rather than looking for a justification. As I exposed in chapters 4 and 5, some of them felt that not having children was a relief. Based on the work of Dow (2016), I mentioned earlier that they found in environmental crises a sort of ethical limit to their reproductive decisions. Not only was this the case because they were somehow going through an ‘ethical moment’, but because the general context of uncertainty probably reinforces the need to project toward the future, something that some felt unable to do. That my interlocutors accumulate explanations even though they are not necessarily exposing them to others suggests that they are first and foremost finding justification for themselves. Indeed, the trope of ‘control’ over one’s life erupted several times. As I mentioned in the methodology, a few people were happy to receive the interview transcription to add them to their personal archives. At the same time, a significant part of the group told me that they were currently questioning themselves rather than asserting a firm decision. To me, it sounds as if they were opening all possibilities so that they can more easily adapt to future circumstances. Such flexibility recalls the work of Johnson-Hanks (2005) who emphasised that we cannot approach reproductive intentions as planned action, particularly in contexts of great uncertainty. If they defended that people should reflect about why and how they have children, my interlocutors paradoxically remained open to the development of unexpected desires and changes in life cycles.


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