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From the beginning, feminists set out to break two taboos: the taboo on describing the complex and mixed experiences of actual mothers and the taboo on the celebration of a child-free life. But for reasons both inside and beyond the women's movement, feminists were better able in the long run to attend to mothers' voices than they were able to imagine a full and deeply meaningful life without motherhood, without children.

-Anne Snitow, in Encyclopaedia of Childbearing: Critical Perspectives, ed. Barbara Katz Rothman, 1993.

Non-motherhood has become more visible recently in advanced Western nations, in part at least because of the scientific, ethical, and media debates surrounding "infertility" treatments and inter-country adoption, the apparent decline in fertility in Britain, and the increasing number of women and men who are positively choosing to remain "childfree" or "childless." [1] However, this situation cannot be simpy described as "the celebration of a child-free life," in Snitow's words, and non-motherhood, too, is made up of "complex and mixed experiences" that merit feminist attention. Feminists have demonstrated that many women feel discrepancies between how they experience the world and the official or expert definition of their identity, for example, with relation to sexuality and motherhood. These discrepancies may result in guilt, fear, anxiety, and feelings of ambivalence and exclusion. [2] An extensive literature by feminists and others also discusses the ambiguities surrounding the medicalization of non-moth erhood, both in terms of identity and of the efforts to "cure" non-motherhood through the new reproductive technologies. [3] However, detailed discussion that validates the experiences of women who don't mother children is still lacking.

In this dialogue we offer an exploration of women's non-motherhood that is grounded not in medical or pathological discourses but in our own personal perspectives as a biologically "involuntarily childless" woman (Gayle) and a "voluntarily childfree" woman (Catherine). Our goal is not merely to challenge the stereotypical view of "childless" women as desperate and "childfree" women as either liberated or selfish but to explore the complex issues of definition, ambivalence, and exclusion that surround these experiences. To do this we draw on our own biographies and our research interests and activities.

CATHERINE: A stereotypical view of people without children is that they have decided once and for all that they don't want children or that they are unable to have them. [4] I feel that I do not fit in either of these camps. I have never sought pregnancy, and I now define myself as "childfree," but the situation is not so simple. When I was twenty years old and married (and working as a midwife and health visitor), I was 99 percent sure that I would some day have children. I even chose names for them. I was equally clear that I wasn't ready yet. Now at the age of forty-eight (divorced, in a committed intimate relationship with a woman and working in higher education), I am 99 percent sure that I won't have children. In the twenty-eight years in between, I have made a gradual transformation from one position to the other. At times I wanted to have children; but the time, place, or relationship was never right. My desire has never been strong enough to override these obstacles, although I have taken contracept ive risks that "accidentally" exposed me to sperm during times I was ovulating, especially when I was "in love."

Yet when I started to bleed at the end of my cycle, I rarely felt regret or sadness. The occasional sadness I did feel passed quickly and changed to relief. Although I appreciated the positive aspects of motherhood, I always viewed the experience as something that I might enjoy in the future and not as something that I wanted in the present. Now, as I reach the end of my biological capacity to have a child, I feel somewhat puzzled but content with where I am. I can look back and see an ambivalent path toward my present "childfree" state. Yet I have found that when I try to express this ambivalence, many people see me simply as a woman who really wants a child or a someone who is "childless," abnormal, and lesser for not having one.

GAYLE: Fifteen years ago, when I was a married nursery nurse working with small children, my central aim was to be a mother, and I felt that I was only half a woman without a child. Any doubts I had concerning motherhood I denied. A miscarriage in 1985 added to my distress and sense of failure. By the time I started work on my doctorate in sociology nine years ago, my feelings were different. Although I still felt the desire for motherhood and felt a gap in my life, this issue did not dominate my every thought and action, as it had earlier. I no longer felt that I was a lesser woman or less than adult for not mothering children. I was also able to accept the equivocal nature of my desire. A part of me enjoyed the freedom that I had because of my "childlessness," and I felt sure that if I did become a mother, I would feel opposing emotions in relation to that experience also. In the interim I had also developed warm relationships with the children of several close friends through staying with and visiting the ir parents.

CATHERINE: So, although we both feel positive about our ambivalence now, we feel that others may see us a quickly approaching what a novelist (Sara Maitland) described as "the moon madness from which childless women suffer when it is too late for hope and they know they will have to go down to their graves with the barely concealed mockery and scorn echoing across the barren desert of their flesh." [5]

Gayle and I met at the annual British Sociological Association medical sociology conference in 1994. I'd read an early paper of hers [6] and had wanted to talk to her for a while. I recognized her name and we started talking. We kept in contact and on the train home from the U.K. Women's Studies Network annual conference at Stirling, Scotland, in 1995, we planned this article.

GAYLE: We discovered that issues of definition and exclusion were important to both of us as we faced social assumptions about which women are adequately womanly or feminine and which are not. For example, we repeatedly faced the presumption that having a child is central to femininity, that without this desire or ability we are unfeminine and abnormal. Our society still takes for granted that "woman" equals "mother" equals "wife" equals "adult"; and this presumption still remains a part of medical, political, and public discourses. As Patrick Steptoe, one of the pioneers of the technique of in vitro fertilization in England said, "It is a fact that there is a biological drive to reproduce. Women who deny this or in whom it is frustrated show disturbances in other ways." [7]

CATHERINE: We decided to write a paper together for the next

U.K. Women's Studies Network conference, "Lost Discourses in Feminism" as we both felt strongly that non-motherhood was clearly a lost discourse. To initiate our dialogue we both read Sara Maitland's Daughter of Jerusalem and found that our own experiences were reflected in it. For instance, the main character, who is trying to get pregnant, consults a physician who tells her "she should see a psychiatrist; that the suppression of ovulation without apparent physical cause could have its roots in the rejection of the patient's own femininity." [8] Other people's characterization of the novel's protagonist is that she is not a proper woman, or, at best, not a fulfilled woman. She is defined as deficient not only by the medical profession but also by strangers, women friends, her family, her husband, and even herself. We, too, experienced unwelcome intrusions into our lives through uninvited advice and comments about our reproductive desires and abilities. Sometimes we experienced such remarks as benevolent, "he lpful," and kindly intentioned advice on the value of children in one's life. At other times, these intrusions felt uncomfortable. My lack of desire to have children defined me in some people's eyes as "abnormal."

GAYLE: In contrast, people usually defined my "abnormality" as physical, although, as in the novel, I felt that sometimes psychological undertones were hinted at. I tried to become pregnant over the years, although I have never been for medical assessment or treatment. In some settings, I feel that I have to justify this choice. In some friendships and relationships, I've felt judged as inferior either for not having children or for being "obsessed" with the desire for them. A real no-win situation.

CATHERINE: For many people, "childless" implies a person with something missing from her life, whether she is described as being "childless" in a "voluntary" or "involuntary" manner, although the former women are more often viewed as selfish while the latter frequently incur pity. Either way, mothers are seen as "proper" women, while women without children are perceived as "improper" and treated as "other." They are also treated as childlike rather than fully adult. Feminist rhetoric has simplified women's experiences through its emphasis on women's "choice." Although women's recent and hard-won "right to choose" among reproductive technologies and abortion has posed a challenge to the patriarchal myth that motherhood is women's inevitable destiny, "choice" in this respect is impossible for women who discover that they are unable to have children. On the other hand, the "childfree," as a description of women who are "voluntarily childless," implies a positive choice not to have children. Many people consider this a selfish option. The word "childfree" also has associations with the word "carefree" which in turn implies a childlike state. Thus, women who have no children are considered to have no responsibilities and thus to be like children themselves. [9]

GAYLE: I recently finished a five-year doctoral research project in which I conducted interviews with twenty-four women and eight men in the United Kingdom in order to explore the social, emotional, and medical experiences of "infertility" and "involuntary childlessness." I corresponded with another forty-one women who either lived an inconvenient distance away or who preferred to write rather than talk. These respondents came from all areas of the United Kingdom and ranged broadly in age and economic status. [10] My study group was comprised of self-selecting individuals who defined themselves as "infertile" and/or "involuntarily childless" at present or at some time in the past. It included people who were experiencing or had experienced primary and secondary "infertility" and others who were "involuntarily childless" for non-medical reasons. Many had sought medical treatment, but some had not. The study group included nonparents and social and biological parents. Some of the latter had achieved parenthood unaided, and some had had successful medical assistance. Despite this broad range of experience, several key themes emerged in the interviews, including exclusion and ambivalence. All my respondents felt that the experience of "infertility" and "involuntary childlessness" in women (and men) is viewed by others one-dimensionally as an all-absorbing experience. People (particularly women) without children are not perceived as capable of ambivalence about their situation. In addition, women in the "infertile" or "involuntarily childless" category reported that people reacted toward them with pity and envy. The pity emerged from the acceptance of the ideology of motherhood as the norm and from their unquestioning belief in the positive experience of motherhood. Feelings of envy, on the other hand, were related by those who felt negatively about motherhood and its constraining effects on women's lives.

CATHERINE: Women who are "voluntarily" childless or "childfree" also face ambivalence, as prior research in this area shows. As

Carolyn M. Morell argues, "choice" is a complex term. People usually assume that "childfree" women make a determined decision not to have children after a period of deliberation. Her research with "childfree" women revealed much more ambiguity: "Even when women did experience making a clear decision, the stories they told to account for that decision were complex and inconclusive, open to shifts, revelations, and reconstruction. Rather than a choice, remaining childless was described as an ongoing practice and/or an outcome determined by a variety of personal or social circumstances." [11] Similarly, Jane Bartlett found from her research with "childfree" women that they felt it was easier to say they had never made a decision to have a child than to say that they had decided not to have a child. [12] Thus, "involuntary childlessness" and "voluntary childlessness" or "childfreeness" are more complicated than is often acknowledged, and women's ambivalence about non-motherhood is perceived negatively rather than as a normal and justifiable response to women's life conditions.

GAYLE: During my research, when respondents asked about my feelings, I talked about my feelings of ambivalence. Some of them felt that they could identify with it, but others did not. My respondents asked me how my own attitudes toward childlessness had developed. To one respondent I replied, "It's something I live with. Earlier I was a wreck, obsessed with it all. Now I think there are other things in life that are important, but I'll always be sad. I think that there's still plenty of time. In ten years' time I know I'm likely to feel different, but the future potential is partly how I cope." [13] That was during my fieldwork when I was in my mid-thirties, but I feel differently now. I still would like to mother children to whom I am biologically related, and I still sometimes think that there is time to do so. However, I don't now feel that I "need" children. I'm confident that I would never go for "infertility" treatment, and I never use the word "cope" anymore. Some people may interpret these changes as a rejection of motherhood.

My research suggests that "infertile" and/or "involuntarily childless" women feel excluded from certain groups in society. Respondents referred to feeling left out in conversations with family, friends, and strangers. One woman noted the pervasiveness of parenthood in casual conversations:

It's rare for there to be any sort of discussion in which parents don't mention their children, and unless there's someone present who's looking out for me--or

I divert the conversation myself-parenthood very easily develops into the major theme. Members of the club to which I don't belong swap stories. Recently I was sitting in a small circle of residents and visiting friends. A friend who is pregnant was due to arrive, and that ... led to other women talking about their pregnancies. Someone left to put their child to bed. I looked across the circle and there were two parents discussing how they felt about their grown-up children being at university. [14]

CATHERINE: Being with a group of women talking about the apparently inexhaustible topics of their labors, children's eating habits, or teenage rebellion is similar to being in a group of men talking about football. I feel excluded.

GAYLE: I too at times find these discussions limiting. At other times they distress me. The experience of exclusion from discussions about parenting and from the lives of parents is complex. The "involuntarily childless" often feel uncomfortable in the company of families with children and with friends who are having children. This accords with Morell's work as her "childfree" respondents reported feeling "deserted" by supposedly other "childfree" friends who had late pregnancies. Morell suggests that motherhood creates a wedge separating the mother, with her time constraints and different interests, from her former friends who are not mothers. [15]

One American study found that previously "infertile" members of "infertility" support groups were excluded when they became parents. [16] In my own research I've found that "infertile" mothers who have adopted children feel "out of it" when conversation with other mothers turns to that of pregnancy and childbirth. [17]

CATHERINE: For me, such feelings of exclusion have been contingent on the variations in my own life over time and the changes in my friends' and family's lives. Whether I am single or in a relationship affects it, since the exclusion of being single in a couple-dominated world increases the isolation of being without a child in a world where 88 percent of women do have children. [18]

Research on both "involuntarily childless" and "childfree" women shows that women who don't have children sometimes want to keep children at a distance. On the other hand, women (indeed people) in this situation may think that parents assume they have no knowledge of children and childcare. Holidays, especially Christmas, are times when "involuntarily childless" and often "childfree" people feel particularly excluded not just from the activity and conversation of others but also from even the right to celebrate. [19]

GAYLE: Due to all of these feelings of exclusion, like other women without children I sometimes seek friendships with other women in similar situations, both to share experiences with others who are not centered around children [20] and to talk about the "obsession" of those who are. [21]

CATHERINE: Having been a midwife and a health visitor I am often included in conversations about pregnancy, childbearing, and motherhood. At times my advice is sought, but at other times I am clumsily neglected and excluded.

Looking back, I remember times when a cluster of significant friends moved into the birthing game leaving me on the sidelines cheering them on. Four to five years ago a number of my friends became pregnant. This time I noticed that I was choosing to exclude myself. I choose much more when, where, and on what terms I am willing to be involved in their experience of motherhood, so that my relationships with these friends are no longer only being defined solely by their time restraints and their new interests. I am much bolder than I used to be about asserting my "childfree" rights and asking for "childfree" time. So exclusion becomes my choice.

GAYLE: Life changes are also relevant to my feelings of exclusion. My circle of friends and my occupation are different than they were fifteen years ago. Then a lot of my friends were getting pregnant and/or mothering babies and young children and my job as a nursery nurse in hospitals, nurseries, and private homes revolved around and brought me into constant contact with children. In contrast, my job as a university lecturer and a researcher in sociology is centered around adults. It has given me the space to theorize on my own and other women's experience of childlessness. Many of my newer friends and colleagues don't have children, and those that do are not involved in full-time care of young offspring.

A major change in my life is that my partner of the last seven years has two sons (aged nineteen and twenty-one). Although I would not describe myself as a mother, I do have a parental relationship with them because until very recently both boys lived permanently with us. Consequently, when asked if I have children, I sometimes feel that it is appropriate to say yes. Also there are times now when I am an active participant in or even initiate a conversation about "troubled" and "troublesome" youth.

These changes have made my daily experience both more comfortable and more challenging and caused me to rethink my desire for a biological child.

CATHERINE and GAYLE: In this paper we have tried to highlight the complexity of non-motherhood. We think that an awareness of this complexity is essential to feminism, because all women do not share the same realities or the same sense of their experiences. [22]

We acknowledge, therefore, that our experiences regarding non-motherhood are shaped by the similarities between us. We are both white, able-bodied, middle-class feminist academics; and at the time when biological motherhood was a much more likely possibility for each of us, both of us were heterosexual. We realize that the desire of a lesbian or disabled woman who wants a child is likely to be questioned in a way that an able-bodied heterosexual woman's is not. In these circumstances, a woman's inability or "choice" not to have children may be welcomed by other people rather than defined as sad or selfish in the ways we have experienced, while women subject to racism face further complications.

CATHERINE: Although there are no simple feminist "answers" to these issues, feminist debates on motherhood opened the door into another way of living life--one without any children, although only now has a significant feminist discussion begun on the definitions and exclusions that women without children are still made to feel in our society. [23]

GAYLE: For me feminism, along with other intellectual and personal developments in my life, has enabled me to value what I am and to see both the positive and negative aspects of motherhood and non-motherhood.

Gayle Letherby works at Coventry University and Catherine Williams at University College St. Martins, both in Britain. Between them they have many political and academic interests and share among other things a commitment to theorizing on the complexity of non-motherhood.


We would like to thank participants at the 1996 Women's Studies Network U.K. Conference for their interest in our paper.

(1.) We place quotations marks around several words throughout this article to highlight the problems of definition. We also use the term "childfree" at times when the original researcher used voluntarily childless."

(2.) For example, see Ann Phoenix, Anne Wollett, and Eva Lloyd, eds., Motherhood: Meanings, Practices, and Ideologies (London: Sage, 1991); Sheila Rowbotham, "To Be or Not to Be: The Dilemma of Mothering," Feminist Review 31 (spring 1989): 82-93; Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Signs 5 (summer 1980): 631-60; Sheila Rowbotham, Women's Consciousness, Man's World (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1973); and Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: Four Square Books, 1960).

(3.) For example, see Michelle Stanworth, "Reproductive Technologies and the Destruction of Motherhood," in Reproductive Technologies: Gender, Motherhood, and Medicine, ed. Michelle Stanworth (Oxford: Polity, 1987); Maureen V. McNeil and Steven Yearley, eds., The New Reproductive Technologies (Hampshire and London: Macmillan, 1990); and Sarah Franklin, Embodied Progress: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception (London: Routledge, 1997).

(4.) Carolyn M. Morell, Unwomanly Conduct: The Challenges of Intentional Childlessness (London: Routledge, 1994).

(5.) Sara Maitland, Daughter of Jerusalem (London: Pan, 1978), 52.

(6.) Gayle Letherby, "Mother or Not, Mother of What? Problems of Definition and Identity," Women's Studies International Forum 17 (winter 1994): 525-32.

(7.) Stanworth, 15.

(8.) Maitland, 3.

(9.) Letherby, "Mother or Not, Mother or What?" "Choice" as mentioned here is only available to a minority of the world's women. See Gayle Letherby, "'Infertility' and 'Involuntary Childlessness': Definition and Self-Identity" (Ph.D. diss., Staffordshire University, 1997).

(10.) Respondents in the research project were aged between twenty-five years and seventy-two years. Despite the differences of age and experience (see main text), other differences were not represented. Respondents were predominantly white and heterosexual which can be partly explained by the publications that did and did not agree to print Gayle's advert/letter asking for people to come forward. Also, although she did stress that she was interested in the social, emotional, and medical aspects of "infertility" and "involuntary childlessness," the majority of her respondents had had/were having medical treatment which is more available to heterosexual women. Cultural differences related to conception and motherhood and to talking to "strangers" may have prevented other women from being involved.

(11.) Morell, 48-49.

(12.) Jane Bartlett, Will You Be Mother? Women Who Chose to Say No (London: Virago, 1994). Recent research by the Family Policy Studies Centre, London, concerned with "voluntary childiessness" also suggests that the "voluntarily childless" are "thoughtful and responsible about what parenting might mean. They find it variously undesirable, difficult or impossible to incorporate it into their lives. Far from being a generation who can 'have it all,' respondents saw themselves as making considerable effort to maintain a reasonable quality of life without children." See Fiona McAllister with Lynda Clarke, Choosing Childlessness (London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1988), 58.

(13.) Letherby, "'Infertility' and 'Involuntary Childlessness.'"

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Morell.

(16.) Susan Borg and Judith N. Lasker, When Pregnancy Fails: Coping with Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Death (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).

(17.) Letherby, "'Infertility' and 'Involuntary Childlessness.'"

(18.) Bartlett.

(19.) Morell; Letherby, "'Infertility' and 'Involuntary Childlessness.'"

(20.) Letherby, "'Infertility' and 'Involuntary Childlessness.'"

(21.) Morell.

(22.) Liz Stanley and Sue Wise, "Method, Methodology, and Epistemology in Feminist Research Processes," in Feminist Praxis: Research, Theory, and Epistemology in Feminist Sociology, ed. Liz Stanley (London: Routledge, 1990).

(23.) Morell; Bartlett; Letherby, "Mother or Not, Mother or What?" and "'Infertility' and 'Involuntary Childlessness.'"
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