What to expect when you’re not expecting: Child-freedom, social stigma, and online subjectivities

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What to expect when you’re not expecting: Child-freedom, social stigma, and online subjectivities

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    Morison, T. (2013). What to expect when you ’  re not expecting: Child-freedom, social stigma, and online subjectivities . Paper presented at International Society of Critical Health Psychology 8 th  Biennial Conference, 22  –  24 July, Bradford, United Kingdom.     P   a   g   e     1  What to expect when you ’   re not expecting: Child-freedom, social stigma, and online  subjectivities Dr Tracy Morison  (Human Sciences Research Council / Rhodes University, South Africa) Introduction Today I ’m  presenting some of the preliminary findings of a study about voluntary childlessness conducted with Indian, Polish, and fellow South African collaborators. Voluntary childlessness is also frequently referred to as being childless by choice or childfree. The term child  free  (as opposed to ‘child less ’ ) is intended to show that not having children “can be an active and fulfilling choice” i , and to indicate agency and freedom from social obligation. The distinguishing feature of voluntary childlessness is the deliberate avoidance of parenthood, and this is precisely what opens up childfree people, especially married heterosexuals, to greater stigma than the temporarily or involuntarily childless, since it is seen as willing and deliberate deviation from the norm ii . Having children is seen as a natural consequence of being a “ normal ”  heterosexual woman or man, as well as an expected outcome of marriage iii . Parenthood is therefore normalised by regulative discourses around sexuality and gender. This process of normalisation is reinforced by pronatalist discourse. According to Meyers iv , pronatalism rests upon twin strategies: The first is the valorisation or glorification of parenthood, which supports the belief that having children is the only true path to fulfilment. The second strategy is the denigration of non-reproduction in which childlessness is cast as horrific. The result of these dual strategies is to eliminate deliberate childlessness as a possibility. Parenthood, as the only truly viable option for a fulfilling life, is therefore a non-choice. This is compounded by nationalistic and religious rhetoric that constructs childbearing as an obligation or duty. Consequently, as my previous research showed, people often do not reflect on whether to have children or not, but see it more as a matter of timing. So, even    Morison, T. (2013). What to expect when you ’  re not expecting: Child-freedom, social stigma, and online subjectivities . Paper presented at International Society of Critical Health Psychology 8 th  Biennial Conference, 22  –  24 July, Bradford, United Kingdom.     P   a   g   e     2  though parenthood is often surrounded by voluntaristic rhetoric, in practice procreation becomes more of an imperative for married heterosexuals. Those who diverge from this expected life course show up the constructed nature of this imperative, which results in a host of informal pressures to procreate. Not the least of these is the stigmatization of childlessness as a deviant state, and the attribution of a negative stereotype to voluntarily childless [heterosexual] couples. Childlessness is perceived to be associated with irresponsibility, unnaturalness, immaturity, emotional instability, [and a range of negative potential outcomes].  v Choice It is the voluntary character of chosen childlessness that is troublesome, therefore. Yet, of course, the issue of ‘ choice ’  is complicated when it comes to both reproduction and non-reproduction. We can understand choice in a narrow sense: as individuals rationally making conscious decisions in their own self-interest. It can also be understood in a broader sense: as active or passive. For instance, as research has shown, non-parenthood can be the result of an active choice, or a passive process of not choosing. My interest today, however, is on choice as a discursive action, rather than an internal process or “a recollection of one unchanging moment of past choice”. vi  I am concerned with choice as a discursive resource  that can be mobilised in talk toward various political ends. We see this, e.g., in public debates around abortion. Similarly, Taylor has shown how vii  CF people construct both parenthood and non-parenthood as personal choices to argue for equal treatment in the workplace. Our participants also, unsurprisingly, spoke about CF as a decision (e.g., referring to the right to reproductive choice). However, they most often argued that their reproductive status was not related to an active and conscious decision. The focus of this paper then is on the rhetoric of choice in the discussions on childfree-specific websites viii  which occurred during an online ethnography ix . Our aim was to explore how online spaces provided an avenue of resistance and a public space for subjectivity construction, where identities are co-constructed, negotiated and contested.    Morison, T. (2013). What to expect when you ’  re not expecting: Child-freedom, social stigma, and online subjectivities . Paper presented at International Society of Critical Health Psychology 8 th  Biennial Conference, 22  –  24 July, Bradford, United Kingdom.     P   a   g   e     3  Data collection & analysis: The data were generated in discussion threads, started by the researchers, on these websites. There were 3 country-specific discussion groups for India, Poland, and South Africa and a general discussion thread started during a pilot phase. We analysed the data using discursive methodology within a feminist post-structuralist framework. Broadly speaking, the analysis concentrates on identifying the rhetorical organisation of talk, the discursive purpose of particular rhetorical strategies, and how these are connected to relations of power. x   The disavowal of choice: In this presentation I concentrate on a particular rhetorical strategy (or discursive tactic), namely: the disavowal of choice. This tactic was resourced by 2 main scripts: (1) Naturally Childfree  and (2) CF   as a non-choice . xi   Naturally childfree: When participants spoke about themselves as being ‘naturally childfree’, they actively talked against choice. For example: (1)   I've always  been childfree. I have never   liked children […] I have the right to have children or not, but I do not consider my child-freedom to be a choice. Not liking kids is just the way I am. If I did have children, I'd just be going against my nature . I would say it affects every aspect of my life because it's not simply something I identify with. It's a core aspect of who I am . (Destiny, General CF site) (2)   From the statements here it seems that very different people, brought up in various conditions, with different views on a number of matters, have however, some IDENTICAL construction concerning children and reproduction. Since there are identical ways to reach an awareness of your childlessness, […]  it starts to look as though we are not childfree "by choice" but naturally childfree.... (Woman11, Polish) These quotations show the recurring tendency to describe oneself as always  having been CF and as never  having desired or felt the urge to have children. They illustrate how choice was overtly denied in relation to respondents’ childfree status by locating it within the realm of nature and  describing it as inherent. As we see in the first extract, being CF was described as being part of one’s nature or identity, and thus as a natural state. Many participants linked their childfree state to their “temperament”, “personality”,    Morison, T. (2013). What to expect when you ’  re not expecting: Child-freedom, social stigma, and online subjectivities . Paper presented at International Society of Critical Health Psychology 8 th  Biennial Conference, 22  –  24 July, Bradford, United Kingdom.     P   a   g   e     4  “disposition”   or “inner being”, as well as to biological factors, such as the lack of a “maternal instinct”, the correct “hormones” or “parental disposition” . Some participants even described themselves as having been born that way. C laims to being naturally childfree or “born like this”  resonate with the naturalising arguments used to counter the view of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice. “ Discourses that construct aspects of human life as ‘natural’ render them outside of human choice and control”. xii  This is reinforced by the idea that CF is something pre-existing within the individual that is discovered or realised. As we see in extract 2 the respondent speaks about becoming aware of one’ s voluntary childlessness. This was another common pattern across the entire data set, as many participants spoke about coming to a realisation of themselves as, first of all, different to others and, secondly, of this difference being CF. In these narratives of ”finding out that I was childfree” (Woman1, India) respondents position themselves passively, with their ch ildfree status as something beyond their control. Interestingly, these narratives resonate with coming out stories told by members of the LGBTI community and many respondents did describe themselves as “a closet CF” or as coming out about their CF status. By constructing child-freedom as fixed at birth, immutable and biologically determined, it follows that a childfree person cannot be held accountable for their divergence from the norm, or required to change it. Many respondents, especially those who are young and/or unmarried, described dismissive and disbelieving responses to their claims of not wanting children, often being told that they will inevitably change their minds about having children, which other researchers have also reported on xiii . By describing the lack of desire for parenthood, and motherhood specifically, as a natural state beyond personal control, respondents were able to refute the idea that they would change their minds. Some even described themselves as supporting parenthood in principle —for example of “wanting to want it” (Woman 2, UK, research blog)— but explaining that the urge to procreate never materialised. To self-position as naturally childfree, is to claim not to have a choice in the matter of remaining childless. Stigma is managed through the process of naturalisation. Of course, these accounts are not only    Morison, T. (2013). What to expect when you ’  re not expecting: Child-freedom, social stigma, and online subjectivities . Paper presented at International Society of Critical Health Psychology 8 th  Biennial Conference, 22  –  24 July, Bradford, United Kingdom.     P   a   g   e     5  part of a political strategy to vie for power, but how the participants actually experience their lives, yet the process of naturalisation is never innocent. There is always a structuring of power behind it, because to claim that something is natural rules out any questioning of that thing ’ s status xiv . This script therefore works to grant the same status to voluntary child-freedom as to reproduction. It allows for positive self-positioning as ‘normal’.  The next script also denounces choice, but the argument shifts somewhat. In this instance, the claim is not: ‘My reproductive status was not a choice’, as with the former script; rather it is: ‘ There was no (real) choice’ . This is achieved by constructing a CF status as a non-choice. In this way, this script also manages the trouble associated with choosing to deviate from the norm. CF as a non-choice: The central feature of this script is its subversion of pronatalist arguments that construe parenthood as a non-choice. In order to accomplish this other options must be disavowed by being cast as extremely unattractive or irrational and so not actually feasible. The next extract illustrates how the script of CF as a non-choice works. (3)   Having a child with my approach [to life] would be like death during life. And that's how I define this choice. It is like a choice between a beautiful life, full of warmth, love and colours and a cold, foul-smelling, dark tomb... (Woman12, Polish) The respondent draws a parallel between choosing life (child-freedom) or death (parenthood). This really is no choice at all, at least for a rational, normal person. This script works to disavow choice by discrediting the alternative. As the quotation shows, it focused on denigrating parenthood. This was not surprising since online CF groups allow members to voice contradictory views to the ‘child - centric’ worldview and to talk against pronatalist discourse. The twin strategies of pronatalism, which I described earlier, were inverted by the respondents in order to construct non-parenthood as a non-choice instead. Respondents questioned the attractions of
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