Unplugging the Biological Clock

  Families
     

Since the 1970s, the rate of women choosing not to have children has doubled. Ida Dupont, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, has spent the last few years examining this trend and interviewing women, men, and couples from various backgrounds in an attempt to puzzle out why some people choose to remain childfree.

“I’m having a difficult time giving a name to what I’m researching,” Dr. Dupont says. “‘Childless’ has a negative connotation and if I say ‘childfree by choice’ it sounds as though these people dislike children and also ignores the complexity of people’s choices.” Dr. Dupont has focused her research on how childfree people are perceived by the community (and the inclusion or exclusion that comes with that), as well as what puts them on this particular path.

“I think we talk about choice in a problematic way. As Americans, we assume we are free to do whatever we want. And certainly more people are taking advantage of that “choice” by deciding not to have children.  But such decisions are complicated and mediated by people’s social positions and life experiences,” Dr. Dupont says. “A lot of people who choose not to have children value parenting, but may don’t feel up to the task. They don’t want to bring a child into a difficult world, there are monetary issues—for them, it is a rational decision.”

Another small subgroup of adults reported to Dr. Dupont that they chose to not have children because of their concern over the environmental impact of having a child. “This was something that came up often enough to be noteworthy. They were concerned with diapers and toys and other things that came with having a child in the West. This really struck me,” she says.

For others, however, the choice to remain childfree was one that seemed almost intrinsic. As she conducted her research, she began to note a trend of women who reported not ever having a desire to have children. “These women would say that even as children they felt different. They didn’t play with dolls and so on,” Dr. Dupont says. “Many of these women were closeted about being childfree by choice.  They felt it was more socially acceptable to be regarded as someone who was unable to have children as opposed to someone who had consciously made that choice,” Dr. Dupont says.  “Society still expects women to be mothers and not to do so calls into question their femininity.”

Both men and women who chose to remain childfree often felt pressure to have children and many felt they had been stigmatized. For men, there was familial pressure to carry on the family legacy, as well as the perception that they were suffering from Peter Pan syndrome. And both men and women alike were perceived as selfish for their choice. However, “Women have their identities wrapped in motherhood,” says Dr. Dupont. “Women without children are seen as lacking. They have to work to construct a feminine identity that is separate from being a mother…One woman told me ‘If I could be a 1950’s hands-off father, I’d consider it.’ To women like her, motherhood seems too constricting.”

The interplay between gender and identity is an area of great interest for Dr. Dupont. “I’d like to use my research to write a book, preferably something not academic and more accessible. I think this is something more and more people can really relate to.”

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