Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Voluntarily Childfree Women: Experiences and Counseling Considerations

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Voluntarily Childfree Women: Experiences and Counseling Considerations

Article excerpt

Traditional mothering continues to receive social sanctioning while women who choose not to have children are oftentimes ignored or criticized. Voluntarily childfree women participated in a qualitative investigation in which semi-structured interviews, journals, and a focus group were utilized to capture their experience of stigmatization. Data source triangulation, member checks, and consultation with a peer debriefer contributed to the authenticity of the results. Two broad themes capturing reasons for the choice not to have children and five categories of stigmatization were delineated from the participants' narratives. Considerations for mental health counselors who work with women who do not want children are offered.

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Despite the growing number of women who are choosing not to have children in the United States and abroad (Casey, 1998), current cultural attitudes and sociopolitical practices continue to lionize traditional parenting while dismissing and oftentimes criticizing women who exercise other options (Burkett, 2000). As "woman" and "mother" have become largely synonymous, those who do not conform may experience an array of responses that can include isolation and rejection. While both women who desire but cannot have children and those who choose not to have children fall outside the purview of mother, the latter are of particular interest based on the fact that they actively choose an identity that differs from the cultural norm.

Reasons for choosing not to have children are complex and responses to childfree women are likely informed largely by gender role expectations. How we come to see childfree women is likely juxtaposed with how we understand what a woman is and moreover, what she should be. Counseling and psychology as disciplines have primarily reflected negative depictions of childfree women, as the standard for healthy adult female development has been equated with mothering (Freud, 1949; Ireland, 1993).

There is some research support for the notion that childfree adults are perceived less favorably than their parenting peers. LaMastro (2001) studied 254 undergraduate students to determine perceptions of voluntary and involuntary childfreedom. Participants read short passages about married couples who had either no, one, two, or six children. Perceptions of childfree adults were more negative compared to perceptions of parents, and adults without children were ascribed poorer marital status than couples with children and were perceived as less caring, sensitive, and kind than parents.

Letherby (2002) studied women without children and found that involuntarily childfree women were typically regarded by others as desperate, while voluntarily childfree women were "viewed as selfish and deviant and portrayed in ways that emphasize this: as aberrant, immature, and unfeminine" (p. 10). Similarly, Park (2002), who interviewed 24 voluntarily childfree women and men, found that the overwhelming majority of her participants reported experiencing others as seeing them as selfish, egotistic, cold, materialistic, peculiar, and abnormal. Byrne (2000) studied childfree single women living in Ireland and found that the women were regularly asked about their single status, including their childfreedom. She noted that the women were often regarded as "too selfish" to have a child.

Much of the research on childfree women has been conducted by asking people about their perceptions regarding family size or by querying childfree women about ways they manage stigma (see, for example, LaMastro, 2001; Park, 2002) as opposed to explicating phenomenological accounts of the choice not to have children and the experiences of approval and stigma. I designed the current investigation to understand voluntarily childfree women's reasons for their choice, their experiences of others' reactions to their choice, and to provide guidelines to clinicians in light of these experiences. …

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