Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How Older People Position Their Late-Life Childlessness: A Qualitative Study

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How Older People Position Their Late-Life Childlessness: A Qualitative Study

Article excerpt

This research explored how older people describe their paths to late-life childlessness. Indepth accounts from 38 childless older people, age 63-93, highlight the complex journeys and diverse meanings of childlessness for male and female participants, single and partnered, including some who had outlived children. Positioning theory is used to show how the conventional voluntary - involuntary binary is insufficient for capturing their experiences. Childlessness was for some an active choice to break a family violence cycle; for others, it was an outcome of social upheaval. It evoked feelings of both grief and relief over time, it was seen as evidence of discernment in being unwilling to parent at any price, or it was something that felt "natural" within a meaningful life. Rates of childlessness are increasing; this research highlights the fact that pathways and meanings of childlessness vary so much that it is unwise to assume that people have similar experiences of nonparenthood, especially in later life.

Key Words: aging, childlessness, infertility, narrative gerontology, positioning theory.

The concept of being childless seems selfexplanatory, meaning that a person does not have children; it is the opposite of being a parent. But in this article, the apparent simplicity of the notion of being childless is challenged. We explored the research question, "What does childlessness mean in the context of growing older?" in interviews with childless participants age 63 to 93 (average age: 80). This question seeks to build on and complement the existing literature by providing (a) a qualitative understanding of the definitions and meanings of childlessness to older people themselves; (b) a life course perspective on nonparents' journeys, as opposed to a focus on comparison with the "norm" of the parental life course; and (c) descriptive examples to help individuals who work in the fields of families and aging to reconsider assumptions and preconceptions about childlessness, especially in relation to later life. We argue that a more rigorous consideration of what the term childless may mean, including as it shifts subjectively across the life course, will ensure an improved understanding of well-being factors and more effectively targeted research and interventions.

This research used positioning theory (Davies & Harré, 1990) to highlight the multiple and contingent positions that older people themselves occupy in relation to their childlessness. Our data show that a simple parent - nonparent classification says little about the experiences involved in such states, or the health or social sequelae to be expected. The life course literature highlights the multiple trajectories and well-being changes over the life span in relation to family life, especially parenthood (Umberson, Pudrovska, & Reczek, 2010), but less has been understood about the life course pathways of individuals and couples without children (BuIcroft & Teachman, 2004). Our research begins to address that gap, illuminating childlessness as a complex journey, with diverse experiences in the contexts of gender, age, and family circumstances, for which standard characterisations of childlessness as a "voluntary" or "involuntary" state are inadequate. There have been equivocal comparisons between the well-being of parents and nonparents in later life (Connidis & McMullin, 1993; Jeffries & Konnert, 2002; Koropeckyj-Cox, Pienta, & Brown, 2007); it is important to also articulate the well-being of individuals without children in their own terms, not only in contrast to "normal" family life (Bulcroft & Teachman, 2004; Hagestad & Call, 2007; R. Rowland, 1982).


Being childless is a minority status, affecting about 12% of women age 50 in the 2006 census in New Zealand (where this research was based), and it is predicted to increase to around 25% by 2040 (Boddington & Didham, 2009). In the United States, 20% of women age 40 through 44 were childless in 2006 (Dye, 2008), similar to increasing rates in England and Italy and to predictions of up to a 30% childlessness rate in German women born in 1965 (Frejka, 2008). …

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