Willing deviants? : a study of childlessness
This thesis describes how 34 childless couples were selected from the Marriage Register and distinguished into five different kinds of non-parents on the basis of their accounts of childlessness. Two of these types - May-be parents and Wont-be parents - are seen as being 'voluntarily childless'. Their social characteristics, decision-making procedures and strategies for coping with pronatalism are compared with others in this sample whose childlessness was not voluntary and with the 'voluntarily childless' women and couples identified by previous researchers. Chapter One addresses the controversial question of whether voluntary childlessness had increased or decreased in recent years and, examining the changes in social structure which are often supposed to have facilitated the emergence of this deviant lifestyle, explains its declining incidence. Existing studies of voluntary childlessness are then reviewed, attention being drawn to the inadequacy of the sampling frame generally employed and its implications for findings. These criticisms underlie the research questions to be addressed in this study which are outlined in the final part of the chapter. Chapter Two provides an ethnography of the research process, describing not merely the collection and analysis of data and the generation and presentation of findings but also the procedure by which a sample of childless marriages in the general population was selected. In Chapter Three an attempt is made to establish how representative was that sample of the population from which it was drawn. Chapter Four begins with a discussion of the decisions about parenthood couples said that they made when they married and the nature of the assumptions underlying them. An examination of the expected and unexpected courses couples' lives took soon after marriage shows why these decisions were often not implemented and why the choice to parent apparently required little thought if and when it was made. Having shown in Chapter Four that couples followed one of two careers in childlessness - either choosing to parent by deliberately permitting a conception or not doing so - the outcomes reached by each group are discussed in Chapter Five. This discussion reveals the emergent nature of the decision to parent or not to parent, but Shows the latter to be a decision which-need not be made and one which has apparently been freely made by few of the couples interviewed. Nevertheless, differences in the meanings of parenthood and of childlessness distinguish among those who have decided to parent, those who have decided not to parent and those who have not decided either way. Five different types on non-parents are thereby distinguished and their features described in the final part of the chapter. In Chapter Six the pronatalist context in which married couples make their childbearing decisions is described and the accounts of childlessness given to the interviewer and to other people are examined in relation to it. A number of verbal coping strategies are identified which may or may not have been used by respondents to maintain an appearance of respectability but which differ systematically by nonparent group. Opening with a vignette of the everyday lives of each couple interviewed, Chapter Seven proceeds to an examination of the systematic differences in the way different types of non-parents define ostensibly similar lives. The implications of the few differences in lifestyle to emerge between women with and without plans for parenthood are discussed. The final chapter draws together the discussion in previous chapters to generate a grounded definition of voluntary childlessness. Only 'wont-be parents' conform to this definition although 'may-be parents' appear to be becoming voluntarily childless at the time of the interview. Comparing these couples with those not so classified and with the voluntarily childless in previous studies leads to the conclusion that there is a continuum of commitment to parenthood and to childlessness among the general population and that previous researchers have sampled only one end, the voluntarily childless end of it. The implications of this conclusion for findings relating to the incidence of voluntary childlessness, their social characteristics, methods of deciding and coping with social pressure are discussed as well as the implications for future research on childlessness.