Exploring the reasons white middle-class women remain childfree in the South African context : a feminist social constructionist study

Date: May 20, 2013
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In this study I qualitatively explore how women who choose not to have children account for this choice in the South African context. I consider the reasons for women to remain childfree and the changing discourses of femininity that enable women to make the choice not to have children. I am also concerned with the possible implications of this choice for women’s interpersonal relationships. This study is conducted from a feminist social constructionist framework.

Dominant discourses of femininity revolve around motherhood, which is considered to be the most important role. Motherhood is believed to be a “natural” identity. Mothers are highly regarded in most societies; they are perceived to be devoted to the care of others and to be self-sacrificing. Although most societies consider motherhood to be an essential feature of femininity, it can also cause ambivalent feelings and not all women wish to take on the role of motherhood. The number of women who choose to remain childfree is growing in various societies. Women increasingly have the power to choose whether they want to remain childfree. Through resisting discourses that meld femininity with motherhood, childfree women create alternative discourses that have the potential to change constructions of femininity.

I used feminist social constructionism to endeavour to understand the ways in which women’s realities inform their decision not to have children. I also explore how society serves to either problematise or promote this decision. Finally, I attempt to gain a deeper understanding of how being female and childfree impacts on women’s beliefs about themselves.

Interview data from semi-structured interviews conducted with women who choose to remain childfree are analysed using thematic analysis. The women interviewed were white and middle class and were found via convenience and snowball sampling. The women participating in the study report various reasons for remaining childfree. Freedom from childcare responsibility and the resulting greater opportunity for self3 fulfilment is shown to be one of the strongest reasons for remaining childfree. Other important reasons include unequal labour division in the family, concerns about the physical aspects of childbirth and recovery, life partners’ acceptance of the choice to remain childfree as well as early socialising experiences. Other reasons cited less frequently include the negative impact of childrearing on women’s emotional well-being, concerns regarding the overpopulation of the planet and a general dislike of children.

Two of the themes identified in the text are not evident in the existing literature. The first of these relates to the fact that the women participating in the study do not regard motherhood as the central feature of femininity. Instead, they tend to associate femininity with the act of nurturing, rather than with the act of mothering. These women are able to strongly identify with the female role, as they do not believe that choosing to remain childfree conflicts with their female gender role. The second theme relates to the belief that the world is an evil or unsafe place and that it is therefore better to remain childfree. This belief appears to be context dependent and is based on the women’s perceptions of the crime situation in South Africa.

This study contributes to the expansion of the existing literature concerning childfree women, specifically within the South African context. The findings of the research support the findings of previous studies and offer a fresh perspective through the identification of new themes. By exploring reasons women cite for remaining childfree, I argue that some women refute motherhood. The challenging of the dominant discourse that “all women are mothers” is aimed at changing the dialogue about women and thus altering existing dominant discourses


Publisher: University of Pretoria
Year of Publication: 2012

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