Childlessness: Our very existence is being denied | Cristina Archetti
- Cristina ArchettiProfessor i politisk kommunikasjon og journalistikk, Institutt for medier og kommunikasjon (IMK), Universitetet i Oslo
Even in a land of equality in 2020, women are still expected to all eventually become mothers.
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Barnløshet: Hele vår eksistens fornektes | Cristina Archetti
Involuntary childless people are, most likely, one of the biggest minority you have never heard of. In Norway 13 % of women over 45 do not have children.
In countries like Australia, Italy, Germany or Japan, practically every fourth woman born in the 70s will end her reproductive cycle without children. The men who will never be dads across Western countries, Norway included, are also 1 in 4.
Although few of these individuals have chosen not to have children, up to 90 % of them are so involuntarily. The vast majority of them, in turn, are «childless by circumstance»: perhaps because they do not have a partner, they have been ill during fertile years, or for reasons unknown to medicine, as in the case of unexplained infertility.
Could they not «just» adopt?
At this point most of you might raise the questions that involuntary childless individuals are often being asked: But what about IVF, or egg donation, visiting the sperm bank in Denmark, or trying to relax? Alternatively, could they not «just» adopt?
Some of the honest answers could include: «it did not work», «do you really think I have not thought about that?», «I was not comfortable with it», «we were heartbroken», «why can’t you just leave me alone?», «it felt wrong», «we were too old to qualify.». Most of the time, however, those of you who have asked these questions might have been met by silence.
Explaining the silence that surrounds involuntary childlessness in the alleged «age of communication» is what my book, Childlessness in the Age of Communication: Deconstructing Silence, is about. The will to break that silence is what motivated me to write it. Most importantly, by combining scientific research with intimate life stories, including my own, I wanted to reclaim the complexity of the childless experience from a childless perspective.
Against a majority discourse that approaches infertility almost exclusively in medical terms, I wanted to show the devastating effects that the inability to realize a life goal one has cultivated since childhood can have on every fiber of one’s being: from relationships to one’s sense of identity, to whether one feels included in society at all. In this respect, «not having the baby», as heartbreaking as it is, is but a fraction of the enormity of the consequences that derive from not having children in a society designed for families.
There are many reasons for silence and I can’t cover them all in detail here. In a nutshell: the tacit stigma of infertility is one key aspect, as it is the awareness by the childless that «the others» do not want to hear about a story they find too terrifying — a vicious circle that makes childlessness a taboo. So let me help you to listen.
To start with the existential dimension of not being able to reproduce, if being a «real», «grown up», «complete» woman (or man) means becoming a mother (or father), what are you when you can’t have children? If having a family is expected to be the main source of «meaning», «success», and «happiness» in life, how can your existence be meaningful, successful, happy? What reason do you have to get up in the morning?
Ageing is a central concern
Childlessness also involves broader social and political issues. When, at a certain age, one by one, your friends disappear to socialize with other families, you progressively become isolated. Sure, it is possible to cultivate alternative networks of support. Especially in Nordic countries, however, children are a «social glue» and most public life revolves around their schedules and upbringing. Where do you belong? And what happens when you grow older, perhaps in a remote location in the countryside?
Ageing is a central concern for childless individuals, yet it is completely ignored by politicians. As the British association Ageing Well Without Children points out, even welfare states rely on the voluntary care provided by close family members, especially in the context of tighter budgets. Who will take care of us?
Our very existence is being denied: childlessness in both public discourse and policy is a temporary condition until one «gets the baby». Technology, we are being continuously told, from IVF to egg freezing, will «fix» it. The reality, unfortunately, is that fertility treatments fail most of the time and too many are unaware of their (un)success rates because of the PR of a lucrative fertility industry. The celebrity «miracle baby» stories in the media are the sugar-coated exceptions, not the painful norm.
Not being able to conceive, in fact, leads to a process comparable to bereavement that might continue indefinitely, both because there is no body to bury and because no specialists adequately understand the problem to help those who struggle.
Caricatured and demonized
When the childless are not invisible, they are caricatured and demonized. As part of my study, for instance, I examined the film portrayals of involuntary childlessness. At the end of practically all the stories I watched, the childless either kill themselves, are being killed (they are usually evil and crazy), or miraculously acquire a baby. Movies do not have to reflect reality accurately.
Yet, what does it do to how society perceives, perhaps unconsciously, the childless when nobody ever hear their true voices and all one sees are negative stereotypes? What does it do to the childless themselves, who never find, anywhere, their lives and experiences represented? What are the implications of never seeing the possibility of a life without children presented as a viable option?
A last question nobody is posing is: Why is a woman’s health expendable for the sake of a baby at all costs? It is women who are unquestionably expected, selflessly, to subject themselves to invasive procedures. The pressure to become a mother, in countries that revolve around children like Norway, is not just related to a desire to conceive. The reason, I am sorry to say, is also that, even in a land of equality in 2020, women are still expected to all eventually become mothers. Let’s be honest: there is no alternative script.
Cristina Archetti is Professor of Political Communication and Journalism at the Institutt for medier og kommunikasjon (IMK), University of Oslo. She is author of Childlessness in the Age of Communication: Deconstructing Silence (Routledge 2020) and founder of Andre Veier: Foreningen for permanent barnløse.