Population Taboos? No Kidding!

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This post is in support of the 2011 Global Population Speak Out, which is running for the month of February – why not pledge a Tweet, blog post, letter to the editor or a call to your radio station?

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Population Taboos? No Kidding!

February is Global Population Speak Out, an initiative of The Population Institute in Washington DC, designed to break down the societal taboos around discussion of population.

Those who seek to speak out on population issues must constantly swat away attempts to reinforce taboos that seek to prevent discussion. This means clearly separating thoughtful dialogue about population growth from problematic practices and policies.  Doing so may require repeating over and over that:

  • forced sterilisations, blame games and coercive policies have no role to play in any humanitarian effort to bring down our population levels;
  • population cannot be discussed without addressing the important concern of consumption levels (particularly if we do not want to see billions remain in substandard material living conditions);
  • what is being advocated is ensuring women are empowered to physically, financially and culturally be able to control their own fertility safely and easily, and to ensure that mother and child mortality rates decline – which aligns with human rights and poverty reduction initiatives

There may be a range of reasons people are reluctant to raise the issue, particularly as many of the population taboos are associated with birth rates in developing nations – because they do not want to seem to be paternalistic; because doing so would raise the uncomfortable corresponding argument that developing nations consume a lot less than people in the developed nations.

Intrigued by the idea of cultural pressures and taboos around how many children a woman has – or whether she has any – I thought it would be worth investigating what kinds of taboos there are around population within developed countries, where women are more likely to physically be able control their fertility, but where the societal pressure to procreate can be enormous.

Since the advent of contraception and the greater economic independence of some women, there are also other life paths that women can choose – including remaining child-free (the term ‘child-free’ is used rather than ‘child-less’ to demonstrate that this state has been a positive, conscious choice).

For women who are childfree and do not plan on having children it can feel marginalising living in a culture that, in terms of social norms, celebrates children and motherhood, but which also subtly says to women who choose not to procreate – ‘there is something abnormal about you’.

No one can celebrate being child-free; its not something you announce with joy like a pregnancy or birth of a child. It’s something brought up when someone asks, and then usually needs to be defended.

But how abnormal is it?

Internet forums, where people can express feelings and opinions anonymously, have given women a much-needed place to share their stories.

Some of these forums are almost militant and deliberately provocative, a place to vent frustrations. Others are seeking to have a more civilised, productive and thoughtful exchange of ideas and perspectives:


The range of perspectives and stories contributors are sharing has been a revelation.

These include outrage at being denied procedures to permanently control fertility because ‘you might change your mind’, or ‘you don’t want to miss the opportunity to have biological children’. Those seeking them range from their teens and early 20s to their mid 30s.

A common source of irritation for women is being perpetually challenged on a personal decision by well-meaning and/or insensitive questions and comments, including:

Who will look after you when you’re old?’ (note: don’t count on that – have you been to the local nursing home lately?).

‘You’ll change your mind one day…’ (subtext: you’ll change your mind when you grow up)

‘You just haven’t met the right person yet…’

‘You don’t know what you’re missing/It’s all worth it…’

‘You’re not a complete woman until you’ve had a baby…’

‘But you’d make such a great mother…what a shame…’

‘Don’t you like children? You were a child once…’

‘You must be a very selfish person to not want to have children…’

There are sites offering lists of comebacks to such questions and comments, some of which effectively reframe the issue to politely make a point, and some of which are witty and/or provocative.

No doubt there are men out there who have had some experience of this also, but not quite to the same degree that a human born with a uterus and ovaries encounters!

The cultural nagging and interrogation is not restricted to the childfree.

For women/couples with one child:

‘When are you having the next one?’

For women/couples with two girls or two boys:

‘Are you going to try for a (insert opposite gender to existing children here)?’

Those with more than 2.2 children can expect comments on having a larger than average family size.

The forums also include stories and observations of how life context influences procreation decisions.

There are women who are childless by circumstance – either for physical reasons or not having the conditions they desire to have a child, such as being in a stable relationship or financially secure – rather than by choice.

The choice for a woman whose biological clock is ticking becomes ‘…do I have a child on my own, or do I settle for someone I otherwise would not have?’

Then there are people who have lost a child, in some cases in tragic circumstances.

I have friends who have not been able to conceive, and friends who have lost a child tragically – and the idea of anyone interrogating them about ‘when are you going to have kids?’ makes my blood boil.

There are the women who go through physically arduous and financially costly assisted reproduction.

There are gay women who are wondering how, or if, children will be part of their life’s path and navigating judgments from all different directions.

And these forums allow one of the most unspeakable taboos for a woman – to say she wished she had never had children. It is a reality for some women, even if they love their kids, and even though people might find such sentiments abhorrent. These anonymous forums can create a safe space to express those feelings, while protecting offspring from potentially painful revelations.

Women are tired of being judged for what they do or don’t do in relation to procreation. These are very personal issues, and yet, although it is a very personal choice, procreation does have far-reaching, long-term societal impacts.

Society rightly celebrates the birth of a child, motherhood and fatherhood.

But the more we can create a supportive culture that enables women to discuss, debate and exercise all possible options they may wish to, the more it makes discussion of population less taboo, less a topic of friction between those who have opted out of childbearing, adopted, been a parent but lost a child, have children, have had an abortion, have had tubes tied/a vasectomy etc.

Women everywhere need the information and the ability – which includes physical and financial access to family planning and contraception, as well as cultural acceptance – to be able to control their own fertility and make the choices that best suit them.

It is about redesigning the social signals and available options that determine how many children women have, or whether they have them at all, whichever country and culture they live in.

The empowerment of women, wherever they live, is integral to moving beyond growth, including frank and fearless discussion of fertility and procreation choices, without fear of accusations, judgments and insensitive nonsense.

Published by Sharon Ede

Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst and is founder of Share Adelaide Share Adelaide. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.

7 replies on “Population Taboos? No Kidding!”

  1. Great, direct, honest discussion of the subject, Sharon. My compliments. I have to ask, however, if it was intentional that you didn’t go into any detail on the idea of educating people about the impacts of family size decisions on the well-being of our children and future generations. I suspect you tiptoed around that for the very reasons you point out – we are all overly sensitive about this issue. Would love to know.

    Dave Gardner
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  2. Hi Dave, thanks for your positive comments.

    My intent with this post was to show that there are taboos around this subject everywhere, not just in relation to birth rates in ‘developing’ countries – and especially to highlight the kind of responses our culture makes to women (in particular) who have chosen not to have children, when people who voluntarily make this choice are making a huge contribution to steering us away from the kinds of impacts we are worried about for future generations.

    Raising this issue and making this choice socially ‘safer’, a ‘norm’, is in my view a first step towards being able to have those broader discussions with people. If you look at some of the forums I mentioned, there is almost a war going on between the child-free and parents, from the personal (what kind of person are you to not want children?) to the political (if we want to encourage people to have less children, why do families get tax breaks but the child-free do not?). Some of the judgments, assumptions and comments child-free women have been subjected to are truly awful, and its enough to cause them to defuse the conversation as quickly as possible, let alone discuss the issue for humanity at large, across time.

    We can discuss family size and what this means in terms of future impacts, but for many people – just like climate change remains a remote, abstract concern – that will still not be a consideration. If we can make choosing not to have children a norm, then it reduces pressure on those who might feel family and social pressure to comply when they are ambivalent, or would prefer not to.

    Making procreation conversation safe – call it ‘cultural contraception’!

  3. Excellent post and the article you link to is very interestign too.

    I don’t have children and never will, largely due to being an environmentalist and being concerned about overpopulation but also because i have never had any element of a maternal instinct. (I do sometimes wonder what i would have done, had I had a huge maternal instinct but had wanted to not reproduce due to my environmental concerns, that would have been a conundrum)

    I have not really found that people put pressure on me to have children, I had one German friend who started every yearly letter with ‘have you had children yet?’ and we lost touch and then she wrote to me again saying ‘how many children do you have?’ since we barely know each other i didn’t reply at all.

    Most people I know though accept me being childfree. The occasional comment from my partner’s parents but that’s all. Interesting, I have found my mother’s comments upsetting, erven though they are far from pressuring me to have children. She has on occasion basically said ‘having children isn’t worth it’ which seems to undermine my own existence, and even as a comment to support me in my decision to be childfree was clumsy to say the least.

    The whole topic around reproduction though is one we don’t tend to talk about at all, i brought it up at an environmental meeting once and was told ‘yes but we can’t tell the developing world not to have children’ without that person listening to what i was going to say about choosing ourselves to be childfree.

  4. Thank you, Crafty Green Poet

    I had one of my colleagues mention to me that her mother has admitted the same to her; that she should not have had children. I guess it depends in what context and how it is said, but my colleague has chosen not to take it personally, and to recognise that for her Mum, it is just how she feels. It depends on how people react, and in some cases, may be an admission best made to someone other than one’s offspring.

    I don’t think it needs to be a conundrum, if you had wanted to have children – you would have had them. You just probably wouldn’t have had a large family, if you have environmental concerns about population. It doesn’t have to be about not having children, but making sure that the choices are mindful and that all women everywhere have that option to be deliberate about it. When women’s empowerment raises, the number of children they choose to have drops. Have a look at this documentary I found out about just after I wrote this post: http://cruxcatalyst.blogspot.com/2011/02/empty-handed.html

    As for your last comment, this is precisely my point – we need to make it safe to talk about this, even if some people find it uncomfortable. The person you mentioned shut the conversation down – end of story. Such a rush to judgment only helps keep the population taboo in place, and a crowded world facing more resource constraints will impact on those most vulnerable first. It is hard to be an effective messenger, especially when people will not only hear you out, often they ‘hear’ things you did not even say!

  5. Thanks Sharon, yes I’m sure if i wasn’t my mother’s daughter, i would have had more sympathy with her comment…

    You’re totally right about people not listening, and pre-judging anyone who speaks out on the population issue.

    Thanks for the link to the short documentary, it was very moving. I taught in Malawi for two years and one of my students died in childbirth just after she left school.

  6. I realize this is another (and associated) taboo, but it has a very real influence in the issue of bearing children: religion. In many, if not most religions there is no option of not bearing children. Even women who are unable to conceive are sometimes ostracized from the religious community. Anyone spending time in a maternity ward of an indigent hospital has probably heard some Hispanic or other woman begging not to have anymore babies. These women are born into a culture where women are baby-factories, and a strong influence in that cultural expectation is their religious doctrine.

    Living in the Texas Bible Belt, I was once accused by a well-off, upper middle-class woman of being an atheist communist because I did not want children. We have much to overcome in so many facets of our societies and cultures.

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