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?
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.