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Childfree Women at Midlife

Childfree Women at Midlife

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Published by: dmollen0214 on Jul 11, 2012
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At Midlife, Intentionally Childfree Women and Their Experiencesof Regret
Gail DeLyser
Published online: 17 March 2011
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
Based on the author’s exploratory qualitativestudy of the experiences at midlife of 15 intentionallychildfree married or partnered women, this paper focuseson one finding and related themes. A constructivistgrounded theory methodology guided data collection inmany areas of midlife, including regret, menopause, andrelationships. The data suggested that for most in the study,menopause, perimenopause, and reaching midlife did notawaken feelings of regret over their decision to livechildfree. The author discusses implications for clinicalwork with childfree women at midlife.
Childfree women
A commonly held notion, at least in the United States, is thatthedesireforababykicksinwhenwomenreachacertainageor achieve a specific marker. The usual thinking goes some-thing like this: The longing for a baby may emerge when awoman reaches 30 years old or may surface after a few yearsof marriage or partnership. However, this need does not holdtrue for all women. Consider the narrative below:My husband and I, neither one of us had a strongdesire to have children. It wasn’t really like we everhad that final conversation. It was as if our life keptgoing on; it was very full, our friends were havingkids and we would spend time with them. But thenwe were like, ‘‘Oh, let’s go home, this doesn’t fit ourlifestyle.’’ So I think 
we just evolved and we are areally happy couple.The account above sets the findings frame for thisresearcher’s qualitative study on childfree women at mid-life. Specifically, the study focused on exploring theirexperiences of midlife, including menopause, regret, andrelationships. An assumption of the study was that reachingmenopause and the conclusion of a woman’s naturalcapacity for childbearing might awaken in childfreewomen specific feelings, including regret over not havingchildren. For women who have chosen not to have chil-dren, midlife and the biological changes of perimenopauseand menopause foreclose the option of pursuing a naturalpregnancy. Apter (1995) nicely captured this idea in herstatement, ‘menopause could ‘ring a panic button’’(p. 212) for childfree women as they face their past deci-sions. The overall conclusion reached in the study was thatcommon societal assumptions about regret did not proveaccurate. Generally speaking, the women were satisfiedwith their lives and not regretful about their choice to livechildfree. However, what emerged was a story about dif-ference, multiple pathways, and conscious choice.One note about language: In this article I use the word
, which is the term preferred by those who havechosen not to have children. The term
historicallyhas been used to describe barren women; it is too narrowand not responsive to current culture in which women mayopt not to bear children.
Review of the Literature
Over the last few decades, the United States, like manyEuropean countries, has experienced a slight trend toward
G. DeLyser (
)Institute for Clinical Social Work, Chicago, IL, USAe-mail: gdely@aol.com
Clin Soc Work J (2012) 40:66–74DOI 10.1007/s10615-011-0337-2
women choosing to forgo motherhood (Cohn and Living-ston2010; Organisation for Economic Co-operation &Development [OECD]2010). Although motherhood is themost common path for the majority of women, it is, of course not the only route. Using data from the NationalCenter for Health Statistics’ 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, Abma and Martinez (2006) estimated thatapproximately 7% of all U.S. women aged 35 to 44 werevoluntarily childfree. A segment of these women wereBaby Boomers, those Americans born between 1946 and1964 and in the midlife phase.Though midlife women have been described withincreasing accuracy (Apter1995; Goldstein2005; Lachman and Bertrand2001; McQuaide1998b; Mitchell and Helson1990), midlife women without children haveyet to be the focus of extensive research. Much of what hasbeen published on these women at midlife has focused onunderstanding and conceptualizing their identities (Ireland1993; Metropolis1998) and their generativity (Spurling 2001). Some popular and scholarly writings have sought tocategorize childfree women based on their histories andhow their choice not to have children has shaped theiridentities (Cain2001, Ireland1993). Earlier researchers, such as Houseknecht (1979), compared ‘‘early articulators’’(p. 81), women who knew from an early age that mother-hood was not an ambition, to ‘‘postponers’’ (p. 81), thosewho delayed motherhood, in terms of family backgroundfactors, autonomy, achievement, and reference groupsupport.More recently, Mollen (2006) and Park (2002) have expanded the body of literature on women who havechosen not to have children. Mollen (2006) studied ninevoluntarily childfree women ages 32 to 51; her sampleincluded heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian married, sin-gle, and partnered women. She found that gender identityand gender role resistance, messages from parents andrelationships with parents, and early experiences withchildcare influenced the participants’ reasons for remainingchildfree. Park (2002) studied voluntarily childfree womenand men ranging in age from 21 to 56 and approached thetopic from a sociological perspective. She discovered thatparticipants used certain techniques, including ‘‘passing asparents,’substituting more ‘socially acceptable’identi-ties, and advocating the social value of childlessness tomanage what Park referred to as a ‘‘stigmatized identity.’’Neither study focused on the specific developmental phaseof midlife.Not only can midlife be a time of rewarding experi-ences, full of potential (McQuaide1998a, Mitchell andHelson1990), but it also marks the midway point in aperson’s life, implying that there is less time to live thanthe amount of life already lived. Confronting the realitythat life is finite ‘‘may lead to an intensified appreciation of the value of time, sadness about lost opportunities, or asense of [time] moving with painful swiftness’’ (Galatzer-Levy and Cohler1993, pp. 297-298). Because of increasingawareness of time constraints, ‘‘midlife is the heyday of developmental deadlines for long term developmental orlife goals’(Heckhausen2001, p. 355) and a time whenfeelings of regret over past decisions can emerge as indi-viduals grapple with time left to live.Jeffries and Konnert (2002) investigated regret and well-being among middle-aged and older women who volun-tarily and involuntarily did not have children. They foundthat women who considered themselves childless by choicewere less likely to experience regret over their status but if they did, the feelings were ‘‘minor and transitory’’ (p. 103).Those who did not choose childlessness (because of infertility or other circumstances) were more likely toexpress serious, sustained regret. The researchers found nosignificant difference in well-being between parents whomaintained close relationships with their children andwomen who were childless by choice. Koropeckyj-Cox(2002), reported results consistent with those of Jeffriesand Konnert. She compared parents and childless adultsand found that well-being in women without children wastied to whether they chose their status. In her study, par-ticipants who chose to remain childfree scored similarly tomothers who reported excellent parent–child relationships(p. 962) on loneliness and depression scales.
My exploratory study asked, What are the experiences atmidlife of intentionally childfree heterosexual women whoare married or partnered? In semi-structured interviewsparticipants specifically spoke about their experiences of regret, menopause, and relationships. A potential limitationfor this study was the small sample size. Note that I am amember of the population studied.ProcedureThis qualitative study, based on the constructivist groundedtheory approach outlined by Kathy Charmaz (2000,2006), wasprimarilyconductedinalargeMidwesterncity,althougha few participants lived out of state. Interviews, each lastingapproximately 1.5 hours, were conducted in a variety of private settings. In order to accommodate participants’schedules, I conducted interviews at their settings, includingrespondents’ work sites and homes, and at my office. Sub- jects signed informed consent forms and I recorded theinterviews digitally. The recorded interviews were tran-scribed. To protect participants’ identities, each received a
Clin Soc Work J (2012) 40:6674 67
specific code. The Institutional Review Board of the educa-tional institute where I was a doctoral student approved thestudy.ParticipantsTwo primary means were used to recruit subjects: (a)Posting recruitment messages on a childfree list serve (NoKidding) and on a list serve for doctoral students, and(b) distributing fliers to colleagues. Both methods yieldedparticipants. In addition, participants referred other par-ticipants. The sampling methodology was a nonprobabilitysnowball, a purposive sampling method. Still, snowballsampling and the small sample size (
15) were bothlimitations for the study. However, the women recruitedarticulated the dimensions and dynamics associated withthe research questions.Data AnalysisOnce the interviews were transcribed, I began coding datausing the qualitative methods detailed by Charmaz (2000,2006) and Strauss and Corbin (1998). Coding began with line-by-line reading of the transcripts, labeling them withwords that classified and summarized information andresulted in initial categories of data. My dissertation chairand I met every 2 weeks to review, discuss, and analyze thedata. This process continued for the duration of the project.Data analysis used constant comparison to identify simi-larities and differences among transcripts. Through thisprocess, more defined categories of data evolved andmeaning began to emerge. As the amount of data increased,I constructed a visual ‘‘map’’ or diagram of the evolvingcategories, seeking connections between pieces of infor-mation. Once I fractured and categorized the data, I movedinto axial coding, further subcategorizing the data. Thecomplete dissertation committee further reviewed the dataand findings. To help counter limitations and to increaseapplicability of the findings, six subjects read and respon-ded to the results and participated in additional follow upinterviews (Lincoln and Guba1985).
The overall exploratory study yielded rich data or findingson women at midlife who were intentionally childfree; thispaper focuses on the finding of regret and related themes.For a summary of all results and findings please consult thefull dissertation (DeLyser2007), which is available onlineand from ProQuest.Actual SampleFifteen women completed both first and second interviewsand six subjects participated in member-check interviews.They ranged in age from 42 to 60 years old. Approximately60% were between the ages of 50 and 60. All were collegegraduates and were employed, with some holding advanceddegrees. One woman was non-White; all the others wereWhite. Of the 15 participants, 13 were in long-term heter-osexual marriages and 2 were in heterosexual partnershipsof 8 or more years. Kreider (2005, P70) reported that, onaverage, first marriages ending in divorce lasted about 8years. In this study the average length of partnership ormarriage was 16.11 years. This sample isconsistent with theknown profile of voluntarily childfree women, who weretypically educated, disproportionally White, and employed(U.S. Census Bureau2008). Census Bureau, Current Pop-ulation Survey, June 2008 Fertility Supplement).Regret?I sought to learn if intentionally childfree, midlife womenregretted their decision to forgo motherhood. I wondered if nearing or reaching menopause might be a catalyst to regretor might generate panic. Narrative statements from twoparticipants best sum up the views from this sample: ‘‘Ihave to say that I think it is an erroneous assumption thatwomen at midlife are regretful’’ and ‘‘I don’t think of it assad or regretful. I think of women who have made thatdecision as having more interesting lives.’’Only two women were regretful regarding their choicenot to pursue motherhood. One, who married a man morethan a decade older than she, expressed regret over nothaving children. She explained that her wish for childrenwas ‘for selfish reasons.’As an only child, she waswithout siblings and extended family and she assumed shewould outlive her husband. She does not ‘‘beat [herself]up’over the decision, yet reported ‘I wish I had [hadchildren]. It is not one of those, like that cartoon, ‘Oops, Iforgot to have children.’ It is not that. It is just, you can’tcontrol everything and that’s life.’’ Although she ended thestatement with an optimistic ‘‘I am happy the way I am,’’her point was made that she wanted a family. Yet sheadded, ‘I am considered very opinionated. I would say‘assertiveand other people would say ‘aggressive,’ aperson with strong opinions. And when it came to kids Iwas like ‘whatever.’ So it is odd.’’ The second, when askedabout regret, projected herself into the future and wonderedhow she might feel decades from now. ‘‘My only thinkingis that I could be regretful when I’m 60 or 70 and I don’thave children to come visit me.In part, what seemed
68 Clin Soc Work J (2012) 40:6674

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