Who's choosing what?
Holly Hummer on childless women
A few years back, my partner and I somehow got to discussing my grad school friends’ research interests. Eric was more impressed than I expected him to be when I finished gushing about their work. “Do all sociologists study such relevant issues?” he asked.
I laughed, but I understood Eric’s point. Fairly or not, academics are more often associated with the esoteric than the urgent. And if you get more than two of us in a room, we sociologists are as likely as any other scholar to devolve into our own jargon-filled language. But when you translate from sociologese to everyday speak, it turns out that yes, Eric, most of us are indeed working on timely and important questions that have implications far beyond the fabled ivory tower.
Today I want to introduce you to one such sociologist, my friend and colleague Holly Hummer. Though Holly and I share an interest in gender and families, we come at the topic from very different angles. Holly’s work centers on women without kids: who are they, what motivates them, and how do they fare in a society that valorizes the “traditional” family form of parents + children?
This topic is important at any time, but it seems especially urgent now. On one hand, parents’ travails have received renewed attention in recent weeks, as Omicron toppled already-precarious childcare arrangements. On the other, politicians and pundits who decry the declining birthrate too often place the blame on individual couples (and, let’s be real, primarily women). Holly was generous enough to talk us through this moment through the lens of her research.
AD: Hi Holly! Before we dive in too far, can you tell me a little about who you are and what you're working on at the moment?
HH: Sure! I'm a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard and am working on my dissertation, which is an interview-based study about childless women. I've interviewed more than 100 women without kids in the U.S. and I'm in the process of starting to interview some Japanese women as well so that part of my study can be comparative.
I'm broadly interested in how women without children think about or consider parenthood, why they ultimately remain childless, and what it's like to be a woman without kids in contexts where parenthood is very much the norm.
AD: I was inspired to talk with you in part by statements like Pope Francis's a few weeks back, where he basically called out childless couples for choosing pets over babies. Not to scapegoat him too much, but his remarks seem emblematic of a broader conversation about childless/childfree people whose "selfishness" is driving down birth rates. I'm curious to get your take on this issue. What have you learned so far about the diverse reasons women end up childfree?
HH: Whew, yes, there's so much to talk about here. I think an important point to emphasize is that there are so many ways in which people remain childless but often, in both the media and sometimes academic studies, not having kids gets either framed as a simplistic choice or as an unwanted outcome related to infertility or postponing having them. And in either case, women often end up receiving criticism for their reproductive decisions (or non-decisions). Through my interviews, I've learned that there are so many reasons and circumstances that lead people to remain childless and often, for women at least, childlessness stems from multiple factors. One thing I hope to do in my research is show the more nuanced ways in which women think about, consider, and eschew parenthood and to shed light on broader social structures that shape this decision process.
AD: It makes total sense that there'd be a lot more nuance than the public conversation accounts for. Can you give us an example or two that illustrates some of the pathways to childlessness that are emerging from your data? Particularly if there were any that you found surprising or didn't anticipate when you started this project.
HH: I think one really interesting finding was how the notion of "choice" could be used and interpreted differently by the women I interviewed. Some women framed their childlessness as a choice after struggling with alternating desires to be a mother or not; others used choice to frame their childlessness as an agentic decision to not pursue options like IVFafter going through infertility. And there were some women who felt so strongly about never wanting children that they felt the term "choice" didn't really even apply to their non-parenthood - having kids was not something they ever even considered, and so remaining childless wasn't really a choice at all but just something natural.
To me, when there's so much conversation about "women choosing to not have kids," I wonder why there seems to be less interest in the process of opting to have them - what kinds of contexts, circumstances, and policies motivate people to become parents and how can we make parenthood more accessible to those who want it?
One of my interviewees brought up this point and I think about it a lot when I see so much discussion about low fertility rates.
AD: Huh. It definitely says something about the taken-for-granted nature of the "traditional" family form (i.e., parents plus biological children) that we spill so much ink on the decision not to have kids, and relatively little on the decision to have them.
Okay, one more substantive question for you: there was a lot of talk early in the pandemic about a "baby bust."And the past few months of the Omicron surge have certainly not made the life of a parent look particularly appealing! Do you have a sense of how the pandemic has changed the thinking of the women you've interviewed, if at all? And/or, do you have any predictions about what Covid's longer-term legacy will be on fertility intentions?
HH: Good question! It's hard to speculate how things will shake out in the long term, and existing literature tells us that people's fertility plans are often contingent on many circumstances. That being said, the women I interviewed often brought up how the pandemic reaffirmed, or even validated, their intentions to remain childless. Many brought up how friends or family members who were parents, especially with young children, were struggling with endless childcare and education stressors and how by contrast, life without kids was much less anxiety-inducing right now. I also think to some, the pandemic more broadly shed light on how fragile our childcare system is and how mothers in particular shoulder much of the work of parenting, especially in times like these. For people on the fence about having kids, I definitely think the pandemic could therefore serve as a factor tipping some more towards the "no" camp.
AD: Just for fun, I want to close with a totally unrelated inquiry! I happen to know that you're a talented baker. For those of us (cough: me) looking for some sugary projects to pass the time while we're snowed in, what's one of the best things you've baked lately?
HH: Ooh, I recently made these matcha/strawberry/vanilla neapolitan cookies over winter break and they were pretty easy and perfect for indecisive people like me who can't choose between flavors. Highly recommend!
Alas, Holly and I do not always speak in perfect paragraphs. We conversed via email for this post.
Aka “in vitro fertilization,” a medical procedure widely used as a treatment for infertility or other issues related to conception.