Childless and Bereft?: Stereotypes and Realities in Relation to ‘Voluntary’ and ‘Involuntary’ Childlessness and Womanhood



Drawing on my own personal and research experience and on the research of others I consider issues of definition, identity, support, and kinship in relation to lifecourse issues and the experience of ‘voluntarily’ and ‘involuntarily’ childless women. Motherhood is still considered to be a primary role for women and women who do not mother children (either biologically or socially) are often stereotyped as desperate or selfish. However, just as the experience of motherhood is complex and varied, so is the experience of nonmotherhood. Whereas some ‘voluntarily’ childless women define themselves as childfree and some ‘involuntarily’ childless women feel desperate some of the time, others are more ambivalent. In this article I draw on empirical work that considers the significance of ages and changes to the experience of nonmotherhood and that considers the particular and potential experience of older childless women. As well as demonstrating concerns and challenges, this work also suggests the need to challenge the caricature of the childless woman (and particularly the older childless woman) as bereft. In relation to this I extend my argument to consider both the myth that women who do not mother children of their ‘own’ always live a childfree life and critically evaluate the view that parenthood automatically leads to kinship support in old age.