Childfree 101: Cultural Reproductive Coercion

[Content Note: Emotional auditing; reproductive coercion; racism.]

Reproductive coercion is an abusive dynamic in intimate relationships in which one partner "pressures the other, through verbal threats, physical aggression, or birth-control sabotage, to become pregnant." The instinct behind reproductive coercion is not primarily (or at all) a desire to create a baby, but to create a dependency in their partners. A woman (and it is overwhelmingly women who are victimized by reproductive coercion) is easier to control, if her independence and ability to make choices that exclusively prioritize her own needs are compromised in some way.

Even for women who enthusiastically choose to parent, the dramatic change in decision-making from "what will be best for me?" to "what will be best for my child/us?" can be challenging. Many mothers struggle to navigate finding a balance that prioritizes the needs of her child(ren) without abandoning her own needs and losing herself.

For women who do not enthusiastically choose to parent, who have a child in an environment in which self-subjugation is the intended result, with little or no support for maintenance of self, it can be debilitating. Which is the whole point.

Like other forms of abuse and iterations of hostility to consent, reproductive coercion does not happen in a void. It happens in a culture which supports institutional reproductive coercion, a culture in which every person with a uterus is expected and urged and cajoled into reproducing, and in which there are strong disincentives against telling stories of being happily childfree.

This is cultural reproductive coercion.

I have previously mentioned that I have known since I was very young that I did not want to be a mother. And yet my entire life, my statement of intent to be childfree has been met with resistance. I have heard, for at least 30 years, often most assertively from people who purport to love me, that I don't know my own mind. As a child who said she didn't want children, I was considered an amusement—a precocious little women's libber whose pronouncements about her childfree future were cute. As a teenager who said she didn't want children, I was considered rebellious—a defiant reactionary who wasn't stating a fact of examined self, but rejecting bourgeoisie institutions like family in a fit of angst. As a young woman who said she didn't want children, I was simply told I was wrong, in all the ways that young women are: "You'll change your mind."

And when I didn't change my mind, I was needled with coercion masked as compliments. But you would make such a great mother! But you're so great with kids! But you have so much to offer a child! Sure. Everything but the will to parent hir.

And when I still didn't change my mind, I was subjected to all manner of shaming narratives trying to convince me there is something wrong with me if I choose not to parent. I am a traitor to my womanhood. I am an incomplete woman. I am a selfish woman. I am a frivolous woman. I am barely a woman at all, if I refuse to use my fertile, cis, female, male-partnered body for what I am told is its natural (and only) purpose. I am a traitor to my race—a white woman partnered with a white man refusing to have white babies when the white birth rate is dropping in the US. I am a traitor to my country—an educated middle-class woman refusing to make a contribution to the future of the great society which has provided her with so much. The ultimate taker among makers.

And when I still didn't change my mind, I was implored to consider my lonely death following a slow decline bereft of children to care for me. (As if all children care for their elderly parents and such is their obligation.) I was urged to imagine my terrible, empty, lonely life if Iain dies before me. (As if his death would not be precisely the same heart-shattering misery if we had children.) I was asked to consider that I may one day regret not having had children. (As if it would be better to have children just in case, despite the possibility I might regret having them, once they were here.)

And when I still didn't change my mind, I started finding my family was not enough of a family to be included in events marked for "families," which is understood to mean "parents and children." I was presumed to dislike children. I was presumed to disdain parents. It was whispered, even among my own family members, that my first marriage probably dissolved because I refused to "give him children." It was whispered that Iain would eventually leave me for the same reason. Whispered loud enough for me to hear.

And when I still didn't change my mind, I was told that I would once my biological clock started ticking—an admonishment delivered with such certainty that I began to fear and mistrust my own body, expecting it to betray me someday, for my biology to overwhelm my will with an undeniable urge to be a mother.

That has not happened.

I am now 39 years old. I am still childfree. The frequency of questions about when I will have babies has dropped precipitously. I have spent a lifetime fielding confident predictions I would change my mind about being childfree, and now I am reaching an age where those who were so certain are coming to the realization, at long last, that I really don't want children and I'm really not going to have them.

So now I am no longer a Woman Who Will Definitely Have Kids Someday, and instead I am a Woman Without Kids.

One might imagine that becoming a Woman Without Kids would put an end to the coercion. But it has not.

Now it is recommended to me that I can adopt. Now it is explained to me that it's "not too late." They're doing amazing things in fertility science these days, you know. Now I am told I don't even have to have kids to be a mother, because if I care about any living thing, it's because I secretly want and need to be a mother.

And at the very end of it all, in the long shadow of mountainous evidence that I knew my mind all along and that I will remain childfree, with little room left to try to cajole, shame, or coerce me into parenting, I am told what a pity it is I never had children. Because pity is the only way left to convey that my choice is wrong.

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