Please enjoy this re-post of we’re {not} having a baby!‘s interview with sociologist Gillian Ayers on her research on childfree women.

“I could be a father, but I could never be a mother”: Research on Childfree Women in Canada

We here at w{n}hab! love us some research. Especially when it’s sociological (have we mentioned Amy is a sociologist?). So when we came upon an article last summer describing findings from Gillian Ayers’ research on childfree women, we knew we wanted to know more.

Sociologist Gillian Ayers

Gillian Ayers is a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Lethbridge. Her Master’s thesis is entitled “I could be a father, but I could never be a mother”: Values and Meanings of Women’s Voluntary Childlessness in Southern Alberta. Here we chat with Gillian about why she chose to study women in particular and her most surprising research findings.


w{n}hab! – How did you get interested in the topic of childfree women?

G.A. – I became interested in the topic of voluntary childlessness during my undergraduate studies in sociology. The courses I took on sociology of the body, gender, deviance, and feminist theory all challenged my world-view and made sense to me on a personal level as I started to figure out what direction my life would take. I eventually started to question the imperative to mother in my own life, and when I applied to graduate school I decided to explore the topic further through a formal research project. During my research I spoke with 21 women in Southern Alberta who identified as childless by choice.

w{n}hab! – Why study women in particular?

G.A. – Social expectations for women and men are very different. I knew fairly early on in my research project that I would only be speaking with women, as women face particular scrutiny when it comes to domestic life and childbearing decision-making. However, it’s important to note that my study takes for granted the belief that men and fathers are viewed as less involved in childbearing decision-making and childrearing more generally, and the social pressures for them are less. Consequently, women are often the ones who are held responsible for the decision to remain childless, regardless of whether or not the decision was made with a partner. As a result, I was most interested in speaking with women about their experiences of voluntary childlessness.

w{n}hab! – Which of your findings most surprised you? Why?

G.A. – I was most shocked by the “ick” factor explained by many of the women I spoke with regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. This was not an idea I had really thought much about before this research and it truly surprised me because I think many people consider pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding to be beautiful, wonderful, and joyous experiences. In contrast, several women I spoke with were repulsed by these prospects and spoke about wanting to avoid the pain of childbirth, the weight gain, and the feelings of being “hijacked” by a foreign entity during pregnancy. In sum, it was not just the notion of childrearing that women rejected, but also the physical aspects of childbearing.

w{n}hab! – You’ve said that the concept of intensive motherhood was relevant to your research. How so?

G.A. – Sharon Hays (1996) developed the concept of intensive motherhood, which includes methods that should be “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive.” I found that the voluntarily childless women I spoke with often took up the tenets of intensive motherhood and held motherhood in high esteem. For many of the women, if they couldn’t mother the “right” way, they weren’t going to do it at all. This belief became apparent to me when, for example, 20 of the 21 women I spoke with cited financial reasons for remaining voluntarily childless. Many women viewed intensive motherhood ideologies as an impossible standard, and instead chose to reject motherhood altogether.

w{n}hab! – What’s next for you in this research? What questions remain?

G.A. – Future research could more fully examine the experiences of voluntarily childless First Nations, Métis, or Inuit women, as well as women who are visible minorities. Both these groups have higher than average birth rates in Canada, and they may have different expectations regarding childbearing. Of course, future research could also include speaking to voluntarily childless men about their experiences.