14 September, 2023

Forever Stereotyped or Invisible

It is World Childless Week.
Today we are talking about the Childless in the Media.

In the 1980s, when I was just starting to make my way in the world, there was a real freedom for young women. Our lives did not have to be defined by our biology. We could pursue careers and opportunities beyond those of becoming a wife and mother. We could choose if and when we might become a parent. The world was our oyster. Little did I know that whilst opportunities would exist for me that my mother never had, society’s stereotypes and restrictions would manifest again in rampant pronatalism, duplicating the expectations and judgements that she was subject to back in the 1960s.

There are two main stereotypes about those without children that permeate our societies. We are either the carefree and selfish childfree, or the pitiable childless who dwell in eternal misery, regretting the lives we never had, or worse, becoming unhinged, wanting to take other people’s children. These stereotypes are recreated in the media again and again. But neither are true representations of people without children, who are as varied as any other group in society. Those of us who wanted to but couldn’t or didn’t have children – commonly called the childless – learn to accept our situation and to embrace our lives without children. Yet when we do so, we simply become stereotypes again; the “selfish” people without children, with no responsibilities.

The stereotypes are hard to avoid. The “miracle baby” stereotype is well entrenched in the media. Articles about infertility or assisted reproduction almost invariably end with a “happily ever after” case of a surprise baby or final successful IVF cycle. There is little or no acceptance of a life that doesn’t end this way. Little acknowledgement of the statistics showing most people do not get these results. No challenges to the stereotype that the only outcome worth talking about is the one that ends with a baby. And almost never any exploration of what it might be like to be the ones who go on to live without children. We are ignored. Hidden. Dismissed.

I was once interviewed for an article about Christmas by a national media organisation. They wanted to write about Christmas for the childless, and how isolated we might feel. I said that societal and media messaging concentrates on Christmas and holidays are only for children, and completely forgets those of us without them (or with children who are estranged, or live overseas, etc). My main point was that we can reclaim Christmas – a message I have been emphasising on my blog No Kidding in NZ for more than ten years. Christmas is not just for children, and we can establish our own traditions, do what we enjoy, carve out time alone, and make it special for us too. When the article was published, this point was ignored entirely. The narrative they wanted was that childless people were sad and lonely.

Of course, the “selfish” stereotype is common in articles too. The truth is that people without children – whether childfree or childless or a mixture of the two – help each other, take on important roles in our societies and communities and extended families, volunteer, and give to charity. We do this more widely and frequently than those who are parents. We help the elderly in our family when the parents are too busy to do so, but often with expectation, rather than acknowledgement and gratitude from our siblings/cousins etc. The definition of “selfish” is skewed too. After all, what is selfish about simply living our lives when there is no other good alternative? So what if I can take a trip when parents have children in school? That’s not being selfish, it is simply being practical. Such lazy reporting is sadly too commonplace in today’s media.

Likewise, reporting about elections brings an onslaught of messages about “families” or hopes for “your children’s children” from politicians. In an election here in just a month or two, I have little hope there will be challenging questions from reporters that might consider the needs of all members of society, especially those of vulnerable people who don’t have families around to help them.

Sadly, pronatalism is so strongly entrenched in our society that even journalists, supposedly taught to question and probe and investigate, seem oblivious to their bias. I would be delighted to see this change. But I admit I am not hopeful.


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