An Exploration of Priorities for Adulthood and the Meaning of Parenthood

Meaning of parenthood

Previous research on ‘meaning of parenthood’ has fallen into two categories:

  1. undertaken with adults, largely in relation to infertility and new reproductive technologies
  2. undertaken with adolescents, largely in relation to prevention of teenage pregnancy.

Previous research with adults

For the majority of adults there is an expectation and desire to produce children. Research has suggested that ‘meaning of parenthood’ is a complex and individual concept with core components variously identified as biological, psychological, sociological, emotional, interpersonal and socio-cultural/ societal. A helpful review of the research in this area has been carried out by Netherwood.

Researchers have also sought to understand the continuing attraction of parenthood. Callan’s Australian research suggests this may be because virtually all societies are essentially pronatalistic, praising the virtues of parenthood and encouraging reproduction. In British culture, for example, research has shown that there is such a societal expectation to reproduce that those (in particular, women) who either voluntarily or involuntarily do not do so are seen as outside the norm. The stigma of childlessness, however, is by no means an exclusively female problem. Fathering a child is viewed socially as confirmation of a man’s virility and a childless man may feel that others doubt his masculinity.

Interestingly, the perceived disadvantages of parenthood receive much less coverage in published research. Morse notes her view that perceived disadvantages may include the inevitable return to traditional roles, with the woman caring for children and being responsible for domestic chores while the man is the primary or only breadwinner; the real or perceived reduction in income and associated financial difficulties; the curtailment of leisure activities; and the prevention of the full experience and expression of an adult relationship because of the presence of a child. An Australian Pharmacy Online study of voluntarily and involuntarily childless wives’ perceptions of motherhood included disruptions to lifestyle, lack of personal time and prevention of opportunities for adult development and learning.

A review of changing population trends over the past 25 years suggests the need to understand better voluntary childlessness. The number of child-less women of 40 years of age in Britain has risen from one in ten in 1980 to one in five in 2000 with women now expected to have an average of 1.7 children each – one of the lowest figures since wartime. As Bunting points out, this trend is not unique to Britain. Although it is commonly assumed that every adult expects and wants to produce children, the prevalence of involuntary childlessness in industrialized societies is around 15–19 per cent and research suggests that between 4 per cent and 9 per cent never seek or want parenthood, preferring instead to pursue careers, enjoy life free from parental responsibilities and commit to relationships without reproduction.

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