Voicing Voluntary Childlessness

Narratives of Non-Mothering in French

by Natalie Edwards (Author)
©2016 Monographs VIII, 214 Pages


The decision to reject motherhood is the subject of several key works of literature in French since the new millennium. This book looks at first-person accounts of voluntary childlessness by women writing in French. The book explores how women narrate their decision not to mother, the issues that they face in doing so and the narrative techniques that they employ to justify their stories. It asks how these authors challenge stereotypes of the childless woman by claiming their own identity in narrative, publicly proclaiming their right to choose and writing a femininity that is not connected to motherhood.
Using feminist, sociological and psychoanalytic theories to interrogate non-mothering, this work is the first book-length study of narratives that counter this long-standing taboo. It brings together authors who stake out a new terrain, creating a textual space in which to take ownership of their childlessness and call for new understandings of female identity beyond maternity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • PART I Perspectives on Voluntary Childlessness
  • CHAPTER 1: Theorising Voluntary Childlessness
  • CHAPTER 2: Psychoanalysing Voluntary Childlessness
  • PART II Expressions of Voluntary Childlessness
  • CHAPTER 3: Linda Lê’s Epistolary Innovation: À l’enfant que je n’aurai pas
  • CHAPTER 4: Jane Sautière’s Autofictional Explorations: Nullipare
  • CHAPTER 5: The Struggle of Personal Criticism: Lucie Joubert’s L’Envers du landau
  • CHAPTER 6: The Ageing Voluntarily Childless Woman: Madeleine Chapsal’s La Femme sans
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →Acknowledgements

This book is the result of a ten-year labour and many individuals have assisted in its maturation. I hope that they have all felt my gratitude.

This book was conceived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, my home for seven years and the fabled birthplace of the babyccino and the yummy mummy. I am grateful to the neighbourhood and its inhabitants for inspiration, encouragement and an inexhaustible supply of material. I should like to thank my closest colleagues while in New York, Eloïse Brezault and Anne Schotter, for their camaraderie and support, both as I began the project and as I transitioned from one hemisphere to another.

The writing of this book began in earnest as I moved to Australia and found a warm welcome in my new home. Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby made an enormous difference in my life by employing me at the University of Adelaide. Their generous, thoughtful mentoring has been a constant source of support in the years since. Peter Poiana has been a model of kindness since my first day on campus and Ben McCann’s infectious enthusiasm and friendship always lift my spirits. Amy Hubbell’s companionship has been very precious to me, both in the US and in our new home. I thank the University of Adelaide for the research leave in which this book was completed and the Faculty of Arts for the research grants that enabled the preliminary field trips. Also on an Australian theme, I thank Liverpool University Press for granting me permission to include sections of ‘Deliberately Barren: The Rejection of Motherhood in Contemporary French Women’s Writing’, which appeared in 52.1 (2014) of the Australian Journal of French Studies.

Much of this book was written in London, while I was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, part of the School of Advanced Study. I gratefully acknowledge the resources made available to me during my stay. I am indebted to Gill Rye at the IMLR’s Centre for Contemporary Women’s Writing for her support and for her model of ← vii | viii →commitment to our field of research. The seminar that she organised, in addition to the talks organised for me by the IMLR, were invaluable to me as I was nearing the end of this project. I should like to thank particularly Adalgisa Giorgio, who has influenced my ideas since I was eighteen years old. King Cornelius and Princess Angela of the Elephant and Castle were a fitting feline complement to my writing retreat.

I am most grateful to Laurel Plapp and the editorial team at Peter Lang for assistance throughout the publication process. Finally, I thank my parents Dawn and John, brothers Neil and Robert and father-in-law Ron Hogarth for their support of my restlessness and ensuing absences. Most of all, I thank my similarly nomadic travelling companion, the other half of this Francophile academic couple. Thank you, Chris.

← viii | 1 →Introduction

‘Deliberately barren’ was how Australian Senator Bill Heffernan chose to label the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2007.1 Heffernan justified 1his description of the woman who subsequently became Australia’s first female Prime Minister by stating, ‘I won’t walk away from that […] If you’re a leader, you’ve got to understand your community. One of the great understandings in a community is family, and the relationship between mums, dads and a bucket of nappies’.2 Heffernan was eventually forced to apologise by the Prime Minister John Howard, whose initial reaction was that ‘people say funny things all the time’.3 Yet, Heffernan suffered no further consequences for what many will view as an appalling intrusion into a woman’s private life.4 After all, the adjective ‘barren’ has been used over centuries to refer to sterile or castrated animals, to trees or plants without seed, to land producing no vegetation or to mentally or intellectually deficient individuals.5 It is highly offensive either to use such derogatory language to describe a woman in public office, or to claim the right to comment upon any woman’s fertility. Denigrating a woman on the basis of her choices over her own reproduction is troubling in the twenty-← 1 | 2 →first century, several decades after the legalisation of contraception and abortion awarded these choices in law in most Western countries. What is more troubling is that the man who made this comment – and the system that condoned it – finds that it is acceptable to criticise a woman publicly for choosing not to reproduce, which is revelatory of persistent attitudes towards women and maternity.

This book argues that women are increasingly proving that it is time to change such attitudes and the assumptions about female identity that underpin them. The rejection of motherhood has become the subject of several works of literature since the new millennium. Voicing Voluntary Childlessness engages with this important change by gathering together first-person accounts of childlessness published in French in the twenty-first century. It explores how women narrate their decision not to mother, the issues that they face in doing so and the narrative techniques that they employ to justify their stories. It asks how these texts challenge stereotypes of the childless woman by claiming their own identity in narrative, by publicly proclaiming their right to choose and by writing a femininity that is not connected to motherhood. It considers how women are stigmatised, denigrated or discriminated against as a result of their decision and how they voice their resistance to such treatment. It therefore explores what it means to reject motherhood in contemporary France through the voices of women themselves.

The specifically French focus emanates from the fact that the recent appearance of literary expressions of childlessness constitutes a particularly innovative move. Voicing one’s decision not to mother is considered to be taboo in many cultural contexts but France represents a very specific case. As discussed below, fertility rates in France have consistently been the highest in Europe and the country’s strong Catholic heritage has laid the foundations of cultural values towards mothering and childrearing. The decision to remain childless has, therefore, been less common among French women than among many of their European counterparts. The choice to portray this decision in literary works thus signals an important break with traditional cultural and literary mores. Women’s writing in French has long been celebrated for its iconoclastic rejection of social and literary traditions and its insistence on representing the material reality ← 2 | 3 →of women’s lived experience. The appearance of literary representation of childlessness is an important strand of this burgeoning field and the voices of those who experiment with it offer a variety of new insights into women’s non-normative identities, life choices and experiences.

In this way, Voicing Voluntary Childlessness engages in a wider phenomenon in recent women’s writing. In the 1990s, a new wave of women writers achieved prominence for their provocative, unsettling and often iconoclastic writing.6 These include authors such as Christine Angot, Paule Constant, Marie Darrieussecq, Virginie Despentes, Linda Lê, Catherine Millet, Marie Nimier and Marie Redonnet. Issues that these writers broach include, for example, female sexuality, the body, rape, pornography, abortion, eating disorders and death. Alongside such themes, a radical questioning of motherhood is notably present within their work. As Gill Rye demonstrates in her magisterial work Narratives of Mothering: Women’s Writing in Contemporary France, which echoes throughout Voicing Voluntary Childlessness, many of these authors challenge, critique or reinvent discourses of motherhood.7 These authors thus point to the inadequacies, lacunae or inappropriateness of current theories and practices of motherhood and question these in their narratives. Building on and yet developing in different directions from this, the writers in Voicing Voluntary Childlessness issue a further set of challenges to prevailing ideas. By narrating the choice not to mother, they stake out a new terrain, creating a new textual space in which to take ownership of their childlessness and to call for new approaches to female identity beyond maternity.

← 3 | 4 →Such a new approach is becoming more necessary, it appears, since voluntary childlessness is becoming an increasingly popular choice, in France as in many Western countries. Statistics on the proportion of voluntarily childless women are difficult to obtain, since information such as census data and population surveys do not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary childlessness. Nevertheless, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s study in 2007 found that 20.6 per cent of women in France aged 40 to 44 were childless, higher than in countries such as Australia (13 per cent) and Spain (18.1 per cent), but lower than in the United Kingdom (25 per cent) and Germany (33.6 per cent).8 While infertility rates may also be increasing, it is clear that voluntary childlessness is on the rise, as many women are planning a life without motherhood. Although still relatively unusual, the choice to remain childless is therefore common to an increasing section of the population.

This is borne out by evidence in popular culture. Discussion of voluntary childlessness is to be found in sources such as popular media, social networks, popular psychology texts and journalism. Much of this movement began in the US, where ideas such as a ‘childfree’ lifestyle have been an important subculture since the late 1980s. Social networking groups now exist, such as ‘No Kidding!’, which was founded in Vancouver in 1984 by a childless man and which has spread to many other countries.9 Popular works such as Laura Stott’s Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice, Nicki Defago’s Childfree and Loving It! and Eleanore Well’s The Spinsterlicious Life: Twenty Life Lessons for Living Happily Single and Child-free all point to the increasingly popular choice to remain childless.10 Meghan Daum’s more serious exploration of childlessness by writers and academics, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers ← 4 | 5 →on the Decision Not to Have Kids, has justifiably caught the attention of a variety of news sources, including The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and The Huffington Post.11 Further examples abound in journalism. Time Magazine famously ran an issue devoted to voluntary childlessness in August 2013, showing on its front cover a young couple hedonistically relaxing on a beach with the headline, ‘The Childfree Life: When Having it All Means Not Having Children’.12

In the French context, such exploration is more recent yet nonetheless present. Works such as Corinne Maier’s No Kid: Quarante raisons de ne pas avoir d’enfant [No Kid: Forty Reasons Not to Have Children], Emilie Devienne’s Être femme sans être mère: le choix de ne pas avoir d’enfant [Being a Woman Without Being a Mother: The Choice Not to Have Children] and the highly comedic graphic text by Véronique Cazot and Madeleine Martin Et toi, quand est-ce que tu t’y mets? Celle qui ne voulait pas d’enfant [And You, When Will You Get Around to It? The Woman Who Did Not Want Children] interrogate childlessness in popular, accessible form.13 Colombe Schneck’s 2014 documentary ‘Femmes sans enfants, femmes suspectes’ [Women without Children: Suspicious Women] in 2014 for the French television channel Arte aims to confront ‘one of the last taboos’.14 In this work, Schneck amasses testimonies by voluntarily childless French women in order to show that, ‘society judges these childless women severely, ← 5 | 6 →easily accusing them of selfishness, narcissism and various neuroses’.15 As further examples, the French public television channel TF1 produced a short documentary for a primetime evening news slot, ‘Avoir un enfant? Ces Français qui disent non’ [Having Children? The French Who Say No] in February 2014 and the radio station RTL broadcast a radio programme entitled ‘Ces femmes qui ne veulent pas devenir mères’ [These Women Who Do Not Want to Become Mothers] in March 2015.16 A blog launched in December 2013, ‘Femme sans enfant’ [Woman without Children], serves as an online resource to both voluntarily and involuntarily childless women and, although not as expansive or organised as the group No Kidding!, provides a platform for French women to voice their identity beyond maternity.17

Also revelatory of this increased attention to the phenomenon of voluntary childlessness is the invention of a variety of terms with which to name it. Expressions that have developed include voluntarily childless, intentionally childless, childless by choice, unchilded, non-mother, without child and childfree. It is unfortunate that so many of these expressions insist upon a lack; the suffix less, the prefixes non and un and the conjunction without are all predicated upon something mixing and proclaim the non-normativity of this choice. Childfree, however, is no less problematic. This term appeared in the US in the 1970s as an alternative to such negative labels and was intended as a way of asserting the choice of autonomous individuals who decided not to adhere to the societal convention of reproducing.18 Nevertheless, it also carries the potential to ← 6 | 7 →aggravate tension between the childless and the child-bearing majority. Part of the stigma to which the voluntarily childless have been subjected is due to real or perceived accusations from parents that those without children cast judgement upon their lifestyles. In view of this, the label ‘childfree’, despite its originally good intentions, may be greeted as superior, smug or glib. One of the main aims of this study is to advance the notion of the normativity of childlessness and of the need for a more sensitive and nuanced approach to female identity as a consequence. It is difficult to imagine how this will be achieved if suspicion, envy or rivalry between parents and non-parents fosters. Therefore, this book uses the term voluntarily childless to emphasise that this is a choice, that this choice is a personal one and that it is not intended as a facile, superior judgement on anyone else’s lifestyle.

Historicising Voluntary Childlessness

As these references from literature, journalism and popular culture above testify, non-mothering – just like mothering – is a historically specific construct. In France, it is even more important to historicise the phenomenon of voluntary childlessness due to the primacy of the family in French culture. Indeed, France has, and has had for many years, one of the highest fertility rates in Europe. As demographer Ron Lesthaeghe remarks in a study of European fertility, ‘for the economy Germany is the strong man of Europe, but when it comes to demography France is our fecund woman’.19 Despite a relatively short period of decline in the 1980s and 1990s, French women have constantly produced an average of over two children. In many years, French and Irish women have jointly topped the fertility charts, and ← 7 | 8 →in 2014, the French fertility rate was exactly 2.0 children per woman.20 The decision not to mother is therefore a particularly uncommon one in France; according to the most recent study by the Institut national d’études démographiques [National Institute for Demographic Study], 4.3 per cent of French women declare that they do not have children and do not want them in the future.21 It is worth pausing to elucidate the reasons for France’s fertility record in order to better understand the socio-historical frame in which women are beginning to voice their voluntary childlessness.


VIII, 214
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
life writing and autobiography contemporary French literature voluntary childlessness
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 212 pp.

Biographical notes

Natalie Edwards (Author)

Natalie Edwards is Senior Lecturer in French Studies and a member of the Fay Gale Centre for Research on Gender at the University of Adelaide, Australia. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and specializes in contemporary French and Francophone literature, autobiography, gender studies and visual culture. She is the author of Shifting Subjects: Plural Subjectivity in Contemporary Francophone Women’s Autobiography (2011) and co-editor most recently of Framing French Culture: Photography and the Visual Arts (2015).


Title: Voicing Voluntary Childlessness
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