Speaking out with different words: Why we need research from a childless perspective & why art can help, too - Cristina Archetti

Cristina Archetti, Professor of Political Communication and Journalism, University of Oslo

I started researching childlessness because I have a direct experience of it. My husband and I were, a few years ago, diagnosed with unexplained infertility. For those who are not familiar with this condition, it means that while the medical tests of both of us are totally fine, we do not get pregnant and medicine does not know why.

Research is what I am best at and starting a study was my very personal way to manage an issue that had begun to overwhelm me. I also started researching childlessness because, as a scientist, I was intrigued. Despite being convinced, at the time, that we had to be an extremely rare case, I learned that 15% of all couples suffer from infertility (Agarwal et al. 2015: 1), 15% to 30% of them affected, precisely like us, by an unexplained form of it (Quaas and Dokras 2008: 69).

What was most surprising for me was the number of individuals affected by involuntary childlessness, either as a result of medical issues or a myriad reasons often referred to as “social infertility” (being single, the death of a partner, not being able to afford fertility treatments, among many other possibilities). To make some concrete examples, in Germany, between 1.2 and 1.5 million couples are unable to conceive (Diedrich 2008 in Trappe 2016: 281)—we are thus talking about between 2.4 and 3 million adults in that country alone. In the UK the National Health Service reports ‘approximately 3.5 million people’ having difficulties getting pregnant (NHS 2017). Worldwide, this extends to an estimated 144.8 million people (Boivin et al. 2007: 1509). According to a report by the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) (Beaujouan et al. 2017: 4), up to a quarter of women born in the 1970s in Southern Europe are expected to remain childless. When it comes to men, 24% of Norwegian males born in the 1970s will never become fathers (Bye 2018: 7). In Finland the proportion of childless men (aged 40-45) is 25% (Rotkirch and Miettinen 2016: 140). The rate is above 23% also in Italy, Germany, the UK and the Czech Republic (Präg et al. 2017: 8). By contrast, individuals who identify as transgender account for about 0.6% of the population (Flores et al. 2016: 2). Why was I aware (rightly so) of the struggle and needs of transgender people, but had I never heard about, not even about their very existence, of the involuntary childless? Since I am a researcher in the field of media and communication, I set off to investigate the roots of this communication blackout.

I am now in the process of completing a book about this, Of Silence and Invisibility—part analysis of the silence surrounding infertility, part personal story of the challenges of navigating the topic as a childless individual. In researching my arguments I have become strongly aware of the limitations of existing studies. Although some psychological investigations of the impact of infertility reveal the far-reaching existential ramifications of the inability to conceive, most research on infertility and childlessness approaches the problem from a medical or demographic perspective. Such studies tend also to be written by researchers who, clearly, have not experienced infertility first-hand. This is a problem too vast to fully discuss here, but just let me give you an example to explain why we urgently need research from the perspective of the childless themselves.

Far from a neutral investigation of either demography or society, current research assumes that having a baby is not only desirable, but indeed the appropriate outcome for an individual’s life-course. I can see why: after all, most do wish to have a child (myself included) and if there were no children, there would be no society. However, not only is this an ideological (pronatalist) bias

that is never questioned—could there not be other ultimate purposes in life than having a child?—but it also produces devastating effects in human terms. In our case it results, implicitly, in regarding all choices that, with hindsight, did not lead to the baby-outcome, as the “wrong” choices. The weight of this invisible moral burden does contribute among the childless to a sense of “shame” and the feeling, as several of the people I have interviewed as part of my study put it to me, of not having managed their lives the way they ought to.

In addition to this the whole discourse of “choice” in fertility research reveals, effectively, the assumption that everyone can have a baby, which is not at all the case, regardless of age. Incomprehensibly, most researchers I have come across seem to miss the fact that the great majority of childless individuals—up to 80% of them (Keizer in NWO 2010)—are without children not as a result of a deliberate choice. Individual choice makes even less sense if we think that having a baby necessarily implies two human beings. So even being a fertile individual does not guarantee having a baby if there is no partner (using a sperm donor is not exactly like going shopping), a partner is infertile, or does not want to have a child, among countless other possible scenarios. Not to mention that the best thought-out plans, as I can see in my own experience, do not necessarily lead to the desired results.

Researching childlessness presents many challenges. They include, to mention one, my mind continuously going blank while interviewing other childless individuals (presumably my brain trying to protect me from the pain of talking about a highly upsetting topic? It never happened to me when I interviewed politicians, diplomats or journalists in the past). In presenting my research I have also come across huge obstacles in communicating with “the others.” Here, as I am going to explain next, is where art fits.

I have realized that I can present any amount of figures, findings and talk for hours about childlessness but anything I say, to those who have never heard about involuntary childlessness (nearly everyone I meet in my daily life, in fact) or have never experienced it, is always just going to amount to empty words. It is because whichever facts or data I mention cannot be placed by most of my listeners on any meaningful experiential frame: to put it bluntly they have no idea of what I am talking about. That is why it becomes so vital to find a different language than the academic one both to reveal the stories of grief, survival and anything-in-between that are written inside our bodies, and to make our listeners/readers feel a little of what “we” feel. Genuine understanding in this case requires empathy—literally “feeling together”—and emotion. I have tried to develop this language through poetry and performance. My contributions to the World Childless Week this year, “Trilogy of Grief” (set of poems) and “Embodied” (performance) are a little taster of my experimentation while I finish working on the book (where I do take both my analysis and creative writing further).

I hope you enjoy them and that, even if for just a moment, they can help create invisible bridges that support more dialogue and less silence.



Agarwal, Ashok, Aditi Mulgund, Alaa Hamada, and Michelle Renee Chyatte (2015) A unique view on male infertility around the globe. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology 13:37. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4424520/pdf/12958_2015_Article_32.pdf

Beaujouan, Éva, Tomš Sobotka, Zusanna Brzozowska, and Kryštof Zeman (2017) Has childlessness peaked in Europe? Population and Societies 540 (January): 1-4.

Boivin, Jacky, Laura Bunting, John A. Collins, and Karl G. Nygren (2007) International estimates of infertility prevalence and treatment-seeking: Potential need and demand for infertility medical care. Human Reproduction 22(6): 1506–1512.

Bye, Torstein (2018) Women and men in Norway. Oslo: Statistics Norway. https://www.ssb.no/en/befolkning/artikler-og-publikasjoner/_attachment/347081?_ts=162df570d58

Flores, Andrew R., Jody L. Herman, Gary J. Gates, and Taylor N. T. Brown (2016) How many adults identify as transgender in the United States. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/How-Many-Adults-Identify-as-Transgender-in-the-United-States.pdf NHS (2017) Infertility. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/infertility/

NWO (2010) Kinderloosheid is zelden een keuze [Childlessness is rarely a choice], 5 February, https://www.nwo.nl/actueel/nieuws/2010/Kinderloosheid+is+zelden+een+keuze.html

Präg, Patrick, Tomáš Sobotka, Eevi Lappalainen, Anneli Miettinen, Anna Rotkirch, Judit Takács, Annalisa Donno, Maria Letizia Tanturri, and Melinda Mills (2017) Childlessness and assisted reproduction in Europe. Summary report of key findings for WP4. Families and Societies Working Paper 69:1–32. http://www.familiesandsocieties.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/WP69Pragetal2017.pdf

Quaas, Alexander and Anuja Dokras (2008) Diagnosis and treatment of unexplained infertility. Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology 1(2): 69-76.

Rotkirch, Anna and Anneli Miettinen (2016) Childlessness in Finland, in Michaela Kreyenfeld and Dirk Konietzka (eds) Childlessnes in Europe: Contexts, Causes, and Consequences (Cham: Springer Open), pp. 139-158.

Trappe, Heike (2016) Assisted Reproductive Technologies in Germany: A review of the current situation, in Michaela Kreyenfeld and Dirk Konietzka (eds) Childlessnes in Europe: Contexts, Causes, and Consequences (Cham: Springer Open), pp. 269-288.

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