Communication Currents

Communication Currents

How Users of r/childfree Assert Their Choice to be Childfree

January 23, 2020
Health Communication

A growing proportion of the population does not have nor plan to have children. However, many of these individuals are judged for their choice. Some childfree individuals have found solace in online communities, such as r/childfree, a community of more than 760,000 users on the social networking site Reddit, where users gather to discuss childfree issues, such as how to define what it means to be a “family.”

On r/childfree, users also share responses to “bingos,” statements made to challenge someone else’s lifestyle, beliefs, or other behaviors because they deviate from their own. In this case, someone who does have children might say, “You’ll change your mind someday,” to someone who does not have children, which negates the other person’s choice to be childfree and highlights that they deviate from the social norm of having children. In a new article published in NCA’s Communication Monographs, Elizabeth A. Hintz and Clinton L. Brown examine bingos that are shared by users of the r/childfree community.

Hintz and Brown sampled 424 r/childfree posts where users discussed bingos. They found that there were two competing narratives: Discourses of Reproductive Normativity (DRN) and Discourses of Reproductive Autonomy (DRA).

The Discourse of Reproductive Normativity (DRN)

Users sometimes invoked the DRN when bingoing childfree individuals by drawing on “taken-for-granted assumptions about parenthood, including that having children is normal and natural, that young couples should desire parenthood for personal and social reasons, and that the benefits of having children outweigh the potential costs.” Hintz and Brown identify three themes within the DRN: parenthood as a biological inevitability, as a moral imperative, and as leading to a fulfilling life.

People may invoke “parenthood as a biological inevitability” by saying things like “It’s a biological thing. You’ll automatically want [children]. It’s like a switch.” Or, “Accidents happen, you know!” Similarly, responses about “biological clocks” also fall within this category.

Users also reported that people positioned having children as “a moral imperative” by saying things like “Only a selfish narcissist turns their back on and rejects children,” or “Your family probably wants grandkids. What does your mom say?”

Some individuals also reported being told that having children was a way to “lead a fulfilling life.” Such bingos include, “Kids are amazing! They change your life! You won’t be complete without them!” and “You only find true happiness when you have a baby!” Other bingos in this category included stating concerns about leaving a “legacy” or needing children to care for oneself in old age.

The Discourse of Reproductive Autonomy (DRA)

In contrast to the DRN, the DRA offers justification for choosing not to have children. Hintz and Brown also identify three themes within the DRA: childfreedom as intentional, childfreedom as a personal decision, and childfreedom as fulfillment.

The first way that users used the DRA to counter the DRN was to argue that childfreedom is intentional. For example, some users described reproductive planning: “I’m using birth control and protection and eventually having my tubes removed.” Users also offered a variety of reasons for wanting to be childfree, such as feeling that they “wouldn’t make a good mother” or worrying about the risk of passing on inherited diseases.

The second way that users used the DRA to counter the DRN was by describing childfreedom as a personal decision, “[It’s] my choice, and my choice is no,” rather than one influenced by family obligations.

The third way that users used the DRA to counter the DRN was through describing how their lives would be fulfilling without children, countering the idea that children are necessary for a fulfilling life. One user described their “charity plans, our travel plans, retirement plans and all of the awesome [stuff] we’ll be able to do without kids around.”

Parody and Satire on r/childfree

Hintz and Brown argue that r/childfree users subvert the dominant discourse of the DRN by “(a) using dark humor and laughter, (b) refusing to engage, and (c) impersonation.” For example, in response to the question, “What if there’s an accident?” one user reported responding in the following way: “Because I am a smartass, I go with jazz hands. ‘Aboooortion! Did it once, will do it again!’” Hintz and Brown argue that this is an example of how users use “dark humor and laughter to silence the DRN.” In contrast, other users reported that they refused to engage with bingos because they “feel like it’s useless.” One user reported engaging in impersonation by telling coworkers that they were infertile, rather than childfree. Hintz and Brown argue that the user did not challenge the DRN, but instead substituted a less stigmatized identity.

Negating, Countering, and Hybridizing the DRN

Hintz and Brown also discussed the ways that users “gave voice to both the DRN and DRA for the purposes of negating, countering, or hybridizing the dominant DRN.” One user negated “parenthood as a biological inevitability” by responding to a colleague’s assertion that having children would “just happen” by explaining “No, it doesn’t just happen. There are very specific things you have to do and not do in order to have children.” Other users countered the DRN by giving some legitimacy to ideas but offering alternatives. For example, one user told a parent that they might be willing to adopt a child. Hintz and Brown argue that this simultaneously acknowledges the DRN “while centering the DRA, which asserts that one could elect to have children intentionally via adoption.” Finally, through hybridization, users reported taking on other labels, such as “pet parent,” to forward the notion that they are still interested in caring for dependent others, while also still committing to being childfree.

Through their examination of r/childfree, Hintz and Brown demonstrate how the r/childfree community subverts the DRN through a variety of means, such as parody. Users of r/childfree also negate, counter, and hybridize the DRN.

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Elizabeth A. Hintz & Clinton L. Brown (2019): Childfree and “bingoed”: A relational dialectics theory analysis of meaning creation in online narratives about voluntary childlessness, Communication Monographs, DOI: 10.1080/03637751.2019.1697891

About the author (s)

Elizabeth A. Hintz

University of South Florida

Ph.D. Student, Department of Communication

Elizabeth A. Hintz

Clinton L. Brown

Purdue University

Ph.D. Candidate, Brian Lamb School of Communication

Clinton L. Brown