Is Parenting, or Not Parenting, Important to Your Identity?

Experiences surrounding parenthood, such as deciding whether, when and how to become a parent, can be important to our identities. In an article explaining the term “reproductive identity,” Aurelie M. Athan of Columbia University argues that “there are few dimensions of the human experience of this magnitude, shared by all people and societies.” Adults sometimes think of themselves in terms of their parenting identities, and other people often see them through that lens as well.

Athan wants us to move beyond narrow, stigmatizing and limiting ideas about reproductive identities. For example, acknowledging theorists such as Erik Erikson and Dan McAdams, she notes that “generativity” takes many forms beyond biological children. People can contribute to the next generation and improve other people’s lives by nurturing, teaching, mentoring and creating. “Any attempt at this attitude of care and concern for others is considered a positive and growth-producing effort,” she said.

According to Athan, reproductive identity is best conceptualized as a spectrum. It is non-binary and multi-faceted. The way we think about the place of parenting in our lives can change over time; this means that reproductive identity can be a flexible and dynamic process rather than a fixed status.

The importance of reproductive identity varies for different people. The intensity of the desire to be a parent or not to be a parent varies. The importance of parenthood, relative to other identities, also varies: For some, including some men, it is central, and for others it is just not as significant.

Professor Athan believes that individuals should write their own stories about their reproductive identities, rather than being pigeonholed into standard storylines. For example, people who wanted children and had them don’t always experience the “happily ever after” they might have expected. Similarly, people who did want children and never had them do not always experience their lives in predictable ways either.

Reproductive identity at this historical moment

At this moment in history, Athan argues, it is both more conceivable not to have children and more possible to have children than it was in the past. Worldwide, more people are avoiding unintended pregnancies, having fewer children or deciding not to have children at all. As a result:

“For the first time in the history of the human species, 80% of the world lives in a country where the fertility rate is equal to three or fewer children per woman, marking one of the most profound social changes ever recorded. “

At the same time, more people who used to be involuntarily shut out of parenthood now have more opportunities to become parents. Advances in reproductive medicine have been important, even if some technologies are prohibitively expensive and the odds of success can be daunting.

Evolving social norms and understandings are also significant. Children are part of many different types of families besides those headed by a married man and woman. Today, fewer people are shocked to learn that a child has two mothers or two fathers (or one, or being raised by her grandmother, or any number of other possibilities).

Terminology that is accurate and respectful

Professor Athan points out that some terms – such as “unwanted”, “unintended”, “unplanned” and “mistime” – are used interchangeably, although they should not be. “They measure different things, elicit wildly different responses, and are false dichotomies that do not accurately capture people’s realities.” Other terms, such as “infertile”, are stigmatizing. They add nothing to our understanding of reproductive identity.

Towards a more welcoming world for people of all reproductive identities

Aurelie Athan would like to see more open-minded understandings of reproductive identities incorporated into school curricula. In this way, “the youth can deliberately imagine their possible reproductive selves – “what they can become, what they would like to become, and what they fear becoming” – just as would be expected of other future commitments (eg career development) . “

Parenting essential reading

Mental health professionals, like therapists, need to be aware of their own biases so they don’t unwittingly impose them on the people they are trying to help. In medical offices, intake forms may need to be rewritten. In everyday life, strangers should be careful about the assumptions they make about other people’s reproductive experiences and desires, and family members and friends should be supportive rather than judgmental.

Ultimately, Athan would like reproductive identity to be seen as “an inalienable human right of all individuals to self-identify as they see fit”, upheld through supportive policies and practices.

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