Fertility decision-making: a qualitative study in Scotland
Chen, Zhong Eric
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Fertility studies using quantitative methods often present individuals or couples as autonomous decision-makers who make deliberate fertility decisions and have a fairly clear and consistent preference for family size and the timing of parenthood. This study aimed to explore the extent this view reflects experiences by examining how individuals talked about and made sense of parenthood and family. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with thirteen women and twelve men residing in Scotland between February 2009 and May 2010. Respondents were first asked to respond to vignettes of fertility scenarios, designed to elicit discussions around the limits to reproductive autonomy. Using a life grid, respondents were also asked to reflect on their experiences and intentions around the issue of parenthood and family. During the interviews, respondents spoke about the reasons for and against having children, their preferences for and expectations of family size, the timing of parenthood and communicating with their partners in relation to parenthood. Respondents' accounts were analysed reflexively, focusing on the references they drew upon when constructing their accounts and locating the interview as a setting in which these accounts were generated. Respondents' accounts highlighted the tension between the affirmation of personal choice and autonomy in principle and their subscription to a variety of powerful social norms. Respondents’ rhetorical commitment to women’s reproductive autonomy was very strongly articulated in their response to the vignettes. When accounting for their own fertility preferences and decision-making processes respondents referred to a range of social conventions and constraints limiting their choices. Parenthood was described as a normative transition in terms of being ‘natural’ and ‘expected’ in the life course. Respondents, who identified as ‘childfree’ however, presented themselves as being made accountable for making the decision to not have children. A majority of respondents expressed a clear family size preference of two, but in practice respondents qualified this by taking into consideration a variety of biological, material and social circumstances. Respondents saw parenthood as being constrained by the fulfilment of a range of common ‘preconditions’, which included the completion of education, being in secure employment, being in a stable relationship and having material and social resources for raising children; the postponement of parenthood until these preconditions were met was presented by respondents as being ‘responsible’. Further, the varying degrees of communication respondents said they had with their partners around the issue of parenthood, and the nature of that communication, suggested that fertility behaviours were rarely the outcome of explicit, conscious negotiations and joint decision-making by partners. This study demonstrated that fertility decisions are guided by social norms around parenthood and negotiated constantly in response to changing personal and social contexts. The heterogeneity of the sample enabled a rich analysis of the role of gender and age on the differential experiences and expectations expressed in respondent’s’ accounts. This study adds to the small but growing body of literature that highlights the value of applying qualitative research methods to the study of fertility, which is particularly useful in gaining a deeper understanding of fertility as a social process.