Earlier this year I had the pleasure of interviewing Kimya Dennis, Assistant Professor at Salem College, who was teaching the sociology course, The Childfree, for the second time and was using my book, The Baby Matrix, as part of the curriculum. As she did last year, Kimya graciously answered a few questions after the course was finished:
You created The Childfree course, and this is the second time you have taught the course. How do you think this course has contributed to discourse regarding The Baby Matrix, pronatalism, and reproductive rights?
This course gives students more access to readings like The Baby Matrix, Aralyn Hughes’ Kid Me Not, and many peer-reviewed journal articles about the childfree, childless, and overall reproductive rights. It also includes work from sociologist Amy Blackstone and the werenothavingababy website, as well as your online Families of Two: Childfree and Beyond and lauracaroll.com websites.
It is not surprising that most people have never heard of overall freedom to consciously consider if (not just “when”) they want to have children, let alone read books, journal articles, and websites. It is also not surprising most college students, across academic institutions, have never heard of this freedom and have never read the increasing amount of material on this topic.
I am still saddened when I encounter students who have been taught, and firmly believe, that they are required to have children to prove adulthood, womanhood, racial-ethnic-cultural womanhood, and/or faith-spirituality-religion. I toll the delicate line between encouraging liberation and choice and respect for culture and different lifestyles.
The second time teaching this course was quite liberating as a professor. I was less antsy about addressing certain topics and my students (who I call “scholars”) were quite open to sharing their opinions, reading materials, and having a give-and-take learning environment. This environment included talking about sex education and discussing “college sex education” that can debunk certain myths and exaggerations about biological sex, gender identities, sexuality, our bodies, sexual pleasure for people who seek such pleasure, and reproduction. We also had Planned Parenthood visit for a wonderful discussion of the history and contemporary necessity of Planned Parenthood. Anyone who knows me knows I am a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood and want access to these types of health resources across socioeconomic status and across race, ethnicity, and culture.
We also discussed cultural variations in The Baby Matrix and the ways in which pronatalism and definitions of “family” vary across cultures. Variations include race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexual identity, sexuality, physical-mental health, and religion-spirituality-meditation. For most cultures adulthood, manhood, and especially womanhood are narrowly defined by having children (most often biological rather than adopted) in an overwhelmingly patriarchal, gender disparate, heterocentric, and heteronormative environment.
When such environments are challenged there is often anger and outrage. I appreciate being able to engage in open discussions of reproductive freedoms, birth controls, sterilization by choice, and overall choices that defy certain narrow categorizations of humans. These narrow categorizations of humans are a result of inequalities on the basis of power and the tendency for humans to require things to fit into characteristics and categories. And, rather than characteristics and categories being able to equally coexist, they are compared and ranked.
How has The Childfree course shaped your perspectives as a sociologist?
This course adds to my knowledge as a sociologist, shapes my teaching, and illustrates a diversity of experiences and opinions. Sociologically, it is important to be reasonably informed about research and news stories. It is also important to talk to people, face to face and eye to eye, to understand what people are experiencing and expressing. This helps me become a better sociologist and also a better person. There is give-and-take in this. This is not a one sided learning environment because college students have a range of experiences and beliefs that should not be silenced. They contribute greatly to my classrooms and learning environments.
When discussing reproductive freedoms people in some cultures pretend these topics are “common sense” as though freedoms and choices are widely known and widely accepted. This is when I remind people that this is not common knowledge and it is not commonly accepted. I also want people to use their wider lens and take off the rose colored glasses to see what is experienced by other individuals and other groups of people. All of this shapes my experiences and knowledge as a sociologist.
How has The Childfree course shaped your perspectives as a childfree person?
This course makes me even more definitive and vocal about reproductive freedoms and my decision to be childfree. I am also more confident and adamant about not needing to explain why I am childfree. I appreciate being able to respond to the question “why” with “because I did not and do not want to have children.” The simplicity in that answer often shocks people because they anticipated a long explanation. I explain to students that my short answer is important because the number one rule to having children is for children to be wanted.
Yes, people should have the mental, emotional, physical, and financial means to provide for children. But, even with overall perfect life circumstances, the desire to have children should be present if children are to be loved and kept safe. After I get students to understand that childfree people are under no obligation to explain, just like most parents and aspiring parents do not explain their decision to other people (and perhaps not even to themselves), I then provide varying reasons for why having children is not of interest to myself and to some other childfree people. This is where students enjoy reading articles, websites, and watching videos about the childfree.
This course gives me a platform to discuss being childfree and talk to a group of people who are interested in the topic. Some people have never known someone who is childfree or never knew having children is optional rather than required. I am very appreciative to have opportunities to engage in these discussions.
Thank you, Kimya!
How I admire her trailblazing scholarly endeavors!
Thanks for this interview and for your blog! I found Kimya’s comment “… most people have never heard of overall freedom to consciously consider if (not just ‘when’) they want to have children” interesting. When I started exploring the childfree life over twenty years ago I wanted to read everything possible – books, blogs, scholarly articles – on the topic. It was the early days of the internet so I asked people in libraries and bookstores as well as searching online, and was amazed when one woman I asked for literature about voluntary childlessness said “you mean, books about abortion”? She had no concept that childbearing could be optional, or that anyone would be interested in the sociology or psychology of such a decision.
Thanks for writing, Karin! Back in the late 90s I too went looking for books on the childfree topic, specifically marriages without children by choice. Not finding what I was looking for led me to doing my book, Families of Two!