Pronatalism, or why Jennifer Aniston needs to explain why she doesn’t have children

In our interviews with intending parents, we’ve found that parenthood is a normatively expected aspect of adulthood, particularly for women. The strength of pronatalist discourses can be seen in the continued need for people who do not have children to justify their reasons for not wanting (or having) a child, whereas reasons for actually having children are rarely required and may not be viewed as explicit decision-making or choice. We were particularly struck with how this finding connects with Jennifer Aniston’s recent open letter in a blog post for The Huffington Post:

‘This past month in particular has illuminated for me how much we define a woman’s value based on her marital and maternal status. The sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time… but who’s counting) points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children.’

Pregnancy rumours about celebrities are frequent but seem to be particularly strong in relation to Aniston. A sample of magazine covers featuring Aniston show that the rumours about her becoming a mother range widely in scope: relating to different partners as well as becoming a single mother, claiming Aniston is to become a mother via heterosexual conception as well as via IVF, surrogacy, and adoption, claiming Aniston is pregnant with twins on numerous occasions, and reporting on rumoured miscarriages and fertility issues.

Aniston covers

In 2015 Elle published a piece asking ‘Why is Jennifer Aniston always pregnant?’, suggesting that the focus of media attention to Aniston relates to the public’s desire for her to ‘get her happy ending’. Motherhood as a sense of completeness is particularly critiqued by Aniston:

‘I have grown tired of being part of this narrative. Yes, I may become a mother some day, and since I’m laying it all out there, if I ever do, I will be the first to let you know. But I’m not in pursuit of motherhood because I feel incomplete in some way, as our celebrity news culture would lead us all to believe.’

The idea that women without children feel incomplete was a theme in our interviews with intending parents. Pronatalism was naturalised through a comparison with ‘unnatural’ childless others. In other words, participants discussed either people they knew or abstract others without children as ‘selfish’ or ‘odd’ in order to bolster or naturalise their own desire for children.

The ways in which pronatalism is intergenerationally transmitted was also a feature of our interviews, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. As we wrote about in our previous blog post, our participants experienced pressure to have children from their own parents.

Aniston, however, writes that marriage and motherhood are not necessary to be complete and nor should they be put on other people:

‘Here’s where I come out on this topic: we are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child. We get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies. That decision is ours and ours alone. Let’s make that decision for ourselves and for the young women in this world who look to us as examples. Let’s make that decision consciously, outside of the tabloid noise. We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own “happily ever after” for ourselves.’

However, Aniston’s argument that every woman should make her own ‘decisions’ about marriage and motherhood ignores that not everyone can necessarily resist normative expectations. Furthermore, Aniston’s extremely privileged position in terms of finances and influence mean that for her having children is not bounded by the same limits as most people. Similarly, while we are critiquing pronatalism, we are careful not to suggest that everyone has a ‘choice’ in terms of parenthood, where everyone has the same capacity to choose.

Becoming or not becoming a parent is often made up of a range of factors extending beyond ‘choice’ for many people, possibly including issues relating to careers, fertility, finances, partners, living arrangements, and so on.