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Resumé af Petur William Hábergs speciale

Specialetitel: You lose the story about yourself” – a glimpse inside the lives of involuntary childless men in the Faroe Islands | Fróðskaparsetur Føroya / Universitetet på Færøerne

Introduction and thesis statement

While parenthood is by the majority of humans seen as a natural part of the life-cycle and surest way to enter into adulthood, parenthood in the Faroe Islands is in many ways also seen as a mandatory ticket into adult social life and a prerequisite for participating evenly amongst your peers in the social arenas as an adult. The Faroe Islands is a very tight-knit and family-centred society with children as the fulcrum. And although this also is indicated in the fertility rate on the Faroe Islands; the Faroe Islands has the highest fertility rate in Europe (2,3 in 2021) by quite a margin (Turkey having the second highest at 2,0), the paramount role that children occupy in the Faroese society and mind is obvious for anyone living on the islands for a longer period. As one of this thesis’ participants put it in one of his diary entries: “It is an indescribable grief to not have a child of your own and you are reminded of this fact all the time (...) Children are everything all the time... You can’t go anywhere without... The workplace, amongst people... Children are everything all the time!”.

So what is it like to be an involuntary childless man in a country that revolves around children and the social life accompanied with it? Where do you fit in? And how does it affect your masculinity, your manhood? Can you consider yourself a real man without your own offspring?

Hence the thesis statement:

“Which effect does involuntary childlessness have on the masculinity of Faroese men and their place in the Faroese society?”   

Theoretical perspectives

The first part of the theoretical perspectives was a literature review to set the stage. Then the main theories and concepts that were used in my thesis were presented: existence theory, hegemonic masculinity and emotional reflexivity. And finally a context chapter wrapped the theoretical section up by looking at the Faroe Islands as a society in relation to the thesis’ subject.

The literature review highlighted several different scientific findings that I saw relevant for the thesis, but for the purpose of this resumé only three main points will be mentioned here. The first being the lack of research specifically looking at men's experiences of involuntary childlessness (Culley, Hudson and Lohan, 2013). Most research on the subject is focused on women and/or couples. And while men's experiences are mentioned in the scientific literature, nothing is written about it from Faroese point of view. The second key insight is that being childless can have serious effects on physical and mental health. Childless men are at greater risk in relation to obesity, death, isolation and exclusion (Dykstra and Hagestad, 2007) and are more inclined to smoke, drink, bad health, depression and insomnia (Kendig et al., 2007). These health challenges emphasise the importance of more research being done on the subject from a governmental standpoint. The third key insight from the literature review is that although the scientific community for many years has described the experience of involuntary childlessness as being different for women and men, more recent science has shown, that the felt experience of involuntary childlessness is in many ways the same for women and men, but the way this grief is responded to, is different for the two genders.

Existence theory is a relatively new theory within the social sciences (Baert, Morgan and Ushiyama, 2022a, 2022b, 2022c). It is a “theory of social behaviour that centres around the temporality of existence in society” (Baert, Morgan and Ushiyama, 2022a, p. 2). The core premise of this theory is that individuals organise their lives around existential milestones. Existential milestones are events that are considered so essential to the individual that without their achievement those lives will be experienced as somehow incomplete. And in most cases these existential milestones are derived from dominant societal or communal norms. But in many western countries the decision to be voluntary childless is slowly becoming a valid and acceptable life-decision and hence challenging the societal norm. To what degree is parenthood in the Faroe Islands a debatable social norm? 

Hegemonic masculinity and emotional reflexivity were used in the thesis as somewhat  oppositional concepts. Hegemonic masculinity refers to the most valued and desired form of masculinity which is characterised by strength, hard work, stoicism, indifference and success in life among others (Connell, 1987). In most cases the hegemonic masculine ideal is unachievable, but still it is something men strive for nonetheless. Recent scientific research has criticised this view of masculinity - mainly for its conservative and limited understanding of modern masculinity  (McVittie, Hepworth and Goodall, 2017; Waling, 2019). Nevertheless; these aforementioned masculine attributes – strength, stoicism etc. – are still in play today and therefore this concept seemed relevant for the thesis.

By adding emotional reflexivity (Holmes, 2010, 2015) as a concept to the theoretical perspectives of this thesis, it was possible to view masculinity as a more nuanced and complex entity. More specifically emotional reflexivity gives us a much more realistic view of mens emotional lives: “Men are usually thought emotionally inexpert and the emotion work of relationships left to women. However, it is important to recognize that men reflect on and are capable of learning how to provide varying forms of emotional support” (Holmes, 2015, p. 177)

But to make all these theories and concepts relevant for the specific study, a context chapter that looked specifically at the Faroe Islands was necessary. As mentioned before the Faroe Islands has the highest fertility rate in Europe (Hagstova Føroya, 2021). But at the same time every third Faroese man in the age of 30-49 does not have a child of their own (see Appendix 1 in the thesis). At first this probably doesn’t seem that concerning. But if you bring in the paramount role children have in the Farose society and the necessity to become a parent to fully be a part of social life as an adult, these numbers become interesting.  Especially when you take into consideration that involuntary childlessness is non-existent in the public discourse and is largely a taboo on the islands.

Additionally small places like the Faroe Islands are characterised by close social ties and high levels of familiarity (Hayfield and Schug, 2019). So when societal norms – like becoming a parent at a certain age – aren’t met, it is visible to everyone. A childless couple in their 40’s will at some point become “the talk of the Faroese town”. Philo, Parr and Burns (2017) refer to this as the rural panopticon. Leonard (2016, p. 67) describes the Faroese smallness very well, when he says: “With a merged public and private sphere, the Faroese cannot have anonymity because their movements across social maps are constantly monitored. There is nowhere to hide on the islands ... Everyone knows where you are”.

Methodological foundations

Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was deemed a suitable methodological framework for this thesis. IPA aims to provide detailed examinations of the personal lived experience and has its roots in phenomenology, hermeneutics and ideography (Smith and Osborn, 2007). To delve into the meaning that participants make of their own lives – their own stories – is at the core of IPA. This means that the participants are seen as self-interpreting beings and therefore are actively engaged in interpreting events, things and people in their own lives (Pietkiewicz and Smith, 2012). The main data collection methods that are encouraged are interviews and diaries, which also were the chosen methods for this thesis (Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2009). By using these two methods triangulation was possible, which again is what Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2009) also encourage. Although these two methods are qualitative in nature, they have their different weaknesses and strengths. The interview is characterised by a temporal nature because an answer is expected within a certain amount of time. This is not the case with diaries when the participants are writing their thoughts down about a specific topic in solitude. On the other hand; the interviews gave me the opportunity to control the data collection by steering the interview into wanted - and away from unwanted - territories. The participants were found through a Facebook entry on my personal profile, which described the requirements of participation. In the end six participants were interviewed and sent in their diaries – all of them in long term relationships.

(Two models)

(Note: For my thesis I came up with two models that were mainly built upon the aforementioned existence theory that I presented before the analysis: The Garden of Existence and The Biological Path to the Biological Gate. The page limitations of this resumé restricted me to go into details regarding these two models, but I will include them below. I’m of course happy to answer any enquiry regarding these if asked:

The Garden of Existence
The Garden of Existence

The Biological Path to the Biological Gate
The Biological Path to the Biological Gate

Analysis and conclusion

A main finding in my thesis was that the participants felt stuck. As one participant put it: “As long as you don’t have a child of your own, you will always be seen as the child of somebody else” (Ingvard, 35-39 years old). The men in my thesis observe the world around them move forward, while they themselves are unable to follow along. They see their peers and friends enter into the next natural phase of life – becoming a parent - while they watch from the sideline. And while the participants in no way should be presented as static individuals without agency, this standstill is very much felt by the men.

It is worth noting here that the participants were in different stages of their involuntary childlessness. The two main factors in relation to this were: 1) how long they – as a couple – had tried to get pregnant and 2) how old the girlfriend/wife was (biological limitations of fertility). So the severity and seriousness in which the participants described their situation was very much a reflection of how far in the process they were. And as time passes by the existential milestone of parenthood becomes more and more distant. And therefore the possibility of not becoming a father needs to be addressed by the men as a potential reality in the future which in turn leads to a biographical discontinuity (Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, 2003). Niklas (35-39 years) says it very well: “You lose the story about yourself and what was meant to come in the future. How do I apply myself now? In some way the goal is gone”.

All six of the participants described the massive role children play in the Faroese society. Children are a natural part of the cultural identity of the Faroese people. So it is not only in relation to peers and family that the participants' involuntary childlessness is felt, but also on a broader societal level. But one of the consequences of this focus on children in the Faroese society, is that there isn’t much room left for adult couples without children: “The Faroese society doesn’t offer people our age and without children the same things, as people with kids. Which makes sense, because it is supply and demand. Still we [him and his wife] have felt... That we don’t fit in in many ways, you know?” (Sámal, 40-44 years).

Involuntary childlessness in Faroe Islands should also be viewed from the perspective of old age. Because by not being a part of the thight-knitted familiarity (Hayfield and Schug, 2019), you are left outside which in turn magnifies the feeling of loneliness. In some way it can be argued that in bigger cities you are not constantly faced with this exclusion like Ingvard describes when talking about his father dying in loneliness: “The Faroe Islands is just not a good place to be alone when you get old... There aren’t a lot of options and activities like for instance in Copenhagen or something... There you probably always have something to go to, if you feel alone”. On the Faroe Islands the family is a taken-for-granted safety net, when needed (Gaini, 2013), and without it, you stand very much on your own (Gaini, 2008).

Regarding the second part of the thesis statement – how involuntary childlessness affects the men's masculinity – a complex picture emerges. Because in some cases the men embraced the traditional masculine ideal but in other cases showed progressive emotional reflexivity. Overall the participants agreed that men and women are different, but not necessarily aligned with the traditional gender roles. To be fit, potent, a handy-man and focused were some of the words associated with masculinity by the participants. But none of them associated their childlessness (infertility for some of them) to their masculinity. The main reason for this is, as argued in the thesis, that the public discourse on masculinity and femininity has changed and therefore the stereotypical gender roles in the past are much closer to each other now. One example of this is when Sámal (40-44 years) talks about the aftermath of losing their child in week 12 and describes how he needed to be strong and stoic at first and needed to put his feelings on hold for a while, but after some time the roles switched and he was allowed to grief. This example is a great illustration of the masculinity presented by the participants: an emotionally reflexive masculinity that embraces both a traditional and a progressive way to be a man and sees the value in both feminine and the masculine.

So in conclusion: Involuntary childlessness has a significant effect on Faroese men’s place in society, but minor effect on their masculinity. By not entering into the normative role as a father in a society that is family-centric, the men experienced limitations – both regarding their social engagement, but also in a more path-imagined way regarding their identity. Regarding masculinity the male participants did not associate their situation as involuntary childless with their masculinity and therefore did not see it as affecting it – mainly because of their emotional reflexivity.   

Implications and relevance for other Nordic countries

As long as involuntary childlessness is a taboo and a grief that is carried in secrecy, I would argue, that it is relevant for all countries that view parenthood as an important part of the life-course (an existential milestone) - therefore also Rigsfællesskabet. But looking more specifically at Rigsfælleskabet and the relationship between Greenland, Denmark and the Faroe Islands, this thesis sheds light on an issue that is colured by the social norms and traditional values of a small country like the Faroe Islands. The tight-knittedness and high familiarity in small places make involuntary childlessness a very public and difficult position to be in – especially when there isn’t a lot of room for the childless in social life. More simply put: Involuntary childlessness is different in a country, where childlessness isn’t a socially viable option, than in a country, where a childless life is increasingly acceptable. So hopefully this thesis touches on some of the cultural diversity within Rigsfælleskabet. And a prerequisite for cultural cohesion is cultural understanding. 

Specialet er indstillet til specialekonkurrencen 2022.

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Senest opdateret 16. november 2022