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Risk, Relationality, and Reconciliation: Experiences of Reproductive Decision-making After Childhood Maltreatment



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Little research has explored reproductive decision-making processes specifically among adults who have experienced childhood maltreatment. Life history and semi-structured interviews were conducted with 13 women and 2 men ages 25 to 35 in Saskatchewan who had experienced childhood physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, or exposure to family violence. From a critical interpretivist theoretical perspective, thematic analysis of their retrospective narrative constructions explicated a process wherein contemplation on starting a family was entangled with worries about transmission of dysfunction, contemporary relationships with parents, and, for many of them, reflections on living with a parent with a mental health and substance use disorder. Vivid vignettes and figurative language describing childhood environments and roles provided the historical context for these contemporary intrapersonal and interpersonal life projects and dramas. Interpretation informed by concepts of metaphor, theories of social roles and intergenerational gifts, explanatory models of causation, and ideologies of forgiveness revealed varied streams of experience. This research found distinct and shared patterns of reflections, life paths, and ways of reconciling a life story and perception of risk after childhood adversity, reconstructed in the context of their interviews. Analysis of configurations among participants of the variations within five themes—1) metaphors of childhood environments, 2) childhood statuses and roles, 3) reproductive choices and explanations, 4) intergenerational gifts and transmissions, and 5) conditional and unconditional forgiveness or unforgiveness—elucidated three streams of experience. In participants’ reports of reproductive decision-making, the spectre of danger of intergenerational transmission of dysfunction was treated in different ways: 1) seven women described themselves as meant to be mothers who would not transmit dysfunction but would pass on the good gifts of family life to their children; 2) four women described themselves as not meant to be mothers (voluntarily childless or parent allies) who eliminated any risk of transmission of dysfunction; and 3) two men and two women were uncertain of starting families with children and described themselves as uncertain of their ability to eliminate risk and pass on good gifts. Between the components of reproductive decisions and contemplations of transmission appeared another component: identity. The participants implicitly reconstructed a figure of themselves as a good parent or good abstainer from parenthood. In the context of a history of childhood maltreatment, adult reproductive decision-making and negotiations of forgiveness were tied to the participants’ construction of their identity as represented in their narratives, and reflected relational ethical choices. This process of deciding whether to reproduce and forgive was based on primarily relational (over rational) considerations. This descriptive dissertation lends experience-near insight to our understanding of the phenomenon of reproductive decision-making, particularly for this demographic. It offers an introduction to the experiences of suffering, resilience, and strategies of adaptation among adults who had difficult childhoods and now ponder their generative choices. The findings have implications for health research and practice with men and women who choose or decline to start their own families after childhood adversity.



Reproductive Decision-making, Childhood Maltreatment, Family Relationships, Inter-generational, Adult Development, Moral Experience, Forgiveness, Mental Health, Voluntary Childlessness, Parenthood, Critical Interpretation



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Culture and Human Development


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