How did this project come about?

Once married, my husband declared he didn't want children, a decision that shattered my happiness, self confidence and self esteem. I had been so looking forward to moving from being a single, career girl to a mum. There was no published material to help me deal with my situation but after four years, through counselling and a period of bereavement, I was able to move on.

It was then I first had the idea of writing a book to help other women learn to live with childlessness without feeling as isolated and alienated as I had. The project didn't move forward for over a decade, though, when I approached it as a research project.

What turned out to be the key difference between writing a book and researching a project?

Reportage. It was also something I struggled with initially, having always associated it with poor, superficial research. My co-author and I felt, however, that dealing with the emotional issues around childlessness from a 'this is how it is' standpoint would prove most effective at breaking the taboo which has a tendency to surround the topic.

What was it like for you to be interviewing someone for your own ends, as a researcher, rather than for a client?

It pushed me to the outer limits where experienced qualitative researcher meets professional counsellor. Commercial research conventions felt inappropriate, recruitment was via word of mouth, no cash changed hands, the interviews ran their natural course, at a venue chosen by the respondent herself. Throughout, the respondent's welfare had to be central to the process.

What was it like having to do analysis on a scale that would produce a book rather than a report?

The process was really no different. We started with the big picture, identifying the key themes which, in time, became chapter headings. Then we discussed each one, breaking it down into various components, identifying which women's voices best described the scope of feelings. We stopped there, however, without proceeding to the interpretative stage, remaining non judgmental story-tellers.

Desk research on existing material convinced us that devising well argued case studies or a 10 step plan was not the solution. We opted to encourage our interviewees to tell their own stories, warts and all, because we felt it was the best way to help others access their own feelings and determine their own route through involuntary childlessness. We saw our task as giving childless women support, insight and wisdom rather than knowledge.

Do you think that the process of putting together the book will have changed you as a qualitative researcher?

It's reinforced my existing misgivings: Of how little time and space there is for respondents to tap into their real views and feelings when presented with a full discussion guide, an art bag full of concepts and bags of products. The experience also made me question even more the ability of much stimulus material to help us get to the heart of the matter, instead often proving an obstacle.

I think real insights often come from low key, fumbled ponderings, at odds with the 'show' that moderator and respondents can feel pressured to put on for those behind the mirror. I believe even more strongly than before that nothing beats just talking or rather listening to respondents.

Will it affect the way you carry out research in a commercial environment in the future?

I've learnt that given time, space and a sense of security, respondents will reveal incredibly intimate details about themselves, their lives and feelings, and that nothing beats non-judgemental, active listening. But how can we make this happen within the average commercial research project? Reducing the number of respondents per group might be one way of increasing the quality/depth of response.

Do you want to continue doing commercial work?

Yes, and I'd like to include researching more vulnerable, either through age, medical condition or such like, consumers and understand the world from their perspective.

Has it been a liberating experience?

Yes, on a number of levels:

  • Walking the talk, actually achieving something I'd thought about doing for 10 yrs+
  • Using my qualitative skills in a really worthwhile way, to an end that will benefit a large number of women hopefully
  • Turning the negative of involuntary childlessness into something positive and creative, the book is definitely my 'baby'
  • Being out of my comfort zone and surviving.

Beyond Childlessness by Rachel Black & Louise Scull, was published on 17 June by Rodale International, and is available from all good bookshops.