July 31, 2023 – Thunder Bay, Ont.
As a growing number of women across Canada and the United States are choosing to not have children, Erika Puiras’ research aims to shed light on the potential mental health consequences imposed by the stigma associated with being “childfree”.
Puiras, a doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at Lakehead University, has been recognized for this work with the 2023 Ontario Women’s Health Scholars award, which recognizes ground-breaking women’s health research taking place across Ontario universities.
“It was a bit jaw-dropping to receive this award,” said Puiras, who is one of 10 university scholars receiving this year’s scholarship. “It shows that people are seeing the merit in what we’re doing.”
As part of her dissertation, Puiras is studying the experiences of intentionally childfree women and how stigma, including negative societal messages and discrimination, ultimately affects their mental health and overall wellbeing.
Under the supervision of Dr. Dwight Mazmanian, Professor in the Department of Psychology, she will explore whether childfree women experience self-stigma and how stigma influences their help-seeking behaviour and trust in health-care systems that have historically stigmatized this population.
“For the first-time, both as a researcher and a person – especially a twenty-something woman – I’m seeing a lot of the stigma that gets levelled at people, particularly women in a specific age range, around the decision to not have children,” explained Puiras. “Between 20 and 35, even 40, is when you start to experience the brunt of the stigma in your personal life, people asking maybe a lot of intrusive but well-meaning questions. And, sometimes people are understanding and other times there is a lot of stigma that comes out [in questions and comments].”
“At some point you might start to internalize that and believe these negative perceptions and stereotypes about yourself,” she added.
Over the next year, Puiras hopes to engage with over 1,000 childfree women across Canada and the United States through questionnaires and in-depth interviews to learn more about their journey, hear about the stigma they’ve experienced and how it has impacted them as individuals.
“I’ve had a lot of feedback already from some of the women participating in this research saying, ‘this is the first time I’ve ever seen a survey that’s represented who I am’,” Puiras stated. “It’s one of those things that was a leap into the unknown, then we started doing the research and came to the realization that what we’re doing is resonating with people.”
“If there’s one takeaway from the research we’ve completed so far, the message from childfree women is: our worth as people and our worth as women is not based on our decision to have children.”
The annual Women’s Health Scholars Awards are funded by the Ontario government and administered by the Council of Ontario Universities.
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Lakehead University is a fully comprehensive university with approximately 9,700 full-time equivalent students and over 2,000 faculty and staff at two campuses in Orillia and Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lakehead has nine faculties, including Business Administration, Education, Engineering, Graduate Studies, Health & Behavioural Sciences, Law, Natural Resources Management, Science & Environmental Studies, and Social Sciences & Humanities. Lakehead University’s achievements have been recognized nationally and internationally, including being ranked in the top half of Times Higher Education's 2023 World Universities Rankings for the fourth consecutive year, and the number one university in the world with fewer than 9,000 students in THE’s 2023 Impact Rankings (which assesses institutions against the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals). Visit www.lakeheadu.ca.