Throughout my twenties, as it became ubiquitous among women my age, I waited patiently for my maternal instinct to kick in. Over time, I suspected I might be lacking it entirely. It’s not that I don’t like kids; in fact, I love spending time with the children of my closest friends, and certain children in my family too. I just didn’t fancy having any of my own. Yet.
When I turned 30 two years ago, something changed. All around, my peers were becoming parents at the appropriate time in their trajectories. Watching them balance jobs, hobbies, the pursuit of good health, social lives, and rearing children, I often wondered where they found the endless reserves of energy and empathy to keep giving.
I still didn’t feel an urge to have children, but I certainly began feeling a pressure to fit in. Or, rather, I began to grow tired of explaining why I didn’t. If I had a rupee for every piece of unsolicited advice I received, I’d have been able to retire years ago.
“You know if the mother is young, the child has a long life. This is fact.”
“I’ve heard the younger you get pregnant, the higher the chance of a male child. You should think about it.”
“Chalo, have your child now. Finish the responsibility. Then you’ll be totally free in your forties. Plan ahead na?”
The plot would thicken when I was around children at family gatherings.
“See, you’re so good with children. Why don’t you want your own? You like them so much. I just don’t understand.”
As if being able to keep a child occupied for a span of time was the only qualification I needed to be a good mother. Maybe I would be. But what if I still didn’t want to?
Parenthood is so deeply ingrained in our concept of adulthood that all opposing views are attributed to temporary madness. If you’re an adult, you ought to be married. If you’re married, you ought to have children (or at least attempt it). And it’s completely normal for everyone – parents, in-laws, neighbours – to dole out free advice on the whys and hows of procreation, a deeply personal process.
Being constantly reminded of my “ticking biological clock” made me feel like I needed to get on board with motherhood in order to feel complete. Honestly, though, my life didn’t feel incomplete without a baby and I knew my husband felt the same way. So why did I still feel flawed? I know now that I was harbouring some shame. The pressure to nurture a product of my own DNA was real, and I just didn’t want it.
We are so deeply obsessed with procreation that we’ve perfected the art of couching nosiness in concern and love for the Big Fat Indian Family. We’ve legitimised intrusiveness about a woman’s reproductive choices. Over time, it can make even the most self-assured and confident woman succumb to the fear of isolation that’s attached to a child-free life.
Even a visit to the gynaecologist to discuss birth-control options comes with its share of shaming.
“Why do you want an IUD?”
“What if you change your mind and have trouble conceiving later?”
Or, the worst of them all: “You will regret this someday.”
Every piece of unsolicited advice falls into a pattern of Indian women’s bodies being policed, without our consent, to better fit the confines set by a culture, arbitrarily and without our actual input. It reflects a broader cultural readiness to project motherhood on to women who haven’t chosen it, often with violent repercussions.
In a world that still upholds parenthood as a mark of success and acceptance – regardless of what else you might want to do with your life – the decision not to have kids is automatically seen as lazy, childish, rebellious. My right and my choice to remain child-free is branded “selfish”.
Last year, I chanced upon Selfish, Shallow, And Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum. Provocatively titled, the book is a collection of 16 articulate, incisive, honest essays that challenge the taboos surrounding a life sans parenthood.
For the first time in my life I realised that there were others like me: real people with real stories, for whom a fulfilling life didn’t include kids. With every essay, I realised how little we talk about the other side here in India. Outside of private discussions with friends who were either on the fence, or already leaning towards remaining child-free, I don’t recall ever freely voicing my opinion.
Daum’s collection successfully portrays that other side in a range of perspectives, as diverse in contexts and experiences as they are in reasons for consciously choosing a life without children. Yet each author has embraced a perfectly fulfilling, happy, and content life. Daum’s book made me feel that it was OK to choose a life without kids. That I didn’t need to explain myself. And that it most certainly didn’t make me self-serving and shallow.
“You’ll get over it someday,” people say, completely disregarding the fact that this is actually a conscious choice I've put ample thought behind.
Daum puts it beautifully in her introduction: “It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption.”
One of my favourite essays in the book is “Beyond Beyond Motherhood” by Jeanne Safer. These lines particularly touched me:
“There is no life without regrets. Every important choice has its benefits and its deficits, whether or not people admit it or even recognize the fact: no mother has the radical, lifelong freedom that is essential for my happiness. I will never know the intimacy with, or have the impact on, a child that a mother has. Losses, including the loss of future possibilities, are inevitable in life; nobody has it all.”
And therein lies my solace in choosing this life. I cannot worry myself about possible future regret. Just as parents choose to have children for a range of reasons that make sense to them, this is the choice that makes most sense for me now.
All the advice I have ever received is based on the assumption that this choice is temporary. People try so hard to convince me that this is a phase that will inevitably pass. Aren’t you afraid you’ll miss out? Don’t you and your husband want something new in life? Aren’t you feeling the urge to be a parent and have someone to care for you when you get old? The only answer that consistently comes to mind is a resounding no.
The truth is, this has been one of the most natural choices for me. One that, unlike most other decisions in my adult life, caused no angst. Apart from the fact that I feel no desire for offspring, I find no positivity or encouragement in the general direction that the country, and world at large, is heading, to make me want to bring a life into it.
Honestly, what happens inside my uterus or what I choose to do with my lady parts should be my problem. And unless it is my partner, my doctor, or someone I have chosen to discuss it with, nobody needs to know why I don’t want to have children. In “Babes in the Woods,” Courtney Hodell hits the nail on the head: “When you talk of not wanting children, it is impossible to avoid sounding defensive, like you’re trying to prove the unquestionable beauty of a selfish and too-tidy existence.”
No well-meaning advice has caused a stirring or made me reconsider my choice. I have always felt that the only reason to have a child is wanting to have a child. And since that feeling hasn’t arrived, here I am today at 32, married for nearly eight years, and at peace with the fact that it may actually never come.
Noted feminist writer Urvashi Bhutalia says in an essay, whatever label you may put on a child-free life, it is in the end just another way of living: “a happy, contented, fulfilled life, despite – or perhaps because of – being what is called ‘childless’. For those of you who’ve doubted yourself about this, let me assure you, it’s a good place to be.”
Meghan Daum’s book illustrates a wide array of situations that may come to pass for women or couples who choose to remain child-free, but the one that has stayed with me is “Beyond Beyond Motherhood”, for succinctly putting into words what I have taken two years to understand:
“Real self-acceptance, real liberation, involves acknowledging limitations, not grandiosely denying them. It is true, and should be acknowledged that women can be fulfilled with or without children, that you can most definitely have enough without having everything.”
I am thankful to live in a time, a family, a socioeconomic segment, and a bracket of privilege where this choice is, at the end of the day, still mine to make. I am grateful to be healthy, to be safe, and to be the highest authority on my own body. That I get to exercise this choice, live through it, at peace with all its advantages and disadvantages, is infinitely liberating.