“Childless.” They toss the word like an epithet at one. I should know. I had my son after eight years of being married, and for most of that time, I was quite content to not have a child. But then evil things happened with the hormones and I morphed into a ball of mush and quickly set about trying to have an offspring. Not all women might pay heed to the siren call of their hormones, some might shut their ears to it, some might have zero maternal instinct, some might not want to disrupt their lives, careers, others might not want to bring a child into this world, indeed the world has not much to recommend it these days given pollution levels and escalating hate mongering. These are women who choose to be “child free.” It is a choice they exercise.
There is a thin but firm line that differentiates between the child-free and the child-less, and this a line we all too often fail to recognise.
Why do married women who don’t want children make us uneasy?
If there is one thing that women are not allowed to do once they’re married, it is to acknowledge that they have zero desire to be mothers. The supposed call of the womb is assumed to be strident and nagging, especially once one crosses one’s mid thirties and to announce that one has no intention to replicating one’s gene pool is sacrilege not just with the immediate family, but even with random acquaintances who take it upon themselves to make polite inquiries about the lack of offspring and the possibility of rectifying said lack in the near future. Honestly speaking, on bad days when dealing with the teen, I wished I’d tied my tubes too when I had the chance. Luckily though, those moments do pass until the next round of verbal sparring and back talk begins.
Some dear friends I know have been happily married for years, nay decades, and evinced zero interest in having children much to the consternation of the great Indian all and sundry. The gentle queries about their plans to reproduce haven’t petered off. Their life, their choice, seems to be a courtesy we refuse to extend them.
Ironically, a woman’s agency over her body is an issue we all seem to be up in arms for. But for all that we speak out for women’s right to consent in a sexual relationship, her right to terminate a pregnancy she doesn’t want, for the right for couples in same sex relationships to get married, the idea of a woman in a marriage who does not want a child is a trifle disconcerting to us. Why else would she get married, we ask ourselves, if she did not wish to have a child. In this the age of single parenting, and single parent adoption, the concept of marriage is still boxed in by its premise as being one to reproduce ‘legitimately.’ For the concept of passing on one’s property. To carry on the family name, never mind that some of us have never changed it, and some of us chose hyphenated versions.
There is no right answer when it comes to the decision to have or not to have children. Everyone has their own reasons, whatever they do choose, and every reason is valid and legitimate because it is what is right for that individual in their particular circumstances.
While the introduction of the pill as an over the counter method of contraception for women did empower women to take their own reproductive decisions, it came to be seen as a method to delay pregnancy or to space out pregnancies if one was married. There is no right answer when it comes to the decision to have or not to have children. Everyone has their own reasons, whatever they do choose, and every reason is valid and legitimate because it is what is right for that individual in their particular circumstances. But yet, the one size fits all judgement of married with kids is a wall most women come up against when they decide that they do not wish to have children. Of course, I do not speak here of those who might want to have children but aren’t able to conceive. They face different issues completely. And it is not to discount the other sort of pressure women face when they do have one child and find themselves still expect to produce one more to a) keep baby one company b) make the family complete c) divide the burden of looking after the parents when they’re old.
Interestingly, the men in marriages don’t really face this. It is never assumed that they might not want children, or their decision might also be part of the woman’s decision to stay child free. The onus of reproducing as a couple, seems to be solely the female prerogative, perhaps because she is biologically the womb bearer.
Why does the married woman who chooses not to have children seem like an aberration, when in fact she is definitely inching closer to the norm especially in the urban upper middle class context?
The married women who do not have children are subjected to an unwarranted slew of unasked for advice, both well meaning and snide, to ‘help’ them conceive. From recommendations of ‘good’ reproductive specialists or god men as the inclination may lie to herbal remedies to religious rituals to ensure an offspring, preferably fair and male, while we’re custom requesting them.
Why does the married woman who chooses not to have children seem like an aberration, when in fact she is definitely inching closer to the norm especially in the urban upper middle class context? Perhaps it is because she holds a mirror to the conventional socially defined parameters that make having children the only reason to get married. That having a child perhaps holds a marriage together.
Having children isn’t an easy decision by any. For one, it definitely has an impact on the relationship between the spouses and some marriages might not be able to take the impact if they’re already on shaky ground. For some women, they might not have the maternal urge at all, which is as valid a reason as any. For others, the sheer cost of bringing up a child in today’s world might be a deterrent. A focus on their career might be yet another reason. For yet others, environmental and social concerns today might be a reason to make them reconsider parenthood, which does seem commendable given how terrible a decline humanity seems to be sliding in with every decade both ecologically and socially.
That these women choose not to have children is something we, as a society, need to respect as their agency of choice. And to understand and acknowledge that having children may not be a source of gratification for them, as it might be for some other women. Being a mother is not tied with the ownership of a womb, as any person who has adopted would aver. That they have a reason not to want a child is as valid as having a reason to want a child. Given how marriage is becoming optional, and women as well as men are choosing to be single parents, we need to extend the same courtesy to women and men in marriages who might choose to not have children. It is perhaps time to de-link marriage from procreation in our heads.