Saturday, 22 June 2013
Unapologetically child-free by Janaki Lenin
When I was 13, I announced I wasn’t ever going to have babies. I could tell from my mother’s pained expression that I was being difficult. She suggested, “Why don’t you wait till you’re older before you make that decision?”
Just a few days earlier, I had declared with the air of a haughty artist, “Aesthetically, ears are ugly.” The only reason I remember moments like these are my poor mother’s reactions. Throughout my growing years, aunts handed me baby-cousins to look after during weddings and family gatherings. I was a girl and ought to have an automatic desire to care for babies. But I never felt maternal, no matter how hard I tried. I thought babies were like ears. Most Indian families I know are besotted with marriage and children. As soon as I turned 18, the nagging began, “When are you getting married?” Then I dropped Rom, the bomb, on them, and after the initial shock wore off, relatives nagged, “When are you having children?” Nobody thought to ask if I wanted babies. I didn’t desire them nor was I convinced there was a good reason to have them. I imagined myself in my mother’s position, and immediately baulked at the idea of bringing me up.
As an adult, I revelled in my newfound freedom. I had spent more than a decade dreaming of it. Having a child would put me under another kind of tyranny for at least 18 long years, if I was lucky. And I would have to be a tyrant, too.
My friends, however, wasted no time in making the transition from brides to mothers. They sent euphoric emails with numerous pictures. Puzzled, I asked Rom, “What’s the big deal? Anyone with ovaries can pop babies out, right?” With a look of mock-horror, he signalled me to hush up before imaginary neighbours overheard the blasphemy.
But my attitude to baby animals was different. I watched Rom and the Croc Bank staff fret over compatibility of reptile mates, the right conditions for courtship, and eagerly anticipate eggs and babies. Once they passed that gauntlet, they struggled to control humidity, temperature, fungal infections, mortality, and finding the right prey for the babies. If the babies survived past their first birthdays, there was much-deserved celebration all around.
Many parents feel insulted that I skipped motherhood. One matriarch tried hard to divine the problem. Throughout the rest of our stay, she asked about which fertility treatments we had sought. I tried to explain it was a deliberate choice; I may as well have been speaking Martian because I made no sense to her.
As is typical on trains, after demanding to know what I did and was I married, a stranger asked, “How many issues [children]?” “None.” “Why not?” “Because issues don’t have fur.” I went back to reading my book, while he spluttered on about how women are incomplete without babies. When I didn’t rise to the bait, he demanded, “Who will look after you in your old age?” I shot back, “And you have a pre-natal agreement with your children, right?”
A few people wagered I would change my mind if a baby parachuted into my life. I countered, “What if I don’t? Would you take the baby back?” Now I was being rude, they concluded.
Many misinterpreted my words as criticism of their choice to have children. No matter how I couched my explanation, there was no way of treading softly. People saw my rejection of baby-dom as a religious challenge. My child-freedom also poses another kind of challenge. For genes to survive, organisms have to reproduce. My poor genes watch helplessly as I happily and without regret consign them to a reproductive dead-end.
Ever seen a bumper sticker “We two; ours none”?