Tuesday, 26 April 2016
Footloose and fancy-free By Gauri Dange
(Source: The Hindu 26 Aug 2015) http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/gouri-dange-on-being-childless-by-choice/article7565746.ece
In the early 90s, a whole bunch of labels cropped up — from yuppies (for young, upwardly mobile professionals) and dinks (double income, no kids) to dinkers (dinks with early retirement) and dewks (dually employed with kids). But the people without children attracted a lot of judgment — they were accused of being Peter Pans, selfish, anti-family, career-obsessed, and so on.Those who had children did the judging, the ones without children did the justifying. On the other side, books like Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids provocatively talk about “taking the parent-centric, kid-fixated, baby-bump-patrolling culture to task”. Ironically, both thought of the other as selfish, shallow and self-absorbed.
The whole issue, particularly in the last decade or so, has emerged as a much more nuanced and layered social phenomenon rather than just another us-versus-them debate. Having children is increasingly being seen and accepted as a personal choice and choosing to not have children is not necessarily seen as odd or deviant behaviour.
Does this indicate that perhaps becoming a father or mother is not necessarily hardwired into our DNA and our psyche, as we believe? Or is it that changing social and family structures have impacted that hardwiring? Perhaps the dissolution of the joint family, the village, and the stable neighbourhood has forced some urban women to see how the complete and total responsibility for child-bearing and rearing now devolves only on them, in ways that they simply feel unequal to taking on. “I could not see myself doing it single-handedly, nor can I relate to a life where having a child means having either an entourage of maids or have your life taken over by a helpful mother or mother-in-law,” says Mrunal, a 37-year-old lawyer.
But the reasons for choosing not to have children, it emerges, are many. Rarely is the ‘I hate children’ blanket statement, ascribed to the childless-by-choice, a factor. In fact, many say that they love and respect children too much to simply bash on and have one without thinking. Anil, an academic in his 40s, says, “Quite early on, when I was 15 or so, I began to register that lots of adults around me seemed terribly unhappy with their spouses and their children. I heard so many complaints about loss of personal freedom and choices… I couldn’t understand why people put themselves through such hell if they felt this way.” Anil did marry, but he and his partner chose not to have children.
As did Pervin, a writer-editor in her early 30s. “I started really thinking about parenthood in my early 20s. The first step was the realisation that it was a choice, an option, not a default role or milestone. After that, the decision to stay childless seemed very natural and clear to me.”
Could this clarity of not wanting a child become a deal breaker if the spouse or partner wants to have children? For some people, it is something that they felt they must tell a partner upfront, as soon as the dating got serious; and it did, in fact, become a deal breaker for some. In the case of Azhar and Garima, 15 years into their marriage, Azhar began to get a nagging feeling that not having a baby was not quite the right decision and that he had been pushed into it by his partner’s vehemence on the subject. They decided to part ways, and Azhar went on to re-marry and have a child, late in life, to the criticism of some of his close family and friends. He, however, seriously asks: “If a woman wants to have children and her husband refuses, the whole world feels bad for her and talks about never denying a woman motherhood, etc. Is this not applicable to a man as well, who may feel a great urge for fatherhood at some time?”
For Pervin and her husband, the issue was discussed on and off in their dating years. “Having grown up with the standard assumption about the education-marriage-children progression, my husband hadn’t considered that parenthood was something that one might consciously stay away from. The more we talked about it though, the more he leaned towards a future without children.” Pervin clarifies, “My decision to not have children has nothing to do with my equation with children —it is about my equation with myself. In fact, instead of saying ‘I’ve decided not to have children’, it would be more appropriate to say ‘I’ve decided not to become a parent’.” Pervin works closely with children as a textbook writer and conducts workshops with them.
For software engineer Pallavi, the issue was not discussed with any seriousness when she was dating or in the early years of her marriage. She says, however, “When we watch the exhausting and demanding aspects of parenting our friends are going through, we say we just can’t put ourselves through that. And that’s how it continues till date (over eight years of marriage and over 10 since we got into a relationship). Whether I had a career or not, I would think the same way. I understand that people who are parents do still feel it is all worth it, and kudos to them. It’s just that I can’t do it.”
Young women who choose not to have children are often asked sharply, “So you think you want to just have fun forever. When will you grow up, then?” But this takes away from the fact that surely, having children is a different kind of fun too. Becoming a parent cannot be seen as a ‘grim reality’ to which we must all turn. But more than that, as Garima adds, “When you don’t have children, does that mean you are not a person who is dependable, and who commits to things? In fact, I do not have the luxury of the ‘children have exams’ or ‘need to take my child for coaching’ and similar excuses that I see parents putting up when they are required for other things. I have been there for ageing parents, an alcoholic brother’s family, and been present and willingly helpful in many friends’ crises. Does this sound like I have signed up for a life of fun and frolic by not having children?”
Madhavi, 61, is an architect and town-planner. She describes herself as being in the vanguard of the childless-by-choice movement. “In those days, it drew such sharp reactions. I remember being very defensive. If someone asked me about children, I would snap at them ‘We chose not to breed, and we are very happy, thank you, you can go ahead and have as many as you want.’ After some years, it didn't matter to me to make my position clear. Whether people thought you needed sympathy as you had not conceived, or people assumed you were just too career-minded and had ‘deprived’ your spouse of progeny, I learnt not to enter into protracted debate or clarifications.”
The surprising eye-opener for many such women is how their own mothers and other older women in the family respond in private about their decision to not have kids: “If I had had such an option, I don’t think I would have had any children either.” This is said, not with bitterness, but as a considered sentiment quietly confided.
One pro-parenting argument used to be that children would offer support in old age. As families become more nuclear and scatter far and wide, there is a growing realisation that this cannot be a deciding factor. There are enough examples all around of benign neglect by grown children of ageing parents, of active harassment, or of the sheer inability to be there for ageing parents in any active and physically present way that argues against thinking of children as a post-retirement plan. At any rate, ageing urban Indians who have children are also now planning how to live (physically, financially, emotionally) in their later years with systems that are built without their children being compulsorily involved.
At the end, though, do people who choose to remain childless have doubts or regrets sometimes? How do they deal with it? Anil perhaps explains this best when he says: “Sure, I have had regrets. But if I had children, you can be sure I would regret why I didn’t try a life without children. I regret the fact I can’t taste every kind of life there is to taste. But there is just this one life, and one must follow one’s instincts.”
The writer is a family counsellor and author of the upcoming book Always a Parent.