"Are you really asking me to worry about imaginary children?"
The Sunday conversation with my mother — usually spent cribbing about Delhi summer's unused conscience — has taken an unexpected turn. We are now on a subject infinitely more contentious than slogans praising our neighbouring countries.
My mother, a very rational person in all practical purposes, has just tried to suggest that a woman's life, among many other things, is also a race against her ovaries. I vehemently protest. And point out that my life, and my reproductive system, are slightly different from a Zara sale — where you have to grab whatever you can before the shutters are downed.
Following a longish silence, which is the phone call equivalent of a destructive stare, my mother informs me that my father's digestion is faring better than usual and hangs up. I can't quite tell how her metabolism will deal with my little rebellion.
In the 'marry-baby-marry child off' cycle of life we are most familiar with, not having a child is less of a respectable decision and more of a deviation.
That's when it strikes me. How effortlessly, I myself, used the word 'rebellion' to describe a logical choice to not have children in my list of priorities. After all, it is no rebellion — just a simple decision that suits my life and sits well with my own ambitions and capabilities. However in the 'marry-baby-marry child off' cycle of life we are most familiar with, not having a child is less of a respectable decision and more of a deviation.
Having a child or not is a personal decision. However, if you are a woman in India, chances are you'll bump into people who still consider childbearing as some sort of a rite of passage into successful womanhood.
If you don't share their enthusiasm for your procreational duties, you are quickly labelled what I just branded myself — a rebel. And if you have the misfortune of having less articulate acquaintances, you earn a variety of monikers — "modern type", "too independent", "selfish", and god forbid, "child hater".
No child ≠ Irresponsibility
If a child is a responsibility that you do not want to take, it doesn't make you unsuitable for several other responsibilities. But the world will tell you otherwise.
"Not wanting a child, immediately slots you as a shirker it seems," Srestha Poddar (name changed on request) tells me. The communications professional, married for two years, had mentioned her and husband's decision to not want a child to her parents. 'You better become a responsible adult now' was the piece of advice-cum-admonishment served back to her. Thirty-two-year-old Sreshtha says she cannot say for sure if she feels amused or just disappointed at the suggestion.
"Well, I have managed to remain employed for eight years and have not run someone over. Doesn't that count as being responsible?" she laughs. Sreshtha usually deals with with unsolicited reminders of her unforgiving biological clock and unquestionable duty of having a baby with humour.
It's really quite unfair that the rest of your life's achievements should hold no weight because you aren't gung-ho about making another human being. That apart, the insistence that having a baby is central to womanhood itself is just a harmless-sounding extension of several patriarchal assumptions about what a woman's body is meant for.
'Wait till you have one'
Here's the thing: not wanting to have a baby can't be changed by having one! It's not a phobia that needs fixing.
The choice to be childless doesn't stem from aversion to children or nightmares about smelly nappies. It mostly comes from a rational understanding of what has place in one's life and what doesn't. Or what you want to invest in, what you don't. If you are wondering what kind of a female human doesn't want one of those things from a 'Baby tastes lemon for the first time' videos for her personal collection, look around you, they are aplenty.
Defending being childless
Debarati Chakraborty, a senior editor with a Mumbai-based publishing house, and her husband have decided to not have a child. And she lists out the various reasons she has been often told one 'needs' a child. "Firstly, because everyone around is and you should as well. Secondly, it can be frightening to think that one day you would die and there will absolutely be no one to remember you or carry the bloodline forward. Thirdly, we are scared of old age and expect our children to take care of us," she says.
And these arguments don't make a great deal of sense to her. "It sounds a bit like planning your retirement, having a back-up of sorts," she says, clearly amused. You are also expected to defend the decision of not having a child. "You probably need to explain this to your parents. They are emotionally invested in you life. But it's amazing how people look stricken, especially if you are a woman not wanting a child. And actively demand an explanation," she adds.
Childless woman = Selfish woman?
The decision to not want a child, especially for an educated, employed woman is immediately tied to her 'ambitions', which don't fit the sanskaari scheme of femininity at all. So you are either too 'obsessed' with your career or too 'selfish' to have a child.
A man who spends a lot of time on his job is generally considered a hardworking man, an achiever-in-making. But a woman who does that, especially if she intends to be childless, is doing great injustice to the procreation patterns of the world and her extend family's desire for a new cute photo prop. A child is for no one's amusement, and not having one doesn't deprive a third party of any emotional fulfilment.
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