Delhi-based freelance writer, Priyanka*(33), is not in the best of terms with her in-laws. A few years ago, she and her husband of seven years Nitesh* (38), had informed them that they would not be having children. Nitesh is an only child and his parents deeply resent that they may never have descendents.
Like Priyanka and Nitesh, more and more Indian couples are opting to not have children. As anti-natalism catches on as a movement, and the climate emergency becomes more pressing, Indians are finding several reasons to challenge the mandate and choose a child-free life without stress and guilt.
However, families don’t always take it well. Traditional Indian families have complex hierarchies of authority that prioritise the collective, and undermine individual agency, especially that of women. When couples or individuals assert themselves in these situations, it’s taken with a sense of betrayal and grave disappointment that often hurts relationships.
“I’ve been called besharam (shameless),” says Priyanka. “My mother-in-law also said to me ‘you can convince him about anything in the world. But you don’t want children strongly enough, that’s why you’re not able to.’”
Not surprisingly, in such cases communication becomes almost a punishing experience.
Fertility and childbearing are at the heart of why women are encouraged to get married early. Sometimes women are encouraged to have children even before they are mentally ready, to take advantage of their “most fertile years”.
For Hyderabad-based product designer Mitisha* (28), arguments began well before she met her fiance. Her parents were eager that she marry at the age of 24, because they felt it would give her the opportunity to conceive “on time”. Mitisha did not agree. She felt, as she still does, that parenting was not for her.
“My father argued that when I reach my 40s, no career success would be able to provide the kind of fulfilment that a family that included children would. He said kids were an investment in my emotional health. My mother was worried that if I was too outspoken about my opinion on this, nobody would want to marry me,” she said. “Though now, after my engagement, both my parents have relaxed.”
Even in the most liberal and progressive Indian families, conversations about family planning are often sticky, messy affairs. It’s a constant balancing act of asserting one’s own right of choice while also not hurting the feelings of loved ones.
It is a constant effort to assert one’s own right to think and choose for themselves, while also not hurting the feelings of loved ones. So, we spoke to experts who told us how to navigate this complex territory.
“The first step is communication with your inner self to understand why you are choosing what you are,” said Dr Diana Monteiro, a counseling psychologist at the Hyderabad Academy of Psychology. “Only when you are clear can you articulate yourself to others.”
When talking to family, one has to be prepared for varied opinions, unsolicited advice and strong emotional reactions. Talking things out with a few friends, and going over the arguments you expect to hear can help get multiple perspectives and prepare for difficult conversations with your family.
Saher Ali, a holistic psychological counselor at Totums Art Studio, Hyderabad, feels that one should make an informed decision based on awareness of one’s own needs and not based on passing fads or fears.
“That children are a necessary part of marriage is a social construct,” she said. “Many people feel that they would rather travel the world and experience luxuries that children might perhaps hold them back from.”
Ali feels that one must discover what they understand to be their purpose to find inner clarity. “One has to ask what gives one meaning, and it could be a high-flying career, dedicating your life to teaching the underprivileged or birthing and nurturing a being.”
“If you feel uncertain, get support through counseling and work through your fears before you embark on talking to your family,” adds Dr. Monteiro
Couples need to be on the same page
According to experts, couples need to be on the same page before having this conversation with the parents. Dr Monteiro said that couples who have a strong and open relationship do the best when it comes to having such difficult conversations.
“Often, the couples I see struggle with this issue because they have not talked truly openly to each other about what they really want,” Dr Monteiro said. “Sometimes, they have talked but assumed the other one agrees, when the partner is actually thinking ‘Oh they will change their mind in the future’. This leads to major problems within the relationship and until they are sorted, communicating with family just isn’t possible.”
You are not responsible for your parents’ happiness
Experts said culturally, Indians are socialised to take responsibility for other people’s feelings. Though this seems benign on the surface, it often ruins loving and joyful relationships.
“When somebody says ‘have a child so I can be a grandparent’ they’re expressing an emotional need that they’re assuming to be your responsibility,” Dr Monteiro said. “Have empathy for those feelings and acknowledge them without needing to take responsibility for them.”
Taking responsibility for other people’s happiness also leads to guilt and emotional blackmail.“A large part of the process is to live with the guilt you feel,” Dr Monteiro said. “Many people think there is an option where everyone will be happy eventually. That may or may not happen. Often it doesn’t.”
Remember, your body is your own
Often, when couples and individuals exercise their prerogative of whether or not to have children, loved ones feel disappointed, and even betrayed. It makes it difficult for them to stick to the decision because it’s going to hurt people they love. Women are constantly told by society that they may be depriving themselves of the “joy of motherhood” if they choose not to have children, or that they need to be mothers to feel “complete”.
“The choice to have children is totally a couple’s prerogative and couples need to start by remembering that. Young women need to keep in mind that their body is their own, and no one gets to dictate when and how they have children,” Dr Monteiro said.
One must also remember that it’s ok to take decisions that don’t have everyone’s approval.
“A huge part of transitioning to adulthood is to make independent decisions without needing your parents’ approval,” Ali said. “But Indian society is not wired that way, and it’s a much harder, but necessary leap to take.”
State, don’t argue
“Don’t argue with the other party, but use the broken record approach to state your case,” Dr. Monteiro said. “This means saying the same thing over and over again without argument. The mistake we often tend to make is that we communicate to get agreement. That doesn’t need to happen. You just need to state your needs openly and clearly, and be okay with others not understanding you fully.”
Delhi-based journalist Shashank Bhargava and his partner Swati Daftuar, a publishing professional, got married a few months ago. Neither set of parents have brought up the subject, but Shashank is not waiting to have the conversation.
“My strategy has been to state my opinion before anyone asks or is thinking, and I find whatever excuse I can to repeat it,” says Shashank. “It makes for good expectation setting.” It has worked well for them so far.
Empathise with your family
Experts say instead of being ridden with guilt or being argumentative, empathy is a good way to approach this touchy topic because it encourages boundary setting.
When her father first broached the subject of having children a few years ago, Bengaluru-based cardiologist Maitreyi*, 30 told her parents she did not want children “as of now”, but she was open to reviewing her decision and hearing out their concerns and reasoning.
Over many, many months, they made every attempt to convince her otherwise, through endless discussions. They brought in “happy parents” and “unhappy non-parents” for her to speak to. Maitreyi responded to this patiently, lending a listening ear. This paved way for respectful dialogue, leading to a peaceful acceptance of her choice.
“The resistance from my parents’ side was actually coming from a place of care and concern. They were worried about things like ‘who will take care of you when you are old?’ and ‘what if your future partner does not accept your choice?’” Maitreyi said. “For me, clarity, patience, understanding, persistence and not giving in to emotional bullying was the key.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy of the people