Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child any more than everybody with vocal cords has to be an opera singer. — Gloria Steinem | American feminist activist
As A society, we usually function within set milestones, an already charted timeline which we wait for to arrive, whether we are prepared for the events to come or not. A middle class urban woman’s script would read thus: college at 18, job at 22-24, marriage at 26-28 and then the most awaited moment — motherhood. Society — indeed, the whole human race — eagerly awaits this moment which will further our kind, while all responsibility is automatically thrust on the mother. An issue which, in an ideal world, should remain a personal choice is actually dictated by social, ethical and religious constructs in our society. However, women in urban India are increasingly exercising the choice to not have a child. They are seeking to define themselves without treading on the path of motherhood.
Often considered by conservatives to be the ill-suited side-effects of Western culture and lifestyle, the choice of being childless is, as comedian Radhika Vaz puts it, a part of the ‘social change’ that urban India is experiencing with astounding rapidity. Radhika, whose standup acts ‘Unladylike’ and ‘Older, Angrier, Hairier’ have flustered the country, has chosen to not have children.
Purnima, a queer-feminist activist based in New Delhi comments, “The decision of not having children liberates women as it allows them to adapt with changing times and break free from constraints.” Like Radhika, Purnima, also in her forties, chose not to have children.
However, to reach the point where a woman can think and act independently, economic freedom is a prerequisite. “Women are in a position where they must be financially solvent in order to be able to take the decision,” says Radhika.
Motherhood has been made out to be a responsibility naturally expected of a woman. The burden of timeless eulogies on the mother figure across history lies heavy on those who choose to steer clear of the path of motherhood. “It takes a lot of courage and maturity to say that I want to do something else with my time. Women have different life-goals as opposed to formulaic standards such as motherhood which are supposed to provide meaning to life,” says Radhika. “That is the beauty of modern society; the ability to make choices on your own,” she adds.
Both Radhika and Purnima emphasise on the kind of rounded introspection it takes to make the choice. While Radhika holds, “The choice was never between career and parenthood. Being a mother is a standalone resolution,” Purnima has another perspective to offer. “I understand the kind of responsibilities motherhood entails and I know my career demands long hours and lots of travelling,” she says. “I may not have been able to take the best care of my children if I had any. The last thing I want is my child to grow up feeling alone, taken care of by nannies,” she reflects.
Piyali Banerjee, a homemaker and part-time tutor in Delhi, adds another perspective. Though her schedule is not too hectic, she redefines motherhood by maintaining that her students are no less than biological offspring. “I never felt the urge to have children of my own since I already have my students,” she says. “Motherhood is a matter of personal choice and not what is ‘naturally’ expected of women,” she concludes.
Unfortunately in India, childlessness comes with the sad burden of social stigma which is particularly bitter in rural areas. In a culture that generally glorifies the institution of marriage and eventually motherhood, a childless woman is considered ‘incomplete’. “‘Barren’ women are anomalies in patriarchal structures that want to pass on family legacies through blood relations and transference of property,” says Purnima, who has extensively worked on gender issues in the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh.
So, are the numbers of women going the childless way concentrated to metropolises? Radhika argues that it is more of an “educated women” phenomenon. Tayana Chatterjee, a professor of English literature in Kolkata, attributes the more lenient social environment in cities to “better standards of education, greater social awareness and the fact that various avenues are open to women through which they can explore themselves.” She points out, “In the past few years, with recession making lives harder for everybody, many have judiciously decided to not having children so as not to compromise with the quality of upbringing.”
Child care is still seen through a gender prism in India. Mothers are automatically expected to make the sacrifices that go with bringing up children. For the father, it is a secondary duty. “But women want to play different roles and seek identities for themselves other than motherhood,” explains Purnima.
However, societal reactions are pointedly hostile towards those who take the leap. It is mostly the women instead of the husbands who have to bear the brunt of discontent from family members and friends. “The societal backlash is unrelenting and ruthless, however sophisticated be its guise,” says Anu Rawat. “Several women in the initial phases lie about being unable to conceive as an explanation for being childless. They continue to grapple with this life-defining decision and simultaneously try to break free from societal expectations,” she adds. Anu maintains a blog ‘Child Free by Choice- India’, a platform for women giving motherhood a miss to share their stories and interact. She regularly receives hatemails for running the blog.
Where are the roots of such lopsided opinions? “Nobody asks a woman if she wants to be a mother. But if you decide not to be one, you face a barrage of questions from all fronts. All those who become mothers are suddenly entitled to heap advice upon us who don’t,” says Radhika.
Yet the pressures of society can at times be the cause of unease for women who choose the road less travelled. Purnima confesses that she sometimes feels insecure when asked about her views on growing old without children.
“One has to have an alternative to family structures in our country,” she says. “Friends are the ones to support you throughout life. Otherwise, the option that remains in old age is a senior living facility,” she says.
However, the picture is not all bleak for Radhika. Advancing age is no cause for her to lose her sense of self-sufficiency and wallow in the regret of having nobody to look after her.
To sum up the complexity of the situation, we are reminded of Urvashi Butalia who ends her essay in Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems with the lines: “So what do we have in the end? The ‘naturalness’ of motherhood? The ‘curse’ of childlessness? The dread of barrenness? A life filled with lack, with loss of what might have been? Or just another way of living? A choice, happenstance, circumstance, call it what you like, but for me, it’s a happy, contented, fulfilled life, despite — or perhaps because of — being what is called ‘childless’.”