By Alka Shukla
Alka Shukla is an author at Arre. She is a journalist turned storyteller for over a dozen years.
Society finds it hard to respect a woman’s choice in several matters of sex and marriage, but the decision to not have children is beyond the pale. How can you not be a mother? Isn’t it going against your DNA as a woman and your purpose on this planet?
The mother-in-law mutters a quick prayer. A promise of another 101 naryals if all goes well. The good husband paces up and down the hospital corridor, stealing nervous glances at the red bulb shining outside the operating theatre. Just when the suspense reaches a crescendo, the magnificently boring door finally opens and the doctor with the best dramatic flourish a one-day artiste can conjure gushes, “Congratulations. Ladka hua hai!” Suddenly, the air fills with cheer. Tears fill the eyes of the MIL.
I try my best to control my facial expressions, as I watch the drama unfolding on TV and in my living room. The reason why every MIL, mausi, Chachi, Dadi of middle-class India was crying tears of joy that day was not just because one of their fave TV bahus had become a maa. It was because not too many weeks ago, she had faced the ignominy of being declared “barren”. And they’d all been with her through her “dar dar ki thokre” kind of journey from one fertility clinic to the other until miraculous reproductive technology with a generous dose of Mataji ka ashirwad saved the day.
I know my face is resembling that of a cocker spaniel who just got fed dog food instead of chicken biryani, so I turn away but not before my MIL catches me… a wistful tell-all expression of abject longing on her face.
I know that expression. It spells doom.
Doomed is exactly what my MIL and every other MIL think of a woman who doesn’t have a child neatly strapped to her bosom. There is no reason, what with technology and God’s blessings, for a woman to bear the indignity of childlessness. From freezing eggs to fertility drugs, from IVF to surrogates, there’s an entire buffet laid out for you to pick from, depending on your medical reports and balance sheet. But in a society that considers baby-making the ultimate #lifegoal for anybody with a vagina, where does all this euphoria leave women who “choose” not to have children?
Apparently, nowhere. Walk into any random social gathering. I can bet on my non-existent mooch that corner-of-the-eye glances, mysterious smiles, and all the whispering will make you want to channel your inner dragons and do a Khaleesi-style Dracarys! Every godh bharai and naming ceremony of anybody in the vicinity will become breaking news that must be hurled your way, hoping to awaken the dormant mommy inside you. Because in our society, only two scenarios are acceptable for women above 30. Either they are moms. Or they’re desperately trying to become moms, in which case their “upaay”, “ilaaj”, “treatment” would have already become world famous on your family WhatsApp groups, as have invitations to the many many godh bharais. Once, I also tried inviting them to a godh bharai. Our pet Cookie was preggers. They didn’t like the joke.
Honestly, it’s not the societywallahs who worry me. Every woman – non-conformist or otherwise – knows how to deal with them by the sheer virtue of the fact that she is a woman. What is deeply disconcerting though, is when those with a supposed scientific temperament begin acting like the custodians of your biological clock. Recently, a friend, a 36-year-old music entrepreneur, visited a top city gynecologist seeking medication for rashes around her private parts. Nothing could prepare her for what came next. Two of her recommended list of tests had little to do with the problem at hand. They were ovarian tests often meant for women who want to freeze their eggs. On being confronted, the gynaec threw in a ton of medical jargon justifying the tests and then casually slipped in by-the-by that shouldn’t she be considering freezing her eggs anyway, since time is running out? And should she eventually decide to “settle”, wouldn’t it be sad to be deprived of the pleasures of motherhood?
But in a society that considers baby-making the ultimate #lifegoal for anybody with a vagina, where does all this euphoria leave women who “choose” not to have children?
This was wrong at so many levels. My friend didn’t ask for any of this. Not the advice. Not the tests. And certainly not the enlightenment on her prospects of begetting children. Because she’s clear, she doesn’t want them. She doesn’t want to be “childless”. She wants to be “childfree”. That’s where all the difference lies.
Although still a hyper-minority, the number of women – single or married – deciding against having children is growing. The reasons could be varied. Maybe she doesn’t want her career taking a backseat. Maybe she doesn’t want to have to think a dozen times before setting sail. Maybe she feels the world we live in is just not safe enough to create a new life. Or maybe she just doesn’t feel maternal enough.
All of these are valid reasons in my book or in the book of any rational person who understands the full meaning of the word “choice”. But this choice of being “childfree” is nothing short of blasphemy. Society finds it hard to respect a woman’s choice in a lot of matters – of sex and marriage – but this one is beyond the pale. How can you not want a child? Isn’t it going against your DNA as a woman and your purpose on this planet? Isn’t having a child been ingrained with the four “ashramas” as the only possible life pattern since time immemorial? How will you do grihastha ashram without a child?
A new life pattern that does not involve children has not yet been conceived in spite of how far we’ve come as a society. What we have instead, is a celebration of progress in the form of 21st-century technology that we conveniently use to reinforce old social dogma. A modern tool to keep the modern woman in check. The difference probably is that if a woman without kids attracted pitiful looks 20 years back and was subjected to bizarre rituals to impress the Goddess of fertility, today she is subjected to invasive technology to find a solution. And if God forbid, she decides to do away with the needles and the endless IVF cycles, she’s judged for being the “careerwaali type” who has no interest in fulfilling her womanly duties.
What we don’t get it is that expecting every uterus to pop out a baby because we now have ways to fix infertility, is like expecting every crow to bag a Grammy because we now have the Acapella App. The western world has been grappling with the childless versus childfree debate for the last few years now. What has helped though is a slew of women celebrities openly identifying as childfree. Jennifer Aniston, Oprah Winfrey, Ashley Judd, and many more… these women have spoken out about not feeling the need for a child to “complete” their lives.
In India though, the closest we got to this was Kareena Kapoor talking about not wanting kids with Saif Ali Khan back in 2013. And three years later, a legend was born. Of course, her choice again. But what one cannot overlook is that while an increasing number of B-town celebs are becoming mascots of IVF, surrogacy, and adoption, the idea of being childfree by choice is probably far too politically incorrect for them to endorse, even if they do decide to not have a child.
Because what’s a woman who can’t say at least once in her life, “Main tumhare bacche ki maa bannewali hoon.”
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