We won’t be sticking labels here. Parnal Cairmuley, 34, married for six-and-a-half years, plans to be without a child. “We didn’t get our dream jobs in our 20s and we were sounded so often of our ‘loss’ that we got sick of it even as an idea.” This does not make her a pioneer. And this is not a problem. For a woman, there can be other specialisations, other than motherhood.
Childfree meetups organised in Delhi and around have a number of women, and men, signing up. These meets invite childfree couples and singles to revisit their decision. Posted on the invite is the number of Vicky Verma who has a salsa and dance studio in Noida. “Men and women who choose not to have children have more time to pursue their interests. And it could be salsa,” he says, happy to cash in on the trend.
First-time mother at 35 is a common statistic; delayed pregnancy is on the rise in metros. Women opting out of motherhood are clear-eyed and unapologetic. A high-velocity life of work, consumption and leisure would unwire a nine-month pregnancy. “Having children is not supported in 10-10 work structures,” says documentary filmmaker Safina Uberoi who works in between India and Australia. “This is systemic overseas but it’s increasingly happening in India as well. Having a child? You’re out of the ball game baby, see you in five years… So, it’s not that I chose not to have a child, but I chose to make a film.”
This is the new reality of India, says Susan Visvanathan, professor of sociology, JNU. “Those who can swing between work and play and be in a state of perpetual excitement at both are able to beat the industrial clock,” she says. Marriage is no longer the old site of struggle but a negotiated settlement. “The power of saying if and when I want to have a child is with me,” says Bina Paul, a lecturer of Spanish. The objective is not to escape commitment but to enter it from a position of equality. This new space — the right to choose — is one of the greatest contributions of feminism, says Prof Visvanathan. What is heartening is that women’s lib is no longer sex-specific; there are plenty of men waving the flag.
For Madhav Vasudevan, his wife’s decision took some time to sink in. “I run a travel company so I’m away at least six months a year,” he says. Malvika, his wife of 11 years, is an investment banker. “Though I love children, I knew that I couldn't be there all year round to share the responsibility,” he says. But Malvika's not complaining. “I love my life the way it is. When I'm not working, I travel with Madhav. That wouldn't have been possible with a child,” she says.
The new deal
Partnership is the new deal. Without it, many women are saying they will not be burdened with motherhood. “If we have a child, Dhananjay knows he will have to pitch in with 50 per cent,” says Cairmuley. Not having a child is thus a continual social and political act, an act of subversion if you will. A woman who is taking time off for herself and doesn’t want to be a mother is something of a loose canon, a new class in urban India. Amruta Patil, a 28-year-old graphic designer, clarifies that women now are taking their time with most major decisions in life, unlike previous generations that made one ‘correct’ decision after another — marriage at 21, a baby by 22. “Luke and I edit and produce a magazine and it demands a lot from us. The way I see it, it’s one baby at a time!” says she.
The lifecycle squeeze doesn’t scare women anymore. They’d rather be past the maternity ‘prime,’ than be tied to someone else’s routine. “I have family calling me up about the ticking body clock. But then, they were equally concerned when I wasn't marrying fast enough for their liking,” says Rati Sharma, married for 11 years.
Rinku Jacob, a Hindu Brahmin, and her husband, Mac, a Syrian Christian, get plenty of advice from her aunts. ‘Have one child at least, otherwise people will talk.’ Or: ‘You are young right now and in love but in a few years you’ll need your child to be the bond between you and your husband.’ “I am 36 now and the bond is intact,” she says with a laugh.
Old age security is no longer fair exchange for the investment. “Just suppose the child turns out to be a person sold to the idea of moving to the US. Why would I unsettle my life for somebody who would anyway leave?” asks Sharma.
There is of course no social encouragement for such stands. “No one has patted me on the back and said ‘whatta girl’,” says Parnal. Mothers are responsible for home and country, so goes the popular idea, admits Prasoon Joshi, executive chairman, McCann-Erickson. Motherhood, the age-old method by which society has exercised control, sells very many powders and soaps. The beauty of the baby and the joy of parenthood, are woven into a theme of exclusive dependence from which no man, and certainly no woman, must break free. To the honour of being a mother will always be added the imaginary value of ‘completion’. Man, by that definition, is half-finished. Babies fill in the blank. So, unlike washing machines, they will never be niche.
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(With Veenu Sandhu and Neha Mehta in Delhi and Mini Pant Zachariah in Mumbai)