As one of four siblings, fashion designer Anjana Bhargav can’t remember a time when her house wasn’t "full of people". "My two sisters and brother were always fighting over who got to sit on the ‘favourite dining table chair’," she recalls. "There was always food being cooked for our family of six, and I, as the oldest, was frequently pulled away from my favourite hobby of reading fashion magazines to referee fights between the others."
Her husband Atul Bhargav, president, New Delhi Trader’s Association, who also has two sisters and a brother, had much the same kind of upbringing. But now that they are a couple, Anjana and Atul’s decision to have just one child has ensured that their daughter Ankita will have a very different life. “She didn’t have to fight for our attention, or share her room,” says Anjana.
And baby makes three
It’s not just the Bhargavs, many other middle class and upper middle class urban couples across India, just like the rest of the world, are choosing to have just one child. “A shift in attitude is taking place and the number of people having one child is on the increase,” says Shireen Jejeebhoy, senior associate, Population Council.
Dr Kaushiki Dwivedee, senior consultant obstetrician and gynecologist, unit head, Max Hospital, Gurgaon, explains, “Forty-five per cent of the women who come to me, who are in their late 30s, have just one child. In fact, lots of younger women too have one child. But I am not counting them since they could still be making up their minds.”
The one-child family is fast moving toward becoming the norm in urban circles. Susan Newman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University, USA, and author of Parenting an Only Child, says, “I actually call the only child the new traditional family. This generation is witnessing the drastic downsizing of the family structure.”
So, there may be a time very soon when the government’s famous family planning slogan – Hum Do Hamare Do – could soon become Hum Do Hamara Ek. Consider these statistics: According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the percentage of ever married women who want 0, 1 or 2 children has increased from 40 per cent in 1992-93 to 65 per cent in 2005-06.
Says Shireen Jejeebhoy, “That’s a great leap. Also, if you examine the statistics of ever married women who want a single child, that number has increased from 3 per cent in 1992-93, to 5 per cent in 1998-99, to 7 per cent in 2005-6.” She adds that the figure should be more because there are more women who do not want more than one child, but do not have access to or do not practice contraception. “This is termed ‘unmet need’,” says Jejeebhoy, adding that 10 per cent of women in urban areas have accidental and unplanned pregnancies.
There are many reasons why couples are choosing to restrict the size of their families. Sometimes, the decision comes about because of a series of constraints. Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan (who has three siblings), and her diplomat husband Dr Herbert Traxl (who has two), chose to have just one child – 24-year-old Irwin Ishan – for “purely practical reasons”. Says Narayan, “ I was very busy with my career. And there were long stretches in our marriage when my husband and I were on separate continents. That isn’t the best way to bring up children.” Dr Traxl agrees: “Our lifestyle didn’t allow us the choice to have more kids.”
Dr Kiran Bedi, India’s first and highest ranking woman officer in the Indian Police Service, also chose to have just one child, despite coming from a family of six, because she was a working mother with a high-pressure job who still wanted to do justice to her child. Her daughter Saina also has just one child.
Still other couples make their decision since they feel they cannot afford to have more than one child. Says 32-year-old homemaker Swati Mahendra, “My husband is the only earning member of our family. We can manage quite well now that our daughter Aastha is just two years old. But we know that very soon, our expenses will only rise once she begins school.” She adds, “We want to give her the best education and lifestyle, and we know we can only do that if we have one child. That’s why we haven’t considered having another baby.”
Many women are also aware that having kids involves a break or halt in their careers, and by having one child, seek to minimise this disruption. Explains Bedi, “These days, women have realised that since they are economically independent, they are part of the decision-making in the house. They have also realised that a career is a sure-shot way to maintain their self-respect and self-esteem. So they don’t want to give-up their careers.”
This has two implications: women think twice before increasing their family size, and also feel that they won’t be able to pay the required attention to their kids while they are working.Says Kiran Bedi, “Having a child is like living your life over with him/her. Earlier, women had the time to do it. My mother lived her life four times over with the four of us and then three times again with her grandchildren. How many of us can afford to do so while we are also working?”
No help at hand
The fact that the joint family set-up has broken down doesn’t help. Model Sonalika Sahay, whose daughter Zana is two years and two months old, says she doesn’t think she will have another baby even though her banker husband Kamal Mehta may be open to the idea. “Being a parent is a full-time job,” explains Sahay, adding, “My mother had five of us, but she is a homemaker and we lived in a joint family. I am a working mother who might have erratic hours. Also, Zana herself is quite a handful. I don’t know how people manage two to three children and their careers.”
It is this dilemma of not having any backup or support that many women of this generation are confronted with. Rashi Rohatgi Khan, director, W Five Communication, a public relations firm, who has a six-and-a-half year old daughter Ain, says, “Both my husband I do want another child. But I worry about how both of us will be able to manage our work and home pressures if that happens.”
That certain age
Age and biological complications also deter women from having more than one child. Says Dr Kaushiki Dwivedee, “Women are getting married later in life because of their careers and desire for personal independence. They have their first child in their late 20s or early thirties, so by the time they think of having a second, they feel it is too late. It is also a fact that pregnancy is a physically harder proposition later in life, and that one’s stamina to raise a child also dwindles with age.”
That was partly why Shovana Narayan did not plan another child. “I had Ishan in my early 30s. There were many fears in my mind about getting pregnant again at that age,” she recalls. The resolve to just have one child is also strengthened if the first pregnancy has been a complicated one. According to experts, parents most often choose to be happy with their one child rather than risk the mother’s health again.
My one and only
Earlier, pregnancy was a very natural sequel to marriage. But, today, bringing up a child involves conscious strategising, and is rarely a decision that is taken casually. “The stakes involved in bringing up a child are higher,” explains Dr Kaushiki Dwivedee, adding, “A child today has to be sent to the best schools. They need to attend hobby classes, like riding, piano or ballet. Sending children abroad for education, even without scholarships, has also become a norm. All this has made bringing up a child an expensive proposition.”
TV actress Swati Chitnis and her husband Commander Amol Chitnis chose to have one child for similar reasons. Chitnis explains, “After Neel was born, we decided to stop trying for another because we felt that we would be able to bring up one child better. We wanted to give our son (now 25, a commercial pilot) all our resources and time.”
Couples are now so focused on parenting that they are willing to tailor their lives around their child. Bedi gives the example of her daughter Saina, who shifted base from Delhi to Pune because that city has the right climate for the child. “That is the kind of concentration people have regarding their children nowadays,” explains Bedi.
Couples also hold on to their decision even though they may want a larger family. According to Sonalika Sahay, “It is a fact that a woman’s responsibilities increase more than the man’s when you have kids. A lot of people tell me that if I have another child, both will grow up together. But that’s not true – every child needs special attention. It’s not possible to give time to your kids and manage the demands of work. I have seen that most friends with two or more kids eventually resign from their jobs.”
Doubts and fears
It’s undeniable that bringing up an only child is a simpler proposition. “You spend less energy than if you have two or more kids. You are able to devote finances properly to them. Your responsibility with regard to getting them married also ends quickly,” says homemaker Ritu Madaam. But there are also doubts and fears for some couples. Explains Madaam, “When my only daughter moved to another city to study, my husband and I felt lonely. That’s the day I wished I had another child.” Parents also wish for another when they see their child feel lonely. Cricketer Kapil Dev and wife Romi have one daughter, Amiya. Romi feels that the older one gets, the more dependant one becomes on siblings. “I was an only child for a long time and I did experience loneliness. I know Amiya does too. Especially, when she was younger, and we would go out for a party, she would ask, ‘who will I stay with?’ If we could, Kapil and I would have wanted more kids.”
Swati Chitnis agrees. “There will be a time when parents won’t be around. The thought that Neel will be on his own scares me. He is very close to his cousins and has lots of good friends. But they are not close family.” She adds, “When my mother fell ill, there were three of us, our spouses and kids with her. In our case, it will be only him.”
Shovana Narayan also confesses to a similar fear, and admits that that is when she worries about not having more kids. “It wasn’t meant to be,” says Narayan, adding, “But I’m happy that Ishan doesn’t think about it.”
Anjana Bhargav, in contrast, is not as anxious. “Ankita will be solely responsible for me and my husband when we are old. But I assure myself that she will definitely have friends to help her out. I too am there with my friends when their parents fall ill. So I’m sure she will also be able to handle all the responsibilities alone. It’s not the end of the world,” she says.
End of the great indian family?
It’s no accident that most Indians, irrespective of community, have different names for different members of their family – mother’s elder sister, father’s younger brother, etc. But as more and more people have just one child, the extended family is in danger of disappearing altogether. And that, say experts, leaves us a in a grey area, with no sign of what will come to replace the close familial bonds we take so much for granted. After all, who will hide a groom’s shoes at weddings if there are no cousins? And who will tie rakhis if boys do not have any sisters? How will people have large convivial family get-togethers if there are no large families left?
Says Dr Nikhil Raheja, psychologist, National Institute of Psychiatry, “All this might conceivably happen in the near future. There might be a total disintegration of the family legacy.” Some experts say that people will develop closer ties with friends to bridge gaps in their family circle. But not everyone is certain of that. Says 55-year-old businesswoman Reshma Mehndirata, who has four siblings, “It’s not that friends won’t stand by you in times of trouble. But more often than not, you tend to lose touch with friends. With siblings, even if you haven’t met or spoken for months, your bond will be intact. That’s because your parents are the common link between you.”
Dr Raheja agrees, “Friends are under no compulsion to help you. In contrast, siblings might be estranged for years, but will come together
eventually.” However, it’s too early to write off the idea that other support systems will eventually replace the Indian family. Fashion designer Anjana Bhargav witnessed something early on that convinced her that familial bonds are not the only ones people can rely on. “When I got married, we had an old couple as neighbours,” recalls Bhargav. “Both their sons lived abroad and there was nobody to take care of them, except for a girl living nearby who literally adopted them.”
All my children
Delhi resident Lalita Sharma, now 76, recalls the experience of bringing up five children (four daughters and one son)
I had my first child at 18. From the beginning, my life revolved around the children. Raising them was my job, something I did 24/7, with no breaks, no hobbies, no ‘me’ time or ‘couple time’.
I would get up at dawn to prepare breakfast and tiffins for the kids and my husband. After they left the house, I would go to the market to buy vegetables for lunch, and if I had a few minutes, I’d chat with women in the neighbourhood.
The children were back for lunch, and after that, while they took a nap, I would make snacks for tea. I would then start preparations for dinner, and, if I had the strength, help them lay out their uniforms. I never had time to check their homework. When my eldest daughter started college, she began helping me in the kitchen and taking care of the kids. I would often be very tired. My husband would come home late at night, so his involvement with the kids was limited. There was no discipline problem, since parents were figures of authority then. Also, children weren’t exposed to too many things, so even though we couldn’t monitor them at all times, they turned out well.
Money was always short, though my husband earned a decent salary. The kids did wear hand-me-downs often, but we also made sure we got them new clothes on special occasions, such as festivals. We would only go out once a month for a movie, and for holidays we would go to my mother or my in-laws’ house once a year.