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Mum’s not the word

Raising children is not for everyone. And given the responsibilities it involves, having a baby should be a willing choice, not a compulsion. But is Indian society ready to accept its women taking the alternate route? By Sanchita Guha.

india Updated: Sep 03, 2011 15:53 IST
Sanchita Guha
Sanchita Guha

The biological clock must have fallen out of her bag, because Tanya Mitra never heard it tick. While she was in her late twenties and early thirties, married cousins busy cleaning poo urged her to join the mummy club. But Tanya, a freelance writer from Kolkata, was happier reading a book, not cooking if she didn’t feel like it, and
generally living the life of a law-abiding taxpayer unburdened by worries over school admissions. The family remained in denial.Every time Tanya played with children – she found them cute when tiny, avoidable if older – a wide smile would break out somewhere in the vicinity, and a voice would be heard:
“Look, now she wants a baby of her own.”

She didn’t. Ever. Now touching 40, Tanya has never wanted to be a mother. She is single, but marriage would not have changed anything. This is something the world still finds difficult to grasp – that a woman might want to have a life without a child.

“Why is it that children have to come in a package deal with marriage?” wonders Aditi Ghosh, a disaster management expert based in Delhi. Her job requires her to fly around the world all the time, and Aditi knew early on that raising a child was not a viable option. She and her husband agreed on this. He is a frequent traveller, too, and “we were both committed to our work before we could commit to a child”. She does not, in any way, feel incomplete. “I don’t believe in the traditional concept of how a woman should live,” says Aditi, who prefers to give her full attention to her job rather than juggle her work and child-rearing responsibilities.

The shift in priorities for women has been the most remarkable social development in India over the past two decades, and much of society has failed to keep up. Add to that the amount of control Indian society still wants to exercise on a woman’s life choices, and things get really tense. Tanya was once told by an older person that for a married couple, it would be a “crime” not to produce children. It shocked her to hear this, since she always thought of him as someone with a broad mental horizon.

Such censure is often tinged with disbelief and suspicion. Could it really be possible that a woman does not want to “experience the joys of motherhood”? By not having children, are they showing a condescending attitude towards those who do have kids? The answer is simple: some women don’t have children just because they don’t want to raise a child – they have other things to do in life. But such an individualistic step is still seen as unacceptable, especially if the woman lives in a joint family and the in-laws or her own parents want grandchildren.

“The family elders want the experience of grandparenting. They feel it’s an incomplete marriage if there are no children. In some communities, if the girl does not become pregnant within the first year of marriage, there is an awful lot of commotion,” says Maithreyi Krishnaraj, visiting professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, and former director of the research centre of women’s studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. “A woman’s decision to not have a child is a complex matter – it’s much more than an individual decision... Women very rarely have a say in the decisionmaking when it comes to having children.” How much pressure a woman has to deal with depends on her social stratum and family structure, says Krishnaraj. “There is far more pressure in lower middle-class or rural
families, and less in urban, well-off setups.”

Moreover, when couples live away from their extended families and when the husband is supportive, a woman has more breathing space.

For Vinita Roy, a media professional in Delhi, the decision to not have a child was made jointly with her partner, as is the case with Aditi. “When we married, there was no concern over having or not having children,” says Vinita. Though she is now 35 and has been married for 10 years, her parents still have not given up. “They still hope that one fine day, I’ll turn up at their doorstep and say, ‘Surprise! I have a baby.’” Her mother-in-law had a “big problem” with her decision, but Vinita stuck to her guns. Her father-in-law, less insistent, put forth a suggestion of adoption, but she was not really interested. “I do miss not having a kid,” admits Vinita, “but we weighed the pros and cons, and the pros were more in favour of not having it. I have a lot of freedom... from report cards and zoo trips. When I play with other people’s children, a lot of my maternal feelings are satisfied. We love cuddling them, but we like the time we have without children,” she states.

Playing with other people’s children is where Anita Jacob, 54, draws the line, too. A Pune-based hypnotherapist, now out of a relationship, Anita decided in her early teens that she was not going to “go through the nine months” and everything else that comes thereafter. Having a baby is a decision that a woman should take for herself and herself alone, she believes. “Look at yourself and value yourself. You do certain things [like having a baby], as there’s a payoff,” says Anita. “If you
take a bold step [of deciding against it], you think you may lose out on that [family] support. Women should stop and look hard at the thoughts they are thinking. Then make a choice. You have to live with the consequences. Cut the crap around it.”

Indefatigable family members and acquaintances try to steer women towards adoption if a biological baby doesn’t come. Aditi, who looks about six years younger than she is, expects to start getting that advice within a few years. Tanya’s mother proposed twice that she should adopt ma child and the mother would raise it. Given that the mother is in her sixties, Tanya asked if the child would become a hand-me-down toy when her mother could no longer look after it. This, naturally, caused offence, but Tanya’s message was clear: a child is a huge responsibility and she didn’t want it.

When unwilling women do cave in to pressure, social conditioning is largely to blame, Anita thinks. “Women are told, ‘You study, get married, and have children so they can look after you in your old age.’ You’re programmed to think that you can’t take care of yourself in your old age, so you must
have children.”

A lot of women can, in fact, take care of themselves when older, thanks to their work and their pension funds. And, as UK-based columnist Zoe Williams writes in an article: “The primacy of childbearing... may be hardwired, but surely a sophisticated mind should be able to unwire it.”

It takes more than logic to change attitudes, though. “A woman’s primary role is still seen as bearing and rearing children,” says Krishnaraj. “It’s difficult to overcome this. My approach is that her identity should not be only as a mother, but also as a woman.”

Source: Marie Claire

First Published: Sep 03, 2011 12:21 IST