The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 29, 2000
Lead Article

Today, a new generation of educated, articulate and independent women has emerged. These women not only make their career choices but parenthood choices too. There are many couples that prefer to let the biological clock tick away as they make a conscious decision to be without children. Yet even though the choice may be of the couple, it is the woman who faces the flak. Motherhood is a role expectation and to be without children is taken as some sort of an oddity, observes Aradhika Sekhon

ALTHOUGH INDU'S childhood was replete with warmth, love and care, she was always aware of the increasing struggle and sacrifice required of her parents to make it that way, especially of the trade-off her mother had to make. A postgraduate and a teacher for several years before her marriage, her mother went from being an independent woman with a pay cheque and career to a full time homemaker whose days were filled with looking after children and family. Indu remembers her struggles to carve out some time for herself. She never doubted that her mother loved them but the work of child rearing didnít seem like much fun. The idea of having children, thus brought images of doors closing, not opening out. So Indu decided not to have children but make her life meaningful in other ways.

Women who decide to remain childless have to face social pressures, not only in India but also in USA and Europe . In America , each year since 1988 some four million babies have been born.Along with this baby boom, has come about a glorification of parenthood and ==-he widespread assumption that everyone is a parent. Movie after movie extols the joys of child rearing (Parenthood, Nine Months, Baby Boom) dewy-eyed images of children abound in advertising everything from cars to diamonds. Childless women are largely invisible and when they do show, theyíre reduced to stereotypes. Thus, America too has a long tradition of pushing childless women to the fringes.


Historian Elaine Tyler May in her book Barren In The Promised Land, describes how for most of Americaís history, women without children have been seen as deviant, pathetic or dangerous. President Roosevelt in a speech said, " Wilful sterility is, from the standpoint of the nation, a sin for which there is no atonement. No man, no woman can shirk the primary duties of life and retain his or her self-respect ".

The old stereotypes are still going strong even in America, Indian women have to face a different spectrum of social pressure altogether for their chief function is seen to be procreation. Childless women, especially those who are financially dependent, have to face insensitivity and abuse even within their family. But today, a new generation of educated, articulate and independent women has emerged . These women not only make their career choices but parenthood choices too. There are many couples that prefer to let the biological clock tick away as they make a conscious decision to be without children. Yet even though the choice may be the couplesí, it is the woman who faces the flak, the questions and the doubts for motherhood is a role expectation from a woman.

There isnít any single reason that women are opting for non-parenthood. Rita Nath, a 43-year-old artist from Mumbai says that though she has the "occasional pang", she recognises that her choice of not having children has allowed her greater freedom to develop herself as an artist, giving her space for reading, writing, creating, dreaming.

"When one begins to read the lives of male artists and to notice how often they needed to get away from their family environments in order to do work, itís easy to see the writing on the wall. If one is mainly in charge of rearing children, as women are, you wont be getting your thinking and writing done", says Rita.

Zarina Khan, who runs an adventure club and who also took a decision to be without children, says : ĎBeing childless opens up a sense of possibility for me. It gives me the feeling that my own path can be zig-zag and since Iím not responsible for another human being, I can take risks and explore things I otherwise would not be in a position to. I can give a free rein to parts of myself- the confident, daring, uninhibited parts-in ways that would have been impossible to do if I had children".

Jyoti Singh, a marketing executive, has another reason to offer. " This may sound selfish or whatever, but the fact is that with mine and my husbandís very busy lifestyle, we just donít have time for childrenÖ.the truth is, Iím very satisfied with my job, my husband and the way life is going and I just donít feel the need for a child in the house".

Many women who arenít convinced about parenthood choices are ambivalent about having children, i.e. they can easily see the pros and cons of either choice. But, " when motherhood seems an increasingly unlikely prospect- psychologically or physically- itís crucial to make a conscious choice rather than drifting for years ambivalently", says Californian psychologist Mardy Ireland, author of Preconceiving Womanhood: Separating Motherhood From Female Identity. " The result is often the freeing up of the psychic space set aside for motherhood. That in turn, allows a new adult identity to emerge". Women in their late twenties and early thirties who make the decision to be childless often discover a wellspring of creative energy to channel into new projects- career, art, and community work. Those who donít come to terms with childlessness until their mid forties find it more difficult to create new identities.

Says Zarina, " until I said outright that I am not going to have a child- loud and clear- to myself and the people around me, I realised that whenever my friends would talk about pregnancy, child care and schools, Iíd feel left out. But once I took a firm decision I realised that I stopped feeling left out or defensive or pitied. I could enjoy a babyís soft weight on my shoulder without feeling that the others assumed that I wished that it was mine because in fact, I didnít! Agrees Rita, "itís a slow process to overcome the ambivalence, but for me being childless is the right choice. Not everybody needs children to have a full life".

Thereís an implicit threat that these women, by their very existence, pose to traditional ideas of what men and women are supposed to be", says Ireland. " Women who decide not to have children are assumed to be either career-crazed imitation men or sad, barren spinster types. Neither stereotype accepts that women, even those who wanted to be mothers, can have rich and balanced lives without children of their own. Another stereotype thrown up is that women without children just donít like kids. " This isnít true of me at all", says Indu. " I need goofiness in my life and silly games and unexpected questions- things you donít get from adults. Just because I donít have kids doesnít mean I want to stay out of the playgroundÖ. I donít deny that never knowing what itís like to mother a child is a loss. But understanding that isnít enough for me to tip the balance towards motherhood. I just wish that people would allow women to make the choice without questioning, advice or curiosity".

There are doubts, the most common one being, Ď if I donít have children whoíll look after me, be there for me when I grow older? What milestones will mark the years of my life without children or grandchildren? In a world where ancestors are universal what is it like to be a woman without descendants?" Encounters in insensitivity donít help as in the case of Jyoti Singh, the marketing executive, who on a visit to the States was asked by the saleslady while she was shopping for a video camera, "how many children do you have?" On hearing Jyotiís answer of none, the saleslady said, "then why do you need a video camera?"

Another doubt that these women have to contend with is the area of marital satisfaction. Traditionally, children are supposed to be the "binding" factor in a relationship.So, logically speaking, would a relationship fall apart without kids?

As far as coping with the losses and difficulties of old age are concerned, it is true that the social network of the childless tends to be smaller since they have neither children nor grandchildren. However, a study conducted by sociologists in Western Ontario on couples over 55 found that those who chose childlessness were just as happy as those parents who had good relationships with their children, and happier than those parents whose relationships with their children were distant.

The path of marital satisfaction tends to follow a ĎUí shaped curve, starting out high, dropping when children are young and climbing again when theyíre grown and gone. The marriages of the childless are less likely to experience that dip and more likely to improve steadily over time. That doesnít for a moment mean that being a parent isnít rewarding or for the people who want children, the tragedy isnít worth it. But it does suggest that the marital relationship is one area where childless women may have an edge over mothers.

Many women who opt for non-motherhood develop alternate relationships with children in the family. Most of them create close and loving relationships with their nephews and nieces and can often be sympathetic and loving sisters and problem-solvers to them, especially when they revolt against their parents.These women are capable of being affectionate and objective at the same time. In the final analysis, however, says Indu, " the bottom line is that happiness depends not on whether you have children or not but whether you have a rich external life: friends, family, interests in the world around you".

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