It's child-free, not childless

Alamy Stock photo
Alamy Stock photo

Those bucking the eternal trend have an unshakeable conviction — one can be happy without “creating” someone to take care of you in your old age

By Sanchita Guha

Published: Sat 21 Aug 2021, 8:28 PM

Just the other day, a TV show on the space that humans take up in the world dredged up a memory. It was a conversation my mother had with me a few years ago, trying to persuade me to adopt a child. “Why?” I asked. “So that someone can inherit this property,” she said, referring to the small flat I had bought for the two of us, a badge of minor achievement for someone who grew up in a joint Indian family and never had any privacy. “You want me to adopt a child just so that someone can live in this flat after we both die?” I said, trying to get my head around this outstandingly weird idea.

“And who would raise this adopted child, since I have no interest in it?” I asked. My mother’s response was weirder: “I’ll take care of the child, and when I’m no longer fit enough, I’ll hand the child over to you.” Oh, I see, “and how would you feel if I dumped my housing loan on you, saying that I can’t handle it any longer?” My question sent my mum into an epic sulk — how dare I compare the glory of raising a baby with the considerably less wonderful job of servicing a huge loan and dealing with other property expenses?

I realised that my mother, widowed and retired around five years before this conversation, was having a wannabe grandparent moment. I mean, look at that (former) colleague from her office, happily chatting on the phone about how many times her granddaughter burped that day; or that well-off friend, divvying up her wealth between her still toddler grandsons. All of this had turned her thoughts to humanity’s big question: “What happens after us?”

My mind was somewhere else. Single and child-free and absolutely certain that it was the best thing to be, I only considered this question: “Where can I travel next and when?” By society’s standards, I was being selfish — women and men who just want to explore the world, dive deeper into their profession, let their minds soar above nappies and school fees are, as they say, being so very selfish. Isn’t it just everyone’s duty to produce offspring, so that the use-and-throw economy can have more consumers, and someone can inherit some property, and older people can admire their cute grandchildren?

Regardless of cultures and countries, this is what’s expected, and any deviation still requires exhausting rounds of explanation. Even celebrities aren’t spared. There’s no Hollywood star who has ever had to explain why they have, say, nine children from three relationships. But there are several stars who have been asked why they haven’t had any children. Christopher Walken, arguably the most stylish Bond villain and one of America’s best-known actors, summed up why no child has appeared in his decades-long stable marriage: he wanted to focus on cinema and endure the initial struggle. “I’m sure many of the kids I knew as a child would have continued in show business, but they had kids of their own [and] had to do something dependable. I didn’t, so I could get by even in periods of unemployment,” he said in an interview. I suppose even after he got hugely famous — when unemployment wasn’t a worry — he and his wife of 50 years just enjoyed being child-free too much to change that status.

This fact — that a person is child-free, not childless — is still hard for most minds to grasp. In this world, where the human population has risen to seven-plus billion from two-and-a-half billion in just 70 years (from 1950 to 2020), taking planet Earth to the brink of an ecological disaster, apparently every individual’s top goal in life should still be to add to that population. When it comes to the urge to procreate, mankind with all its complexity seems to be no different from the single-cell amoeba; anyone who doesn’t share that urge is not doing their part.

‘Honestly, wanting a child is a lot more selfish’

Canada-based writer Archana RD and her husband embrace being child-free. She cites “overpopulation and the resultant destruction of the planet — global warming” as the trigger for their decision. Was it something they discussed very thoroughly? “Of course, every aspect of it — [all the] pros and cons were discussed. There were only positives.” Married for seven years now, the couple knew three years before the wedding what they wanted in their relationship, and “there was never a child in it”.

Analysing the social mindset that child-free people are selfish, she says: “This view is rooted in apathy and ignorance; also, it’s cultural. Honestly, wanting a child is a lot more selfish — given the amount of resources you need to beg/borrow/snatch/steal/create to provide a reasonable life. Then, wanting that child to be your legacy — keeping your honour and pride — is selfish. Expecting or pressuring that child to return the favour — taking care of the parents in their old age — is selfish.”

Propagation of genes is a primal urge; it’s hardwired into all animals, and humans are no exception. To this is added the fascination with the human potential, the self-glorification of the species, awarding ourselves a right to life that we don’t give to other creatures. Therefore, even as we cull other species when their numbers become unsustainable for their habitat, we simply never think of limiting our own. Part of the child-free trend is an act of resistance against that uncontrolled growth; another part is an acknowledgement that the scales of the much-vaunted human potential tilt as often in the direction of evil as in the direction of good.

Archana says: “The general selfish behaviour of our kind is not [so] encouraging that you’d add to this species knowingly or consciously. You may want to create someone who changes the world, but there’s no guarantee he or she will. He can become anyone: a drug addict or a terrorist or a paedophile — who knows? Also, there’s no guarantee that the child will not confront one of these undesirable characters while growing up. We cannot expect anything from anyone, including the child you have created. Every being suffers. I would rather save my unborn child from the suffering. I can only do that... when they’re not born yet. No guarantees after that.”

‘We’ve never felt the absence of a child’

The fact that being child-free can be a valid choice doesn’t even occur to most people of either gender, until they find a partner who’s like-minded, as Archana did. “It is truly a rewarding way to live one’s life. I am glad we chose this path,” she says.

For Sudesh Chawla and Pallavi Narayan, both media relations professionals based in India, not having a child was a decision they took after getting married — different routes helped them to arrive at this decision.

Sudesh and her husband, who were married for 30 years, couldn’t have a biological child for medical reasons, and IVF technology wasn’t available then. The option of adoption was discussed and ruled out. The couple found themselves comfortable with a child-free life. “It was a combined decision, without any pressure from each other. It took us hardly any time to accept the fact; we laughed it off by saying that God wants us to distribute our love to many children, instead of limiting ourselves to a few. And believe me, we’ve never felt the absence of a child. Frankly, we realised that we didn’t have the space for the third person between us,” she says.

Pallavi and her husband, married for eight years now, simply didn’t see any appeal in parenthood. “I was never too keen on children, but I only started thinking about not having any after my marriage. My husband and I are college sweethearts, so, for a long time, this was a non-issue. However, once I brought this up, we started thinking about it, and now we both have our own reasons to be child-free,” she says. “There was no particular trigger. We’re both quite independent and the idea of a child didn’t appeal to us. Having said that, out of the two of us, I’m the ‘never say never’ person. So, I never say ‘never’ and always say ‘not now’.” Social conditioning had once made Pallavi believe that “motherhood was a natural progression” for any woman. “Now, I’m older and wiser, more aware and independent; therefore, I have the luxury to choose to be child-free.”

‘There are so many who cannot express their choice’

No man or woman or couple is an island, and being child-free by choice means navigating the choppy waters of social approval. In 2015, the website published the article ‘Why Have Kids?’, sourced from Zócalo Public Square, “a magazine of ideas” from Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise, that reiterated what we already know: people bucking the eternal trend of dutifully expanding the next generation make society very uncomfortable. In that article, social scientist Bella DePaulo wrote: “When it comes to marriage and family, one of the strongest worldviews is that women are supposed to get married and have kids. And if they do, they will be happier and healthier than everyone else — and morally superior, too. The ‘problem’, then, with women who do not follow the culturally valued life course of marrying and having children, is that they are threatening beliefs that people hold dear.”

Social beliefs, collectively, are like a fire that can either provide warmth or burn, depending on where it is in relation to an individual. Archana took some heat; Sudesh found her family and friends mostly supportive; and Pallavi has been getting hints from family elders that perhaps she should change her mind.

“[My family] always saw me as a nurturing person and couldn’t believe it. To some extent, they blamed my partner for influencing me. They thought I might miss a very important life experience as a woman. But none of their assumptions are true. I’m happier after I decided out of [being a parent]. Everything in my life changed for the better,” says Archana. She has countered persuasion attempts with both reasoning and indifference, depending on the situation. “It’s important to show what you see and discuss what you realise — not just for yourself, but for others who may need that help,” she says. “We are not the only couple who have decided to go with this choice. There are so many who cannot express their choice, even to their own parents... So, when I speak to my circle, I’m trying to help others who need acceptance to take the necessary steps, have the courage to live their life the way they wish. Remember, once a parent, always a parent. There’s no going back. The window of making this decision is truly precious, very brief, and it must be talked about more often, so it’s accepted better.”

‘No longer does a village raise a child’

Bringing a child into the world as personal insurance or to fulfil an atavistic need to carry the bloodline forward makes no sense whatsoever to today’s child-free individuals. Pallavi says: “I’ve had a few friends who took to persuading me to rethink my decision. I was given many scary scenarios in a child-free life — death of a spouse, loveless/ disenchanted marriage, old age, and many more. But I started to notice how in each scenario, the child was positioned as a support, and never as an individual — that irked me. According to me, bringing another person into the world to buffer yourself from some calamity is no reason at all. This child already has a job even before it’s born, to be our crutches in old age or to save us from a declining marriage… and that’s not fair at all.”

There’s a major practical aspect, too — those trying to persuade couples to have children won’t be around to help with the childcare and expenses, so why should they interfere? Pallavi points out: “The child, when born, is solely the responsibility of only two people: the parents. No longer does a village raise a child. So, it should be entirely up to those two people if they want to take it up or not.”

Those against the child-free life often use the term “maternal instinct” to tell women that nature made them to want babies and that denying that instinct is unnatural. Sudesh observes, “Maternal instinct is God’s gift to all women, a beautiful emotion that one cannot ignore. [But] society is using it as a tool to strengthen the role of men, especially in the hinterlands due to a lack of education and awareness.”

Also, maternal instinct needn’t be only for one’s own children. “We have a large family, and we were kind of a bridge between the children, during their growing years, and their parents. They were close to each other but not open enough with each other to share many emotions, which were conveyed through us in a diluted way,” says Sudesh.

Archana believes in it, too, but emphatically states, “It doesn’t have to only exist in those who’ve pushed out a baby from their bodies; it’s in every one of us. The need to nurture shouldn’t be selfishly reserved for only the carrier of your DNA — one’s biological offspring or extended family members. Humanity needs more humans who are not fixated on other related humans.”

(Sanchita is a journalist and editor based in India.)

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