Childfree by choice & having it all?

How are the couples who decided to stay childfree during the first decade of the 21st century faring now? Have they changed their mind? Do they stand by their choice?
Last Updated : 13 May 2023, 20:15 IST
Last Updated : 13 May 2023, 20:15 IST

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From cinema to mythology, the idea of the mother is celebrated and revered to the extent that her personhood is often sidestepped. If you have watched Hindi cinema, you are familiar with the much-quoted mere paas ma hain — here is ma, the mother (not the woman) who is much greater than material possessions like gaadi and bungalow.

In a predominantly pronatalist society such as ours, and with popular culture always hammering home the greatness and bliss of motherhood, what happens when some women and their partners decide not to have children? The idea of exercising agency and opting not to have children did not gain much visibility in mainstream discussions before the late 90s and early 2000s. So, how are the couples who decided to stay childfree during the first decade of the 21st century or thereabouts faring now? Are they still child-free? Have they changed their mind? Do they regret their choice?

Shailaja Krishnan (name changed to protect identity) has been married to Krishnan for 13 years now. They knew each other much before they got married in 2010. The couple, now in their early 40s, says it was not really an overnight decision to stay childfree. Explaining the process, she says, “Before marriage, we’d have abstract conversations about having a child once we were “ready” like that was the logical next step in our married life. But at the back of my mind, I’d always panic, thinking about pregnancy and childbirth and worrying about how I’d ever go through all of that. I realised I had tokophobia or the fear of pregnancy.”

As the couple moved cities and started enjoying an independent life away from relatives and family, they realised that having children wasn’t what they really wanted. “Krishnan wasn’t very fond of children and I never had strong maternal instincts either,” she adds. “A child is a lifelong responsibility, and I realised how much I value my independence, free time, and sleep (!) and ultimately came to the conclusion that I don’t want to ever go down the path of parenting. We both talked it through and finally were on the same page about this. I felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders,” Shailaja explains.

Hyderabad-based Naseha Sameen is a data scientist working at a multinational conglomerate and also a published author. She has been married to Alok Ranjan, a process excellence leader, currently on a sabbatical. The couple is in their early 40s and is happily childfree. “We met in 1999 and have been having conversations about staying childfree ever since. We got married in 2008 and by then we were certain about our decision,” explains Alok. “A lot of thought has gone into our decision after considering the various dimensions of having a child. We valued our independence and our aspirations. Also, having a child is a responsibility you need to take up only if you are fully committed; otherwise, you end up feeling bitter and blame the child for having to give up on your dreams,” explains Naseha. “Our childfree life meant we were able to move cities and take up jobs or sabbaticals without thinking about the financial aspects or, for that matter, the logistics involved in making big moves,” Alok adds.

Why do couples opt to stay childfree?

There are many reasons for couples to stay childfree — these could range from the availability of contraception, the need for freedom, the absence of a strong maternal instinct, financial and health issues, commitment to causes (including environment-related), not wanting to add to the burgeoning population and antinatalism (the belief that human life is full of suffering and bringing a child into the world adds to it), among others.

Another factor to consider is that women continue to bear the bulk of childcare, explains Dr Sreeparna Chattopadhyay, a social scientist and Associate Professor at FLAME University, Pune, who has been researching on the subject for the past one-and-a-half years. “This can restrict women’s professional aspirations,” she says. Then, there is the question of lack of support in the form of reliable childcare, she adds. Not all couples may have support from family or employers and may decide to stay childfree for that very reason.

Childfree and not childless

Couples opting to stay childfree have gained more visibility over the years. For decades, all couples without children were clubbed under the umbrella tag of childlessness. Since it has been a long-held belief that marriage meant motherhood for women, for the women who may have opted out of marriage itself, the concept of ‘childfree’ or ‘voluntary childlessness’ was not even one to consider.

The very usage of ‘childfree by choice’ seems to indicate a certain amount of agency. However, Dr Sreeparna points out, this change should also be viewed in the context of an important macro-level change: discussions around same-sex marriages. Noting that there has been a social transformation, she also adds that there are many who still hold opinions on marriage that limit the institution to “procreation, not recreation.”

Another macro-level change is that the replacement fertility rate for India has dropped to 2.0. A total fertility rate (TFR) lower than 2.1 children per woman shows that a generation is not producing enough children to replace itself, leading to a population drop. However, the rate is not uniform in India, with some states having a TFR as high as 2.98. In such states, staying childfree by choice may seem like an unthinkable concept, explains Dr Sreeparna. Even with these caveats, it is important to note that things are changing.

During the first flush of liberalisation in India and the economy opening up, many possibilities presented themselves for young Indians. Has exertion of agency to have or not have children anything to do with the rapid pace of globalisation? Dr Sreeparna explains that with a wider range of influences, women may have started to wonder if it was possible to lead different kinds of lives.

A different kind of life was just what this couple in their late 30s based out of Chennai dreamt of. Unlike couples of the late 90s or early 2000s, this couple tied the knot in an era of social media and a flatter world than the earlier generations. The couple, who like to call themselves the “globejamun couple” on social media, are intrepid travellers. While the wife is a digital marketer, the husband is a sports marketing professional. “We got married in 2015 and even at that time, we were not keen on children. It’s not that we hate kids. We like them. We go on holiday with our friends’ children. We actually make a great uncle and aunt,” they say.

No kids, no regrets?

Do couples regret not having children? How does it impact their marital life?

“We are absolutely and perfectly happy. As we spend more time together and watch the way the world is, we feel it’s the best decision ever,” say the ‘globejamun’ couple. For Shailaja Krishnan and her husband, the decision to remain childfree has only been reaffirmed over the years. “We don’t feel like we have missed out on anything by not having a kid. We are very content in our married life. We have more time to focus on each other and our bond is stronger than ever.”

The Hyderabadi couple, Naseha and Alok, also feel no regrets whatsoever, when it comes to staying childfree. “Over the years, as my siblings see my lifestyle and our ability to lead a fulfilled life together, they wonder if they missed the bus (the childfree life),” Alok explains. “The childfree life has given me the time and space to explore my creative side,” Naseha adds.

Comments and jabs

“Any good news?” or “What will you do when you grow old?” are pretty common questions that childfree couples brave routinely. Explains Shailaja, “When I was in my mid-30s, my own mother would insist that every married couple needs to have at least one kid. At every social gathering that we would attend back then, we would be asked about “good news.” I felt the pressure acutely sometimes, but I realised I would have to develop a thick skin and let the comments and jabs slide because that was the only way to retain my sanity.” As for Naseha, she’d always retort to the prying person if they’d like to pay some of her bills. For the globetrotting couple from Chennai, there has not been much judgement from their family as they have been very vocal about their choices from the time they dated. “In fact, my dad told me, ‘Oh wow, that’s cool … travel the world’,” says the digital marketer.

Selfish, much?

Says Shailaja, “It’s really not anyone else’s business, and most people wouldn’t understand our reasons or will find them selfish or superficial, so we don’t even bother explaining.” Indeed, the choice to stay child-free is often viewed as brute selfishness by family, and sometimes, friends. Comments Dr Sreeparna, “That’s a problematic discourse. There are childfree couples who take care of ageing parents; there are those who contribute to causes and society. This discourse needs to change.”

As Amrita Nandy so eloquently asks in the preface to her book ‘Motherhood and Choice: Uncommon Mothers, Childfree Women’: “How can women live fully? If autonomy is a human good, why do women have little or no choice vis-a-vis motherhood? Do women know they have a choice if they do?”

The overriding word — whether couples have children or not — is choice. Much like having a child is a choice, not having one is also a choice. And we as a society perhaps have not yet learnt to respect that.

Published 13 May 2023, 20:13 IST

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