'I Won't Have Children': The Trials of Choosing a Childfree Life
A 15-year-old Radha — who would grow up to become Dr Radha Harihar — sits on the steps of her school, surrounded by her friends, chatting as kids do, during break time. “I have decided, I won’t have children,” she declares.
In the silence that follows, wide eyes blink back at her.
“How can you say something like that?,” one friend wants to know. “But it’s not up to you,” another is confused.
“It’s my body. It’s my choice.”Dr Radha Harihar
It felt perfectly logical and simple enough to her at the time. “I still remember the shocked looks on their faces,” recalls Dr Radha. Now 30 years later, it’s still as simple to her as it was back then. But her decision to not have children isn’t one that was always received as simply.
Baby, Maybe. Maybe Not.
As we collectively traverse through the 21st century — and as more and more women find their agency and the will to exercise said agency — many are looking at the possibility of having children as a choice rather than a fundamental duty.
The turn of the decade has seen a rising number of millennial men and women reconsidering, or putting off having children for various reasons from simply not wanting them, not feeling like they would make suitable parents, to not being able to afford them.
Many young adults are also opting out of reproducing because of anxieties about the climate crisis and the future of the world. In fact, there is a whole movement by teenagers who have pledged to not have children until decisive action is taken to counter climate change.
But how easy is it really to simply ‘opt-out’, especially in a country like ours that still clings to the traditional family as being the sanctified central unit of society?
FIT talks to women who have chosen the road less traveled, about what it’s like to be childfree by choice, living in a society that has trouble dissociating women from motherhood.
When’s the Good News?
“Ever since I got married, all I would hear about was when I was going to have kids,” says Kanika, a 35-year-old, data analyst based in Chennai. “I barely had time to absorb the fact that I was married, and settle into my new role.”
The importance of women as child-bearers is less than ambiguously indicated in our culture. From fertility rituals and ceremonies, our preoccupation, as a society, with childbirth is tangible.
“When you’re getting married, you’re already being showered with blessings for a child.”Kanika
Although she was afraid to consider it at first, Kanika and her husband talked about it at length and together made the decision to forgo parenthood. The constant badgering from her family, however, got to her to the point where she started dreading meeting them.
“No matter what kind of a family gathering it was, the topic would always be brought up. Sometimes it was the first thing someone said to me,” she says. “Even the most casual statements like you’re next, or oh, when’s the good news coming? said in jest would put me on edge.”
When she sat her family down and told them in no uncertain terms that she and her husband were not going to have kids, the only way she could describe the reaction that followed was ‘all hell broke loose.’ Her family members would, for months, take turns trying to ‘talk sense’ to her.
“From emotional blackmail, and passive-aggressive remarks, to implicit threats, they’ve tried it all.”Kanika
Transgressing Familial Expectations Can Take Its Toll
Dr Reema Gupta, consultant Psychologist at Max Hospital, New Delhi, spoke to us about how the pressure to have children before one is ready to, or when unwilling to, especially from family, can affect a woman’s mental health.
“I have had patients come in who would experience bouts of anxiety whenever the matter of having children is brought up.”Dr Reema Gupta, consultant Psychologist, Max Hospital, New Delhi
Dr Reema talks about how difficult it can be for women to grapple with such pressure, especially when it has to do with a decision of this magnitude. Not being able to cope with the stress of it can often lead to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and can also result in psychosomatic ailments.
“People can be invasive,” says Dr Reema, “I had a patient once who was in her forties. She and her husband had planned on not having kids. But the questions wouldn’t stop. Even her boss would ask her, what’s your age? Why don’t you have kids?”
“Constantly being questioned for your personal choices can lead to insecurities, and even a sense of antagonism towards society,” she adds.
Dealing with unsolicited and unsavoury comments can be difficult even for those who don't face familial pressure.
“My family has always been supportive of my choices. The guilt trips usually come from peers and strangers.”Sarada Harihar, Lawyer, Kolkata
“The first question they ask me when I tell them I don’t have kids is, what happened? Any problem?” says Sarada.
It doesn’t hurt her as much as it just irritates her. “They’ll try to persuade me to have kids while grumbling about their own.”
From being told of what they’re missing out on, that they would regret it later when it's too late, to throwaway statements like ‘you wouldn't know, because you're not a mother’, these ladies have heard it all.
“It’s mostly strangers. They’ll ask me out of nowhere, and it usually comes with sympathy and solutions,” says Dr Radha. “They never ask me if it was my choice, just jump right into listing remedies and addresses of temples.”
So how does she deal with such remarks?
“With humour,” she says, “I just laugh it off. If they get too preachy, I tell them to mind their own business in the most polite way I can manage.”
At the same time, she feels like she’s lucked out with her family, and the fact that her husband too didn’t want kids. “Being in the same corner, it was easier for us to block out the noise and make light of it.”
‘It’s Easier to Cope if You’ve Thought it Through’
Ask them if they regret their decision, and both Sarada and Radha are quick to say, no.
“It was my choice, and one that I have reviewed many times over the years, so why would I regret it?” says Sarada. “Now and then when I see a cute baby, I might wonder what if, but the feeling is only momentary.” She finds them cute as long as they’re going home with someone else, she explains with a laugh.
Radha agrees. “It's a choice I made. I love kids. I love spending time with my nieces and nephews and spoiling them. But I’ve never felt maternal, and I’ve always known it just wasn't for me.”
“External pressure will especially affect you if it’s not a conscious decision. If you have clarity about what you want, and why you want it, what people say won’t affect you as much.”Dr Reema Gupta
Dr Reema advises women to carefully consider their choices, explore all possibilities, be fully informed about their biologies, as well as alternatives like IVFs, surrogacy, and adoption should they change their minds later, and let their decisions be a consciously planned one.
Society has an expectation of maternity from women, and you can’t stop that, she explains. “So, only if you are mindful of your choice can you tackle it.”
Slowly, but Surely, Things Are Changing
There was a time when women had to remain single if they didn't want to have children. But now, the option of opting out of parenthood is entertained more freely within the marital system, feels Dr Radha.
She also talks about how it's mostly older people who find it hard to wrap their heads around the idea. “Quite a few younger people I know have opted to build families other than the traditional way, whether it’s a child-free one or choosing to adopt.”
According to Sarada, the most important thing is that you and your spouse are on the same page on the matter. “Most people don’t talk about whether you even want to have kids or not after marriage. It's Important you discuss it before you commit to a life together.”
childfreeindia.org, and childfreebychoice India are some online platforms that help people connect with others who have opted out of parenthood.
Urvashi Bhutalia in the anthology Of Mothers and Others, reflects on her struggles of reconciling her decision to not have children with the society she lives in. “The fear, for those women, is very real. And it’s a complex of fear of loneliness, of social pressure and opprobrium, of parental pressure, of old age, the desire to love and be loved in return (so many women and men miss this in marriage).”
“Our society offers few ways to deal with these struggles, and holds up a few other options.”Urvashi Bhutalia, activist and writer
(Anoushka is a freelance writer, and a historian in the making, who is always on the lookout for new stories to tell. When she is not writing or studying, Anoushka spends most of her time reading, listening to music, and befriending strays.)
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