Are Children A Gift From God?
Never ask people who have had kids if you should because if you’re swimming around in your own gene pool, you’re more likely to say the water’s lovely. Either way, I must have missed the part where you’re told having children is a choice. I had three children in complete dissonance with the ongoing decline in India’s Total Fertility Rate. In 1992 the average Indian woman had 3.4 children, today she has 2.2 (1.8 in urban Maharashtra). Obviously choices were being made (though admittedly not by me).
There were those in our circles who were very clear they wouldn’t have children. But with the way motherhood was regarded, who could blame them. Ali Wong hadn’t done two separate Netflix specials during two separate pregnancies. Babies weren’t being breastfed in parliaments. Even the much maligned mommy blogging hadn’t been invented.
Mums in general were expected to be heard not seen. Wearing their mumsy clothes, living their mumsy lives, mommy tracked at work, guilt tripped at home, thwarted from any life choice affecting their ability to live 100 per cent in service of their offspring. Not that it was easier for women who didn’t want kids. On an average day they had to deal with eyebrows raised and kindly predictions of a lonely old age full of regret.
Women are inured to receiving unwanted personal feedback — but no one has been able to satisfactorily answer one question. How are you supposed to make a decision that will permanently impact decades of your future based on who you are today? Though no less judgemental, where raised eyebrows fail, the internet provides a spectrum of perspectives.
Honest, vulnerable, warts and all, recounting of the ugly hardships of motherhood were like pureed peas flung on that whitewash we were told was baby bliss. Statistics of women in the workforce and the gender distribution of unpaid household work came into play. Climate change and sustainability became factors in fertility. New nuance (and old-fashioned looking askance) shifted gears as it was revealed that the more educated you were, the less likely you were to have kids. Language evolved and we shifted from the passive voice ‘childless’ to the active voice ‘child-free’, injecting the reference with personal agency. Then the unimaginable happened and parents, not just parents, mothers, were outed as regretting having had kids!
Now, as global fertility rates decline, the choice has never been as loaded with information, politics, gender issues and workable alternatives. In a span of 25 years, we’ve gone from ‘Children are a gift from god’ to ‘Maybe we’ll get a cat’.
But because our choices are more informed, it doesn’t make them easier.
First of all, some things haven’t changed. The old biological clock is still a wind-up and our ovarian reserves still come with a use-by date. We may be looking younger, running start-ups and throwing shade on the millennials — but starting a family after 35 is still seen as potentially challenging medically. By age 40, only two out of five women who try to get pregnant will. After 40, women using their own eggs have a very low chance of getting pregnant even with IVF, and these rates have not improved in a decade. Tick tock.
The sociological fallout of not having kids isn’t limited to batting away judgy elders at family gatherings. Sure, India’s fertility rates are falling. Sure, if you had a buck for every time some meddlesome matriarch asked in a stage whisper if there was ‘a problem’ to explain your child-free life you’d be able to afford college tuition for at least one kid. But what nosey elders have internalised is that India’s inadequate health and safety nets are remarkably ageist and that is a serious worry. In a country focused on its demographic dividend, there is no specialised training in geriatrics in most medical schools in the country. Healthcare providers rely heavily on the patient’s family and other informal caregiving support. Of course, there’s no guarantee having a child means you’ve effectively created a future nursemaid just as there’s no guarantee you won’t need intensive elderly care.
Then there’s the issue of legacy. Would you rather make art, not babies? Who wouldn’t. But data shows that 48 per cent of women drop out of the workforce about four months after they return from maternity leave while 50 per cent drops out mid-career, citing childcare issues. Several studies point to two facts. Women see parenting as impediments to their career path. And child-free women are more likely to enter male-dominated professions (and in at least one study likely to earn more).
But this conversation is evolving. We have stellar examples on either side. Child-free successes like Oprah, Helen Mirren, Gloria Steinem are connected role models for all women. As the American Supreme Court judge Sonia Sotomayor said, ‘I made a different choice not because of my career, but because of the joy it gave me.’ And women with children fare decently too. Sheryl Sandberg, Victoria Beckham and Indra Nooyi all manage great success and multiple offspring. While their ability to afford childcare may be very much in the mix, the story of billionaire mother of four, Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx who went door to door selling the pantyhose that she invented, is inspiring.
Here in India, the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill that was recently passed allows approximately 1.8 million mothers working in the organised sector up to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave and serves a mandate on establishments over a certain size needing to provide crèches. It’s no magic wand, but with a little luck, chances at a successful career will be less of an issue when deciding on motherhood in the coming years.
The more nuance added to the conversation about choice, the less easy it is to decide. Mothers no longer look at having children as losing their identities as much as taking on an additional one. Many find the process physically wondrous and parenting an empowering, learning, emotionally enriching experience. Women who choose not to breed find their ambitions to travel, create, invent, earn are joyously fulfilled and they are able to develop deep, fulfilling relationships with younger relatives or the children of friends.
Motherhood impacts women’s bodies, the make-up of their brains and bank balances. Being child-free offers obvious freedoms, but perhaps some hidden insecurities. To choose one is to leave the other behind. Author Cheryl Strayed calls this ‘The ghost ship that didn’t carry us’. ‘I’ll never know and neither will you, the life you didn’t choose. We’ll know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours.’
Perhaps one way to approach the choice is to work backwards from it. Not imagine the dreariness of early parenthood or the panic at the biological clock or the business empire you will create…but to foresee an old age with adult children present or not.
Writer Ursula K. Le Guin says, ‘The fact is, creative work has replaced having a family for some women. That’s fine. Having a family has replaced creative work for other women. That’s fine. Then there are some of us who really need to do both and are perfectly capable of doing both. Your energies are spread thin and strained. You are living an extremely rich life at the same time. And this is going to enrich your work, inevitably, I think. It may not seem so at the time, but…babies don’t stay babies for very long, whereas writers live for decades. You do outlive your babies.’
For those of you on the fence, the book All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior is recommended reading as its no-holds-barred analysis of what being a parent does to your marriage, job, sense of self, friendships, the nitty-gritty of your quotidian life. Using history, psychology, economics, philosophy and personal stories, she exhaustively covers parenthood from the baby years to the late teens. She presents having children as ridiculously exhausting and supremely satisfying.
But it’s quite clear it’s not for everyone.