In many Indian homes, the intensely personal decision to have a child is not limited to the space between spouses, and certainly not to women alone. I often joke that discussing procreation and being inquisitive about people’s desire to further their progeny is a national pastime.
I’ve had distant relatives — people I don’t know well — feel no hesitation in checking up on my plans to start a family. But there’s more to it than relatives making polite conversation at family gatherings. Friends report being grilled about their reproductive choices at staff meetings, conference calls, job interviews, and even on first dates. There’s just no winning, even with a baby in tow — one-time mothers are often chided about not having a second child, while ones with daughters are pressured into having another in the hope that it will be a boy.
And yet, despite these forces, I was initially ambivalent about the prospect of motherhood. Culturally, it’s deeply ingrained as a crucial milestone of adulthood, so I believed that sooner or later I would “lean in” and accept it. But over time, this ambivalence turned to clarity that motherhood was not for me. For one, I never felt the pangs of maternal instincts that so many women speak of. Thankfully, the myth that all women want children has been busted. Also, I couldn’t think of a single aspect of my life that I wanted to off-load (even temporarily) to make room for a child. But most of all, I intuitively knew that motherhood just didn’t call out to me.
As an Indian woman, my decision to not have children meant facing a barrage of intrusive questions, fielding off unsolicited advice, and steeling myself from unwanted “treatments” and “fixes” — all offered to correct this “obvious flaw.” There is a common notion that motherhood “completes” a woman in a way nothing else can, and I felt lonely in my choice.
I was 31 when I stumbled upon Megan Daum’s anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids — a book of essays by a range of writers, men, and women of varied sexual orientation describing their decision to not have children. In this anthology, I found comfort, peace, and a sort of camaraderie that made me feel less isolated about eschewing motherhood.
At the same time, I found company in a tribe of Indian women who echoed my sentiment. They listened, without belittling or rushing to offer a solution to alter my thinking. Having faced their share of meddling questions and conjecture about their reproductive choices, I knew they’d appreciate the essays in Daum’s book as much as I did.
I set out to talk candidly with four friends about the book . . . and to gain insight into their own decisions to challenge motherhood — a concept inextricably linked with my culture’s ideal of the perfect woman.
“I don’t hate children. The children of family and friends are much loved and pampered by me,” my friend Chandni starts off. “Just because I don’t want my own, do not assume that I won’t be interested in activities involving children.”
Contrary to the most common assumption about choosing to not have children, I — like Chandni — do not hate children. Nor do I hate people who choose to have them. An inability to acknowledge the possibility that some of us are simply not excited by a life caring for little ones dismisses our agency to find purpose in places and activities outside of motherhood.
Roshni is 40 years old and an accomplished author. She tells me that motherhood didn’t particularly ever appeal to her. She finds the lives of those with kids stressful, burdened, and not enviable. But social conditioning runs deep, and she bore some guilt when having to acknowledge a future without motherhood.
On finding solace within Daum’s book, she says: “The book provided some useful reference points to help me begin letting go without feeling unnecessary guilt or attachment to ideas I had been holding on to as a consequence of social conditioning.”
We both agreed that Pam Houston exemplified this concept of self-determination in her essay, “The Trouble With Having It All,” in which she writes:
“What if I’ve always liked the looks of my own life much better than those of the ones I saw around me? . . . What if I have become sure that personal freedom is the thing I hold most dear?”
In this and other ways, the book does a fantastic job of plainly presenting the spectrum of reasons to choose a life without children. My friend Shilpa says it took her upwards of 30 years to really grow into herself as a person and become comfortable with her own body and in her own skin. As such, the idea of stepping into motherhood and inevitably unsettling that newfound comfort never appealed to her. Her favorite essay, “Mommy Fearest” by Anna Holmes, states:
“These days, as I enter my forties, I find that I am only now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as the others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no. Despite (or because of) my single status right now, becoming a mother would feel like a devolution as much as an evolution.”
The book also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that even the most self-assured women amongst us cannot sidestep the painful possibility of waking up to realize that, perhaps, we made the wrong choice. But as Jeanne Safer eloquently put it in one of the most relatable pieces for me, “Beyond Beyond Motherhood”:
“There is no life without regrets. Every important choice has its benefits and its deficits, whether or not people admit it or even recognize the fact: no mother has the radical, lifelong freedom that is essential for my happiness. I will never know the intimacy with, or have the impact on, a child that a mother has. Losses, including the loss of future possibilities, are inevitable in life; nobody has it all.”
I sometimes wonder if being selfish about what I want out of and for my life is really such a bad thing — especially when I consider the crucial fact that in most Indian families, childcare is shouldered almost entirely by women. Even the most hands-on father will never experience pregnancy, childbirth, recovery, or breastfeeding, leaving women to be primary caregivers.
In “Maternal Instincts,” Laura Kipnis debunks the idea that society favors parents. She posits:
“Until there’s a better social deal for women — not just fathers doing more child care but vastly more social resources directed at the situation, including teams of well-paid professionals on standby (not low-wage-earning women with their own children at home) — birthrates will certainly continue to plummet.”
My friend Nisha lives in Chicago; her immediate family lives across the world. The distance from this support system means she has to carefully consider everything that she will need to give up in order to transition to parenthood. “If it was easier to visualize a life with children, I bet more women would choose it. But without help from family or financial resources to hire people to take care of cleaning, babysitting, shopping . . . it’s definitely not an easy choice.”
Fortunately, increased dialogue around this means we’re also opening ourselves up to the idea that it’s okay to make this choice. Those who have chosen to not have children are finding common ground in circles of likeminded folks, often joining Facebook groups to share essays, books, and resources. In this way, we are engaging with others who, like us, acknowledge that parenthood and living a wholesome, meaningful life are not mutually exclusive.
I’m a willing and happy auntie not just through blood ties but through bonds of friendship of my choosing, and I have, at various points, contributed to and been a part of some milestones in parenthood along with my closest friends. Like Daum said in an interview:
“These essays have so many people talking about the ways that they do have relationships with kids, nieces or nephews or kids that they mentor. You’ve heard the cliché ‘it takes a village.’ There are so many ways of being a responsible villager.”
Accepting what is right for you, even if it means embracing an unpopular choice, requires conviction and courage in a society that has no trouble exerting its opinion on you at every turn. It means going against the grain and shunning motherhood even if it’s perceived as a weakness or selfishness.
I would love more well-meaning aunties to read Daum’s introduction: “It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption.”