In my early 30‘s, shortly after I'd terminated a pregnancy, I had a conversation with my mother about the choice I'd made not to have children at all. I thought she would be proud that I had chosen to follow my values and not bringing more children into an already overpopulated world. Instead, her angry and ferocious response came as a complete shock to me. “You don't understand,” she screamed. “If you don't have children, you can never be a whole woman!”
I couldn't believe that my mother, a strong, courageous woman, who had held a job and raised four children on her own, was being a proponent of the same patriarchal sexist culture, which had turned its back on her so many years before. What had happened to encouraging education and freedom of choice in how I wanted to live my life?
Like most of my friends, I'd spent my late teens dreaming of a white knight galloping into my life to whisk me away on his horse to his castle where we would make babies and live happily ever after. As I grew older however, and with the benefit of education and access to information about the context of a wider world, I questioned more and more this ingrained assumption that to have children was my birthright. Leaving aside the current raging debate in America about pro-life versus pro-choice (whether aborting a foetus is the same as killing a human being), the question for me was about what values did I want to live by and what I was going to do with the life I had been given to live?
As friends became couples, then married and had their own children, I've noticed that not only are we increasingly becoming a society with an unhealthy focus on protecting and molly-coddling children, but the very topic of being able to ask my friends why they wanted to have children in the first place has become taboo. I have had years of comments thrown at me for not having children. For example: “Is it because you lost your father when you were so young?” or “Do you know you're running out of (biological) time?” or “What a shame, your children would be so fair and beautiful…” (the idea that I would have children purely on the basis that my husband happens to be a white-European and thus our children would be light-skinned, is one of the more ludicrous heights of Hindu cultural aspiration!), or my mother's favourite, still, even though I am now in my 40‘s, “Why don't you just have one?” Mostly though, people assume that I simply haven't seen the “light of parenthood” yet.
I've met people who've said that they just never had the desire to be parents. From my perspective, having children has never been a black and white issue. I have had periods in my life where I've felt profoundly conflicted between motherhood and upholding my values (we definitely do not need more Indians, fair-skinned or not, on a planet that does not have the resources to support our ever-increasing population —see my previous blog on sustainability). I even embarked along the adoption route when I thought that being part of a family necessitated raising children. The simple fact is that, in spite of the doubts and confusion, which sometimes still surface in my mind, I made a deliberate and conscious choice not to have children.
A recent study by the Office of National Statistics revealed that 1 in 5 women of my generation (born around 1965) do not have children. This 20% is double the percentage from the previous generation. We are defined as ‘childless,’ as though something is lacking or abnormal. I do not hate children (I have been one myself), nor do I negate that parenthood can be a rewarding and valuable experience. There are many reasons why women/couples do not have children, including male infertility, not being able to conceive, not being in a stable/healthy relationship, stressful modern living, and so on. Yet, because I do not have children, my views about parenthood are disregarded, particularly by other parents. I am not allowed to express my bewilderment at the dozens of teenage parents I see wheeling prams down the high street, deluding themselves into thinking that having babies will fill the void of emptiness and uncertainty about what to do with their lives.
The medical profession in the UK offers a plethora of fertility treatments: hormonal drugs to force ovulation, intrauterine insemination, in-vitro fertilisation, gamete intrafallopian transfer, intracytoplasmic sperm injection, egg/sperm donation, and embryo donation. In January, a Swedish research study performed 9 womb transplants (the donors were mainly the mothers of the women undergoing the transplant), with the aim that the receivers would carry and give birth to their own children in the future and then have the womb removed again. A whole womb! Just 20 years ago, this would have seemed like science fiction. Does the advancement of medical science really come down to “we will do it because we can and want to”? When do we stop to question the ethics of this path, of what we are doing to the nature of our bodies, just because a woman feels desperate to have a child? When will we, as individuals and as a society, accept that we will not feel any more or less secure in ourselves whether or not we have children, that not being able to have children does not make us less of a ‘whole’ person, and that the reality of life is that one day, we must die?
My mother told me that women in my culture (even in modern India), who for whatever reason are not able to have children, are completely ostracised from their communities, as though they might have a contagious disease. She was resigned to the fact that this was “just the way it was” —perhaps they were paying for their past bad karma? So these women not only carry the burden of “family dishonour,” but get no support as to how they can contribute to their community in other ways.
We must begin to have a very different sort of conversation, one that does not relegate men and women who do not have children to the margins of ‘normal’ society. The belief that to procreate is a birthright is a fallacy. The biological desire/instinct to procreate has been ingrained through countless generations as a way for our species to survive. The irony is that in order for our species to survive through the current evolution of our planet, we need to re-think our automatic instinct to procreate and instead re-educate ourselves towards sharing what resources, wealth, time, wisdom, we have left with those who are already here.