Updated: January 16, 2022 9:20:21 am
Early into the New Year, Pope Francis took a swipe at those who prefer to raise pets instead of children: “Today… we see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have a child. Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children.” To be fair, the Holy Father isn’t the first to lob the word “selfish” at the child-free. The S-word is the most-hurled epithet at those who choose not to have children, even when they are physically capable of birthing and/ or nurturing them. This is especially so if the person making that choice is a woman — because how can she deprive her partner of the joys of fatherhood and her parents and in-laws of the delights of grandparenthood? That the decision to be child-free, due to the complex burden of internalised social expectations, may weigh heavy on a woman even when she is convinced of her decision is, apparently, not deserving of sympathy.
It’s much easier for a woman these days to make that decision, though: she has greater financial — and, therefore, real — independence, there is little stigma attached to putting off marriage till later (but not to choosing to stay unmarried), she is recognised for achievements beyond the maternal, and it’s accepted that she will find meaning in things that have nothing to do with the raising of small humans (all of this, of course, only applies to women from the privileged sections of society).
And, yet, the motherhood question looms large, primarily because a child-free woman over a certain age remains an object of curiosity in our society. Everyone and their uncle thinks nothing of asking such a woman why she doesn’t have a child, the implication being that she would better have another almost-as-good justification for her existence. How many men have had to answer this question, one wonders (I suspect we can all make a reasonable guess).
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In fact, there are many reasons why women, including myself, decide — sooner or later — not to have kids. Yes, some of these reasons would traditionally be considered “selfish”: we value our independence and the ability to just up and leave when we want to, we don’t want to spend a good chunk of our hard-earned money on childcare for a minimum of 18 years, we don’t want to bear the awful pain of childbirth and the still greater pain of navigating a world that is simply not designed for women with children (can we talk about free childcare and creches at the office, liberal maternity benefits including legal protection from employers who prefer to lay off pregnant women than having to sanction maternity leave?).
Then there are the reasons that, because they are transmitted from the moral high ground, are deemed more acceptable: we’re already feeling the effects of a planet that is hurtling towards ecological disaster, so do we really want our childrent to suffer the very near future of regular heat and cold waves, forest fires and devastating floods?
Or, coming at the same climate and environmental anxiety from a different angle — having a child adds massively to one’s carbon footprint, so isn’t it a bad idea to have one? And a new one: The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that we could be just one pathogen away from annihilation — is that the kind of world into which we want to bring children?
Personally, though, I believe women shouldn’t even attempt to explain. What we choose to do with our bodies, our time and our resources is nobody’s business but our own. In this, I take as my model the central character in Herman Melville’s story Bartleby, the Scrivener, and tell anyone who asks, “I would prefer not to”.
National Editor Shalini Langer curates the ‘She Said’ column
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