I was once at an office get-together. We were celebrating a professional milestone our team had achieved after months of hard work, and weeks of sleepless nights. People were coming up to each other, commending everyone on their contribution. The bosses were making speeches about team members who went above and beyond. The stress of the previous days had given way to jokes about all the differences and altercations that seemed silly in hindsight. Apologies were offered, and forgiveness freely flowed.
A speech had just been made appreciating my work. The husband was giving me proud looks from across the room. I was riding a high and nothing could bring me down.
Aunty-lady was the wife of one of my senior colleagues. She gestured me over to go and sit with her. She is a career woman herself, and I bounced over to her, expecting another shower of pride and praise on my well-deserving self.
But, here is how the conversation went instead:
Aunty-Lady: Mahima, I have been meaning to talk to you all evening.
Me: I am sorry, I was talking with the team. Please tell me now.
AL: All this work you are doing, all this stuff everyone is appreciating… ye sab toh hota rahega. Tum ye batao, ke baccha karne ka kya plan hai? (All this will go on. You tell me - what are your baby-making plans?)
Me: (awkward fixed smile)
AL: No no, don't try to avoid this. You don't understand. Once you have a baby, all this will not matter anymore. That is what you need to focus on.
Me: Oh, I think the boss is calling me. See you! (exit at the speed of light)
I will not lie. Aunty-Lady ruined my evening.
I spent the rest of the party seething because I was fairly certain that not one of my male colleagues was being accosted that night, and told to stop celebrating their professional success because ticktock-ticktock.
This was neither the first nor the last time someone had made me feel like - my personal or professional achievements notwithstanding - I was little more than a walking uterus. Procreation, apparently, was my ultimate purpose in life.
I didn’t give Aunty-Lady an answer because what she was asking was none of her business, to begin with.
But this week, I spoke to some brilliant women who have had the courage to look the Aunty-Ladies of the world (both male and female) in the eye, and squarely tell them to find someone else's evening to ruin.
A consistent resolve
Ever since Vasudha was a child, she knew she didn't want to have children. With age, her resolve only grew stronger.
"I wanted to focus instead on my career, travel across and explore the world, and work on my general well-being. And I didn't think I could do all that with a child in my life. My opinion has not changed in the last 20 years."
When she was dating, Vasudha specifically looked for a partner who shared her worldview on kids.
"I was lucky enough to meet my husband who has the exact same views as I do on this subject. My family - while not thrilled with it - has accepted this as my decision too. They know that it has been my opinion all my life and I have not once budged from it in years."
Vasudha thinks that the decision to have a child is not one that should be taken lightly.
"I think the romanticization of having children does not allow women to evaluate how life-changing having kids can be objectively. I am saying 'women', specifically, because in our society, women are expected to perform the role of the primary caregiver even in the most forward of families. So while a man's life also changes after having children, it is no comparison to how much a woman's life changes."
Vasudha recognizes that she is privileged to have the agency to make this decision and stick to it. But even her privilege and agency offer no protection against unsolicited advice.
"People keep coming to me and telling me, 'Oh, you would make such a good mother.' I tell them, 'If I am good at cooking, it doesn't mean I necessarily have to become a professional chef!' They say, 'You will miss out on a beautiful experience.' Well, I have a cat, and taking care of it fulfills all my maternal needs, without having to wake up at 5 am to cook its school lunch!"
Lazy, selfish, and (God forbid) career-minded women
Suchitra, unlike Vasudha, was not always sure of her stand on having children.
"Early in our marriage, my husband said that he is not very keen on having kids – but that if I really wanted them, he would be okay with it. So the decision was really left to me. I spent a few years agonizing over 'the biological clock'. But, the more I thought about it, the less appealing I found the idea.”
“My husband and I had two very full careers, we had the freedom to do what we wanted when we wanted, without having to be think about the responsibility of caring for another human being. I just didn't feel the need for kids! My marriage, my career, my interests, travelling, friends, socialising - all kept me occupied and satisfied. I didn't see why any of that had to change. It was a big relief when I finally decided that I don't want children either. It has been 8 years, and we have not yet regretted this decision for even a day."
Suchitra's parents were shocked when they heard the couple's decision.
"They couldn't come to accept it. They thought we will change our minds and my mom kept pushing for a couple of years. But once they realised we were really sure of our decision, they stopped asking. My in-laws were also shocked initially, but I honestly don’t know how disappointed they were because they never told me anything directly. They are really sweet to me, and my equation with them hasn't changed because of this. Fortunately, now it’s a forgotten topic with both sets of parents."
The world keeps passing free commentary, of course. Here are some winning comments Suchitra gets:
“You are just lazy”: That’s true. We did want to escape the responsibility and have a chilled out life.
“You are just selfish”: Also true. I am prioritising my own happiness over what my parents / in laws wanted, and if that makes me selfish, then yes, I am selfish and I’m fine with it.
“Don’t you get bored of the same old life? Don’t you miss something in your life?”: Not at all. I really like spending time with my husband!
“You both are so smart and sorted in life. People like you need to have kids”: I don’t think our kid would have discovered the cure for cancer. Humanity will survive without our genetic contribution.
“Do you have some sort of biological problems? Did you have miscarriages?”: I have no idea, we never tried.
“You just want to prioritise your career over kids”: This is the one I hate the most. – as if a woman prioritising her career is such a terrible crime against humanity! I am the only one who gets this comment - never my husband! I also get the lazy/selfish comments a lot more than he does.
“You will change your mind”: If I do, you will be the first to know.
“A robust womb”
Shruthi had a difficult childhood, and it has deeply shaped her worldview, including her decision about having kids.
"My parents, frankly, should not have had children to begin with. They had four daughters - I was the youngest. I once came across my mother's medical records that showed that she had had two abortions after my three sisters were born because they wanted a son and the fetuses were female. I am pretty sure they would have aborted me too. But the doctor lied to them that I was a boy because he knew that my mother's body would not be able to handle another abortion. And so, my birth was an unpleasant surprise to my parents."
If the beginning was rocky, Shruthi's childhood only got more traumatizing from there.
"I grew up surrounded by a lot of tension and emotionally immature behaviour by my parents. If I misbehaved, they would say that they will send me to a childless Aunt's place, saying she wanted to adopt me. They thought it was a great joke, but I lived in genuine fear that they would really leave me somewhere. They fought constantly. Often, it felt like I was the parent managing their emotions, rather than the other way around. I understood their conflicts from a very young age - almost when I was still a toddler. Most parents underestimate how much a child understands, and how she or he can get scarred by irresponsible parenting."
Her childhood taught Shruthi not to take the decision of having children lightly.
"I carry a lot of emotional damage from my childhood and I am still struggling with it to this age. I am sufficiently damaged myself - I don't want to bring a child into this world and foist my damage on them too."
Shruthi also has good genetic reasons for not wanting to bring new life into the world.
"I have suffered from rheumatoid arthritis almost my entire life, and it is a condition that makes my quality of life quite miserable. There is also a history of mental health conditions on my father's side. So, genetically speaking, there are really no assets for me to pass along to a child."
And then there is the reason she should not have to justify to anyone - she just doesn't like kids.
"I work in the education sector but I focus on adult education and skill-building because I just cannot relate to children. I am very clear on this. I have tried it and I definitely don't enjoy being around kids. I would not make the kind of parent a child needs."
Shruthi was in a relationship with a man for 10 years before they decided to get married.
"Within a year, I realized that this was not someone I wanted to stay married to. His family expected me to constantly minimize myself in order to be subservient to my husband. They expected me to pick up his dirty dishes after him. When I realized the person my husband truly was, it made me double down on my resolve to not have kids."
"My in-laws were obviously not happy with this. In fact, they tried to pay me to have their grandkids! When that happened, I realized that not only could I not bring a child into this marriage, I could not even be in it myself. It was clear that I was just a child-bearing vessel to them, and not a real person at all. I packed whatever I could in a car and just drove away. I never looked back."
Since she closed the chapter of kids in her mind, Shruthi has had some 'well-meaning' rank strangers try to talk her out of it.
"I went for an annual full body checkup recently, which included an ultrasound. The ultrasound technician started asking me questions about my marital status, if I had kids, etc. I have worked in healthcare before and I told him I know that patients are not required to answer such irrelevant and personal questions.
He responded, "I only ask because you are exceptionally healthy. So you can have children. You must, in fact."
I asked him, "Why do you say that?"
He said, "You have a robust womb. Why would you waste it?"
You are supposed to have a full bladder for an ultrasound and it took all of my willpower not to burst out laughing and pee myself when he said this!
This exchange reminded Shruthi of another one from a few years ago.
“I met this Yoga guru at a healthcare institution I went to. He asked me my age, and I told him (I was 35 at the time).
He said, "You don't worry, madam! I will make your womb so strong, you will have many many children!"
“These are two of the most hilarious things that anyone has ever said to me. I still get tears laughing every time I think about these men who gave me such sage advice after knowing me for all of 3 minutes each.”
Advice for women/couples considering having kids
Shruthi says that the obsession with having kids needs to be taken a hard long look at.
"People like my former in-laws are obsessed with 'continuing the blood line'. I think people should really sit down and objectively question what is so glorious about their bloodline that the world needs more of it!"
Vasudha's advice to women who are not sure they want kids to stand their ground.
"Even the biggest decisions - like getting married or buying a house - are reversible with some cost. But having kids is an irreversible life-altering decision. It is a lifelong responsibility and commitment and you should not get into it if you don't feel ready for it."
Suchitra says that your attitude is a critical part of your own empowerment.
"Financial independence is a necessary but not sufficient condition to live your life the way you want to – you also need the attitude to not be bothered by “log kya kahenge” (what will people say?). I know too many women who are well-educated and earning very well, but are still bound by the shackles of what their husband, parents, in-laws, and society will think.”
“Be a spokesperson for yourself – if you don’t speak up for what you want, who will?"
Suchitra says she has seen too many women directly jump to questions like 'How will I manage career and children?' or 'When is the best time to have kids?' before understanding 'IF' they really want kids.
"Dig deep and answer that first. We don't need an extra set of hands to plough the fields anymore. We plan for our retirement and don't need kids to provide 'budhape ka sahara' (support for old age). There are really no practical reasons these days to have kids. So the only reasons to have them should be emotional.
'Why kids?' needs a lot more thought than 'why not kids?'. Most importantly, this is a decision that has only two stakeholders – you and your spouse. That’s it. No one else has a say. Not parents, not in laws, not relatives, and definitely not society."
Ultimately, we bring children into the world without their consent. So, it is every child's birthright to be truly, deeply wanted by their parents.
Questioning if you truly want a child, recognizing it if you don't, and honouring a child's right to not be born unwanted - are some of the best parenting decisions people make out there.
If you think about it like that, some of the best parents in the world are the parents that aren’t.
Aunty Ladies notwithstanding.
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