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Urvashi Butalia | Childless, naturally

Reflections on not being a mother
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First Published: Mon, Mar 25 2013. 08 30 PM IST
Urvashi Butalia has been at the forefront of the feminist movement in India for many years. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.
Urvashi Butalia has been at the forefront of the feminist movement in India for many years. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.
Updated: Tue, Mar 26 2013. 08 01 PM IST
Urvashi Butalia has been at the forefront of the feminist movement in India for many years. This essay, which appears in the just published collection, Of Mothers And Others: Stories, Essays, Poems, edited by Jaishree Misra, is a meditation on her life as a single woman and her decision to not have children. The volume, as a whole, offers alternative views to the conventional images of motherhood. Issues of adoption, surrogacy, bereavement and abuse appear in poems, stories and essays by Manju Kapur, Jai Arjun Singh, Jahnavi Barua, Mridula Koshy, Kishwar Desai and Anita Roy, among others.
By Urvashi Butalia
It has been two years since the man I nearly married and I decided to part. On a balmy evening, the leaves stirring gently behind us, we sit in a restaurant talking. The heartbreak is over, the friendship intact. We talk about what we shared, why we decided to go our separate ways and then, he surprises me by saying: ‘You know the one thing I do regret is that we would have had such lovely children, and you, you’d have made a fantastic mother, you’re such a natural.’ A natural? Me? What has he based this judgment on, I wonder, and what does it mean? It’s true that I love children—I did then and I do now, indeed I only have to see one on the road walking with or being carried by a parent and I ‘naturally’ veer that way. But does that mean I had what it took to be a good mother? I’m not at all sure.
**********
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Of Mothers And Others—Stories, Essays, Poems: Edited by Jaishree Misra, Zubaan, 304 pages, Rs495.
Thirty years later. I am still single, I still love children. I’ve become familiar with the question: why have you never married? Don’t you feel you need a relationship? Are you not lonely? Don’t you want children? I’m not entirely sure I follow all the connections but the questions insert themselves into my head and I ask myself: do I want children? Am I missing something by not being a mother? Most friends I talked to actively want this, she wants to feel life growing within her, she wants to ‘give’ birth, she wants to be pregnant, to hold the child within her, to be able to give love unconditionally, to have someone to look after her (and her partner) in the future, to experience the joy of motherhood. I feel none of these things. Does that mean I am a cold fish? That I have no feelings? Am I fooling myself when I say I feel no active desire to have children—am I saying this because, in truth, I want them, but I do not want to seem lacking in any way so I imagine I don’t? It’s difficult to say. I’m constantly suspicious of myself though and worry: am I really the contented person I think I am or am I just pretending?
**********
My friend’s statement stays with me. It comes back to haunt me time and again. Am I such a natural? Then why is the desire for motherhood not growing inside me actively?
I think back to my friends who talk about being able to love unconditionally. I think, well, this is not something I am unfamiliar with—why do people assume such feelings then are only meant for children? My friends have children, talk of sleepless nights, of irresponsible husbands, unhelpful siblings, of school admissions, of careers given up, of grades and universities: I hear this all the time. And I hear the throwaway remark: ‘Well, how would you know? You’ve never been a mother.’
**********
I’ve just got my first job. It’s in a publishing house: my father goes to the general manager, a genial Bengali, and tells him that he had better look after his daughter. The general manager tells me this is the first time they have employed a woman in an executive position: normally they do not like to do this because women go off and get married and have children. He makes it sound like a crime. I promise him I will not do this. I keep my promise. Long after I leave my job. No marriage, no children.
**********
My mother and I are talking. I worry for you, she tells me, what will you do when you grow old? Everyone needs someone. If you don’t want to marry, why don’t you just adopt a child? But is that a good reason for adopting a child, I ask her, to have someone around when you grow old? And what’s the guarantee anyway? No, no, she quickly switches tack. That’s not why I think you should adopt. But just think what wonderful grandparents this potential child is missing out on! Good enough reason for adopting, don’t you think? I take her seriously. Perhaps she knows more than I do, I tell myself, and I start to search out adoption possibilities. For a while, I am quite excited by the change in my life that this promises, but in the end, I do not have the courage, or the motivation. I give up.
**********
I’ve set up my own publishing house, publishing books by and about women. I am fiercely passionate about this, it’s what gives me joy, it’s what involves me, I know this is what I want to do all my life. I want somehow to make a dent in the way the world sees women, to be part of that change. Is this madness, this obsession? Why didn’t I feel this way about children? Or am I just deflecting an unfulfilled desire? I’m told motherhood is a woman’s destiny, it’s what completes her. So what’s all this about publishing? But I don’t feel incomplete, or that I have missed my destiny. Is there something wrong with me?
**********
My friend Judith has been trying to have a child for many years. She’s deeply depressed, the relationship with her husband is becoming more and more tense. She’s gone through many miscarriages, they’re both desperate for children, but they can’t seem to have them. She and I talk one day, standing in the dark near a lamp post in a cold European town. Why don’t you adopt, I ask her? How can I, she says, I’m not at all sure how I will feel towards the child if she is not mine. But she will be yours, I assure her. She may not be born of your body but she will be yours. We talk. I am passionate about the joys of adoption, the importance of it, the fact that ‘naturalness’ means nothing in motherhood. Once home in India, I write her a long letter, persuasive, eloquent. She tells me that went a long way in making her decide. Today she has two lovely daughters, sisters, adopted from the same country, and she’s a best-selling author of a book on motherhood. Why was I so persuasive? I don’t really know.
**********
I’m with my friend Mona Ahmed, a hijra, at her home in Delhi’s Mehendiyan, an area with two mosques, a madrassa, two graveyards, a dhobi ghat and many houses. A man till the age of eighteen, and then castrated and now a woman after a sex-change operation, Mona tells me that she has always, always wanted to be a mother. I wanted to hold a child in my arms, to feel life against me, to learn motherhood, to bring the child up, she says. In her early seventies now, Mona fulfilled the desire to adopt a little over twenty years ago when a neighbour died in childbirth and her husband had no use for the daughter she had given birth to. Mona ‘created’ a family, herself as abbu, father, her hijra friend Neelam as ammi, mother, her guru Chaman as dadi, grandmother. The assigned roles though were a bit more mixed up. It was Mona who was the real mother; she was the one who nurtured Ayesha, gave her a name, a birth date, an identity. I chose the 26th of January as her birth date, she said, for I wanted that she be free like India. And I learnt how to be a mother, she adds, I went every day to the doctor, the pediatrician, and asked her to teach me how to feed the child, how to burp her, how to bathe, change, what to watch out for, how to develop antennae about when to wake up, and so on. Can motherhood then be learnt? Is this what there is to it? What about the ‘naturalness’ of it to women? What about someone like Mona—abbu, father, but actually mother.
**********
Mona’s daughter, Ayesha, comes to visit me. We talk about her life, a young girl, brought up in a hijra household, the father (Mona) actually her mother, the grandmother (Chaman) referred to as ‘he’ by everyone but Dadi, grandmother, to Ayesha. Can you imagine what it was like? she asks me. They gave me so much love, but a young girl growing up, she needs some things, she has questions to ask about her self, her body, who was I to ask? There was no other female, only these men/women, these people of indeterminate sexuality. I was so alone. Perhaps motherhood can’t be learnt after all.
**********
On a Thursday morning Bina, the daughter of the presswallah across the road, runs away. No one suspects anything till it’s afternoon. She’d gone to school to sit for an examination, perhaps she’s gone out with friends afterwards. But Bina is a ‘good’ girl, she does not go off without informing her parents, so as afternoon turns to evening they start to worry. Back at home in their community, they wonder whether to go to the police. They are afraid of scandal—suppose it is something innocent, the girl’s just gone off somewhere and fallen asleep, why make her disappearance public? But in the evening, they learn that a young boy, the son of a neighbour, is also missing. Suspicion begins to solidify into certainty. In the end, a report is filed. Two, three days later, both are discovered in a neighbouring town, and brought back home. They swear that they wandered away innocently—went for a walk to the zoo, then a film, then, frightened that the parents would be angry, they boarded a bus and went off to a relative’s house. Did you sleep with each other, the anxious parents ask in euphemisms, there is no straight way to ask youngsters if they have had sex, no real vocabulary. No, no is the vehement denial. The parents are relieved: they don’t stop to ask how the youngsters so quickly understand what it is they are asking.
A month later Bina is pregnant. Her mother and I take her to a nearby clinic. We try to tell the doctor that it was an accident, but Bina is quicker than us. No, she says, it wasn’t my first time with this man. We’re silent. Clearly she lied to her mother and to me. Her mother is devastated: I did so much for her, and this is how she pays me back? I understand her grief, but I wonder too—all that stuff about unconditional love, where did this notion of payback enter the picture? How do children pay back? Bina has her abortion, and remains persona non grata. The young man disappears from her life, and soon after marries someone else. Men’s peccadillos are easily tolerated.
Two years later, she runs away again. This time with a married man. His wife is unable to give him children, so he marries Bina, brings her into the household. She gives him two children, he is delirious. She’s now married, and a mother. Her parents are relieved and happy. Everything is settled. She’s a mother. No one will say anything now—besides her husband also has money. Legitimacy and wealth—a powerful combination. Later, she will finance her young brother to buy a car and begin a taxi service.
**********
My friend from overseas is visiting. We’re talking over dinner. It’s her son’s birthday, she does not know whether to call him or not, their relationship is difficult, tense. She’s no longer with his father, he resents her because he feels she does not give him enough time or attention, she worries that he has not yet found a job. She calls him. Happy birthday son, she says. They talk, with affection, and then, suddenly, without warning, there is anger, resentment, almost a kind of hatred. I knew it, he says, you always do this, you always want to make me feel small. She tries to explain, he will not listen, she’s devastated, but struggles to keep the conversation open. It ends badly. Am I a bad mother? she asks me. Is it wrong of me to want a career? I have done what I could for him, I love him, but surely it is time he took his life in his hands? What do you think I should do? I have no answer.
**********
I’m at home. My mother, ninety years old, is unwell. She’s becoming weaker by the day, she’s unable to eat, she has to be helped to the bathroom. One day, as I take her to the bathroom and help to clean her up, she asks me, how will I ever repay you for this? And I ask myself, and her, why should she even think this way? She’s spent the better part of her life being a mother not to one but four children, surely we owe her something? That old payback thing again. As she gets weaker, I find myself structuring my life around her needs: leaving the office to come home for lunch so she is not alone, putting her to bed in the evenings, staying with her, her hand in mine, till she is peacefully asleep, bathing her, cleaning her, feeding her, taking her for a walk, spending time with her… in other words, being a mother to her. One of my friends comments on this, you’ve become the mother. My women friends and I discuss this, we find that all of us are in similar situations, mothers to our mothers, becoming our mothers. Was this what was meant by it being natural?
**********
We’re trying to fix a meeting for an NGO that I am on the board of. There are six of us who need to meet and we’re juggling dates. One of us, a man, says a weekend is better for him as his young son is getting married and he will not be free earlier. The other one announces that she is about to become a grandmother, and suddenly people start trading stories about being mothers and grandmothers, offering each other stories of how wonderful it all is. I pitch in saying I don’t know about any of this, and am told, don’t worry, we’ll make you an honorary grandma, no worries if you don’t have children. How true, I think, I have no worries of that kind. I will never have to worry about which school to send my child to, or be forced to think of her percentages when it comes to entering college. Or deal with the deeper anxieties that all mothers must have to deal with.
**********
But relief isn’t all. There’s also concern. I’ve just seen a friend totally devastated at losing her young son. Barely twenty, he died in a freak accident, she is inconsolable, she feels a part of her has been torn away, wrenched out of her body almost. This too is part of motherhood, this deep, intense attachment, this terrible, devastating despair when you lose a child. Could I have coped with this had it happened to me? Useless to speculate, but a sort of fear settles around my heart for all the mothers who lose children—surely, I think, there can be no loss worse than this. There’s relief too, perhaps a selfish sort of relief, at being childless.
**********
But there’s also concern, a question. For years I have identified myself as a single woman. It’s important to me this definition: singleness is, for me, a positive state, one
that is not defined by a lack, by something missing, by a negative—as for example the word ‘unmarried’ is. But with this children business, we don’t even have the language to define a positive state. I mean, there is childlessness and there is childlessness. How often have we heard that a couple is childless, that a woman who cannot bear a child is defined as barren. Why should this be? I did not make a choice not to have children, but that’s how my life panned out. I don’t feel a sense of loss at this, my life has been fulfilling in so many other ways. Why should I have to define it in terms of a lack? Am I a barren woman? I can’t square this with what I know of myself.
**********
I recall one of the authors we’ve published, a domestic worker called Baby Halder. She had her first child when she was barely thirteen. A child herself, she became a mother before she had time to even think. At some point, Baby, reflecting on her childhood, commented on how ephemeral, how brief it was. One afternoon, exhausted from playing host to her sister’s suitors, Baby slumped against the wall of her home and reflected on her life. So brief was her childhood that she saw the entire history pass before her in a few moments. I licked every moment, she said, as her cow licks her calf, treasuring it. For so many of our young girls, despite laws that forbid it, motherhood comes even before they have stopped being children. Is this right? Why is this thing so valorized?
**********
Nothing is simple though. The newspapers have been full of the story of a Bengali couple in Norway—the Norwegian authorities have taken their two children away from them. If reports are to be believed, one of the children has something called ‘attachment disorder’—he starts banging his head against the wall when he sees his mother. The papers speak of a tense, conflicted, sometimes violent relationship between the mother and the child. Finally, the mother is deemed unfit to look after the children, and they are handed over to their uncle. Back at home in India, the whole thing acquires other dimensions altogether—politics and nationalism enter the picture. The issue seems to be how Norway can decide on what is right and what is not for our children. In Bengal, the Child Rights Committee decides to give custody back to the mother. None of the reports in the papers says anything about whether the mother is competent to look after the children or not, or indeed how the children are being affected by this constant backing and forthing.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, what concerns me is a different thing. On a membership-based email network called feministsindia, there is a general sense of relief that custody has been awarded to the mother. There seems to be an assumption that the mother is the ‘natural’ (back to that natural stuff again) guardian, the best person to look after the children. It’s not the rights and wrongs of this particular case that worry me—my knowledge of them is, after all, only based on newspaper reports.
What concerns me is this: as feminists, we’ve questioned everything about the ‘naturalness’ of motherhood but here we are, in a way almost unquestioningly accepting that naturalness, not even entertaining the notion that mothers can be violent, that they can be incapable of looking after their children, or even unwilling to do so. I wonder what is going on here—was the response of the Norwegian authorities a culturally insensitive one? Or was it that they believed, as often happens, only the father’s version? Were all media reports of the mother’s supposed violence towards her children then totally wrong? Or are we, as feminists, reaffirming the motherhood myth? Where does the truth lie? Is the relationship between a mother and a child always a wonderful one? I have no answer to these questions.
**********
So what do we have in the end? The ‘naturalness’ of motherhood? The ‘curse’ of childlessness? The dread of barrenness? A life filled with lack, with loss of what might have been? Or just another way of living? A choice, happenstance, circumstance, call it what you like, but for me, it’s a happy, contented, fulfilled life, despite—or perhaps because of—being what is called ‘childless’. For those of you who’ve doubted yourself about this, let me assure you, it’s a good place to be.
Urvashi Butalia co-founded India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, in 1984. She continues to publish and promote books for, on and about women in South Asia as the publisher of Zubaan. She has edited several collections, and is the author of The Other Side of Silence: Voices From the Partition of India.
Of Mothers And Others: Stories, Essays, Poems is available in book stores.
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First Published: Mon, Mar 25 2013. 08 30 PM IST
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