“You are asking her if she wants to be in Labour or in labour?” remarked the participant on a television news show to the anchor. This was in reference to quizzing New Zealand’s newly-appointed Labour party leader Jacinda Arden on whether she wanted to have children.
Arden, who was also on the show, made the point about balancing a career with having children and how at 37, she was undecided, as she had every right to be. But the news dominated election season in New Zealand this month, with several opinions that found Arden unsuitable for office because she is child-free (the current NZ Prime Minister Bill English has six children).
Arden is just an example of how choice can be such a beast that whichever end of it you are on, you find the other side objectionable. Vegetarian or non-vegetarian, right or left wing, beef or no beef, automatic or manual, Federer or Nadal, children or no children… the debate is endless.
The choice not to have children may have something to do with a woman's or a man’s career, but not always. There are enough politicians with children and sufficient number without to end the argument that a career in public office is somehow dependent on parenthood. British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and India's Narendra Modi are some cases in point. While May and Gillard have been questioned about their choices, one of the advantages this has given Modi is he is free of nepotism charges, which is a problem with the main opposition party, the Congress.
Strangely enough, India is one of those countries in which, culturally, there has been a lot of emphasis on marriage and then parenthood. We all have relatives or “well-wishers” who have questioned our choices with when, why, why not and so on. But fortunately, unlike in Arden’s case, prominent personalities have not really been cornered for these choices, though trolls may attack them for different reasons.
The disintegration of the joint family has helped too, as have larger cities in which it is far easier for the young, working couple to merge into the masses and therefore escape scrutiny. The question, therefore, is asked far less frequently than it used to be in another age, I feel.
I have often been lectured on the subject. “Do you have any issues?” random, concerned strangers would ask. Yes, the internet is very slow in this coffee shop and that’s an issue, I would say facetiously.
“Any problems?” another would ask gently, rolling his eyes enquiringly southwards.
“So, when’s the good news?” is also a common one (didn’t you hear? India beat Sri Lanka in a Test series just last week… that’s good news, no?). The good news actually is that the more grey hair you get, the less frequent the questions become.
Having children is seen as a natural progression in life, particularly after marriage. Children carry forward the family legacy and name; it’s our supposed duty as human beings and there is a perceived biological necessity to it.
Children are our crutches in our old age, making sure we learn how to use WhatsApp or book tickets online or whatever may be the technological challenge of the time. They would help us eat, move and interact with the world when our mind and body are unable to do so themselves.
They would bring joy to our lives as babies and give us something to look forward to every day when we return home from work. We can teach and learn from them. They would take us to the hospital when the heart finally gives up and spoon-feed us soup when the mind falters.
I have, obviously, received enough sermons about not having children too. The arguments range from how they would impinge on our freedom, give us sleepless nights—with their crying, their homework, etc. They would force us to constantly battle with finances, responsibilities, PTA meetings, decisions (IB or ICSE or CBSE?) and organizing Frozen-themed birthday parties.
Many argue that children are not as dependable in old age as assumed. Several go “rogue”, “they will not look back at you once the wife comes in”, “nobody has time to care for another” and other Baghban-inspired examples. The most recent instance I have been given is of this Indian living in the US who returned home to Mumbai to find his mother dead and her body decomposed. They had not spoken to each other in a year.
Detractors are usually the ones who end up next to the cranky baby on a 14-hour flight and have another reason to dislike them. There are already 7 billion people on the planet, fighting for limited resources; why add more? The world’s population, I believe, has doubled in the years that I have been alive. Several others dislike the idea of their clothes constantly smelling of snot and poop.
Studies show there are an increasing number of people who are now deciding not to have children (birth rates among women in their 20s declined by 15% between 2007 and 2012 in the US, according to an American study). India seems to have seen similar trends.
In many rich countries, between 15% and 20% of women, and a slightly higher proportion of men, will not have children, The Economist reported. It says that as people get richer, they have fewer children and Indians are getting richer.
Some of it has to do with late marriages, careers, cost of living or simply the freedom of choice.
India has had a long-standing family planning programme which, though it does not discourage having children, encourages restricting the numbers. An exception has been the Jiyo Parsi campaign (supported by the government), started to arrest the decline in the Parsi population. It has come up with many advertisements to both embarrass and taunt single (and therefore child-free) people.
The series of classist and elitist ads includes one that says: “After your parents, you’ll inherit the family home. After you, your servant will.” Another one that encourages a second child says, “The most amazing gift you can ever give your child. A sibling… Having only one child is like a job that’s half done.”
This campaign remains an exception, though, to a choice to be child-free, which is increasingly accepted in modern, urban India.
In the unlikely scenario that you are attacked in the future for being child-free, like Arden, and haven’t yet developed a thick enough skin to repel the barbs, use the same Economist article quoted above for inspiration. “Childfree families are more likely to give to charity,” it says. “They are more likely to set up charitable foundations than people with children, and much more likely to bequeath money to good causes… The childless are thus a small but useful counterweight to the world’s parents, who perpetuate social immobility by passing on their social and economic advantages to their children.”
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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