NEW DELHI : For chefs Hanisha Singh and Jamsheed Bhote, October was a strenuous month. Their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Zoraya couldn’t go to playschool for over six weeks as Delhi’s air pollution levels hit the “hazardous" zone.

It had them rethinking the bigger decisions they’d made—like opening their new restaurant in one of the world’s most polluted cities. “We are contemplating whether we should stay here," Bhote said on a Sunday afternoon at their restaurant.

The couple’s worries are mirrored by many parents who are dealing with health-related issues and anxiety about their child’s safety. For urban millennials, bringing up children comes with a deep awareness of how their attitudes towards parenting will determine how the coming generations are raised.

Millennial parents are opting for alternative birthing plans, delaying childbirth till they have saved enough, relying on social media support groups to bring up their kids or deciding against having children even as they grapple with the enormity of the environmental hazards that will affect their offspring.

This is a big shift from two decades ago when having children was dictated by social mores and restricted by age. Dynamics within large families played a decisive role in the upbringing of the child. Women who married young took on the role of primary caregiver, while men had very little engagement in raising children. India’s urban millennials don’t necessarily subscribe to such rules anymore.

“Fewer millennials are getting married and fewer have children, but given the delays in choices, it’s hard to tell whether this is an outright rejection of marriage and childbirth or just slower progress to these life stages," said Anthony D’Souza, executive director, innovation, at market research firm Ipsos India. This reflects an “underlying theme of greater diversity of choices and circumstances among the cohort".

D’Souza’s views corroborate official data, which shows Indians marrying later. The average marriage age in India has increased. Between 1980 and 2010 the mean age of marriage for Indian men moved from 23.4 to 24.9 years; for women, it shifted from 18.7 to 20.6 years.

India is home to the world’s largest population of millennials—over 400 million—making them an important demographic in Asia’s third-largest economy. In some cities, people are postponing marriage to pursue higher education. Some choose to stay single as attitudes towards companionship and parenting undergo a remarkable shift.

Gurugram-based Khyati Gupta Babbar, 33, decided to wait till 30 before having her first child. “My husband and I lived in Mumbai for four years before moving back and starting a family," said the learning and development professional who has a 13-month-old daughter.

She said that family pressure did build as she neared 30, but she wanted to travel, spend time with her husband and “live it up" before having a child. She and her husband also planned their finances before deciding to start a family.

Diya Pinto, a 30-year-old graphic designer who lives in Bengaluru, is exploring alternative methods of teaching and wants her child to be exposed to outdoor activities and understand conscious living early on. “We want nature to have a strong role in her schooling," said Pinto. The couple is considering sending their daughter to Green School in Bali, which advocates education in a natural environment with a “purpose-driven curriculum".

Pinto has pledged against allowing her child any screen time. “It’s hard but we’re sticking to it," said Pinto, who is mother to one-year-old Ila Thurm. “We don’t have a TV, and insist on walks or give her handmade toys to play with." Many parents struggle to strike a balance when it comes to the use of devices and the internet.

DADS PITCH IN

Over the last three years, India has liberalized laws around maternity benefits to encourage more women to pursue careers in a country where female labour force participation remains low. Companies are extending small benefits such as paternity leave to encourage men to actively participate in raising children, although more needs to be done.

Pinto feels that compared to a generation ago, fathers today are more involved. Pinto’s husband, who works for a startup in Bengaluru, pushed for three months of maternity leave when their daughter was born.

Babbar said household duties are split so that she and her husband spend time with the child. “In terms of responsibilities, we share equally," she said.

While Singh and Pinto are finding their path as parents, others such as Nitika Rana, 32, who runs a marketing consultancy firm, has decided against having children. It’s a decision she and her partner took before they married in 2017.

“With access to water and air becoming an issue, climate change, the rise of the right-wing, we weren’t sure if giving birth to a child was morally right," said Rana. She has other concerns too—expensive education, which she says is a financial commitment she is unprepared for right now. “My husband and I were fortunate to get a good education and have decent careers, but we think we would struggle to provide the absolute best for our child. We can’t afford the top schools and haven’t been able to reach a consensus on homeschooling," she said.

Earlier this year, in a YouTube clip that went viral, 27-year-old Raphael Samuel expressed his desire to sue his parents for bringing him to the world against his consent. Samuel’s video triggered more conversations around consent and being child-free, and mobilized groups of individuals who identify as anti-natalists or those who consider procreation unethical and irresponsible. This is a concept popularized by David Benatar’s 2006 book Better To Have Never Been: The Harm Of Coming into Existence.

Alok Kumar, 30, who lives in Delhi, identifies himself as an anti-natalist. He recently joined Bengaluru-based group Childfree India, which advocates the idea of not begetting children. He said he’s always been against the idea of childbirth: “Suffering is a part of life, so why bring someone into the world and make them suffer?"

Arunish Paul, 25, who co-founded the Pune chapter of Childfree India, says the worsening climate crisis was seminal to his decision against having children. Environmental change aside, the popularity of social media is causing more isolation and alienation in the world, he said.

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