(PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION BY RANDAL FORD FOR TIME)
Every now and then, magazines like Time throw in a cover story that aims to capture fringe trends that are fast becoming mainstream.
This week’s story on Americans and childfree-ness is one such. Childfree forums and concerns are not new to the internet, but the TIME doing a cover story makes it a ‘legitimate’ trend,so to speak.
The cover shows a totally model-like couple with smug expressions, who claim, as the byline says provocatively, ‘ When having it all means not having children.’
Husband grinned when he saw the picture on the cover. ” Is that couple supposed to represent us?” he asked sarcastically.” Fuck, they look as fake as those pictures of saccharine families around the dinner table”.
He is right of course. We are childfree by choice and so are virtually 90% of our friends. But none of us can claim to ‘have it all’ just because we don’t have kids. Same goes for people who choose to have kids.
All of us,kids or not, have our usual troubles. Jobs, family, stress, money, health, meaning of life- all the urban worries that plague the modern urban person.
However, the very fact that most of our socialization happens with similar couples/ singles who don’t have kids says volumes about how profoundly life-changing having/ not having kids is in our society. Virtually all our best friends are childfree .I am talking about people in the creative/content side of media, which is perhaps the most socially/ economically flexible set in India. Even here, having kids or not having kids profoundly affects your life plans or orientation.
Even in our bubble like slice of life, I have seen how people drift apart depending on the kids in their lives. This is largely because of the different priorities people have depending on kids. Finances, attitudes, daily lifestyle, aspirations become quite different as you become/ not become a parent.
In India, in certain set at least, people are available to care for young kids and the burden is less on young mothers compared to those in the west. So it is not always the sheer ‘need’ of childcare that changes the pattern. But the priorities, which for parents, are usually kids, that moulds the life so to speak.
Parents naturally socialize with other parents, prioritize kids education when it comes to their decision to stay in a particular locality or job, go to holidays that their kids can enjoy, spend the time and energy on moulding the young child, plan financially keeping kids in mind.
The childfree tend to, in my experience, lead more flexible and footloosish lives, compared to parents.
No choice exists in vacuum. In Indian society having kids is defacto and voluntarily not having kids is so exceptional ( except in small bubbles like media, where childfree are almost equal in number), that there is very little mainstream discussion about it ( except stray articles like this or this ) . Unlike in American media, where every lifestyle choice has a name and an acronym ( GINK means ‘green inclination no kids’, for example!! By god one has to give it to the Americans!!), in India the term child-free is virtually unknown. Our entire social structure and notion of family is built around having kids. Most of our non-Indian friends/ colleagues are impressed by the sheer childfriendliness of our society. Majority of the people’s lives are structured around their kids. So not having kids becomes a matter of choice while having kids is more or less given.
But it has been my observation that the number of childfree are on the rise and the raised eye brows have been replaced by understanding smiles in the recent years. My small town extended family, for example, completely accepts our decision not to have kids. Our parents would have been happier with grandkids but they see that we don’t want kids and have accepted our choice more or less happily.
Because there are so few Indian people who decide not to have kids , and so many who decide to have some, there is no threat or concern for population or social change.
Most childfree come from a certain social / economic set that excuses their behaviour as ‘oh they are quite different/ western types’ by majority of the people.
Our society for centuries has gleefully championed values of duty and familial responsibility over all others, and since globalization, we have gone through major social changes that have challenged this tradition. I have observed that many people, with or without kids, find childfree life quite an extention of nuclear family and an interesting new trend, if not a social staple. It struck me with force during youth market researches I was involved in, where even small town youngsters ( especially girls) look at childfree ness as some sort of glamourous, ‘modern’ choice.
Most of my western european friends are amazed at the lack of friction between childfree and mainstream society in India. I think that because of awareness and exposure, ‘different’ lifestyles are still seen as ‘harmless curiosities’ and childfree-ness is one of them.
Of course, I am generalizing grossly, but I do have at least a decade of observation, market researches on youth and insider status as a childfree woman from small town to back some of these statements:)
In India, not having kids is sort of accepted as a fringe social trend and it will be decades before it becomes mainstream enough for magazines to write cover stories about it.
Coming back to TIME, Americans, much like the other advanced industrial nations, are having less number of kids and that one woman in five is in fact, choosing not to have kids at all. Virtually all advanced nations give attractive incentives to women to produce kids since birth rate is steadily plummeting. Economists worry that a skewed birth-death ratio would affect the future aging population. Conservatives bemoan the death of traditional values while some environmentalists declare that population growth is disastrous for earth.
Internet is strife with childfree forums/ blogs that range from genuine to rabid. Grave issues like ‘whether children should be allowed on planes’ to ‘ whether there should be child-free restaurants’ are discussed with passion. Most people on the forums say that they are not anti-kids, but are rather against:
1. Assumption that everyone has to have kids to lead fulfilling life and blames those who don’t as selfish.
2. hyper parents who force their ill-mannered offspring on society without care
3. Baby obsessed culture that pressurizes women to equate motherhood with womanhood
I do surf these sites once in a while and do agree with the spirit on the above points, but sometimes get amazed at the vitriol with which these points are sometimes made. Like any other ‘alternative’ choice, the child-free internetizens are quite vocal and aggressive. That is also understandable if the whole world is assuming that you are somewhat incomplete/ childish if you choose not to have kids. But I really think there are more well-behaved kids than unruly ones, that more parents try to control kids than not, that there are always going to be stupid judgemental people in life that are best ignored and that if one has made a choice that goes against the flow, one has to be confident about it. Calling mothers ‘moos’ and ‘breeding cows’ is as unfair as being called selfish and unfeminine for not wanting to be a mother. But then, there are all kinds of corners on net and I like to believe that they all add to the social dialogue ( not to mention provide hilarious entertainment.)
I think, at least for a few privileged people, it boils down to simple “Do you want kids in your life?” question. Some people do not want to have kids because they do not feel the need of having kids. Some people find kids limit their lives’ choices. Some people do not find enough time or energy or money to dedicate to kids.
We for example, have never felt that need or desire. We realised quite early on when we both were very young , that we are not ‘that’ fond of kids to change our lifestyle, nature and dreams, which would have been compromised with a kid. It is lucky that we both found each other because if one partner desires a child and one doesn’t, it becomes quite a bad compromise no matter what you decide to do. We both firmly believe that a kid is a big responsibility and kids should be given full care and love. We both get along quite well with kids, especially husband who works for one of the biggest kids’ brands in the world. But a child has never been even on a radar as far as our future is concerned. We do like the possibility that we are free to do anything without having to think about another human being. And these range from stupid irresponsible things to serious life-altering decisions.
I am not advocating any ‘lifestyle’ so to speak, but I do think that if people are not sure whether they want to be parents or not: it is better that they don’t become parents. One has no right to bring the child into life with unsure mind, seriously. And all that BS about ‘you will love your own child’, ‘you will adjust’, ‘so many people have kids and yours will also raise itself’ actually works against the very children it purports to advocate.
Of course, having kids is a rich and fulfilling experience. I am sure people who have kids get a glimpse into growing mind and life that is magical. I also think it gives people roots when they have kids and it is a beautiful feeling. If one wants that feeling and is ready to choose that , great. If one doesn’t, then we all should respect that choice.
There would always be judgements and marginalization, but hell, that comes with many choices, so be it.