Indian women who are choosing to be child-free

Anjana Anjana Kumar says motherhood is "overrated"

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An increasing number of Indian women are choosing not to have children in a country where motherhood is revered, reports BBC Hindi's Divya Arya.

Anjana Kumar has been married for more than nine years years now and does not have a child.

But that hasn't deterred her parents from giving her traditional herbs "to help her conceive" because they still cannot believe her decision to remain childless.

Ms Kumar, 37, does not feel that the absence of a child has made her an incomplete woman.

"Frankly, I think motherhood is overrated. It may be joyous, but it's also a big long-term responsibility that I could never prepare myself for," she says.

Ms Kumar is among a growing number of women who are choosing not to have children in the world's second most populous country where motherhood is glorified in society, literature and films.

An Indian scholar once wrote that the "apotheosis of motherhood has reached a greater height in India than anywhere else".

Opting out is not easy for women in a country which, in 2011, had a total fertility rate of 2.5, only slightly higher than the replacement rate. It is also a country where more than 200 mothers also die out of every 100,000 live births ever year, and an infant accounts for every sixth death.

'Barren woman?'

Leading feminist-writer Urvashi Butalia, who is single, examined the dilemma of an Indian woman who opts out of motherhood in a searing essay earlier this year.

"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."

Preet Preet Rustagi says she opted out of motherhood because her schedules left her with little time to look after a child

But as Anurag Bishnoi, who runs a fertility clinic in northern India, says, "women earn respect in India by fulfilling two responsibilities - bearing children and feeding the family".

He says there has been a 30-40% increase in couples aged above 45 seeking fertility treatment at his clinic since it began in 2000.

"The desire to have one's own child is paramount and overrides everything else despite the high risks associated with late births induced through fertility treatment," he says.

So how do women like Anjana Kumar create space for themselves in a society which values motherhood so much?

She was born and brought up in a small city in the eastern state of Jharkhand. But studying and working in the cosmopolitan Indian capital, Delhi, changed everything.

"Now I am in charge of my life. I live it on my terms, and that doesn't include motherhood. And I know the decision to become a mother will change a lot of things," she says.

"I will have to quit my job, will have to curtail my travel and will probably have very little time for myself."

But such utterances can often invite ridicule and she is often described as "irresponsible".

'Judgemental'

"People get so judgmental. I take care of my parents, my career and my house. Whenever there is a crisis, I don't turn to my brother, I behave like an equal and figure things out myself. So, how can I be called irresponsible only for not wanting a child's responsibility?" she asks.

Preet Rustagi, a Delhi-based researcher with the Institute of Human Development, believes that she is being a "very responsible" woman by opting out of motherhood.

"People don't think before deciding to have children, about the kind of childhood they can provide, about how much time they can spend with the child, increasingly they just rely on helpers and maid servants to bring up their children."

Ms Rustagi, 46, says she and her economist husband were never in a situation to give a fulfilling childhood to their child, and hence decided to not have one.

"We didn't want the child to be lonely. And it wasn't like we were completely bereft of the joy of parenting. A lot of our friends are working couples like us and their children have lived with us enough for us to have a special bond with them."

Janaki Abraham with her child Janaki Abraham adopted a two-year-old girl after eight years of marriage

Janaki Abraham, 47, married eight years ago and decided to not have a biological child. In August, she adopted a two-year-old baby girl.

A teacher of sociology at Delhi University, she says not having a biological child was a conscious decision.

"I never wanted a gun to my head in terms of missing the biological age for having a child. I wanted to have the choice to wait till I felt confident financially and professionally to raise a child."

Ms Abraham says she really likes the idea of giving a home to children who are orphaned.

"Even when I was single, I wanted to adopt, I never wanted to experience motherhood in terms of giving birth but always looked forward to the idea of watching a child grow."

'Happy with choice'

Amrita Nandy, an academic researching motherhood and choice, believes that girls in India are brought up to look up to marriage and motherhood as the big inevitable goal in life.

"Most women who decide to remain childless tend to be highly educated, urban, English-speaking professionals," she says.

Over the last three years, she has interviewed more than 50 women in Delhi who have opted out of the motherhood, and met many more.

"Traditionally, motherhood is considered to be the most fulfilling aspect of a woman's life, but class and education opens up horizons for women to see that there are many more ways of finding meaning and purpose in life."

Ms Nandy said that most women she spoke to had faced some sort of stigma or barbed comments from friends, family and acquaintances for their decision.

But the fact that they had been able to exercise that choice was because some support existed in their immediate social circle.

"Interestingly, all the women I met were happy with the choice they had made."

"They look back and tell me that their lives are more enriched, dynamic and fulfilling and that given a second chance, they will not live them any other way."

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