Childlessness can be broadly classified into two types: Voluntary Childlessness and Involuntary Childlessness.
Whether voluntary or involuntary, people end up childless for many different reasons and they are very personal to them.
For the involuntarily childless, the reasons may vary from infertility, financial constraints, mental health problems, physical health problems (other than infertility), lack of resources (like proper medical care or supportive care), unwillingness of one partner, same sex partners to the agony of bearing still borns.
For the voluntarily childless, freedom acts as one driving factor though it is not the only limiting one in many cases. Spontaneous mobility, more time for self-fulfillment, a more laid-back lifestyle, environmental concerns, population growth and other societal concerns, freedom from childcare responsibilities, late marriages are some of the reasons that govern the decision to be voluntarily childless.
A couple of days back a friend called me up in exasperation after a telephonic conversation with her not-so-close father's friend after quite a gap. And the conversation went like this:
Father's friend (FF): Hello beta.. How are you? How's your father?
Friend (F): I'm good uncle. Father's not doing very well. Geriatric problems as you can understand...
FF: So beta how many children do you have?
FF: None? How many years have you been married? Have you visited a gynecologist?
F: Uncle I'm sorry to say that it's a very personal matter which I'm not bound to answer ...
And she cuts the call....
In another instance, a friend called me and the conversation goes something like this:
Friend: Your biological clock is already ticking. Aren't you planning to have a child?
Me: No, I'm not planning to have a child!
Friend: Why on earth would you think like that? Won't you get bored-- just the two of you? Who'll look after you when you get older..
Me: I have my reasons. I don't get bored as I have plenty of hobbies that give me joy... Will it not be selfish on my part to bring a child into this world thinking that he/she/they will stay with me and sacrifice their life just so that they can look after me when I'm old?
And the exasperated friend cuts the call....
Some other related conversations and incidents faced by both voluntarily childless as well as involuntarily childless women/couples:
Conversation between a friend (who's childfree by choice or voluntarily childless) and a relative of hers
A relative: When are you going to give me the good news?
Friend: What good news?
A relative: You know what I'm asking.. You've been married for quite sometime now...When are you going to bring a third person between you?
Friend: Oh that good news!! I'm afraid you'll never get to hear that good news from me!!
A relative: Oh my! Why? Is there a problem?
Friend: No there is no problem at all!
A relative: Is your husband okay with it?
Friend: Obviously! It's a joint decision!
A relative: May I know why?
Friend: (I go on to give my reasons....)
A relative: But you know, there's nothing more joyful in life than having kids and watching them grow...
Friend: Well, every decision we make in life has its own advantages and disadvantages.. I'm not against people having children and their happiness...It's a decision we made for ourselves and are ready to face the disadvantages along with the advantages..
A relative: Well then..I have nothing to say then....but you could have decided otherwise..
Another friend's colleagues offer puja on her behalf and for another colleague (both childless) without their knowledge and ask them to have the prasad (fruit offerings) so that they can bear children..
Those same colleagues conversing among themselves when my friend is within earshot..... (The fact whether my friend wants to have a child or not, or can bear a child or not is completely irrelevant to them)
"You know, one should not delay too much in having a child. With age the female fertility as well as the male sperm count decreases."
'You are an aunt, not a mother.. How will you understand the pain of a mother or feelings of a mother for her children?'
"Oh you do not want children because you do not want to ruin your figure! Isn't it? So selfish!"
Not only in India, childless people/couples, throughout the world, have often faced prying and hurtful comments which may often seem as 'concern' to the commentator but it is often not so for the commented. Studies often reveal societal disapproval and stigma towards childless women.
In a majorly pronatalist society, involuntary childlessness is often thought to be the woman's fault and the woman is looked down upon and is excluded from the social circles.
In many cases, these external interferences have been found to have caused rift between couples and even divorces.
Many a times, the husband or the male partner fail to understand the psychosomatic health problems the wife or the partner is going through that has led to childlessness (for e.g., studies have shown that depression and anxiety may cause infertility or low pregnancy rates in women), and this creates frequent contretemps between the couple which is further aggravated by external provocations or comments passed by neighbours, friends or colleagues of the husband or the male partner.
Social identity theory asserts that a person's self worth is dependent on the groups they identify with. Hence, individuals (both men and women) remain in constant comparison with these group members to assess their own potentials and to achieve an acceptable status as per the group ideologies and social values.
In a protanatalist society, these comparisons often lead to feeling of failure, shame and social stigma for the childless couples, especially for women. These women not only deal with their personal (physical, mental as well as relational) struggles with infertility or involuntary childlessness; they also have to deal with insensitive remarks or comments, regarding childlessness, from people they come in contact with in their daily lives.
Again, while the involuntarily childless may at times be pitied, the voluntarily childless are often considered selfish, abnormal, immature, materialistic, unnatural, unhappily married, undesirable, individualistic, irresponsible, maladjusted, child-haters, neurotic.
Childless women are often excluded or their opinions not valued when it comes to childbirth or motherhood issues.
Should we become so judgmental, so prying, so socially unmindful when the issue of childlessness comes into question? Isn't it a very personal matter?
We need to understand that every individual is different and each of them have a diverse food for the soul that motivates them through their lives. What may seem to be normal and easily achievable by one person may not be so for another person. We need to respect every individual, their privacy and their choices irrespective of their social status, achievements or failures.