Childfree marriages: No kids attached

Many people today are opting out of parenthood. Financial concerns, burden of responsibility, late marriages are among the major reasons why they want to stay childfree. We look at the rise of the anti-natalist movement

Shamala and Rao are one among many couples in the 21st century who have decided to not go down the marriage and parenthood roads.
Shamala and Rao are one among many couples in the 21st century who have decided to not go down the marriage and parenthood roads.

By Reya Mehrotra

It has been 18 years since Bengaluru-based psychiatrist Shamala (who goes by one name only) decided to move in with her partner Mohan Rao, an engineer. They both had two things in common: spirituality and the desire to be childfree. Eighteen years later, they are proud of their decision. “I had attended an Osho meditation camp in 2002 and felt that I should not get married. Within a year, I found someone who was also spiritually oriented. We both started questioning if we were mature enough to have a child. There is so much suffering in the world… it was not worth giving birth,” says Shamala, who is in her 40s.

Before 2002, however, she did want to have a family of her own. “I really wanted to get married and have a child, but the discourse changed my life. Osho, in his recorded video, said that those who choose to give birth put their burden and expectations on their children and expect their unfulfilled desires and dreams to get fulfilled through them. It is a way of satisfying one’s ego. Why bring children into this world and make them suffer?” says Shamala, adding that she never worried about any social stigma. “Our families were okay with the decision. My mother knew that we were happier than my married relatives… we are happy and proud to say that we are in a live-in relationship and are childfree by choice,” she says.

Shamala and Rao are one among many couples in the 21st century who have decided to not go down the marriage and parenthood roads. Marriage, they believe, is a bondage, where you are often forced to live together for the sake of families, children and society. This band of new thinkers is now actively shunning marriage and instead seeking partners who, like them, would rather be childfree. Kolkata-based Ayushi (name changed on request), for one, neither wants to get married nor have a child. “My mother and I have suffered a lot because my father was abusive. In my family, men have the power and women are voiceless and scrutinised. This bitter experience made me realise that I do not want this for myself. I have been through depression and anxiety, and also have endometriosis. I do not want to transfer my pain to my child,” says the 28-year-old, who decided to go childfree when, during her college research, she learnt that motherhood does not define a woman. Going ahead, Ayushi says that she knows it’s going to be an uphill ride, but is sure that she doesn’t want marriage for herself.

Not just singles, there are many married couples as well who are choosing to not embrace parenthood. Take, for instance, Panchkula-based Deepak Negi, a mechanical engineer by profession, and his wife Anita Rawat. Negi says finding a partner willing to go childfree was a big challenge. “During my search, I spoke to many prospective partners over the phone. Finally, after five months of extensive search, I found Anita. Our thoughts matched and we got married in early 2016. We are happy about our decision to remain childfree,” says the 34-year-old.

Thankfully, people looking for childfree marriages have help now, as there are platforms like Childfree India that not only function as support groups, but also act as unofficial matchmaking platforms for single people. “I have been talking to some men in the group,” reveals Ayushi.

There are multiple reasons why couples are opting to be childless, says Delhi-based marriage and family counsellor Nisha Khanna. “Some might not have had a very healthy childhood. Secondly, today’s generation lives a fast life in metro cities. They have too many responsibilities on their shoulders and feel that a child would be a bigger responsibility. For the first few years, it is important to be with a child physically and mentally. But with today’s lifestyle, one hardly has that much time to devote to a child… People are also marrying late these days and then having a child might not seem a very good option, as they think they would be too old when the child grows up. Then there are financial issues, environmental issues like increasing pollution, etc, today,” explains Khanna.

Birth of a movement
There are anti-natalists all over the world and social media is full of such groups. But it was Belgian writer Theophile de Giraud who played a huge role in popularising the idea through his 2000 book The Impertinence of Procreation, a plea against human reproduction. Some also link the movement to ancient Greece.

As far as Indian history goes, marriages have always been an integral part of any Indian family. But change was long in the offing. As the anti-natalism movement began to take shape across the world, many Indians like Ayushi and Shamala, too, felt encouraged to break the shackles, deciding to stay away from marriage and children, and live life on their own terms.

Procreation is unethical, feel the co-founders of Childfree India. The support group was launched in February 2019 by Bengaluru-based anti-natalists Anugraha Kumar Sharma (an independent branding consultant), AS Prashanth (who runs a small business) and Pratima Naik (a social activist). After initial trolling for their ideology, the group soon went viral, says Sharma. Today, the movement is spread across the country with 2,000 members. “We got covered by international media and then many people joined us through social media,” says the 45-year-old.

Sharma, separated from his wife since many years, says that initially his wife too was an anti-natalist, though, they didn’t know the term then. But when she got pregnant, she considered it ‘God’s will’ and later even wanted another child to give company to the first one. “But I refused. A mistake should be committed only once. My wife was epileptic too and I did not want to burden her,” says Sharma, whose 18-year-old daughter is an anti-natalist too and has decided to not get married.

The movement is attracting like-minded people, including efilists (efilism is ‘life’ spelt backwards, an ideology that suggests humans can eradicate themselves by stopping to have children). “Some of our followers are asking us to plan for a commune where the childfree can live together as an extended family. A few others are asking us to pursue the Right to Die (voluntary euthanasia) movement. We are yet to decide whether we should invest our energies to build a commune or fight for the Right to Die Act,” Sharma says.

Consent matters
How do you ask an unborn child if he/she wants to see the light of the world? You can’t. So you do not bring him/her into the world. After all, it is all about consent. This was the logic Mumbai-based Raphael Samuel gave to his parents (who are lawyers) last year before disclosing that he was planning to sue them. His parents were prepared to fight him in court and challenged him to find a lawyer, all the while agreeing with him. Samuel said he wanted to set an example and, therefore, would sue them for not more than a rupee.

Alok Kumar Pathak, a teacher based in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, who has married a physically challenged girl and has decided to go childfree, explains the logic of consent. “For me, the primary reason is that we can’t take the consent of an unborn baby whether he/she wants to come in this world. So whether the world needs this movement or not is secondary for me. The primary is the unborn child… No one really knows the answer to why people choose to give birth. They are just following others. Suffering is an inevitable part of life and forcing a child into this world without their consent is wrong,” says Pathak, who goes by the name Alok ‘Mystic’.

For Delhi-based Parul Gupta, a PhD scholar at IIT-Delhi and a teacher, it was her aunt’s pregnancy in 2008 and her condition post it that strengthened her resolve to go childfree. The 32-year-old is not actively looking for a partner, but says that the ones she has met have not really been accepting of her decision to go childfree even though her parents have no issues with her decision. “Factors like environmental/societal concerns have also strengthened my resolve. Children are a drain on financial, physical, emotional, environmental and societal resources. Moreover, conflicting advice makes parenting full of confusion, guilt, self-doubt and stress. I strongly believe that to bring a child into the world is a disservice to both the child and earth,” says Gupta.

Retirement plan
A common notion is that one should procreate to have financial and emotional support in old age, a sort of a retirement plan. Anti-natalists, however, believe this is a selfish reason. “I am a teacher and researcher of economics, and we talk about the ‘demographic dividend’ all the time. Yes, the dependency ratio will increase if more people go childfree. However, people without kids are more likely to have greater savings, better health and overall a higher quality of life. I feel productivity will improve without the stress of parenting responsibilities. The consumerist culture could also see a reversal and pressures on the environment may also ease. I view all of these as signs of development and improvement, not slower progress,” says Gupta. “Developing countries should especially encourage and support childfree lifestyles since societal resources in these countries are already stretched to the maximum. Countries could extend tax breaks and other concessions to childfree individuals/couples,” she adds.

Shamala says having like-minded people as friends helps when one is old. “People initially feel we are living an abnormal life, but when they know us closely, they like us. I advice my patients, too, who are struggling to have a child that going childfree is a wiser choice,” she says.

Finding freedom
Many anti-natalists believe that the freedom that comes with breaking these societal constructs is priceless. One can invest in hobbies and indulge in interests as one remains free from the responsibilities of children. Negi says he values the freedom he and his wife have. “Freedom comes from money and raising child in India costs a fortune. We as a couple travel a lot, go backpacking and on motorcycle trips every quarter. A child will put a break on our free lives. Sometimes, I feel people see us as selfish and prefer to chill with couples with kids. However, it doesn’t bother me,” he says. Like many childfree couples, Negi and his wife have instead chosen to become pet parents to three-year-old Bruno.

Bengaluru-based Swagata Paul, who works in an automobile firm, and canine nutritionist Sundeep Dhar, in fact, took their role as pet parents so seriously that they started their own dog food company, Canine Cravings, in 2018. “We always wanted to go childfree and so adopted two special needs dogs, Cassius and Bailey. We love our boys. In fact my husband quit his job to focus on our canine food company. It’s not like pets need lesser attention. A child might grow up, but pets are always dependent on you and need care. My parents are not happy about us dedicating our lives to dogs, but now they don’t have much of a choice,” she laughs. “We have seen half the world and led a very hectic work life and so never wanted a child,” says the 35-year-old. Apart from their pets, Paul and Dhar are also the caretakers of about 40-50 street dogs in their community.

The trend of adopting pets as ‘kids’ has seen a rise in the last decade globally. In 2013, research by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that expenditure on pets remained 1% of the total household expenditure between 2007 and 2011 despite the recession.

Not just animals, a number of couples have even adopted houseplants as ‘kids’, choosing to become plant parents, easier than becoming a pet parent. The reason? Plants are cheaper and easy to take care of, needing care only once or twice a week. The National Gardening Association stated that between 2016 to 2019, houseplant sales in the US increased by 50% to reach $1.7 billion, thanks to millenials adopting plant babies.

Pitfalls & challenges
The idea may seem liberating, but has a flipside to it. If a majority of millenials decide to go childless, the global population could dwindle and the world economy will collapse. As per a July report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME, a research institute working in the area of global health statistics and impact evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, fertility rates in 183 of 195 countries will not be high enough by the year 2100 to maintain current populations without liberal immigration policies. It also predicts that world population will be at its peak by 2064 with around 9.7 billion people and fall to 8.8 billion by the century’s end with 23 countries seeing the population shrink by more than 50%, including Japan, Thailand, Italy and Spain. It further goes on to state that dramatic declines in working age populations in countries like India and China will hamper economic growth and lead to shifts in global powers.

Additionally, the 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study predicted that the fastest shrinking populations will be of Asia and central and eastern Europe. Fertility is one major reason behind it. In India, the fertility rate has fallen down from 5.2 to 2.2 children per woman from 1971 to 2017, as per sample registration system data from the Office of the Registrar General.

There are other challenges as well. Societal pressure, for one, is relentless. Take, for instance, Gupta’s case. Even though her parents have been supportive of her decision, her relatives, including those who live abroad, expect her to change her mind. “‘Studying too much has gone to your head’ is what I often hear,” she says.

Pathak, too, says that his family is still not convinced of his decision. “My family asked me to leave the house after I got married. But she understood my decision to go childfree. I will never have a child,” he says, adding that the best way to protect people from suffering is to not bring them on this earth.

Shrinking populations

* Fertility rates in 183 of 195 countries won’t be high enough by year 2100 to maintain current populations without liberal immigration policies, as per Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)

* World population will be at its peak by 2064 with around 9.7 billion people and fall to 8.8 billion by the century’s end with 23 countries seeing population shrink by more than 50%, as per IHME

* Dramatic declines in working age populations in countries like India and China will hamper economic growth and lead to shifts in global powers

* In India, fertility rate came down from 5.2 to 2.2 children per woman from 1971 to 2017, as per Office of the Registrar General

* Fastest shrinking populations will be of Asia, central and eastern Europe, as per a 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study

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