The most authentic reason is that they are perfectly happy as they are, and do not feel the need to have a child…

However much social progress urban India may claim to have made in the last decade or so, when it comes to having children, we are still stuck in century-old patterns and processes. It would appear that the first legitimate activity for a couple, after the wedding rites have been dealt with, is to produce a child. The question that newlyweds customarily get assaulted with, even a few days after the wedding is, “Any good news?” Many couples come under severe pressure from concerned parents, well-meaning relatives and well-intentioned friends. Given this scenario, one can well understand the kind of emotional pressure couples face, when even after marriage, they remain childless.

Accepted norms

For as long as a childless couple is seen to be feeling unhappy about their state of childlessness and are seen to be pursuing some method or other of assisted reproduction, they receive a great deal of sympathy, support, advice and cheerleading from their social environment. However when they opt to stay childless, a phenomenon in such increasing evidence in urban India that a name has been given to it — Voluntarily Childless Couples or VCCs — the sympathy seems to dry up. On the face of it, it would appear that not wanting a child could be considered an extraordinary decision for any couple to make. It seems to go against Darwinian principles of survival of the species and natural selection. Some people have inferred that VCCs perhaps represent the “weaker” sections of mankind whose genes are not “good enough” to be propagated. This seems quite an implausible conclusion when you talk to VCCs, who are as intellectually, physically and emotionally developed as their counterparts who choose to have children. It has also been speculated that such couples are afraid of taking emotional responsibility for children, which also seems unlikely when you look at how responsibly they conduct their relationships with each other and with other family members. Are they merely greedy, in pursuit of more wealth, and do not have children because they don’t have the time or energy or don’t want to deemphasise their career focus? Again not true. There are many middle-class, single income couples who have enough time and energy on their hands, but still opt to be voluntarily childless.

There can be no doubt that having a child is a truly wondrous experience and bringing up children, tribulations notwithstanding, can be joyfully enriching. But the converse is not necessarily true. Not having a child need not result in a wretched, miserable or doomed existence. And what VCCs have “lost” in terms of not having experienced the joys of parenting, they seem to have “gained” in terms of enhancing the quality of their emotional relationships, marital as well as others.

Mature perspectives

From my experience, the VCCs who have managed to do well for themselves despite not having children seem to have one important thing in common. They tend to marry a little later in their lives, late twenties and early thirties, by which time they are better set in their professional lives and have acquired the capacity to think for themselves and tend to actively question social norms. When you sift through the responses of VCCs who are asked why they choose to be childless, the most authentic reason that comes through is that they are perfectly happy as they are, and do not feel the need to have a child for their cups to run over. The decision to stay childless is more often than not a mutual one, not imposed, whether subtly or through emotional blackmail, by one partner on the other. This ensures that each partner supports the other through all the periods of self-doubts that such socially unpopular decisions inevitably entail.

Flipside

However, maternal and paternal instincts (even VCCs are not immune to the effects of these) do kick in at some time or the other, and in the absence of a child of their own, they do usually go through a phase of being hugely indulgent ersatz parents to their nephews and nieces or their friends’ children, much to the chagrin of the real parents. Or they end up parenting each other with smothering intensity. While a certain amount of parenting from the partner is good for the married soul, anything in excess can kill. Usually, they get the drift later or sooner, and start enjoying growing old together. And given today’s realities where children tend to fly the coop at much earlier ages than before, VCCs at this time of their lives, have a bit of an advantage over other couples, for, they have perforce established companionship parameters and do not have to go through the sometimes serious adjustment issues entailed by empty nests.

All said and done, the choice to remain childless or to have children is a highly personal one and neither option can be considered more or less desirable than the other. The bottom line is that either option needs to be arrived at after considerable thought and application of mind (the mere possession of hormones and reproductive capacity should not be the determining factor). And more than anything, the decision has to be wholly and indubitably mutual.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com.