“Just because I was not married, didn’t mean I couldn’t have a baby,” says Shobhana Sethi*, an IT marketing professional who lives in Delhi. She had first started thinking about adoption when she was 30, but at that time neither her parents supported her, nor the organisations that facilitated adoption. But Sethi persisted.
“I would visit orphanages where babies lay around, and I would feel, ‘Here is a child who needs a parent and here is a parent who needs a child’,” says Shobhana. Slowly, her father began also to realise her need. He then helped her navigate a vast network of people, and finally Sethi brought her baby home when she was 37.
In 2015, the Central Adoption Resource Authority issued guidelines that approved single people adopting children: “A single female can adopt a child of any gender,” it said, making it easier for single people to adopt. This has now been replaced by the Adoption Regulations, 2017, which also allows this.
Anindita Sarbadhicari, in her early 40s, a filmmaker and theatre person, took the even harder path of donated sperm and an IVF pregnancy. “I’m driver, daughter, cook, filmmaker, plus mother to a five-year-old and a rescued dog,” she says laughing. She does not have a partner and while this is not a priority (she does date — “I’m not a nun”), she is open to the idea if and when “someone happens.” Anindita remembers going through the IVF cycles alone, taking hormone injections with no support, and driving herself to hospital when she miscarried the first time.
When Eleena Banik, an artist from Kolkata, decided she wanted a child, she looked to a person she felt would be a suitable man, then went through the pregnancy alone. She was 40 when she gave birth to her child.
Parenting is a hard task in itself, and single motherhood is harder still. Yet, many single women are opting today to be parents in an increasingly popular phenomenon that is called ‘choice motherhood’. And Shobhana, Anindita and Eleena are ‘choice’ mothers.
Even a decade ago, families and society would have judged these women. But times have changed, and Anindita, who lives in a middle-class locality in Kolkata, did not have to go around explaining her decision to everybody. “The moment the news broke, we began preparing ourselves for awkward questions. But it was humbling because of the love people showed,” she says. More importantly, the women have supportive families. Anindita’s mother passed away three years ago, but her 78-year-old father is now her support system. Shobhana’s parents and grandparents have welcomed her child with open arms.
Amazingly, in Junagarh, Gujarat, it was Rekhaba Sarvaiya’s old mother, with schooling only till Class VIII, who worried that after her demise, Rekhaba would have nobody to support her. She suggested that Rekhaba adopt a baby. “But I wanted to carry my child,” says Rekhaba. In 2011, the feisty poet-administrator opted for IVF with donor sperm, creating quite a lot of publicity at the time. “There was no precedent; I didn’t know what I was getting into or how society would respond,” Rekhaba remembers.
When a woman shows interest in choice motherhood, gynaecologists refer them to a sperm bank. “You can match physical features to your own (skin colour, texture of hair), but all I wanted was high IQ,” says Anindita. The sperm bank shares details such as the education and profession of the donor.
Opting for single motherhood is not always an easy choice to make. It needs a single-mindedness and confidence, which often come with education and money. Obviously, therefore, “the phenomenon is restricted to a certain class of people,” says Vinita Bhargava, Associate Professor of Human Development and Childhood Studies, Lady Irwin College, Delhi, who runs the Alternative Parenting Network Association or APNA. On this forum, the single women who have chosen to have children outside marriage have discussed the possibility of an exclusive sub-group because their concerns appear to be very different.
One obvious point of discussion is the daddy question. Jane Mattes, a choice mother who lives in the U.S. and is author of Single Mothers by Choice: A Guidebook for Single Women Who Are Considering or Have Chosen Motherhood, says that her son, now 39, took time to decide if he wanted to get in touch with his father at all. Growing up he had a father figure in Jane’s best friend’s husband, who became a vital part of his life. “Male relationships are important,” says Jane.
This is the other challenge that the women face: dispelling the assumption that they are man-haters. “But really,” says Jane, “we just wanted to be mothers before the time was gone. There’s a window, and then it closes. We understand that we can marry later if we find the right person, but becoming a mother is a time-bound option.”
That doesn’t mean the women expect anyone else to be a co-parent. For instance, Rekhaba is now married, but says the couple doesn’t live together as hers is a job that involves transfers. And she doesn’t really expect her husband to be a parent.
Jane, a psychotherapist, founded the organisation Single Mothers by Choice in the U.S. in 1981, which now has members across the world. “I was hoping to meet professional women who I could relate to and who could help my son find peers growing up in a one-parent family,” she says. At the time in the U.S., single mothers were generally women who had become pregnant in their teens, she says.
Interestingly, attitudes in the U.S. then mirrored what they are in India now: “Some people were judgemental and some were very supportive, especially those who knew us personally,” says Jane.
More than approval, what is most important is the support network of family and friends. This is vital because of the absence of one parent and one set of family members, which is the norm in most traditional family structures. The father and his family share the babysitting and care-giving functions.
In fact, it is this absence in a child’s life that most often invites society’s scepticism and prejudice. It’s the reason Anindita’s son was ‘rejected’ in three schools before he got admission in the fourth. At his current school, however, he is treated no differently from other children, by teachers, students and by other parents.
This could be more the exception than the rule. In fact, the first few times that Eleena approached Kolkata doctors for an IVF, she was turned down on ‘moral grounds’. A Mumbai-based gynaecologist, on condition of anonymity, says doctors prefer to avoid pregnancy services to single women because of the current Assisted Reproductive Technology (Regulation) Bill 2017 and the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill 2019, both of which have narrow definitions of who can benefit from the two bills.
Under the Surrogacy Bill, the term “couple” (who can take advantage of this facility provided they are medically certified as infertile) is defined as “legally married Indian man and woman above the age of 21 years and 18 years respectively”. While under the ART Bill, the term ‘couple’ (again, they must be proven infertile) is narrowly defined to mean only a heterosexual marriage or live-in relationship.
However, as Alice George, a lawyer with Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas in Mumbai, explains, these are bills not laws, so every single woman today has the right to have a child either through ART or surrogacy.
While these bills are framed as being protective of the rights of children to stable families, they are in effect a denial of the reproductive rights ordinarily available to human beings. “This is really a restriction of medical help, skewed in favour of traditional forms of family,” she says. Enforcing these would take away the idea of diverse kinds of family units. And at present, the Indian Council of Medical Research allows single women to benefit from ART.
A study presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in 2017 found that “the well-being of children growing up in single-mother-by-choice and heterosexual two-parent families [had]... no differences in terms of parent-child relationship or child development.” In fact, single-mothers-by-choice, the study found, had a greater social support network.
Bhanumathi Sharma, also an associate professor at Lady Irwin College, Delhi, says social ecology counts for a great deal. A deep layer of the cultural fabric is the support children get from each other. As families get nucleated, divorce gets more common, and lead parenting (where one parent is more present than the other) becomes more prevalent, there may be a greater acceptance of diverse family structures. “Anything becomes normalised when there are enough precedents,” she says.
Anindita would like to see this happen. Even this interview, which she has squeezed into her already hectic schedule, she says she is doing because she hopes it will get the message out, “so that my son will have to answer fewer questions.”
Parvathi Nayar, a Chennai-based artist and choice mother, draws on the word ‘diversity’. “The landscape our children grow up in has changed dramatically. In terms of choices there is a plethora of creative possibilities now. Likewise, parenting opportunities have changed, most so in the urban space. It is a relevant choice to be a single parent today — not as an also-ran option and not because the parent has been abandoned by his or her partner,” says Nayar. “The informed single parent accepts the emphasis being placed on parenting as a thoughtful and responsible choice, not as a state-of-affairs one stumbles into.”
While no parent will ever tell you it hasn’t been worth it, choice moms do say one other thing: you must be very, very sure before you take the decision. Shobhana, for instance, says that she has absolutely no break. “Mental, emotional, physical, financial — when I’m down, I do wish someone would handle at least one aspect,” she says. She adds that acting as both mother and father can sometimes be a challenge, especially in enforcing discipline for children.
And it isn’t just the mothers who must be tough — so must the children. Rekhaba named her daughter Abhigna, after Kalidas’ Abhigyan Shakuntalam, for a reason. In the play, the protagonist has to struggle to find her place in the world. Abhigyan means identity, and Rekhaba is clear that while her daughter will bear her mother’s name, she will be encouraged to craft her own identity: “ Aap khud apna pehchaan banao ,” she tells her daughter.
(*Name changed to protect identity.)