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TO HAVE OR NOT TO HAVE?? – Prof. Shruthi Nanjappa

27 Sept 2023.

A young colleague of mine was meeting prospective grooms in the hope of marrying. She was narrating her experiences to me. It was then I asked her why she wanted to get married. She looked at me aghast and had no answer to the question. She said she had never even thought about it. She was just doing what was “expected” of her. Another colleague who was with us said to start a family. When I asked why she wanted to start a family she had no answer to that question either.

This brings me to the question that has bothered me for a while now. In India we do not discuss why one has to marry or why one has to have children. I asked a number of my colleagues as to why they had had children. The answers ranged from immortality to it was expected of them.

In Indian culture, once a couple gets married the natural progression is the have children. In our culture it is seen as the most desirable goal for a married woman to achieve. A newly wed bride is showered with the blessings “May you be a mother of a 100 sons!!”. Newlyweds are often asked by the elders as to when they are giving them the “good news”. Which is a euphemism for when are they planning to have a baby!!  I have often wondered why they say that, will they come and assist is taking care of the “good news”!!  And if a woman does not have a child, she is pitied and even looked down upon and considered incomplete. Bearing a son is seen as the epitome of being a woman in Indian society. Children, especially the male child is seen as a support for old age. If looked at rationally it can be construed as extremely transactional, parents have children and bring them up; hence children and expected to return the favour by taking care of their parents during their old age. This idea of being a support for one’s old age is often expressed explicitly to the male child, without even considering the mental impact of this responsibility on someone so young. It can put tremendous pressure on a young boy, which he carries for the rest of his life.

Indian media- movies and advertisements etc. also paint a rosy picture of motherhood and having a baby and reinforce the duties of the parents towards the child and that of the child towards his parents once they have grown old.

The point I am trying to make is that in our society there are no conversations around the necessity to marry or the need to have children. In India you are expected to marry after you reach a certain age and, having children is not an informed and carefully thought out process, but it is something that happens by default once you are married. Young couples are not encouraged to think about whether they are mentally and financially equipped to have a child. Nobody seems to emphasise enough on the fact that having a child is being totally responsible for another human being and it isn’t an easy task. And that bringing up a child to become a fully functional and well adjusted member of society is a lot of hard work. Even today I know a lot of couples who have had children due to the pressure exerted by their families. Left to themselves they would not have had a child. 

In most cases nobody counsels the couple of the realities of having and bringing up a child. They are not made aware of the enormous amount of hard work, patience and stress it entails. Choice of the couple is never accounted for especially that of the woman who is the one who has to carry the child and will be the primary care giver to the child in it’s infancy. Motherhood is glamorised in India. Nobody talk about the toll that it takes physically and especially mentally on a woman. Not only is she susceptible different kinds of complications while carrying the child, she also undergoes drastic changes physically and mentally. After the child is born, nursing the child and dealing with hormonal changes is no meagre task. Nobody takes mental impact of childbirth on women seriously in India.

The fact that I am bringing up these uncomfortable questions may result in my maternal instincts being questioned. But these are things that I have grappled with, during my own two pregnancies. It took the birth of my second child for me to realise that I had had post-partum depression after my first child. After my first pregnancy I didn’t understand my mood swings, my dissolving into tears ever so often, hating and loving my child at the same time. I was confused and overwhelmed at the responsibilities that I had to take care of at home with a new born. There was no one to explain what was happening or to ask. I had bear minimum help initially. I had household chores along with caring for the new born which exhausted me completely. One just did all of it, as that is what was expected of you.

Financially also having a child is a huge responsibility. Every parent wants their child to have a better life than they had in every sense of the word, whether it is health care, daily requirements or education. Parents would also like them to have as many opportunities as possible, in curricular and extra-curricular activities. All of this entails a huge amount financial investment.

A book that was a real eye-opener for me, was “Babies and Bylines” by Pallavi Aiyar. Where the author describes the trials and tribulations she has to face as a working mother of two children. She says one thing in the book which really stuck chord. Ms Aiyar ruminates that if only someone had told her what hard work it was to have a baby and manage a job, she would have been better prepared. That is all!! It isn’t that she wouldn’t have had her two sons it is just that she would be been mentally prepared for what was to come.

All I am suggesting is that there should be conversations about marriage and starting a family. Both of them should be informed decisions that young men and women make and not something they do because it is an expectation of society that they have to fulfil. They will be better prepared mentally for the task at hand and these responsibilities will be taken on willingly and happily, thus making them better parents in the long run.

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