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“Why can’t you be child-free?”

Sunu C Thomas

“I hope this time it happens”, she said.

“Why can’t you be child-free?” I asked my friend who was in a not so happy marriage.

“… but, I need one for the society”, she replied. I was taken aback hearing her reply and seeing my baffled face she continued. “When you get married, you will also tell me the same thing.”

“Being childless is not a welcoming state in the family and in the society; there are serious taunts from all over. I am fed up”, she said. Three years into marriage is a long time to have a child as per our society’s expectations of a married woman. “I cannot even attend any functions at home because all everyone wants to know is why I am not having a child, and whether I have consulted a doctor or not.”

“I noticed this being asked only to me, not to my husband”, she added.

Being childless in our society is not an easy situation to deal with; a woman faces such invasion into her privacy on a daily basis and there is accompanying pity at best and ridicule at worst.  It renders one vulnerable to very prying questions into one’s sexual and marital life. Even when a woman doesn’t want to bear child, being married puts her in a position to have one, mandatorily.

Society stigmatizes a childless woman regardless of the reasons leading to the situation and this attitude disproportionately puts a lot of pressure on the woman to somehow have a child regardless of her individual preferences and situation in life. The stigma starts from within the family especially by the in-laws who blame the woman for having damaged the life of their son due to her inability to continue the lineage. A woman has to shoulder the responsibility of a childless marriage and are out rightly labeled barren if she does not have a child, even when the reasons may be male fertility related issues or her own decision to not bear a child at that point in her life. The other interpretations for the condition range from “God” being unhappy with the woman or the family or problems associated with the celestial positioning of her stars.

The amount of stigma and the associated stress experienced varies according to the education and socio-economic position, but the stigma for women is inevitable. I believe this also needs to be viewed in the light of women being conventionally defined in terms of her reproductive function from time immemorial. If you take the case of India, we see that despite making tremendous improvements in social and economic indicators in the past couple of decades, few people acknowledge that reproduction is a choice that women should themselves make at a point in their lives if and when they feel completely ready for it. Rather it is viewed as the primary reason for a woman’s existence; her whole life being defined by the functions of child birth and child rearing.

The recent advancements in Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) have made it easier for women experiencing involuntary childlessness and their families to find solace in dealing with the concern medically. However, many a times the long drawn out process involved in the treatment and the endless waiting takes a toll on the women. It is as though her existence is unviable until her fertility has been proven. It is not just a matter of wanting a child it is also a matter of claiming her position as a ‘woman’ within and outside the family. Not everyone who faces the concern gets access to medical treatment considering its high cost and low availability. Hence, the solution to the problem is not solely medical treatment since a large part of its construction is by social and psychological factors as we discussed above.

We need to sensitize the public regarding the reproductive choice and that a woman’s existence is not merely defined by her capacity to produce a child. We need more understanding into the voluntary childless women and the strategies they adopt in coping with the stigma they face. This can be used in sensitizing the involuntarily childless women and can render them with strategies for coping with the internalized stigma they manifest in the process of not being able to fulfill their “societal duty” as a married woman.