In the opening minutes of the Netflix movie Private Life, Rachel, played by Kathryn Hahn, ponders the morality of bringing a new life into this world. “Having a baby is an immoral act,” she tells her husband Richard, played by Paul Giamatti, and proceeds to list some of the reasons: “Overpopulation, climate change, rise of neo-fascism”.
This exchange takes place while Rachel is preparing for a procedure at an vitro fertilisation clinic and her outburst is clearly intended to be rhetorical. If there is one constant in the movie, it is Rachel’s conviction that she wants to be a mother. It is a conviction that Sanjiv and Sadhana Prasad wished was shared by their son and daughter-in-law.
A few weeks, media outlets were abuzz with reports of a lawsuit filed by the Prasads, an elderly couple based in Haridwar, against their son and daughter-in-law for refusing to provide them with a grandchild.
The aspiring grandparents have demanded Rs 5 crore as compensation for the “mental harassment” of not having their twilight years spent baby-sitting a grandchild (who will probably forget about them post-puberty).
For those wondering why the non-existent grandchild has been valued at Rs 5 crore, it appears that was the amount the senior Prasads spent on their son’s upbringing, education, wedding, honeymoon and so on. That is a lot of money spent solely to procure a plaything that could alleviate the humdrum of their retired life.
Levity aside, this bizarre litigation has stoked discussion around a trend that is fast gaining social currency: the decision to be childfree. Over the past decade or so, the decision to be childfree has been gaining adherents across the world.
Nearly half of the participants responding to a 2021 Pew Research Centre survey in the United States said that “it is not too or not at all likely that they will have children someday”. A similar survey in the United Kingdom from 2020 found that of the participants who were not already parents, more than one-third did not want to have children. China and Japan are grappling with population crises and plummeting birth rates as well.
In 2020, a paper published in the International Journal of Sociology analysed the decision of a few Indian adults who had chosen to be childfree. Some of the observations were predictable: the subjects for this study were professionals from urban, middle or upper-middle-class households.
Although the sample size for this study was quite small – 18 “heteronormatively married.. couples” – its findings are noteworthy. Getting married and having children, preferably in that order, has long been considered the only path to a happy and fulfilling adulthood.
But now, this map for adulting is slowly being eschewed by people who want to chart a different course.
Money, climate change
The decision to be childfree may stem from a variety of factors. It could be environmental altruism – some studies show that having one fewer child could reduce a person’s carbon footprint by 58.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. It could emanate from concerns about the quality of life the children may have, as climate change continues to wreak havoc on our planet.
Considered from a financial perspective, raising a child is an expensive affair and requires careful planning and realignment of priorities. Also, the process of childbirth itself takes a massive toll on the physical and mental health of women, which many may not want to endure.
Truthfully, there is also the matter of pure self-interest. Being a parent means making fundamental changes to the way you live. These changes have always been accepted as a natural, in fact, necessary part of life. But many are beginning to question this norm.
As the Prasads’ litigation demonstrates, such a predisposition is still fraught with conflict. The findings of the International Journal of Sociology research paper referred to above are based in the urban milieu and cannot be treated as representative of Indian society in general.
In fact, even within so-called urban and liberal society, expressions of the decision to be childfree are almost invariably met with surprise and disdain.
Women, as with everything else, have to deal with a larger share of unwelcome insights about their biological clocks, their role in a family and the genetic imperative to reproduce.
Indian society still considers it unusual for a person not to be married by a particular age, as if living alone must necessarily equate to being incomplete in some way. Naturally, a married couple choosing to be childfree is inconceivable to many.
In the face of this overwhelming societal conformity, those who choose to be childfree may, on occasions, be assailed by doubts. No matter how strong one’s convictions, it is not easy to swim against the tide.
In those moments of uncertainty, one can only take comfort from knowing that every decision we take is the one that feels right and necessary at this time, and trust that our future selves would agree. And hope, of course, that our parents will not sue us.
Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.