In a country like India, where the aura of motherhood is like the air we breathe and where the mother figure informs not just national iconographies and award-winning films but also political strategies, scholarship on the theme has been rather scrimpy. Western feminists, in contrast, have long theorised on the subject, especially on a key question: do women have a choice on whether they want to embrace motherhood, or are they socialised so effectively into the role almost from their own birth that they do not recognise it as one? Decades ago, Simone De Beauvoir had weighed in on the ties that bind the structures of the patriarchal order and motherhood, arguing that choice needs to be brought into the equation.

If marriage is near universal in this country, so is motherhood – there is little scope for choice here. Both in turn are securely embedded within the patriarchal family, and to such an extent that the Indian state argued in court recently that a crime like marital rape has to be condoned in order to protect the stability of the “institution of marriage”. All this makes the study of motherhood and choice an urgent undertaking. Amrita Nandy’s new book, Motherhood and Choice Uncommon Mothers, Childfree Women, attempts to do just that.

The very act of writing a dissertation of this kind, under the guidance of Nivedita Menon, one of India’s best known feminists, has its rewards, but PhD theses don’t always get transformed into scintillating books. To Nandy’s credit, her work does not induce boredom in the general reader despite its considerable theorising, largely because she allows her subjects to speak out, directly and intimately. The theoretical framework adopted is inter-disciplinary, but its epistemology is distinctly feminist, with the one-on-one consensual interview emerging as a major tool of research.

Mothers and outliers

Many of the research questions posed are ones that Nandy has asked of herself: Why would I want to have a child? Does it have anything to do with “my own ego, desires, needs, even fears”? If autonomy is a quintessential human good, why do women have little or no choice vis-a-vis motherhood? Does it have anything to do with “entrenched notions of kinship whereby genetics make a ‘real’ progeny”?

It is unclear whether such questions led Nandy to her subjects, or whether her subjects seem to provide answers to these questions, but in the end the women who make up this volume are a varied mix of unconventional mothers and voluntary non-mothers. Not particularly large in number – 51 in all – their distinction lies in the fact that they are all “female insurgents”, “maternal outliers”, who through their actions have disrupted the “established narrative of motherhood” and escaped “mater-normativity”, a term coined by the author to describe “a body of norms that assume, expect and oblige females to be mothers, both by self-regulation and collective practice”. In the course of the book, Nandy unpacks mater-normativity in order to study the various pressures that are exerted on women to become biological mothers in order to avoid the stigma of being “baanjh”/barren.

Traditional motherhood, as we saw, comes to be naturalised predominantly through the agency of the family. Sexual relations can only take place strictly within marriage, which is itself defined by well-defined lines of caste, community and religion. The “ideal Indian mother” that emerges, in scriptural texts, well-loved myths, popular media, and school textbooks, is self-sacrificing, nurturing and ever-present. Quotations from late colonial Hindi texts cited in this book tell this story well. Nari Ank, from the late 1940s, for instance, maintained that “The word ‘Ma’ has an inexplicable purity”, and distinguishes between the “good mother” and the “bad mother”.

Among Nandy’s female insurgents are women who are part of patriarchal society, who are married and heterosexual, and yet have consciously avoided raising children, choosing instead to remain “childfree”. The patterns of being childfree vary. They include those who keep postponing motherhood interminably, sometimes until it is too late, and others who voluntarily cede their claim to their own children. Taran, in this book, who escapes an abusive marital home leaving her children behind, puts it simply, “I did not want children you see…I was forced to have them!”

Mothers versus mothers

Another chapter pits the biological non-mother against the non-biological one, both driven by the need to have children. The first category is a relatively new one, women who turn to Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) to achieve motherhood or who become surrogate mothers and egg donors; the second, women who adopt. By bringing them into her frame, Nandy develops her critique of hegemonic motherhood by challenging the conceptual foundations of the maternal body through the bodies of these maternal outliers.

It is a difficult epistemic journey that she embarks upon, given the complexity of a backdrop shot through with biological determinism, patriarchal notions of motherhood and the marketisation of the reproductive labour of poor women. While there is considerable literature on adoption, one of the book’s strengths is its insights into “embodied motherhood” as represented by surrogate mothers and egg donors. The surrogate is not “a mere victim-breeder”, her agency is more complex, as Nandy found. The poignancy of their situation comes through in the words of one surrogate: “When I gave the egg, I did not feel any love for the child but in this when you carry the child, you feel attached and concerned.”

Women’s agency is explored more fully in a succeeding chapter that looks at the “working mother”, and the subject of care-giving. The norm of the good, ever-present mother is viewed here through the prism of those who appear to flout it by delegating child-care to others. Two sets of outliers are brought into view – the sex worker, self-employed or brothel-based, and adoptive mothers from the middle/upper middle class who are single.

Interviewing the first category – seven women between 27 and 55 of age, all but one of them barely literate – had its share of predicaments. A client of one interviewee insisted on meeting Nandy and then had the interview discontinued. As an outlier, the sex worker-mother is particularly interesting. As Nandy observes, “In selling sex and raising children, she not only breaches the sanctimonious boundaries of (patriarchal) womanhood, but also the supposed benchmark of good motherhood.” What is striking though is the constant striving of the sex workers interviewed to actually be the “good mother”. Lajo, for example, kept her child away from herself, framing this as maternal “sacrifice”, while Sadhna pointed out that “you cannot take care of children here…So my main job as a mother is to earn money…I give my child the best, expensive things…”

Interestingly, single women professionals from the upper classes also make similar attempts to compensate their children for their long absences by ensuring that they are not lacking in material comforts. They achieve this often by hiring poor women for care work, which results ironically in their own children being denied their “mothering”. Take class-privileged Garima’s account: “There are things I like to do with my kids and things I don’t…I like to spend quality time with them…I take them riding twice a week…” Women like Garima have to negotiate a social trap. Because care-giving is so embedded in motherhood, women professionals (even those with biological children), are expected to see their careers as “secondary” and forced to continuously battle this norm.

Other mothers

But can the “the family” be imagined in a different way? In her penultimate chapter Nandy suggests that it can, by looking at outliers like “unwed mothers” and women who take over the caring of children not their own. She also brings in queer mothers and friends who raise children as couples or as single women, disrupting through their actions the hegemonic pattern of patrilineal succession.

All these permutations and adaptations powerfully challenge the heteronormative foundation of the family and, as the author rightly argues, it would be society’s loss “not to understand the progressive values that these families bring to dated ideas of kinship.” In them lie glimpses of the future. The question she leaves us with is an important one: How do we denaturalise care without creating a public infrastructure around it and diffusing its virtue from the maternal to the collective?

Apart from its research cohort being small and Delhi-centric, the book has other limitations. The male voice, for instance, is missing and capturing it could have given us another angle to perceive the universal mother. Similarly, looking at the preference for sons and its impact on motherhood may have added to the discussion. But Nandy doesn’t claim to have exhausted this subject by any means, only attempting in a modest way to turn prevailing notions of motherhood on their head and analysing the consequences.

This book is an argument for why we need more feminist research for the historically silenced and sidelined female subject to gain voice and influence policy.

Motherhood and Choice: Uncommon Mothers, Childfree Women, Amrita Nandy, Zubaan/New Text.

The writer is a senior journalist