Why I Decided to Remain Childfree by Choice
At midlife, would she regret her decision to skip the children thing?
It is 1988 and Madhuri Dixit — bubbly, beautiful, and buxom — is the Bollywood actress to fall in love with.
I Find That Learning and Science Sustain Me
I am 18, in college studying chemistry, and in the movie theater with my friend, Meeta, stuffing my face with greasy popcorn. I look up. Madhuri fills the screen, gyrating in a popcorn pink skirt and blouse. She lip syncs to “one, two, three, I count the days as I wait for you, my lover.” She simpers, her smile lighting up the screen.
The crowd whistles when she winks. This is Bollywood, where one grows up surrounded by Hindi movies — where women and men sing at the drop of a hat, lovers have melodramatic fights, fathers are villainous and disapproving, and where, finally, the hero always wins the girl and rides off with her into the sunset on his Yamaha.
“What did you think, wasn’t she great?” Meeta asks as we push our way out of the theater.
“Yes, she was. No wonder the boys go crazy over her,” I say, pretending I really care about the gyrations and simpering. I don’t. I never did. And at 18, I’m not about to start.
I Have a Serious (Bengali) Mindset
I am a Bengali, after all. Bengalis grow up in families discussing fish curries, Darjeeling tea, music, literature, and politics. My childhood memory is of my sister and me fighting over the newspaper, not dolls. Heaving bosoms, wedding songs, pining for a Bollywood hero to whisk me away on his Yamaha has never been my ambition.
Don’t get me wrong, I do love the Bollywood songs, the intricate dance steps, the melodious music, the unnecessary drama, the sad close-ups. I love it all. But in 1998, I already know something else — that I am an anomaly. I love traditions like Bollywood but know that my brain also functions equally well in computational software, biotech innovation, and literary construction.
1988. I am already a chemistry major. I wear thick jeans and my Baba’s shirts — an outfit to hide my curves and breasts. The only girly thing about me is my long hair. I am my Baba’s son — the most tomboyish girl I know.
Science is most important to me; what I look like, isn’t. Because boys are competition. They are obstacles that need to be overcome in one’s quest for excellence.
All My Friends Run Off and Marry
Meeta gets married to the first “boy” her parents arrange for her to meet. On her wedding day, she wears a pink salwar kameez and covers her head with a sparkly pink dupatta. She simpers like Madhuri when her new husband whispers into her ear and they share a joke as if they’ve known each other for years. I am the bride’s friend, the one at the wedding with henna on my hands for the first time. I wear a sari and borrow Ma’s jewelry.
Everyone says: “Ah, bahut sundar ho! You’re next to get married, no?”
To which I reply rudely: “No, I’m not beautiful and I’m not getting married. I’m headed to America for a Ph.D.”
1993. My friend moves to Florida, cooking and keeping house for her husband, an IT consultant. They play the wife and husband roles that Bollywood has ingrained in young couples of the ‘90s. We lose contact, as one is prone to do when life and goals take us in divergent directions.
My Biological Clock Refuses to Tick
I head to graduate school in New York where the boys are still the competition. I develop crushes — on the impossibly handsome Shahrukh, or craggy old Harrison Ford, even the ‘90s Tom Cruise. Relationships with those impossible-to-obtain celluloid guys are easier to imagine than the nerdy fellow graduate students I am surrounded by.
More importantly, my biological clock does not tick. No second-hand alerts me that the gates to reproduction are slowly closing. No alarms of longing go off when babies wail in movie theaters or gurgle delightfully in airport boarding areas.
I don’t share this fact with anyone.
1993. It’s the era of “You had me at hello!” Where Hollywood encourages young women to quit their jobs and follow their men. To be wooed by Cruise, to have babies, to be rescued, to be a single mother, following Cruise to his next idealistic adventure. Or to be rescued from the streets by an intense Richard Gere.
This is Americanized Bollywood — where every male-female encounter is cloaked in love and romance; being in love is what it means to be American. And in America, as in India, it is made clear that wanting to be childfree is considered odd, even selfish.
I Don’t Need Anyone to “Complete” Me
Once again, I am an outlier in my community. I believe there are several routes to creation, to sharing, to finding joy. Having a child isn’t one of them. So I conform in silence. I don’t admit that I think that I am complete without children (or a spouse). Admitting that would instantly draw attention to my outlier status. And for a closet introvert like me, it isn’t what I want to do.
1993. I return to India for a visit. My parents are happy to have me home, albeit for a few weeks. Friends have moved away, and India is morphing into a fast-paced country I hardly recognize. But the neighbors, or aunties as we call them, remain the same — nosy, judgmental, and gossipy. The first one, Ma’s friend for decades, climbs the steps to our home, and with each heavy step, says: “Good, bahut hua, you’ve enjoyed yourself a lot. Now get married.”
“You can’t live your life alone. No woman should.”
Ma’s other friend, skinny and tall, elegant in her chiffon looks me up and down, sipping the tea Didi makes for her. Then she says: “You’re 28. Isn’t it time you settled down?”
I can’t wait to go home. I am home. I don’t know where home is.
2003. I am in love. He is an Indian immigrant, just like me. He loves my food, my radical views, me. We travel to exotic places, work at high-paced companies, and I cook big meals for friends, families, neighbors in San Diego. I am the career woman, managing home and work, and making it look easy. The in-laws, traditional South Indians, show up every six months.
I Put on Weight— But Not The “Right Kind”
2005. My mother-in-law arrives after a 30-hour multi-flight trip and says: “Madhu, you’ve put on weight, eh?”
“It’s good,” she says, “you were too skinny. Now to give us some ‘good news’ Madhu.”
I complain to my husband. “What does she mean, good news, eh? Does this always have to be about children?”
He shrugs it off: “Everyone wants children, Madhu.”
“I never did.”
“Well, I thought you’d change your mind, Madhu.”
My radical views of being childfree, which once sounded so revolutionary, are under assault. My views need to conform in this marriage. My husband, someone I so love, now isn’t so sure he wants to remain married to an Outlier Indian.
I try still to make this work.
Love Does Not Conquer All
Love conquers all. Both Bollywood and Hollywood say so. But a career in science and literary writing mean nothing when facing the onslaught of traditional Indian expectations.
2013. The relationship sputters. After 17 years, the marriage collapses — the differences are too vast, the abuse is subtle but clear: my desire to remain childfree isn’t acceptable. The death of a marriage is always sad. But I have not compromised who I am.
2017. My friend April’s five-year-old daughter runs up the steps to my house near the San Diego Bay.
“Madoo?” she asks. She always calls my name like it’s a question.
“Can you make me some eggs please?”
April walks into the kitchen, shaking her head. She is a writer herself, an accidental mother who fiercely guards her hours of writing as fiercely as she loves her child.
“What are you shaking your head for?” I ask.
April says: “My girl eats nothing and waits to eat your scrambled eggs!”
I crack the eggs into the pan as her daughter sits at the table patiently.
“Cheese?” I ask her.
Uh-huh, she nods, her brown-blond hair shining. She wears a pink dress, her favorite color.
I smile back at her. Her eyes twinkle with love.
I Love the Life I’ve Chosen
This is a life I’ve chosen.
I am a wonderful aunt to many children of many ages, five through 32. I am wonderful to them probably because I don’t treat them as young (and hence not worthy of having an opinion that matters). And probably because I spoil them. My work as a woman in bioscience hasn’t stopped — in fact, it has accelerated. My body still doesn’t have an alarm clock and my clock still doesn’t tick.
My humor sustains me, as do my relationships with my friends — strong men and women, all.
2017. Seven years after my mother dies, I finally have two weeks free from work to go to New Delhi. The place is loud, noisy, fast, polluted, frenetic — and magical. But now there are multiplex movie theaters and gigantic air-conditioned malls filled with Louboutin, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Gucci stores.
Professional women are the main consumers. These women move faster than we did a few decades ago: Careers are of utmost importance and financial freedom is more important than marital joy. Being an engineer or doctor — instead of marrying one — is the priority. These women, often a couple of decades younger than me, have a child or two. But many more are childfree. Some of them proclaim their childfree status with pride.
Today, happiness can be found in a traditional Indian marriage with children, or with no children, or with no marriage at all.
I still love the city’s pace, the still ever-present Bollywood songs. I also love that very soon, I will not be an outlier.