A friend of mine has a rather unusual style of breaking the ice with new acquaintances; ‘Do you have children?’ she asks, deadpan.
In our first meeting on the sidelines of an insipid literary tamasha, I was subjected to the same line of questioning.
Answering in the negative, I soon realised that she had smuggled in two questions here—Are you married? Do you have children?
Perhaps assuming that in these playing fields of holiness and good karma, one cannot go without the other. But soon this had set me thinking about all the prejudices that we hold against people who do not propagate.
No offspring—that’s scandalous! It goes against nature.
Such characters should be locked up or publicly shamed, the politically-incorrect champions of sau putravati bhava would shrill from their polemical pedestals.
While putting this down on paper one apprehends that the obnoxious curry of ideas about to be ladled out would warrant some attention from the friendly neighbourhood troll brigade which might unwittingly help jack up my flagging social media fortunes.
There are numerous reasons advanced by those who choose not to procreate just as there is a righteous list tinged in the colours of self-sacrifice and fulfilment presented by the camp which answers to the Biblical directive ‘be fruitful and multiply’.
The voluntary child-free often frame their choice with the logic of freedom, feminism, overpopulation or sufficiency.
Some feel they can devote more time to charity and self-improvement if they so choose while flag-bearers of the other camp often disparage them as selfish if not downright irresponsible and ‘sick’.
But climate change and growing disparities coupled with overpopulation have mangled the righteousness of the protectors of the natural order as more and more couples decide not to add more people.
A Swedish study done last year, published in the journal of Reproductive Biomedicine and Society, found that the weight of reasons for not having babies are clustered around ‘practical circumstances and prerequisites’ things like time and money followed by ‘non-ideal images’.
This second issue of ideal versus non-ideal images of parenthood is one around which most of the rhetorical discussions tend to crystallise.
Have you ever faced a sombre nonagenarian matriarch holding court at a family gathering and bemoaning the end of the line because you and your partner didn’t make babies?
Even better, have you suffered that apparently innocuous interrogation, from a moment’s acquaintance usually on long train rides, which in Bengali goes ‘apnar chhele meye koeti?’ (how many kids do you have?), followed by shocked disbelief or mock pity as you timidly reveal your blank slate dedication to posterity?
This reaction reflects attitudes driven by ideal images of parenthood connected to iron-clad beliefs that becoming many is natural and it gives meaning to life, not to mention that the doubloons then remain safe in the family coffers.
But the ‘Keeling curve’ of our carbon karma rises relentlessly, our smoke-swathed planet becomes more inhospitable with or without pandemics and many couples who choose to be child-free have these in mind when they decide not to.
A Pew Research Centre study (2017) of 18 countries found that only 41 percent citizens believed their children would be financially better off than their parents.
In Liz Jensen’s acclaimed climate change novel The Rapture, the environmentalist Harish Modak says, ‘In times past, children and grandchildren were seen as a blessing, a sign of faith in the future of the gene-pool. Now, it would seem that the kindest thing to do for our grandchildren is to refrain from generating them’.
Compelling works about climate threat, like The Uninhabitable Earth, point out how living on this planet would become immensely difficult in the coming decades, others dwell on the high likelihood of societal collapse in many parts of the world.
International organisations like No Kidding already provide a much-needed space for those deciding to remain without children while on the far and more controversial end of mobilisations around anti-natalism are groups like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.
They believe Homo Sapiens are the root of the world’s problems and so let this be the last show of our evil circus.
In my own sentimental journeys, I have sometimes meditated over whether a child is indeed a blessing. I have wondered too whether our absent kid would have taken after me or my partner.
Would it inherit her snub nose and perky insouciance or perhaps my wavering indecisiveness? But these musings fade away too soon into the polluted haze of our days as the forbidding realities of the Anthropocene stare us in the eye.