“I love children, I really do,” coos 30-year-old Nabiha*, at her two-year-old nephew. “But I just don’t ‘want’ any of my own.” She carefully hands the toddler to his mom and wipes the drool off her hand, slumping with a sigh of relief in her seat. “I knew when I was 19 that no matter who I marry, I won’t have kids.”
Clearly I wasn’t the only one taken by surprise by her seemingly heretical declaration, as her sister immediately jumped up saying, “Wait till your husband and mother-in-law hear you say that!”
Nabiha, however, simply shrugs and mouths to me “he knows.”
Over the last decade, women have taken a number of defiant stances regarding their lives and bodies that have shaken the Pakistani society to its core. Pakistani women have been increasingly vocal about the fact that they want autonomy of their lives and bodies. However, despite women’s brave and bold persistence in demanding rights they have long been denied, there are still some topics hardly any woman dares to talk about. One such topic regarding which anything apart from the established narrative is a taboo, not just among men but also among a number of women is: Motherhood.
Nabiha’s open and defiant statement, refusing to accept motherhood as the crowning glory of her life had me surprised, to say the least. Did other women agree? Did any one regret having kids? More importantly, were there women who didn’t want kids?
I began to ask other women around me if they felt the same, or had in their heart-of-hearts given into such thoughts. To my surprise, many had.
“Motherhood really is the Holy Grail of womanhood, if you ask my mom.” laughs Noor*, a 28-year-old marketing executive. “I can come and go as I please, eat what I want, wear what I like, but if I even joke to my mom that I’m not big on kids, she absolutely loses her mind!”
In Pakistan, as in many other countries and societies, the most important role women can play is that of the mother. From looking after younger siblings and cousins, to being taught the importance of selflessness, everything a girl is taught is to prepare her for this mother-of-all role (pun not intended).
In Pakistan, as in many other countries and societies, the most important role women can play is that of the mother. From looking after younger siblings and cousins, to being taught the importance of selflessness, everything a girl is taught is to prepare her for this mother-of-all roles. But now, women are becoming increasingly vocal about the fact that they want autonomy of their lives and bodies.
“From childhood upward, girls are told that their lives are incomplete and they are immature, until they have their families – their own kids,” Noor sighs.
“Honestly,” says, Nabiha sheepishly, “It’s a bit of a farce, it’s just one of tens of relationships in a woman’s life- not the end-all. My mom’s my mom, but she’s also a wife, a teacher, a student, a sister and an amazingly funny person! I kind of hate thinking that all I’m going to be is so-and-so’s mom someday – it just doesn’t make sense!”
Moreover, some women, such as Zeenat*, a journalist in her early 30s, feel that they “just don’t connect with kids”.
But that’s not to say these women have sharp talons and wear pointy hats and think that children are spawns of the devil. But if they were all so normal, why were so many of them choosing not to have kids?
Mahnoor Sohail, a 23-year-old doctor from Karachi speaks for a number of women when she says, “I decided I did not want children primarily because I did not want to be responsible for another human being. I don’t want to put my life and my dreams on hold just to take care of another person.”
“I just want to live life for myself,” says thirty-five-year old Mariam* from Germany rather bluntly.
Tanya*, a freelancer who is divorced from her husband, has a slightly different – albeit common – reason for wanting to stay childfree. “I have raised one niece and seen my siblings raising two or more kids. It requires a lot of emotional strength and I do not think I am ready for that kind of commitment.”
Truth be told, these women’s decision is hardly surprising given the fact that having children can change a woman’s life – and body – completely. Apart from post-partum depression, a number of mothers have reported that they really did get more than they bargained for.
“There’s a lot that kids take out of you. Your body is changing, your hormones are going crazy and the kids need to be looked after all the time. I don’t even get to go to the bathroom on my own anymore!” Nazia*, a mother of two toddlers, says with tears in her eyes.
“My husband works all day and when he comes back he doesn’t want to hear a peep from them, because ‘his head hurts and he’s tired’. I barely even get time to be with him. If I’d known what I was getting into, I really might have reconsidered.”
She hesitates a minute before adding, “But it’s not that I don’t love my kids, I really do! But I just feel like I don’t have my own life anymore.”
50-year-old Rekha*, a mother of two adult boys looks away sadly as if lost in a dream of the time she’s lost as she expresses, “Those birds have flown, and I love them and I miss them, but when it was all done and dusted, I feel like I gave up everything for them. Being a mother requires a kind of self-effacement, which I regret now. I left my education and my career for my kids.”
Nabiha confirms that it was seeing her mom struggle with her and her siblings that made her decide against having children. “She was always bound by us, you know. My parents didn’t have a happy marriage and she never left because of us. I don’t want that for me. And if I had kids I’m afraid I’d always be expecting them to give up stuff they liked for me – just like my mom wanted. It’s a cycle I want to break.”
30-year-old Amna, too, says that it was witnessing women like Rekha* who made her decide against having children. “I have seen people around me having children and just being totally bound. I don’t want to have children in this society. I would rather adopt if I ever decide to have a baby.”
“Besides,” laughs Mariam, “even though every woman with children feels like I am missing out on something and that I’m somehow not a ‘complete’ woman without kids, life is just so much easier. I have a lot more mobility, I can travel AND I’m so much less burdened financially!”
“Everything is easier without kids!” gushes Fatima, a 26-year-old assistant accountant from England, “I get to take naps and vacations; I only cook for two; my house is always clean; I can travel and still save money! Literally everything is easier!”
Despite the fact that these brave women made their choices and are content with them, one cannot help but wonder how those around them took the news. After all, having kids in Pakistan isn’t just a private affair – everyone’s invested.
“From my parents to my extended family, to my in-laws, and honestly the whole neighbourhood, is waiting for my ‘khushkhabri’ (good news), Noor tells rolling her eyes. “You’d think they’d have better things to worry about.”
It seems that for a number of these women, making this decision was relatively easier than for others because even though their parents or families don’t approve, they still have the final word on the topic.
Fatima’s family, for instance, doesn’t approve of her decision. “They’re trying to change my mind, but I don’t care. I know what I want.”
It was the same for Mariam, who comments, “They don’t like it much but have never complained.”
For others, things are trickier. Confessing is not much of an option.
“If my mom knew I didn’t want any kids, she’d get me therapy and then have a stroke or something! So I keep telling her my husband’s not ready. She’s almost sure there’s something wrong with me,” Nabiha laughs, “I’m letting her believe that bit, it’s easier than telling her the truth, really.”
Zeenat too has not informed her in-laws yet because “they won’t react nicely.”
Mahnoor on the other hand is just happy that her “friends are supportive about her decision.”
All that being said and done, one can’t forget that the decision to have children or not is not entirely the individual choice of these women; their spouses too have a say in the matter. For the most part, it seems that a supportive spouse or partner proved essential in these women’s ability to uphold their decision.
Fatima and Mariam both claim that the decision to remain childfree was mutual for them and their spouses, while Zeenat’s husband left the decision entirely up to her, “He wanted it to be my decision,” she smiles.
Noor, like countless other women, wasn’t so lucky.
“He really likes kids, and wanted a lot of them too. I had to work on the issue for years after we got married. Since it was an arranged marriage, we never got to discuss it before, and later we had full-blown arguments, but he eventually came around. I’m just glad it wasn’t someone impossible, I don’t know what I’d do if I were forced to have kids – probably call it quits on the marriage, I think.”
But even walking out of a marriage where things aren’t working is a luxury in Pakistan, where divorce is sacrilegious and having kids is more of a religious obligation and only ‘natural’. In all this – with all other things – the financial status of women becomes a rather deciding factor in this matter as well. Where educated women are still able to fight to uphold their decisions, if only rarely, those on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder have it much harder.
Sadia*, a 27-year-old woman who works as househelp in Defence, Karachi, looks around furtively as she confides, “I couldn’t even tell him. I just couldn’t. If I had said I didn’t want kids, he’d have thought there was something wrong with me. His mom would immediately have gotten him a second wife. So we had kids, four of them, in fact. Now they’re all my responsibility, and his mom wants another! I can’t make head or tail of it all. How will I raise five kids I don’t even really want?!”
Nabiha sums it up rather aptly when she elucidates, “It really is a fight at times, and you have to at least have your spouse on your side, otherwise you’re fighting a losing battle.”
Mahnoor seconds this claim. When asked what difficulties she faced because of her decision, she illuminates, “The only problem has been finding a partner who feels the same way.”
The others agree. For them, besides finding someone who’s on the same page as them, the biggest challenge has been those presented by their families and society. But that’s easily dealt with.
“You’ve just got to ignore them if your partner is on your side. Everyone eventually comes around,” smiles Noor, “Even if they don’t, it’s really not my headache.”
However, all the women who have chosen to live childfree are in complete agreement over one thing: that these problems are all minor inconveniences when weighed against the pros of their decision. Tanya believes she is in a good place mentally because of her decision. The others agree. These women have all chosen the freedom to travel, save money, and just live their own lives instead of children.
“While, of course children are lovely, I’m happy this way,” says Noor.
For those who are afraid of standing up to their families about their decision to not have kids, Fatima has a final word of advice, “Don’t give in to the pressure. They won’t be there when you’re struggling emotionally, physically or financially when trying to keep a baby alive that you didn’t even want.”
Some names have been changed to conceal identities.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org