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Childless By Choice

Reproductive Rights
United Kingdom

new internationalist
issue 176 - October 1987

Childless by choice
Mina is 16 and lives in Nepal. If she doesn't get pregnant soon,
people will think there's something wrong with her. For Mina there
is no choice. Kathleen is 35 and lives in England. If she doesn't get
pregnant soon, people will think there's something wrong with
her too. Does she have a choice? Kathleen writes...

'Wouldn't you like a nice little baby like that?' The question popped up so regularly I was getting used to it 'She's beautiful,' I said, stroking the soft, downy cheek. 'And I'd love one. But not yet. Maybe in a year or so we'll stop using contraceptives.' At first everyone had been smiling, thinking how right I looked holding the baby. But then the smiles had given way to whispering. The words themselves were tactfully disguised, but their gist was clear: no childless, married woman uses contraceptives, so I - poor thing - must be trying to cover up my barrenness.

For Mina - who, at 16, was exactly half my age at that time - there was no question of postponing motherhood. She desperately wanted a child. She told me that she couldn't be happy until she'd given birth and, in the course of time, I began to understand what she meant. She was married to the eldest son in the household where I lived, high in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal. They'd been betrothed since she was two and, when she reached puberty, she'd left her home village several miles away and came to join her husband and his extended family.

The early years were misery. She'd never been away from home before and her new husband and in-laws were virtual strangers. They didn't treat her badly, but she was made to feel a burden. She was always the first to start work in the morning and the last to stop at night. She rarely spoke and, when addressed, she replied in a whisper, eyes averted. At festivals she went back home and often stayed away for several days, despite the knowledge that her late return would meet with an endless round of angry curses.

One day Mina was taken to the spirit medium because she wasn't getting pregnant. He assured her that she would, in time, give birth. But he told another women, barren after five years of marriage, that she was a witch. Mina's sister, too, was childless and her husband had humiliated and rejected her by marrying a second wife.

Eventually Mina did have a baby - a son - and the family was jubilant. A family with sons had wealth and status. There would be an extra pair of hands to tend the sheep, to trade, to work the land, or go to school then work in the city and send money home. With sons the family would be a powerful voice in village politics. With sons they'd be cared for in their old age, their death rituals would be properly performed and their souls would rest, satisfied.

And Mina was right. She blossomed in motherhood. No longer feeling the need to escape at every opportunity to her parents' home, she talked and laughed, openly relaxed. At last this was her home and family; this was where her son belonged and she belonged beside him.

True, contraception was virtually unobtainable in this remote village. But this was not the main reason why women like Mina give birth so frequently or so young, Far more important is the value of children, particularly sons. To ensure that the desired number of sons reach adulthood - allowing for miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and, of course, daughters - a woman has to be pregnant as many times as possible.

Twenty years from now, Mina's body will undoubtedly be depleted by continual childbearing and it will become progressively harder for her to keep up her agricultural and domestic work throughout each gruelling pregnancy. She will probably often feel ill and exhausted, and giving birth will become more and more dangerous for her.

Several older women, desperate about this situation, came to me for contraceptives (which I didn't have). The only contraception that was on offer (though sporadically) was for use by men, whose interests were arguably better served by the birth of another son than by their wives' good health. (When a visiting paramedic distributed free condoms, the children blew them up and played with them like balloons. And when a team of doctors came to perform vasectomies, they were sent away, their services unused.)

In a society where a woman's very livelihood depends on her affiliation to a man, her ability to determine her own life's course is negligible. At two Mina was passed from father to husband. As a mother she was reprieved. The rewards of motherhood made it her main source of self-esteem and satisfaction. Small wonder, then, that at 16, she 'desperately' wanted a child that her own 'personal desire' coincided exactly with society's requirement of her.

As a woman in my mid-thirties, living in England, there is an underlying assumption that I, unlike Mina, am self-determining in my choices about sexuality and motherhood. Until now, I have unfalteringly exercised that choice to postpone motherhood. Now I realize, with growing apprehension, that my fertile years will soon be over and that the time has come to make another choice. The issue is now no longer when to have a child but whether to have one.

Despite the urgency, the question numbs me. How do I decide rationally when I hear a thousand different voices screaming contradictory advice? In calmer times I try to analyse, weighing up the pros and cons. Surprisingly, I find that all my reasons for postponing giving birth still apply: I don't particularly like children; I value my independence, the freedom to come and go, the open doors; I want to write, and literary history tells me that my chances of succeeding as a writer and a mother are pitiful; I hate and fear the nuclear family, the stifling atmosphere, the exploited wife and mother, the generation gap.

Occasionally these voices came across loud and clear. But then the hubbub starts again, and other voices ask me what I'll do in 20 years' time. Will my life be bleak and empty? Will I dry up, bitter with regret? I must be mad wilfully to deny myself this ultimate creative act, this absolute satisfaction, the most passionate love affair of many women's lives.

The persuasive power of these latter voices is astonishing, When they speak, I feel the force of history bearing down on me. They are commanding and authoritative, bloated with conviction that their advice is right, the best thing for me.

In the Nepalese village, the pressures forcing women into motherhood are clear and tangible. Here they are more subtle. There a barren woman is a potential witch and punished with low status and harsh treatment Here, too, to call a woman 'barren', or even 'childless', implies that - whether she can't have a child or simply doesn't want one - she is somehow wrong and unnatural. In Nepal, only a sick or crippled woman fails to marry and if the female population exceeds the male, men will marry twice. Here, too, the word 'spinster' evokes an ugly, lonely woman who has failed to get her man.

One day there will be a word for a woman without a husband or children that is not pejorative; a single word that conjures up the image of a strong, sexual and feminine woman who revels in her voluntary freedom. When that word becomes common currency, then we'll know that the present stereotypes have lost their stranglehold. Until then our sexuality and fertility are not our own: they are the property of a patriarchal society which fears women's freedom and penalizes deviants like spinsters, lesbians, unmarried mothers and the childless.

Until any woman can stand up and say freely, without the fear of social reprobation, that she doesn't want a child, then no women is free to 'choose' to have a child either.

Kathleen Muldoon is a writer and anthropologist who lived in Nepal for three years.

A Second Look
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having the wool pulled over your eyes. Each month the NI invites one author to justify their style of argument.

Editor: Writing in the first person is a favourite feminist ploy. It allows you to fend off potential criticism by using the 'authenticity' of you own personal experience as a shield. isn't that rather a dirty trick?

Muldoon: Historically women have inhabited a private world while men have dominated the public one. Inevitably this has been reflected in our writing - diaries and novels concerning relationships and emotions, often written in the first person. Until recently this kind of writing has been systematically excluded both from literature and academia on the grounds that objectivity is valid and honest but subjectivity is cheating (witness your question). But the books can be cooked whatever the writing style. Value judgements creep in unacknowledged; statistics are forged or misused in this sense isn't objectivity a dirty trick?

Editor: We are led to believe that you are privy to the thoughts and feelings of Mina and her family. Can you be certain your interpretations are correct? And if you're not certain, shouldn't you signal that doubt to your reader?

Muldoon: I lived in the same house as Mina's family for nearly two years and spoke their language. I tried to deduce their thoughts from what they actually said, my experience of their culture and my relationship with them during that time. Writing in the first person indicates, albeit implicitly, that what I write is (merely) my own interpretation.

Editor: Mina is 'passed from father to husband'; other women are 'desperate about their situation'. They all seem so passive. Are there no strong women In Nepal?

Muldoon: The village is a staunchly patriarchal society, governed by men in their own interests. Women are subject to men's rules and so are not self-determining. If you take strength to mean social power, then there are no strong women in Nepal. However, allowing for the confines of the system, yes, of course, there are many strong women.

Editor: You spend some time mulling over possible choices, then end up with an impassioned declaration that women like yourself are not free to choose. The passion is infectious, but isn't it simply a way of disguising a logical contradiction?

Muldoon: I tried to explore the issues, not conclusively prove a particular point. In this sense the ending is arbitrary. I'm still having new thoughts about the subject and hopefully the reader will too.

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New Internationalist issue 176 magazine cover This article is from the October 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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