A teenage rendezvous can leave an indelible imprint in the mind. For Christina Keer, 48, her visits to Mother Theresa’s Ashram during her formative years in Mumbai turned into a moment of reckoning. An insight into “how women in desperate conditions left their newborns,” profoundly impacted her, something which lingered on, prompting her to embark on her special journey. A chance meeting with Ajay Keer whilst training — they were both track and field athletes — developed into romance when she was merely 13 and he, 15. A courtship period, which lasted for 12 years, was followed by an exchange of vows in 1995. “Initially, we discussed adoption instead of having our own children. Somewhere during our courtship, my husband — now 50, and a professional photographer based out of Dubai — suggested the idea of going child-free. However, he left the decision to me. It took me less than a minute to agree. That’s probably the only decision we agreed to together,” says Keer, who works as a brand manager with a fashion company in Dubai.
The Keers represent the first generation of Indians who consciously decided against having children. Of course, there will have been hundreds of couples in the past that may have also done the same, but the Keers are from a generation that came of age in the 1990s and 2000s, with unprecedented levels of freedom of choice and action. It was a time when staying single, marrying someone of your liking and not having children were among the choices that families were increasingly more willing to accept. This fact is borne out by the most recent census figures as well.
The 2011 census recorded that as many as 22 per cent of urban households fell in the category of so called DINKs, or the Double Income No Kids group. “Most of us conform to societal needs, and in this din of the noise, we forget to listen to our inner voice. In both our cases, there is no reason such as a career path, or travel. Just as there are couples who know they want to have kids, we are the ones that know we don’t. Simply put, we do not have the desire to be parents. It is just the way we are,” says Keer.
The child-free trend is “natural, predictable, and in a way inevitable,” says Dr. Mrinal Jha, 30, who works at AIIMS Rishikesh as a senior resident psychiatrist. “The populations of different countries go through a specific curve. Around the time our country gained independence, life expectancy was low, and the reproduction rates very high. With an increase in education levels, employment rates and better medical care, there has been a significant increase in life expectancy, and a decrease in reproduction rates”. He believes the right to choose — whether to have kids or not — is a reflection of the individual’s (especially the woman’s) increasing freedom in a more evolved, less patriarchal society.
Some time ago, Delhi based writer Reem Khokhar offered a compelling take on anti-natalism and going child-free on Scroll.com. Her reasons were centred around overpopulation, ecological concerns and restoring balance. Khokhar, 38, and husband Siddharth Khandewal, 40, a photographer, began dating 13 years ago, and have been married for 11 years. For them, going child-free was an organic decision which did not change with time. “We both feel strongly that parenthood is a choice, and not meant for everyone. It involves substantial financial and emotional investment, and personally, I have never felt convinced that the compromise required is necessarily compensated by the emotional fulfillment of having a child,” she says.
Khokhar finds her kids-related pleasure and fulfillment from being an aunt to her niece and nephew. “I feel that in an overcrowded environment like ours, making more informed choices about having children is important, as resources are already stretched grossly in India. For me, adoption is the route to go with, should I choose to have children at some point.”
Another Delhi-based couple, college sweethearts Shreya Bhattacharya, 27, and Amit Kumar, 33, who are textile designers by profession — currently employed at Baragaon Weaves and BIBA Apparels respectively — first broke the shackles of societal morality when they decided to live together. Marriage was never on the cards, but they decided to take the plunge four years ago and remained steadfast, amid pressure to build a family. Says Kumar, “We honestly don’t feel the need to have children. Having children is a massive responsibility. If we really feel the need, we will choose adoption.” Bhattacharya adds that adoption will be an option only for the sake of “somebody who is less fortunate”, not as a means to complete their family.
“We are super happy the way we live,” she says. Often, naysayers offer their two cents, but “they’ve tried, failed and given up. We’re over that phase when people tried to convince us. Now, it’s all good. My parents, for starters, are happy with it.” Kumar unequivocally believes that the responsibility of a child entails education and health [expenses], which are hard to ignore; hence, there is a desire to contribute to the world by helping curb the ever-growing population. Bhattacharya adds, “Going child-free, you have time for yourself and you can save a lot of money. If you are financially well off, that’s fine. If not, then being child-free is something one should seriously consider.”
For generations, an age-old perception has clouded many minds: that of equating parenthood with prolonged happiness. There’s a belief that a bundle of joy leads to bonding between couples encountering turbulence in their married lives. A few years ago, this belief was put to the test by a study published in the American Sociological Association which, more or less, burst the bubble. The study concluded that parents are more likely to be depressed than their child-free counterparts (and that people without kids were happier). Having said that, while most couples who decide to go child-free are on the same page, more often than not, this decision is usually not met with the same enthusiasm by their families. According to Dr. Jha, “Society is not one giant slab; it is composed of heterogeneous layers, each representing a different generation; hence it cannot evolve as a whole.” Younger couples are often answerable to elders, who have a different notion about marriage and families. “Our parents come from a generation where you sacrificed at a personal level for the betterment of your family and society. For them, marriage was synonymous with having and raising kids. Not so for the couples in question here.”
Like millennial duo Arti Singh, 30, and Kunal Shergil, 35, (names changed on request) based in Gurugram, who work in the media and entertainment industry. Married for six years now, their mutual decision (“It was easy for us to focus on ourselves rather than succumb to the pressure of society”) was met with skepticism from family and relatives. The families think it is a temporary phase, and that they will change their minds. “There are times when relatives ask about children and our plans. Some think it could be due to fertility issues and they advise us to see doctors,” laughs Singh. But they have remained as firm as ever, and “state it whenever necessary, though it isn’t much appreciated by relatives.”
For Sunaina Goel, 31, and husband Rajiv Goel (names changed on request), some family members agree, while others don’t. “My parents are very happy about it, but my in-laws aren’t,” says Sunaina. Watching her friends struggle with their kids reinforces her belief. “They have to work to support themselves financially, take care of the child, and do household chores too.” No time left beyond tending to a child’s needs is what she calls a “nightmare”. According to Dr. Jha, “Parents can be dramatic, and often illogical, when it comes to matters so close to their heart, like having a grandchild. One must also understand that this goes against their most deep-rooted value-systems.” He suggests group sessions to work through this conflict of interest. “In the end, it is up to the couple to decide how best to proceed. To be coerced into changing their decision due to parental pressure may not be the best way forward, and can have an adverse impact on their relationship.”
Being a minority in a child-focused universe comes with a fair share of challenges, including unwarranted flak springing from unknown corners. Christina and Ajay Keer are no strangers to this ordeal. “People are suspicious of you,” states Keer. “I had a very religious colleague who once told me that I probably cannot conceive and was making an excuse. There was this aunt who said I was selfish. The most common one was ‘Vansh ko aage badhana hain’ and who will look after you in your old age.” While some have recommended doctors, or offered to pray, others have rendered condolences. “The only thing left was jaddi butti — no one offered me that,” she says. Keer feels the stigma is gender specific: mostly attached to women by women. “My husband rarely faced any questions.” She acknowledges people make judgements based on their beliefs, so an argument is futile. Rather than being on the offensive, she believes “it as an opportunity to open a conversation” that may enable better understanding. And since the times, they are a changin’, she periodically encounters those who “subscribe to the idea and if not, they just let you be”.
Rukmini Dutta, 44, social entrepreneur, and Indrajit Ray, 42, creative producer for television shows, have taken these challenges in their stride. Dutta, who works in the development sector, has eternally been “questioning norms”. She is someone who was once a rebel without a cause, became a rebel with a cause, has experienced a commuter marriage (“I worked in a different city.”) for a brief span, and also rides a motorcycle. “I think it is one of the privileges of being a part of progressive families,” says Dutta. “With us [going child-free], people think it’s one of our ideas of breaking a norm because we have a reputation of that kind.” But reactions from strangers have not been so forgiving. “If you’re talking to strangers in a train, first they assume you’re married, then they ask you what your husband does.” If intrusiveness isn’t enough, she describes aptly the sense of pity that exudes from their demeanour. “I mean, ‘Oh God! They must have really tried hard. It’s not working out for them.’ But that’s only with strangers, and obviously, I don’t care.”
For Dutta, going child-free has been subject to a [minor] contemplation when younger. While there were no regrets, sometimes responding to the “emergency needs” of her parents did elicit some introspection. “I am there for them [my parents], who is going to be there for me?” But with more people opting to tread the child-free path or knowing that their kids will not be around all the time, it didn’t take time for the thought to fade. “I think, for our generation — by the time we reach that age — there will be many who will be without partners, without children and something in the system will emerge to take care of us,” she says.
Like Dutta and Ray, ad (and feature) filmmaker duo Ashwini Chowdhry and Rahul Dandavate (in their late 40s), hail from progressive families. Their families’ initial hesitance subsequently transformed into acceptance. “Luckily, my parents as well as his parents are pretty broad minded, and have never really interfered in our lives,” says Chowdhry. Furthermore, her friends deem this “a wise decision”. They say: “Look at our children today. Look at what we have to go through.” Chowdhry agrees the following conditions govern parenting: responsibility, compromise and undying commitment. “You cannot ever run away from, or ward off that responsibility.” And she has the perfect response for those who believe in the dependency factor: “Today, children are going abroad for their education, and working in different cities [and countries]. There are cases where children and parents don’t see eye to eye; they are warring, fighting for properties, and suing each other. You can’t expect anybody else to be there for you.”
A steady metamorphosis from joint to nuclear families has shaped her perspective. “We have to be independent; make provisions for our old age. Even if I did have a child and if he/she is in another city or country, I cannot ask the child to leave their work and come running to me because I’m sick.” Besides her practical thinking, she has an interesting take on old-age and living. “I think one needs to look at making provisions for oneself when old. We need more old-age homes. More than that, we should look at senior citizen condominiums or societies — gated communities — where people can live, and support each other.” She thinks it is unfair to expect youngsters in the throes of their career to give you attention all the time, and a thriving condominium scene [“There are a few in India; one in Pune, one somewhere in Lonavala; one in Vellore.”] is ideal.
Christina Keer and her husband disclose a fascinating deal they struck with one another. One of the questions they intermittently pose to each other is: “What if one of us dies earlier in life and the other feels lonely?” To which the response is “My husband would probably get more into learning percussion, and since I love animals, I would probably get a dog or travel more.” The first five years of their marriage were spent regularly evaluating their decision to assess if there’s a change of heart, “and every year we were high fiving each other for tagging in a good call,” she quips.
Clinical psychologist Ellen L. Walker once wrote in Psychology Today, “In my book, Complete Without Kids, I cited time-management research that shows that it takes an average of eight hours a day to parent two children to the age of eighteen. That’s a lot of time that’s not available for maintaining your relationship.” So the odds are high — besides work and devoting time to one another — that these couples get a chance to venture into miscellaneous domains: that of pursuing individual passions. Ashwini Chowdhry’s husband, Rahul Dandavate, finds enormous pleasure in mountaineering. He likes expeditions, while Chowdhry plays the sitar during her free time. Ajay Keer is learning to play the drums and the tabla, while wife Christina Keer loves to read. “Together, we both do a bit of social service, travel and continue to go on dates,” says Keer. Reem Khokhar and Siddharth Khandelwal’s family is complete with their adopted dogs. “We both are self-employed. It is a bit of a risk that we could take as it would have been difficult to make that decision if we had children,” says Khokhar.
While Khandelwal travels extensively as a photographer (shooting on location), plays golf and badminton and is constantly planning trips with his wife, Khokhar quit her job nine months ago to write full time. She sings with a Delhi choir, performs regularly in the city and abroad, is an amateur baker and an avid reader. Designer duo Shreya Bhattacharya and Amit Kumar have a penchant for all things art, and road trips. Says Bhattacharya, “Amit loves to do thermocol art, and he recently made a very nice aquarium.” She reads and paints in her free time.
For Arti Singh and Kunal Shergil, not saving for a child’s education equals more disposable income, enabling spontaneity. “We like to travel, go to the movies and indulge in weekend sports. We have the freedom to allocate our time as per our whims and fancies,” says Singh. Sunaina Goel says, “I don’t want to compromise and let my life revolve around a responsibility. I am into social service and thoroughly enjoy myself, while my husband enjoys socialising and his ‘me’ time.” Rukmini Dutta and Indrajit Ray are foodies and love to travel. “I think our home is something that both of us really work together to build, and to nurture. My husband is very creative. He does things with his hands,” says Dutta. However, she doesn’t believe that children hamper an individual’s ability to pursue hobbies or a passion.“It takes a village to bring up a child. I see people doing all kinds of things – people with children, and without children. I don’t think children should be used as an excuse to not be able to pursue one’s passion.”
These couples not only value each other’s goals, ambitions and independent streaks, but have also found the balance to lead a healthy, content and child-free life. Christina Keer believes life is good when you are in sync with your choices and she sums it up for future aspirants: “Child-free life is great and we cannot imagine a better way to live. That said, I’ve seen the joys parenthood brings; the love and bonding with kids is very special. So whatever you decide, it has to be discussed and mutually agreed upon before getting into a commitment. And to those suspicious eyes, we’d say, let’s not dictate how life should be for others. Everyone’s idea of success and happiness is different. We are happy to see people leading a good life with kids and we ask you to respect the choices we make for not wanting [ours]. Fair enough? Choose wisely, live well.”