Let us be childless by choice

Mother and child: But not all women have the desire to be parents (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Mother and child: But not all women have the desire to be parents (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)


We were sitting together after the funeral of a relative. Everyone was exhausted from the long week of preparing for the funeral service. We women took chairs and decided to sit under a tree to eat, chat and de-stress.

All of a sudden, I found myself at the centre of the conversation.
One of the women asked when I thought I would have children. She went on to explain that time was not on my side and that the sooner I started having children the better. I was startled by this and thought “but I am not even 25”.

The social pressure to have children is real and prevalent in our society. Young women who, by their mid-20s, do not have children, can end up being treated like black sheep of the family. They are seen as women who do not know their direction in life; outliers who need to be talked in to following the social norm.

The reproductive health of women has long been the object of social scrutiny, placing pressure on women to reproduce. Women who cannot have children are often treated harshly and seen as not “woman enough”. Women who do not wish to have children are labelled selfish.

In many societies, reproduction is a woman’s matter. The women are expected to bear children whether they want to or not. As Buchi Emecheta says in her novel, The Joys of Motherhood, men make it seem that women should aspire to have children or die — a women’s meaning and worth in life can only come from having children.

Yet pregnancy can result in complications. According to an article published in 2014 in the medical research journal The Lancet, 2.9-million newborn babies die annually and 2.6-million babies are stillborn. Newborn mortality accounts for 44% of deaths of children under the age of five.

The World Health Organisation says in its report that complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the primary cause of death and disability for women aged 15 to 49 in developing countries. Each year, up to 300 000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of these deaths occurring in developing countries. In 2013, the United Nations estimated that pregnancy-related complications were a leading cause of death among adolescent girls and women.

The decision to reproduce should not be taken lightly, and women should take charge of their bodies without any pressure exerted on them to reproduce or not reproduce.

Where do people get the audacity to question or police my sexual and reproduction choices the minute I complete my first degree?

Having children is regarded as the automatic choice in life — regardless of whether you have a job, a stable partner, a house or even a car.

Do those who advocate procreation realise the responsibilities that come with having children? Do they care about what kind of human beings they bring up? No one seems to bother whether young people are capable of raising children, even if they wanted to have them. No one seems to care about the psychological health of women during and after pregnancy.

By the time I was 21, people were already asking when I thought I would have children. My response was: “Later, maybe in the next two to three years.”

My response was mostly informed by my inner desire to be a parent one day. I had always wanted a big family. But over the years I have lost that desire. I am now in my late 20s, and do not have the slightest wish to have children.

Now, when people ask when I think I will have children, I simply tell them that I do not want any.

Many are surprised by this response. You can see they think I’m being absurd and that I will greatly regret my decision one day.

Indian writer Nilanjana Roy asserts that there is far less hostility today towards those who choose not to be parents. But, in my experience, this does not spare those who come out openly to say they do not desire to have children — what obscene looks we get.

It seems to me that if one openly declares no intention to have children, this is often taken as an insult to those who do have children or those who aspire to be parents one day.

People ask: “Are you sure?” Or they say: “You must be joking.”

It is frustrating that they seem to uphold the view that women who do not have children cannot be happy.

This is not true. And, please note, whether or not to have children, remains my choice.

Tsidiso Tolla

Tsidiso Tolla

Tsidiso Tolla has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Cape Town and is a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council. These are her own views Read more from Tsidiso Tolla

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