It's bizarre, this huge pressure to keep breeding in an overpopulated country bursting at its seams! As if Indians are on the verge of extinction. Sundry relatives, the landlady, even the cleaning bai, have by turns suggested we have another child!" guffaws Chinmay Lahiri, doting father to a nine-year-old. Much less amused at being asked to procreate by random strangers, his wife Suparna uses a curt reply she's honed over the years. "Don't tell me how many more kids you think I should have, and I won't tell you how many less I think you should have had..."
Sounds smug? Get used to it. For, a growing number of upwardly mobile urban Indian couples today are opting for single-child families. Not that they aren't niggled by doubts about raising a lone child, but they're learning to deal with the stereotypes that surround the issue. And they don't take kindly to being asked to be fruitful and multiply.
No, it's not Malthusian motivation that urges them to do this good turn to the nation's exploding demographics. Short on time rather than money, their decision on family size is often taken with an eye to the demands that career and a hectic lifestyle makes on both spouses, and it is a decision taken jointly. They marry late, have children even later and are happy to shower their undivided parental affections on their only child. Impervious to the gender of the child begotten, these new-age couples equally relish playing parent, friend and sibling by turns to daughter or son.
And in doing so, they perhaps unknowingly herald the beginnings of a trend that the nation's family planning slogans seem to be hop-skipping to catch up with. Campaign hoardings that stopped advocating Do ya teen bas years ago for a smaller Hum do hamare do are now being replaced in many a metro by placards that promise One is Fun.
A slogan that seems to come alive in the Vohra household that revolves around nine-year-old Siddharth. "Because he's our only child we love him double. We love giving him baths, doing his homework, playing cricket with him...," gush the overwhelmed Delhi-based parents. Partner in a multinational executive search firm, Atul Vohra earns enough to be able to afford another child. And, in their early 30s, the couple's certainly young enough to have another. But like wife Simmy says, "One doesn't have children because one can. One does because one wants to. And ever since Siddharth happened to us, we haven't wanted anyone else."
The Vohras though, make no effort to gloss over the fact that the decision to bring up a single child has also been a matter of 'convenience' for them. You can't after all, they argue, enjoy raising your child if s/he inconveniences you. "Parents rushing to meet the demands of all their children, just rush," says Atul. "We're more relaxed, attending to one child."
A belief Mumbai-based Reba and Tapan Mukherjee share. With the latter mostly sailing on his merchant navy job, the decision to limit their family to one child seemed the most sensible option for the proud parents of 13-year-old daughter Tunali. Admits Reba: "It does feel lonely without a child and I wanted to be a mother. But I didn't want to take lots of responsibility, it's very comfortable this way."
Also, adding to the brood in dual career households often means allocating more duties to the grandparents. Not an entirely guiltless proposition for a generation that's a staunch votary of the nuclear family. Don't want to stay in a joint family, but want all its benefits-that's an awkward demand to make! "I didn't want to double the pressure on my mother by having another child. As it is, she does more than her fair share by helping me bring up my son," says Rupa Dutta, 10-year-old Shankyan's mother. Deputy secretary with the Indian Economic Service, Rupa keeps just as busy as her husband Gautam who is in the private sector. She strongly feels bearing children only because a foursome is perceived as a complete family is pretty much a thing of the past.
This because parenting is increasingly becoming a more conscious, more individualistic process in today's world, as Prof Ashum Gupta of Delhi University's psychology department tells you: "Couples in urban upper middle classes are loath to follow 'traditional' family sizes or traditional parenting patterns blindly." Shortage of time, lack of secure care facilities, and most importantly the new emancipated woman, says Gupta, will add to the rising numbers of single-child families in urban India. "The career woman, as opposed to the working woman, thinks her role as a professional is as valid as her role as a mother. And only if she has one child can she manage to enjoy both."
Yes, it's almost like making a lifestyle choice. It's almost as selfish. At least that's what a very strong, and majority, public view feels about couples who opt for the 'convenience' of a single child. Deprived of siblings, lonely, pampered, precocious for always hanging around with adults, such children grow up to be self-centred brats, is what most people have to say about single children.
In fact, so strong are the prejudices that they stir up dilemmas for the most sure-footed. Chennai-based journalist Subhaa Venkat reflects on her decision to have one child: "The attempt to reconcile the notions of ideal motherhood with that of a thorough professional makes us realise that we can't do justice to bringing up more than one child. But we're also scared that being single, my son might not grow up to be an accommodative social being." So as a corrective then, the Venkat household is bustling with their 10-year-old son's cousins every other day.
Clear that they wanted no more than one child, Bhopal-based Dr B.S. Yadav and Vandana waited eight years before they had their son Shiv, who's now two. This despite the fact that the couple were under tremendous social pressure to have children, especially since they came from large families. "But we wanted to have one only, so that we could pay him undivided attention." The emphatic statement, however, does not stop Vandana from worrying that the lack of siblings is making little Shiv moody and emotionally dependent on his grandmother.
Yet, there's a burgeoning breed of parents who refuse to let doubts unsettle their decision to have a single child. "People started telling me my son hadn't begun talking at two because he didn't have siblings to interact with. An absurd conclusion considering most children at that age are single; all Rohan's problems, however, were ascribed to his single status because I'd told people I didn't want any more children," says Ragini Deshpande, documentary filmmaker and mother of a 10-year-old. However, these stereotypes better be done away with, she says, considering that the already sizeable numbers of single-child families are only bound to grow with times. "Since it's going to happen, we better learn to resolve the peculiar problems that such a child might have without always advocating that this be done by producing more kids."
Anita Anand, director of Women's Features Service and mother of a 10-year-old, offers an interesting insight into the Indian discomfort around the issue. As a culture, she argues, we Indians are scared of single people: "Single men, unmarried women, divorcees, we feel awkward about them. When someone doesn't fit into society's perception of what's normal, people suggest he get married. Problems in marriage are sought to be resolved through producing a child. The problem with this child is further sorted out by having more children!" Which is why Prof Gupta sees the solution being nothing short of a constant reaffirmation of "our collective psyche".
Clinical psychologist Sujatha Sharma has some suggestions for those seeking helpful tips to make raising a single child easier in the shorter term: "Encouraging lone children to share their possessions, to mix with children their own age, to participate in team games helps." Coupled with a conscious effort not to over-indulge such children can make great kids, says she.
But parental fears loom larger in spheres beyond the behavioural one. "I'm often asked what if something were to happen to Neel, our only child," says Calcutta-based Ketaki Dutta Paul, who works for a publishing house. "How can people assume that parents with two kids feel less pain or adjust better to the shock of losing a child." And yet some do get petrified. Convinced by their friends and relatives that their child would have no one to turn to after them, Reeta and Micky Sawhney chose to have their second child after a 12-year gap. But Himadri and Rekha Moharana, parents to vivacious seven-year-old Anusnigdha, don't let such thoughts scare them. Says Himadri: "Why project your fear of loneliness on the child? Both Rekha and I come from large families, yet we always reach out to friends when in dire need. She too will find her own friends." Till then, promises Himadri, her parents will be Anu's best friends.
But will this friendship suffice? Surely Anu and other single children like her must be feeling misfits in a peer group that has others boasting of siblings. Do they? Nine-year-old Siddharth brushes aside such mushy queries: "Who talks about things like brothers and sisters! We talk about things like computers." Siddharth and Anu seem comfortable with being single. Maybe we should too.