Childlessness in Indian Communities

Whether it is by choice or by circumstance being childless in an Indian community has some unique challenges. For many couples, childlessness is the result of failed natural conception and fertility treatments and for other couples, extending their family may simply not be a goal. Coming from an Indian background with a relatively large family, it has always been embedded into me that I will one day get married and start a family. This was certain. There seemed to be this unwritten rule that lingered which left the idea of childlessness as incomprehensible – especially if it was by choice.

Over the years, I saw family and friends get married and it wasn’t long before their fertility journey became the subject of conversation. Once the wedding festivities had come to an end, many members of the bride-groom’s family and even members of the wider community expected further celebratory news of a baby on the way! For many couples, conceiving doesn’t take too long. However, for others conceiving can be a battle that challenges their identity as a wife as well as a daughter-in-law. This is due to the expectation of becoming a mother and the expectation to fulfill the role of a wife and daughter in law. For women in the Indian community, childlessness can cause a sense of guilt and embarrassment with many women experiencing both mental and in some cases physical harm. However, due to fear of humiliation, both men and women are hesitant to discuss their difficulties in conceiving or even their choice of childlessness. This may also be the result of the stigma attached with childlessness in the Indian community. This stigma can no doubt cause individuals to experience a sense of isolation.

A common belief in the Indian community is the belief that women are the reason for the childlessness, in response to this belief many men go on to re-marry – however, this is more common in India as opposed to the UK. Another commonly held belief within the Indian communities is the concept of black magic. When faced with fertility struggles for example, many individuals from the community believe they have been touched by a curse or black magic which is preventing them from conceiving. This is a commonly held belief, which may intervene with the confidence in medical treatment – for example, a couple may have unexplained infertility, but as the medical professionals can’t find an issue, it is commonly believed this inability to conceive is the result of black magic – some may also argue that going against Indian norms and remaining childlessness out of choice is also the work of dark forces. Whilst it is best to leave beliefs like these to each individual, it is worth acknowledging that such beliefs are also found within African communities too.

When I think about people in this situation, I often find myself playing devil’s advocate to try and understand why the concept of childlessness is not easily accepted:

My thoughts frequently gravitate towards cultural norms and tradition – as Indian women in 2017, why are we living life in line with age old traditions? Sure, our great grandmothers may have found conceiving easy, but it doesn’t mean we do. Also, what happened back in those times where women couldn’t have a child? – they were most likely shunned, but does that then mean they are any less of a woman or any less of a daughter in law? Why does this inability to conceive give men the right to re-marry, what if the issue was with them? Should women re-marry? Why should women be subjected to guilt and shame if they don’t conceive? What about the men?

Questions about being childless remain endless!

The mentality and expectations of the Indian community need to be dynamic to allow for changes in norms. Childlessness may not always be a choice, but if it is, it should be respected. If childlessness is circumstantial, people shouldn’t be rejected or feel embarrassed to discuss their inability to conceive, in fact, knowledge should be shared to help others in similar situations and to help combat taboo. People should also be aware that circumstantial childlessness can be the result of the man or even unexplained factors and not just the woman! In addition, the same way respect is held towards a couple who have decided to start a family, the same level of respect should be maintained towards couples who make the decision to live life without children.

After completing her degree in Psychology Shafali realised that her quest for knowledge hadn’t been quenched. She decided to study for a second degree, this time an MSc in Psychology, Health and Behaviour with a particular focus on how individuals adjust to living with infertility.  To find out more about Shafali’s research please visit her website