Abu Dhabi-based home maker Pranjal Kulkarni’s day begins at 5am, when she is out in the streets of her neighbourhood in Mohammad Bin Zayed City, carrying along a basket laden with around 2.5kg of minced chicken and beef apart from other assorted foodstuffs. All of this she had prepared the previous evening to feed her ‘babies’ who are sure to be awaiting her arrival.
As if on cue, the minute she steps out of her car, scores of stray cats gather around her feet, all waiting to be fed. Gently pushing a few of them away to make her way through, she dishes out the food in little disposable trays before standing back to watch them enjoy the meal.
But Pranjal doesn’t have much time. She has to hurry along as she has 14 similar feeding stations, covering four streets in Abu Dhabi.
Back home after her morning feed run, the Indian expat spends the rest of her day juggling household chores and rushing out for animal rescues, while tending to five pet cats, three foster cats, a dog, a tortoise and the occasional rescued birds. These lively creatures ensure that there is never a dull moment in the Kulkarni household.
What seems to be missing in the equation though is the pitter patter of tiny human feet playing with the pets. But this is a way of life the Kulkarnis have chosen for themselves for the past 16 years — to be childfree by choice (CBC). And they have few regrets. ‘I initiated the discussion immediately after marriage and, after a bit of hesitation, my husband Mandar agreed,’ says Pranjal.
If some recent reports are anything to go by, an increasing number of couples are choosing not to have children.
According to one report by the US-based Negative Population Growth Inc, the number of babies born in the US fell by more than 8 per cent between 2007 and 2016. It attributed the trend to the attitudes of millennials towards marriage, procreation and materialism.
Across the oceans, the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that couples without children are the fastest growing family type in the country and predicted that they will increase to 3.5 million by 2031.
A 2017 survey conducted by UK-based Office of National Statistics, found that the proportion of women who never have children has doubled in a generation.
While statistics on the subject in this part of the world are hard to come by, quite a few couples appear to be choosing not to have children.
The main reason the Kulakarnis opted for this lifestyle is because they ‘simply did not feel the need to be parents.
‘I know many women feel ‘incomplete’ if they do not have a child but I always harboured the idea that child bearing could be an option,’ says Pranjal. ‘Another reason was concern for the world we live in. As a child, I was always intrigued by the fact that our resources on the planet are finite yet the demands are staggering and keep increasing.’
Her husband Mandar nods his head in agreement. ‘When Pranjal explained her point of view to me soon after marriage, I felt I agreed with her on most things,’ says the general manager of a company. ‘The idea grew on me because I did not feel we are doing anything wrong by not wanting kids. But I did warn her that our societal norms would not agree with our choice and would constantly judge us by it.’
Proving Mandar’s prophecy true, the couple was forced to face a barrage of questions as soon as they made their wish public.
At every gathering, family members tried to change their minds as they felt it was ‘unnatural’ to live ‘this sort of’ life. The most common statements they heard were, ‘You must have at least one kid!’ You don’t know what you are missing!’ and ‘Who will look after you when you are old.’
‘Most of it was unsolicited advice,’ says Pranjal. ‘Some of them even passed on phone numbers of fertility specialists, as they felt there was no way people would willingly opt for this choice.’
Pranjal is not alone in the UAE. Indian expat Dasarathi Bhaskey and his wife have also preferred to be CBC. ‘To start with, I believe there is a difference between being childless and childfree,’ says the 36-year-old senior engineer based in Dubai.
‘Childless is when people can’t have children due to medical conditions and childfree is when you opt not to. Most people confuse between the two as they just cannot accept the latter.’
Married for 8 years, it took him two years to convince his wife that they should be childfree. ‘My motto was that just because we can reproduce doesn’t mean we must. The human population has grown irresponsibly, so the only way for a quality life at present and survival of the future is by population control,’ says Dasarathi. Eventually his wife agreed as she saw the rationale behind his reasoning.
‘Now we are enjoying life rather than just surviving the pretentious drill of expectations.’ So far the duo has travelled to 19 countries. ‘We aim to cover the entire world and build enriching memories. Like a child would provide meaning to life for other couples, travelling broadens our meaning of life; it educates us and makes us realise what tiny space we occupy in this world,’ he explains.
However stoic Dasarathi may be in his stand, he too cannot escape quirky advice. ‘A friend wanted us to adopt one of his children. Another wanted to make property wills in his name convinced that I will not be able to fully utilise my savings,’ he says.
‘Just because we think differently, does not mean we are wrong. We hold no ill feelings for these ‘well-wishers’ as they think they have our best interests at heart.’
Across the world, the Mollers, based in Australia, share Dasarathi’s outlook. Married for more than a decade, Sharon and Aj Moller decided to be childfree so they could ‘travel all over the world’ at the drop of a hat.
‘We both felt that the world was overpopulated and there were already too many children who needed assistance. Somehow, I did not like the idea of carrying a child myself and going through childbirth. We much preferred the idea of being the cool ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’,’ says 38-year-old Sharon.
This ‘cool aunt’ concept is now a very popular term with its own acronym — Professional Aunt, No Kids (PANK) — which defines someone who enjoys a very healthy, friendly relationship with a sibling’s or friend’s child, no strings attached.
After the initial interference and raised eyebrows, their family and friends have totally accepted the Moller’s life choice. ‘Sharon’s family said we would change our minds as we got older. But they have come to realise it’s not for us.’ says Aj, 39, a photographer.
Since they love to travel, they decided to create a travel blog for those who like to travel without children. Titled ‘Childfree Travellers’ the blog talks about everything they love to do as a couple. ‘I don’t impose my ideas on anybody. But I just do not mention children anywhere so that people understand that this is an option as well,’ says Sharon.
However, their life is not without its share of unwanted interference. ‘I had a random male stranger in Australia tell me it was my duty to have a baby and that was what I was born to do. It was like something from The Handmaid’s Tale,’ recalls Sharon.
The Mollers tackle these ‘well-wishers’ with aloof abandon. ‘We just tell them it’s not for us and do not give them the pleasure of a justification or too many details,’ says Sharon.
Back in the UAE, German expat George Hans, 49, says he hasn’t told anyone he is CBC because his wife is not too comfortable tackling societal stigmas. ‘She is very happy with the choice of being CBC. But since her family is a bit conservative and she feels her myriad relatives will pounce over us if we declare it in the open. But I really do not see myself changing diapers and rushing to play dates at this age,’ he says.
A common barb CBC women frequently have to fend off is the assumption that they are denying their body the purpose of their creation — of being a mother. To buttress their argument, they point to some experts who reveal that women who don’t have a child are at risk of certain cancers.
According to Dr Nihal Harris, gynaecologist at Universal Hospital, Abu Dhabi, ‘From a medical point of view, nulliparous women [those who haven’t had children] face a different set of risks than multiparous (child bearing) women. Breast, uterine and ovarian cancer can increase by 30 per cent. However, they have a reduced risk of cervical cancer. Also, the risk of fibroids in the uterus is four times more and the risk of endometriosis is more [among women who have not had children]’.
As with any woman, Dr Nihal advices regular screening for CBC women too. ‘Do not assume your body does not undergo wear and tear because you don’t have children. If you are over 40, go for an annual mammogram, and ultrasound of uterus and ovaries. Keep a look out for irregularities in menstrual cycle or heavy bleeding during periods and do regular self-breast examinations,’ she says.
On the flip side, childfree women have more time for self-care, developing their careers, following their passion and hobbies and giving back to the society through voluntary work – something that helps them in the long run. ‘All this gives them a sense of achievement and fulfilment which are exclusive to them and not pinned to their child’s achievements. Nulliparous women who attained menopause have had significantly less cognitive decline, which means they have better thinking and reasoning powers,’ says Dr Nihal.
Though CBC is a very personal life decision, and as progressive as any community claims it may be, it is difficult to overcome the long held belief that man is on this earth to procreate. To that extent, CBC couples are often at the receiving end of unsolicited advice and raised eyebrows while being almost forced to explain the rationale behind their choice of lifestyle.
Life Coach Russell Hemmings opines that being judgmental to ‘unconventional decisions’ is a fact of life and nobody can escape it.
‘When you make a choice in life that is different to the ‘norm’, you must expect to pique a certain amount of interest. Hence questions may flow freely. What is important for couples to remember is that it is natural for some relatives or friends to be disappointed and feel compelled to dig a little deeper.’
Russell suggests that CBC couples should have a few personal arguments lined up, just to inform people, without having the need to justify themselves to anyone.
‘There are many reasons for couples to choose CBC,’ explains Russell. ‘They may see the world as a hostile place to bring a child into. Or they simply do not want the responsibility of another life to care for. They could also have had poor childhood experiences themselves and not wanting to repeat certain patterns’.
Mostly, the onus of the CBC choice falls on women, and they are perceived as selfish, irresponsible, lazy or just childish. But these women are just part of a social evolution who have discarded the ‘traditional family’ model, and found joy in other facets of life.
In the case of Pranjal, it is animal rescue and care. In fact so serious is she about protecting strays, she hasn’t taken a proper vacation in years. ‘Till seven in the evening, I am out and about feeding various kinds of animals. Most people assume being childfree is running away from responsibility, but if they come to my world, I am sure the will realise, I do more work and take up more responsibility than any of them. Because if I miss one feed, lots of animals will go hungry,’ she says. Though her daily routine is more tiresome than looking after a bunch of kids, Pranjal feels helping creatures in need gives her more gratification.
For over 10 years, she has been bottle feeding and raising hundreds of kittens till they can be adopted. ‘It is not an easy job but I found I was good at it and loved it immensely. Many people thought it was being done to channelise my maternal instincts but I do it because the kittens need it.’
Mostly the moral police are just intrusive, but sometimes they can be deeply insensitive, she says. ‘There are those who say that God doesn’t give me kids because I neuter animals. Yet others ask me how I can be a child hater. I don’t hate kids, I love them. I am crazy about my brother’s kids and vice versa. I just don’t understand why I should be accountable to everybody for my personal choices. To some of them I have asked why they are not taking care of cats or feeding a few dogs,’ says Pranjal.
So what does being childfree mean for these couples?
‘For me it is the ability to go on a rescue call at any time of day or night without having to worry about a human child being home alone or needing something while I’m gone’ says Pranjal.
‘When my mother was sick and I had to make multiple trips back home I did feel it would have been impossible for me to care for her, if I had a child to worry about.’
For the Mollers, it is the freedom to pack their bags to travel at any time. ‘We have more money, we can purchase what we like when we like, we can have nice expensive things without worrying they are going to get ruined or broken. We get to spend one on one time with each other.’ says Sharon very candidly. ‘We don’t have to base our choices around a child’s needs.’
While parenthood is one of the most rewarding experiences in life, it is something that should be entered into voluntarily. Making choices centered on personal needs, hopes or desires isn’t necessarily selfish but rather transformational, say those who have adopted this lifestyle. ‘Whatever the reasons a couple opts for being CBC, it is a personal choice which doesn’t have to be justified to the society,’ says Russell.