Monday, December 19, 2005

On Bringing a Child Into the World

What urges are involved in having or not having a child in the modern world? And what are the implications of having a child?

This is a monologue based on observation, not on personal experience.

Of the instincts or pressures which lead one to procreation, first and foremost is the biological imperative to continue the genetic flow. The basic purpose of life, birth and reproduction for human beings is the propagation of genes. This instinct is extremely deep rooted and hard to consciously investigate.

This urge manifests itself as the ideal of mother and care-giver as the ultimate role for a woman, and as a provider and a mentor as the ultimate role for a man.

As a woman turns 30, she becomes worried that as a reproductive entity, her time is limited. The pressure to become a mother becomes increasingly more insistent after this age. Probably she has experienced love, intimacy and marriage by this age. Motherhood, however, still remains a fresh territory which she would not want to remain off for very long.

Coupled with this inner pressure is the pressure from others. Friends and family are curious as to why the couple is not taking the next step, whether there is a physical reason, whether there is some emotional problem or lack of love and so on. A woman or man would be called selfish for not wanting to have a child, as it would be perceived that their own freedom is more important to them than their "natural drive" to bring and nurture another life in the world.

The parents of the couple would express their need to see their grandchildren. Bringing up one's children is an anxiety-ridden process for most, but bringing up grandchildren can be a pleasant chore at a stage in life when nobody else needs you. Grandparents are usually more accepting, tolerant and loving to kids than the kids' own parents. And of course, seeing one's clan propagated can give a peculiar pleasure.

Fear of loneliness and age-related degeneration is also a major factor in having a baby. In most human societies, children take care of their parents or their grandparents (to various extents). If a child is born when a couple is around 30, nearly 50 years will pass before the parents themselves reach the age where they need physical care. It is not too realistic to expect a son who is fifty (or a daughter, who has her own family) to care for oneself when one is eighty. And even the grandchildren will be having their own life by then. Hence, this need is seldom met properly by one's children or grandchildren. At most, they can provide financial or emotional support or allow the parents to live with them in the same home and take care of their basic needs.

For poor people who have no significant savings, having children is an insurance against starvation and abandonment in old age (or when they are incapacitated).

Another pragmatic reason for having a child (for the reasonably well-off) is to have a heir for the property and wealth accumulated (or inherited) during one's life. One would obviously like one's "own" to make use of the property and wealth that one has.

Frequently, this expectation of care from one's children and this dangled carrot of inheritance causes messy disputes, lawsuits, resentment, petty politics and infighting in an extended family.

There are other reasons for having a child which are emotional and which can prove stronger than pragmatic considerations.

When a couple has been through three or four years of marriage, a state of meaninglessness, ennui or boredom sets in with hardly anything fresh to look forward to in life. A child can provide a welcome relief from this state. It can provide a goal, a meaning to one's life, a reason to live, a reason to be happy or sad, a way for the self and the feelings to re-emerge and express themselves.

And, especially in modern times, as a couple grows into marriage, a child can be a means to cement the emotional bond between the parents. The child can be a device to bring back a oneness of purpose in the life of the parents. A man who does not like to come home early from work, will often do so because he enjoys the company and affection of the child. A woman will value the presence of the father more now that there is a child who needs both of them (as the father assumes the role of the bread-winner whereas the mother is the primary care-giver for the baby).

There is always something to be done in a home with a child, hence boredom (or having nothing to do) is temporarily banished. However, the constant effort of caring for the child (for a nuclear family) can be overwhelming, frustrating and an enclosing activity. One has little time to pursue one's own interests, to eat out, to travel etc. (more on this later)

A child is totally dependant on its parents. This can provide a feeling of gratification for them (especially for the mother). "I am important for somebody", "I am someone's mother or father", "My child needs me more than anything else", such thoughts and the associated feelings can provide a great deal of nourishment to the self. Many people report a wordlessly intense experience as they hold their child in their arms for the first time, or hear the child calling out "Papa" or "Mummy" to them.

The usual relationships in the world are tinged with ego, with manipulations thrown in. A mother's or father's relationship with their child is devoid of self-concern, as they see the baby as their own selves. As such, it is the closest to unconditional and transcendent love that a normal human can aspire to. And in a marriage where the husband and wife do not love each other anymore (or where the intensity of their love keeps waning), the love (or rather, the dependence) of the child for its parents can be very fulfilling.

A child cherishes its mother. It loves her, needs her, cannot be without her for long, quietens in her arms, its language is privately understood by her. It is like a new love affair for the mother.

A child is innoncent to the ways of the world. The parents experience the baby's innocence and ignorance, its naivete, its simple questions, its joy and sorrow at small things as a breath of fresh air in their own usually jaded lives. They relive their innocence through the child. Caring for the child, answering its questions, playing with it, showing it the world for the first time is a transcending, relaxing experience which takes one away from the worries and fears of one's own life.

For a father, teaching the child about the world, about the ways to survive and flourish can be a deeply satisfying experience. A father wants the child to do better in the world than himself. Teaching the child, mentoring and guiding it, grooming it for success and knowledge, feeling proud at its achievements (or the obverse, feeling disappointed at it having failed to be what one wanted it to be) are deep emotional processes and events.

The deepest emotional aspect of having a baby is that it is seen as a propagation of one's self. One achieves a spurious immortality by becoming a parent. One will live on and continue in this new form. One may be nothing in the world, one may not be famous or known, one may have created nothing of lasting value, but at least this trace of oneself, as one's child, will remain in the world and will continue through the centuries through its progeny and so on.

A strange satisfaction is there of having achieved something mystical by bringing forth a new life into the world. One is almost a God, having created a new life out of nothing. One transcends one's humanity by becoming aware of another life created through oneself.


I will attempt only a short take at the demonstrable implications of having a child in an urban setting.

First of all, in a nuclear family, caring for a child can be quite a chore. A single person taking care of the baby for most of the time can easily become impatient, angry, frustrated and tired. Sleepless nights, frequent cleaning of linen, not understanding the reason for the child's distress, trying to teach it the basic things about its body processes, feeding it inspite of the baby's resistance, protecting it from illness, frequent visits to the doctor because of undue fears about some symptoms in the baby's body, all contribute to nervous exhaustion and tiredness.

If there be grandparents in the home, the burden is considerably lessened. Otherwise, there can be resentment in the mother at being confined to home while the husband is free to come and go as he pleases.

The mother's body undergoes various transformation during pregnancy and after delivery, and this can lead to a concern in her about her attractiveness. As caring for the child is a taxing chore, sex and sharing of one's free time with one's spouse becomes absent or extremely infrequent. Coupled with the unattractiveness factor, this can induce tension into the marital relationship. The husband finds the wife unwilling as well as unattractive. If he becomes distant from her, resents the child, and tries other avenues of entertaining himself, it can cause a great deal of distress for the mother. For her, the child is a joint creation and responsibility. And her body has borne the brunt of bearing the child. The father's callous attitude towards the wife or the child can lead to depression in the mother.

Both of them recognize the lack of freedom that the child now represents to them. The implications, as they become more obvious, can turn into a battle with one's spouse for space, time for oneself and one's freedom.

As the child grows up, there is anxiety and fear over its health and future. The child's peers, TV, targeted advertising and almost everything which comes in contact with it condition it in various ways. It can become manipulative and blatantly selfish and hedonistic. This can be a trying period for the parents. It can be quite an effort for them to instill the "right values" in the child. There are varied influences in a modern city which can lead a child "astray" and it requires quite a bit of sensitivity and intelligence to gently encourage discrimination in the child. Especially during and after puberty, it can be extremely hard to keep the instinctual drives under check.

Coupled with this is the difficulty of ensuring a good schooling for the child. Good schools in India are hard to find, with admissions being notoriously tough and expensive. As the child grows older, such concerns become more pronounced, now that education and competitive examinations leading to various career paths enter the picture.


Bringing a child into the world is a serious responsibility. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that people will understand and free themselves from their own incompleteness and emotional urges. But a wise assessment of the implications might not be too much to ask.


Ankur said...

I think thats Y the developed countries are experiencing a negative growth rate.

Totally agree with u But there is no feeling better than the one you feel with ur child in ur arms.--This is from experience.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Ankur,

Thanks for your comments.

As social security becomes better, people will definitely cease viewing children as a need.

Two, I have heard it from many people that holding your own child in your arms is a feeling without compare. I don't disagree with that. But would you not agree it is an instinctual feeling which actually nurtures the sense of "self" and "bonding". Both the senses of self and that of bonding to people of one's family are the causes of moments of great
happiness and great sorrow.

Ankur said...

Harman, i was thinking about this post since i first read it, and therefore came today again and read ur response :-)

All i can say is no risk and no gain, Sometime one just has to flow with the wave rather than thinking what wud happen.

I have heard that many ppl in US have children only coz they want to live off the social security money it gets them.

On a second read i cud find some references to mother becoming unattractive and health taking a beating,,well mother become a fuller women more beautiful after the childs birth,,also doc told me the harmones and the chemical reactions during labor help boost mothers immune system.

But i like ur article for being very complete and leaving almost nothing untouched.

Anonymous said...

Hi Harmanjit,
ling time no read. I hope all is well with you and your love-life and whish all the best for both.

I've thought about the AF-related matters time and again since the days of the mailing list. Conclusion to date of stubborn old me:
what's so bad about bonding and self? And about happiness an sorrow? Illusions, but what's so bad about illusions? In Indian religious terms: Aren't they a way of That playing with It-Self? What about playing for playing's sake, whatever the cost? Or in evolutionary terms of the Selfish Gene: Having children is life's way of preserving itself. If the rewarding feelings had been absent in previous generations, you would be absent. Imagine stone-age people "rationally", i.e. following utilitarian principles, considering social security, education and healthcare - humanity would not be here. Or should we say they should have worried more, so you would have to worry less ;-)?
In other words: should human life go on? And would it, living "happily and harmlessly"? Or would people worry too much for having children at all?
You see, I come from a country without overpopulation, so my preliminary conclusion is: different circumstances, different convictions.

Anonymous said...

You need to experience it to realize how it feels when you see a new life...I don't think any feeling in the world is more fulfilling than a child's birth.

I am a mother and unfortunately men can not experience the feeling of life growing inside you day by day, a single cell growing into blood, hands and feet, heart, brain even things like nails and hair and coming to life - Possibly nature's biggest gift.

It's one's own perspective of looking at things which make it look like a liability or life's best experience. Is there anything which brings only joy? Then why worry about sorrow..going by that human should be devoid of all emotions as they all bring joy as well as sorrow

Anonymous said...

Very good post. I am a new mother of a 5 month old baby.

I was so much moved by your deep understanding of the issue, that I was surprised to see in your profile that you are a male :-)

Free-Fallin' said...

i love the consice way in which u've thin-sliced the cotent of this post, yet covered every single angle. i have a 2 n half year old girl and the reason we had her was probably a mix of all that u mentioned.
in my experience, rearing a little one and getting her equipped to stand tall in this world makes u grow too, makes u understand certain vital facts of life which u had only glanced at until u an insight into your own parents' psyche, and the concept of family...these are very important aspects of human life in the modern world. someone who has'nt had this understanding has missed out on something big, which comes only with the event of becoming and then being a parent.
posting u a link to one of my blog-posts which is on somewhat similar read it when u have time.