A short while back, the national news headlines were ablaze with a story about a woman in Naivasha who had committed suicide due to her inability to conceive. According to neighbours, the woman had tried to conceive for years, to no avail, and her fellow women had taunted her for it. Tragically, her husband came home one day from work to find her body hanging from the ceiling.
That the inability to bear a child is devastating for many women is hardly a surprise. Many a woman — a good case in point being the highly esteemed High Court Judge Roselyn Nambuye, whose story ran in this newspaper recently — has suffered ridicule and rejection from their spouses and in-laws because of their inability to bear children.
The horrors that accompany childlessness date back to ancient times. You may recall Hannah in the Bible, who was vilified for not having children. She spent every waking moment crying to God for a child until she had her wish granted.
This begs the question: When did society decide that motherhood equates womanhood; that unless a woman bears a child, then she is not woman enough? Even adopting, however many children you please, does not cut it; motherhood by birth, it seems, is the only ultimate expression of womanhood.
Religion has often been used as a tool of justification in the case of child bearing, with many stating that children are gifts and blessings from God; that multiplying and filling the earth is a divine instruction.
But if the Bible so advocates for child bearing, then why did many prominent people in the Bible not bring forth children?
Prophet Elijah had no known children, and yet he was whisked off to heaven in a chariot of fire even before his death. Jesus Christ and St Paul, the very proponents of the Christian faith, opted not to have families, let alone children.
I suppose a lot was at stake; they were completely preoccupied with the very important ‘careers’ of spreading the gospel to the world. If this is the case, one is left wondering why the same privilege of choice that was afforded them is not extended by society to other people in this day and age.
Why do many people, especially women, who opt to go down this path of childlessness, get vilified for it? Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has paid a heavy price for choosing not to bring children into this world. She has been constantly ridiculed for this choice, with one male politician remarking: “I think having children is the great loving experience of any lifetime. And by definition, you (Julia) haven’t got much love in your life if you make that particular choice (to not have children).”
Never mind that nuns and priests the world over have foregone the decision to have spouses, and ultimately children, because of their love and commitment to Christ and the church.
We have all been raised to follow a certain path in life: Go to school, get a job, get married, get children, and die. Any path that contradicts this one is deemed inappropriate, especially one that does not involve childbirth.
But supposing life does not turn out as you planned, and you do not meet the right person until you are 50, and by then it is too late to bear children? And what if you want children, but barrenness gets in the way? Does that, then, veer you off the ‘proper’ path, bearing in mind how tough and rigorous the process of adoption is in this country.
Some women feel that they lack a maternal instinct. So, should they go ahead and have children regardless, because it is the ‘right thing to do’?
One such woman, 33-year-old Sally Guga, insists that she has no intention of bearing offspring: “My single mother died when I was eleven years old, leaving my aunt and uncle to raise me and my sister. We had everything we wished for growing up, and they loved us as though we were their own. What they did for us made me realise that one need not have borne children to love and treasure them.
“I don’t want to bring children into this world. In my opinion, there are way too many children out there without parents, who would greatly benefit from having other people care for them.
“A lot of people claim that children bring a couple closer together, but this was not the case with my husband. Children changed the dynamics of his previous relationship, and put a strain on it. In as much as children are wonderful and a blessing, they are not for everyone. And by not having them, I am not being selfish. It is a decision I have made, and I am fully aware of my reasons.”
Given Sally’s argument, a point worth pondering is whether a child is the ultimate fulfilment in life; whether a person can have other equally fulfilling things in life, including pets, travel, a vibrant career, or service to the church.
But psychologist and relationship expert Chris Hart argues that you cannot be fulfilled without the presence of a child in your life.
“Statistically, a marriage without children is likely to break,” he says. “Research has shown that more than 40 per cent of childless couples do not make it.”
He states that for many couples, the choice to not have children is not always equal, and that one partner gives in because the other one is adamant about not wanting children.
“It is very rare for a woman not to have maternal instincts. Usually, when one is settled in their career, they develop a routine they are reluctant to break by having children; it is not because of the absence of instincts.”
But what about the successful women in their 50s, who have had fulfilling lives thanks to the absence of children? Dr Hart insists that they are not necessarily fulfilled; rather they are trying to rationalise the lack of fulfilment that has been brought about by their childlessness.
“Nothing compares to the fulfilment of having a child. Rewards of parenthood usually begin to set in around middle age, and by the end of your life, children are the only thing in life to look forward to,” he says.
Oprah Winfrey once famously proclaimed: “I don’t think I could have this life and have children.” The things that she refers to include educating hundreds of children in need, reaching out to thousands of child abuse victims though her talk show, and also becoming the first black woman dollar billionaire.
As far as parenting goes, whatever your dreams might be, there is no absolute guarantee that you will bring forth the best versions of you into this world. Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of bestseller Eat Pray Love once wrote that “having a child is like putting a tattoo on your face; you have to be absolutely sure that it is what you want”. Cute baby pictures on Facebook do not evidence a colicky baby who has kept their mother awake for three months, or the crazy bills he or she is raking up.
Parenthood is a great blessing, and one of life’s greatest fulfillments, but it could also mean a mental illness, Down’s syndrome, or even a potential drug addiction your child will be battling for life, because not every child is going to turn out to be the best version of you, as you might like to believe.
Hellen Cherono, a doctor, says, “I am terrified of the thought of parenting. You are stuck with these human beings who will always depend on you physically, emotionally and psychologically, for the rest of your life. They are literally tied to your ankle. That said, maybe someday I will happily decide to get one of those human beings.”
The choice to be child-free is seen as selfish, because many choose this path in pursuit of careers, peace of mind and a tidy living room. Then again, many people choose to parent because they want someone to take care of them in their old age, and they also want to continue their lineage; bear in mind that children are not involved in this decision when they are being conceived.
Whether or not you choose to have children, this life-changing decision has to come from you. For some people, the challenges of parenthood greatly outweigh the rewards, while for others, life has no meaning without children. And better yet, others choose to parent through ‘unconventional’ means, including adopting, or opting to raise children that their spouses have brought into the union, as Sally has done.
Courtney Sullivan, a childless author, writes: “There is comfort in knowing one does not need to be a mother to know great love. The important thing is to ask the question: is this what I want? rather than do what we are supposed to. No one else is going to rock your wailing infant to sleep. So nobody else gets a say in the when — or the if.”
What a ‘child-free' society faces
The bleak realities of a ‘child-free’ society are already starting to dawn on Western nations.
In Germany, for instance, having children is no longer a matter of course. Statistics indicate that Germans are having 1.3 children per household on average (the Kenyan average is about five children per woman). Within a generation, half the German population will be over 60 years of age.
In several parts of Germany, especially the East, populations have drastically sunk, leaving behind uninhabited beautiful towns with abandoned apartments. Demolitions are at an all time high.
Germany now faces a labour shortage, and a highly strained pension scheme. What a childless society generally generates is an expensive retirement force and a greatly reduced labour force.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself childless, has poured billions into Germans’ pockets to encourage them to make more babies, but the fertile population remains uninterested.
The New York Times reports that the work force is rapidly greying, and assembly lines are being redesigned to minimise bending and lifting. If Germany is to avoid a major labour shortage, experts say, it will have to find ways to keep older workers in their jobs, after decades of pushing them toward early retirement, and it will have to attract immigrants and make them feel welcome enough to make a life there.
These negative consequences of a ‘child-free society’ extend to Japan, Russia, and the US, which are also recording declining populations. Younger Americans have been waiting longer to get married, often because of economic difficulties. Married couples may be waiting longer to have children, or having fewer children, for the same reason.
These declines mean that in America, in 20 years, there will be historically low number of young people entering the workforce, paying larger taxes to accommodate the increasing number of retirees.