London — I sit on the bottom stair of my mother’s house, my plate of rice balanced gently on one knee, as chaos unfolds around me. Madiha is crying after a thwarted nap, Arif is whizzing up the stairs with Zayn not far behind, Mizan is whimpering for the iPad, and Sara needs a nappy change.
People are everywhere: perched on armrests in the living room, spilling into hallways, rummaging in handbags and queuing for the bathroom. This is my family on Eid day — the conclusion of the month of Ramadan — in my childhood London home: my seven siblings and their 21 children who range in age from 3 months to 23 years. The permutation differs from week to week, but today they are all present, drawn to my mother’s home from the citywide web that connects us all. As they squeeze and crowd around me, I feel love and joy and fullness at the noise and color and chaos.
From my vantage point on the stairs — the only seat I could find — I scan the piles of shoes lining my mother’s hallway and find in them a clear symbolism: pink Velcro is innocence; spiky heels, a declaration of independence; ballet flats, the prudence of our nurse in training. My boots sit apart from the mess, neatly aligned in a black leather pile of their own. It seems fitting, for I came alone and will leave alone, too.
At 35, I am punctual, mobile and available — adjectives no woman chooses first for herself. I am the sibling who arrives on time and gets things done on deadline. I am valuable and reliable, yet I am transient too. I am a fleeting presence that appears for a burst of time, then fades when all the families return to their respective homes.
My childlessness in a family full of offspring would be poignant, tragic even, were it not by choice. I alone among eight siblings have decided not to breed — a choice that baffles and mystifies everyone in a family as fertile as mine.
My Bangladeshi heritage doesn’t help matters. With values more suited to Victorian England, my parents raised me with one overarching objective: to marry well and raise a family. Shirking this responsibility is an aberration in our culture that tends to provoke questions.
Why choose childlessness? Mine is perhaps the simplest reason of all: I do not have a maternal instinct. I have never felt a desire to bear and rear children. My choice is not rooted in selfishness as I once thought, nor a fear of losing my figure, or a puerile attachment to a contrarian view. I simply don’t want children. After years of stress and worry, my parents have finally come to accept this, but others still voice dismay.
Relatives, neighbors and acquaintances prefer to think that I haven’t yet met the right man, or that I don’t yet have the funds.
When I say that I am with a man I have loved for seven years and that we spend our money traveling the world, it sounds like hollow protest. Indeed, an acquaintance once asked if I travel so much to ‘fill the void’ in my life. His question implied that I was incomplete without offspring; that I traveled not to see the world but to fill a yawning chasm in my life; that I was dishonest or somehow obtuse when I claimed not to want children; that I didn’t know my own mind.
I try hard not to be defensive as it plays into the ‘us versus them’ narrative that pitches mothers (strong, selfless, valiant) against their childless peers (cold, selfish, detached). The trope of the ‘hardworking family’ is particularly galling because it excludes huge swaths of women like me.
It’s true that the texture of my life is different. Even my busiest days are empty next to the tumbling knit of joy, laughter, stress and mania that defines my siblings’ lives. It’s fair to ask if I, while sitting in a sterile airport hall, might harbor a secret wish for white picket fences and a litter of little children.
As a pragmatist, I have asked myself that question often. I have watched emotional scenes between mothers and daughters and listened for a stir or echo of the heart. I have sought out stories of childless women to glean how many changed their minds. I have quizzed close friends and found relief in their candor. Many understand perfectly well why I don’t want children. One told me without guilt or pause that she would be just as happy without hers. “Of course I love my kids and would be devastated to lose them, but I would be just as happy as I am now had I never had them,” she said with ungilded honesty.
The truth is that my family — my gargantuan family with all its quirks and vagaries — has negated the need for children of my own. Without them, perhaps the man I love, my travels around the world and my coveted job as a writer wouldn’t be quite enough. If I didn’t have my seven siblings and 21 nieces and nephews in all their chaotic glory, perhaps I would have heard the echo I have listened for so hard. Perhaps I would have asked if two people really qualify as a family — and arrived at the answer that “No, they do not.”
But my family members have given me a shortcut out of the debate — with others as well as with myself. I can lay claim to 21 children even though they’re not really mine. I can go to my childhood home and talk politics with my nephew Nadeem, or trade barbs with my niece Rabika, or steal a cuddle from newborn Sara. There is a personality and subject to suit all moods in the family. There are aggressors and mediators, extroverts and introverts, dour matriarchs, drama queens and debates in two different languages: English when we’re polite and Bengali when we’re lively. There is laughter and warmth and happiness.
Rather than hamper me with expectation, my family’s fecundity has only set me free.