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Nature to nurture? Why are Pakistani women rethinking motherhood?

Published: June 22, 2015


Can women lead a successful life sans maternal instincts?

I’d rather not be a mother than be a bad one,” claims 28-year-old Zainab Imam, highlighting a rather common tilt among the affluent and educated women of Pakistan. In a time where ‘making informed decisions’ is a definite requirement for every crossroad in life, an increasing number of Pakistani women like Imam are redefining gender roles and questioning whether they are ready for marriage, let alone a family. “I don’t want children because I will not have the time to be a good mother,” adds Imam.

This change is not just specific to Pakistan. Across the border, India shares a somewhat similar social landscape. Twenty-six-year-old journalist Indrani Basu echoes Imam’s concerns. Even though Basu is fond of babies, she is reluctant to undergo the physical experience of producing one. “I don’t mind doing everything else, whether it is staying up, changing diapers, potty training, massaging and bathing, etc,” says Basu. “I guess I don’t mind being the dad!”

Keeping women like Imam and Basu in consideration, a pertinent question comes to mind: is intellectual stimulus and empowerment stifling the maternal instinct in today’s women? Or is it that they are simply unwilling to take on the responsibility that comes with motherhood because they are more aware of it? Women like 21-years-old student Samia Ansari, it is clearly a case of not wanting to take on more than one can handle. “I fear having children. I do love children of others but the idea of having my own is very scary. Taking care of babies and playing with them looks good for a while. But being responsible for another being is a very scary thing. I don’t think I can [do it],” says Ansari.

Are women born to be mothers? 

We often hear people say that women are born to be mothers but whether the maternal instinct is something we are born with or acquire still remains debatable. Renowned psychologist Nasim Mughal feels that women are indeed born with the instinct to nurture. “It’s a biological and genetic template; like an inbuilt disposition within women that interacts with the environment,” she explains. Mughal further adds that nurturing is largely the outcome of socialisation an individual goes through which ultimately determines their characteristics. “Healthy, grounded socialisation helps actualise innate human abilities while dysfunctional experiences tear down the basic fabric of who we are.”

In the case of Sameena Bibi*, dysfunctional conditioning appears to have made her dislike motherhood. Hailing from a rural village in Multan, Bibi’s family believes that a woman’s worth comes from producing children although Bibi herself feels differently. “I am currently expecting my first child but feel no love towards it as I never wanted to be a mother,” she admits. Bibi’s predicament can be attributed to her experience of witnessing her mother being abused during pregnancy and after delivering a daughter. The lack of love received from her father has caused Bibi to believe she will fail as a parent as well. Despite this, Mughal reiterates that the need to have children is present in all humans. “It is the glue that bonds two people together, providing them with a common purpose.”

At the other end of the spectrum is psychotherapist Asma Pal who feels that the reasoning behind maternal instincts is not a simple one. “It is more a learnt behaviour than an instinct. Others may disagree but I think bonding begins once the baby is born,” says Pal. She also shares the story of her gynecologist telling her that the reason women feel nauseous in the early stages of pregnancy is because the embryo attaches itself to the uterus but the body rejects it. “It is the natural reaction of the human body to fight outside influences. While the validity of this statement needs to be checked, it makes sense to me,” says Pal.

Interestingly, some women find it difficult to bond with their baby even after birth. “I was expecting to fall in love immediately with them at birth but I just didn’t feel much,” says 34-year-old Ayesha Zubair. “I breastfed both of them as my mother pressured me to. But I hated doing it and sort of felt trapped with the kids,” confesses Zubair, adding that it took close to four to six months for the maternal instinct to kick in. Therapist Shazia Khan says that this could have been a case of perinatal or postnatal depression, something most mothers don’t recognise. “My interest as a psychotherapist is more towards what are we doing for women who are expecting but are simply not aware of these disorders,” states Khan.

The intelligence quotient

According to Satoshi Kanazawa, a researcher from the London School of Economics, the smarter the woman, the less likely she is to want children. In his book The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smarter One, Kanazawa suggests that for every 15 IQ points a woman earns, her maternal urges drop by 25%. Similarly, a study titled Childlessness Up Among All Women; Down Among Women with Advanced Degree, conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2008, confirmed that most educated women are still among the least likely to reproduce in the United States of America. Although, statistically some prefer motherhood, the study states “there has been a general trend toward delayed marriage and childbearing, especially among highly educated women.”

Based on the findings, women who have dedicated their lives towards achieving a degree or career feel an inner pressure upon having to take a long hiatus like a maternity leave. However, according to Kanazawa, the more worrisome aspect is that if the upper tier of intelligent women reproduces fewer females, the genetic intelligence which is supposed to trickle down to future generations will be hindered. Thus, there is a high probability that the world will miss out on smarter humans.

Moreover, women like Mumbai-based writer and media trainer Shai Venkatraman believe that there is more than just a woman’s intellectual status at play here: the practicalities of being a professional need to be considered too. “I never had doubts that I wanted to be a mom. But I delayed it because at that stage in my life, work was taking off. Also the organisation I was working for wasn’t welcoming towards pregnant employees, despite being women-friendly,” explains Venkatraman. She also adds that even though her company offered six months of maternity leave, female employees were made to work like slaves once they returned.

In Venkatraman’s experience, some professions are more unfriendly to the idea of working mothers who aspire to make it to the top. “If you look at women who have made it big in the news and television industry here in India, most are unmarried or childless by choice.”  In situations like these, a family support system helps immensely. “I always tell younger women that they must ensure a support system for themselves, such as staying close to their children’s grandparents, if they want to reach the top,” she adds.

Societal pressure towards childrearing

Cultural experts feel that in many progressive setups, the social pressure on women to bear children has decreased considerably and what was once considered necessary for a woman’s social survival is now seen as an individual choice.

However, such a mindset is rare, especially in our part of the world where a woman’s are primary role is as a vessel for childbirth. Many young women like Imam are still subjected to intense coercion to reproduce. “Not a single day passes by without someone reminding me that the proverbial biological clock is ticking away,” says Imam. Yet, the pressure isn’t enough to make her jump into motherhood without careful deliberation. “It still doesn’t change the fact that I continue to be undecided about whether I want to have children or not,” she says. For Imam, it isn’t about being too career-oriented or intelligent but instead, being a responsible parent. Imam, in fact, likes the idea of being a mother and would be perfectly happy to take a break from work to give her child full attention. She is simply unsure about when to take a break.

One can’t deny the fact that today’s progressive women are under a lot of economic pressure. “It’s becoming more and more obvious that the women of the current generation – often called millennials – are reluctant to have children because of the financial restraints placed on us, thanks to the political decisions the boomers made before us,” says Mehreen Kasana, writer and academic. Kasana says that today’s woman knows what poverty or being on the brink of poverty is like and they are, as a result, unwilling to put a young life in the same precarity. “It’s a class-based choice. Many of us women are keener on acting on our autonomy and economic issues rather than just producing for the sake of producing.”

Today’s women have to acquire sound education, have a thriving career, build a good life with a compatible partner, raise children, socialise and also maintain themselves, physically and emotionally. As a result, motherhood in this list of priorities may be sliding down a rung or two. Mother of two, Zaib Kamran, still feels unsure. “It’s too complicated for me, I am still figuring it out,” she says. Raising two girls, just 11 months apart, and trying to balance that with everything else makes Kamran feel like her life is too mechanical to be classified as the love of a mother. “Perhaps this is love? Maybe. I don’t know.”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, June 21st, 2015.

Love in the time of Marquez

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 18, 2014


I woke up today and switched on my cell, a morning ritual. The first ping was a WhatsApp message from fellow journalist and dear friend Shai Venkatraman,

“Marquez is dead!”

It was followed by an emoticon denoting sadness. I sat up, partly due to disbelief. Illogical disbelief.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was 87-years-old. He was sick and frail. Reports of Alzheimer’s pointed in the direction that the beautiful mind that had given us works that pulled us through our years of solitude had exhausted its reservoir of memories. He had done his job. He had given enough to this world. It was his time to go. Yet, a strange sense of loss hung in the air.

“He introduced me to the wonders of literature, of the world he wrote about. No one has written quite like him… (experiencing) a sense of loss.” wrote Shai to me.

And I knew what she was saying, exactly.

Marquez came into my life much too late. Like a lot of the best things that have happened to me, he happened to me when my teens were over and practicalities stared back at me. I always pacify myself that I got to read him when I was ready for him. But I envy people like Tooba Masood, a young brilliant colleague who shared today at work that the first time she read One Hundred Years of Solitude was when she was in grade six. She said,

“And I told myself this is how I want to write one day.”

“But nobody can write like him, right?” I retorted.

She agreed saying that the reason she wanted to visit Colombia was that she dreamt of meeting the man. She even had plans of storming into his house. Mournfully she said,

“Now I will have to visit his grave.”

Tooba and others like her must have had the liberty of revisiting just the right Marquez works when things happened as they grew along in life. I did not. Even now, I do not know his works as well as I should. I cannot talk about his work or quote him from memory, but I know enough to feel his books etched on me. I know some of the nuances will dawn on me after I have read his books more than twice, have dog-eared them, have marked the quotes I love best, have left my fingerprints on them. Not via Sparknotes or Goodreads quotes, but the real books.

And I must. How can I not read and re-read the man who managed to see magic in the mundane?

Living in a world where one is compounded by pragmatics; where even dreams are calculated; where the mundane threatens to take away remnants of creativity and desire, Marquez helps us fantasise but within the framework of the real and the physical. His world is the world I want to live in while I live in my actual world. He has given me and so many of us a doable way out.

Like the clouds of yellow butterflies heralding the arrival of a lover as Shai reminded me today.

Maybe the magical realism came easier to him due to his ethnicity. He himself had once said,

“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

It may be that cultures that have disconnected with mythology will have a hard time understanding Marquez. To me and others from cultures like mine, I believe understanding his work comes naturally.

He wrote in Spanish. And Spanish does not come naturally to most of us. I recall a moment in Rome where I was attending a journalism course, and we met an amazing Brazilian colleague. During a tea break in freezing Rome, we gushed about how she speaks Spanish and how lucky she is,

“Fernanda, that is the language Marquez wrote in!”

So one inspiration for a distant dream of learning Spanish is that maybe one day I can read his original words.

Marquez is an inspiration of sorts. He was a journalist yet, he produced these fantastical works. When cynics try to tell me that day after day churning out uncreative journalistic reports and editing them will rob me of chances of ever writing fiction, I will remember Marquez and silently ignore those cynics.

He also inspires me in his relationship to Mercedes, his wife of 50 plus years. They give me hope. With a man of his mind, it must not have been an easy ride. But Marquez makes me believe that relationships of creative people can be magical yet real. They can be sustained.

And one day, just maybe, one day, if I go searching for ancestral roots both in Jalandhar, India and Khairpur, Sindh I will be carrying a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in my hand while I dig into my family tree.

Timelines of friends, even unexpected ones, are filled with sad updates about Marquez. Some have used the word ‘mourning’ for what they are experiencing. But his life needs to be celebrated. And it will. As it always happens, sales of his books will go up. People who have never read him will talk about him. And that is a good thing. For whether you read him or not, you already know him, because he essentially wrote about love, the truest kind.

He wrote in his book Love in the Time of Cholera,

“The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”

I am sure he died a satisfied man, sans regret.

I hope to do the same because as he wrote,

“There is always something left to love.”