One of the enduring mysteries of life is creation itself. As humans, we are privileged by the ability to choose when and how to use our natural capability to bring forth new life. For those whom nature does not favor, modern technology provides a way out. I felt a surge of happiness when I first read about the birth of octuplets to the woman in southern California. Life is precious, and to be blessed in such a magnificent manner deserves gratitude. Then the controversies began. About choice, about responsibility—both personal and social—about money, publicity, and greed. A private event became the subject of public discourse.
The issues brought to the forefront by the Nadya Suleman case, like the number of her children (14 in total), are numerous. From a single parent’s use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), the ethics of dealing with frozen embryos, to the risks taken in implanting multiple fertilized embryos (especially since the mother had successfully carried six babies to term in prior IVF attempts), and finally to the question of whether or not Suleman would be able to provide for such a large family given her limited means. Regardless of these ethical and political considerations, I believe the underlying issue is personal choice. In this case, it is the choice made by one individual within the realm of what is practically feasible without regard to the long-term consequences of her decision.
For many women, the desire to have children is a deep biological and social need. Thanks to techniques like IVF, motherhood is now attainable for women who may have been denied this joy in previous generations. The fact that IVF is available to all such women who may have otherwise remained childless, instead of having been kept within the purview of the rich minority, has certainly made a significant difference to many. The low probability of carrying a pregnancy to term, the statistics of embryos splitting, and the decision about the fate of any “left-over” fertilized eggs are issues presumably discussed with each potential IVF patient. While evaluating these medical options, I doubt that any woman—no matter how socially conscious—worries about the potential impact on taxpayers.
The subject of having multiple children (not necessarily multiple births) continues to be a hot topic in India. As a burgeoning economy with a billion-plus population, growth in India is measured on numerous fronts. For my grandparents’ generation, children, traditionally considered to be “god’s gifts,” were regarded as blessings. Perhaps this kind of thinking fostered a huge increase in the Indian population in the years just prior to and post-independence. The joint-family system provided much needed infrastructure and support.
My parents’ generation—many of whom had faced the hardships of growing up in large families, and who had lived through times of scarcity—largely chose to have fewer children. I grew up in the India of the ’70s; like many of my peers, I had few siblings, but was surrounded by many cousins. The trend toward smaller families was further promoted by public service announcements on national television touting “hum do, hamare do” (two of us and two of ours), showing a cute sketch of the quintessential Indian family with mom, dad, son, and daughter.
In my generation, it is rare to see an urban Indian, working, middle-class nuclear family with more than two children. Parents are committed to giving their child the best start in life, which includes a good basic education that comes with a hefty price tag. To ensure a better quality of life for the family and build a nest egg, the young urban Indian naturally chooses to have only one or two children at most. Despite this, India’s population continues to grow at an alarming rate for reasons ranging from illiteracy, to lack of access to contraception, to the quest for male offspring, and the mistaken the belief that many hands can contribute to family earnings. The single most important factor, though, is the fact that the choice to have children is seldom available to the one who gives birth, due to lack of empowerment of many women.
With more mouths to feed, the priorities of both the immediate family and society become skewed. One way to approach this issue is to impose harsh government policies on family size. While it may stem the tide in an overpopulated nation like India, it goes against the universal human need to procreate. Perhaps an incentive to create families by advocating a pro-adoption stance may be an option. The size and nature of your family is an extremely personal choice, but it is one that has a direct bearing on society because individual choices shape collective responses.
In a now widely-circulated interview with Ann Curry, Suleman appeared confident about her desire to have a big family, describing her lonely childhood as an only child. Her kids will certainly not be short on sibling interaction. But large families pose other challenges including the sheer impossibility of providing adequate attention to every child (particularly several children of the same age) and a dependence on outsiders for financial and physical support. The greatest burden is not the money required for the physical growth and safety of these babies, but rather their emotional well-being (or lack thereof) which has the potential to affect many more lives.
One of the joys of having children is evolving in your own growth as a responsible parent, along with your child. A large part of that responsibility lies in just “being there,” being fully present when they need you—a tall order for all, but especially for a single parent of a large brood. Will Suleman’s children perceive a lack, then? And will this affect the choices they make as adults?
Becoming a mother has been one of the most miraculous events of my life, but being a parent is the most demanding and humbling experience I undergo on a daily basis. But how do I know if I am being a good parent? Perhaps the purpose of parenting is to shape the lives of your offspring in a way that helps them make the right choices, not just motivated by personal desires, but with a goal to make the world a better place than the one they came into. Our success will be measured by the personal and collective choices of the next generation.
Ranjani Rao has been a contributor to India Currents magazine and was a prize winner in the 2002 Katha fiction contest.