Photography courtesy of Hafsya & interviewers
In Indonesia, having a family and children is a natural way of life. It is highly expected for a couple to follow the time-proven theorem: get married, have a child and even more children. Though many millennials and young couples today are deciding not to have children, for many Indonesian families, parenthood sometimes comes as a no-brainer. Anything less than that would be socially frowned upon, sometimes treated like a human defect or even blasphemy.
Holding the position as the fourth most populous country in the world, it is no surprise that Indonesia has a strong social norm when it comes to having family, however, this idea may be changing. With a decrease of 1.55 percent in birth rates, could Indonesia’s youths be following the trend of a no-child policy?
Meet Natasha (29), she is a native of Jakarta, happily married for three years. She was sure she wanted children, albeit could never wrap her head around her capability to be a mother. Motherhood didn’t come as an instinct to her. Natasha felt that motherhood was not easy, and it was not something she could just instantly be good at just because she wanted children. When she first had her first-born son, Ryan, she felt like she did not feel “motherly love” for him; he felt more like an obligation more than anything else. “He was just a responsibility to me, and I am the sole caretaker of him, that’s it,” Natasha said.
The feeling of obligation eventually grew into love and care, and she was truly grateful to have Ryan in her life. Though she loved her son very much, she was definitely not ready to bring another child into this world. She decided that she wanted a child, not children. “Motherhood is a judgmental landmine,” she explained.
Natasha argued motherhood was a battlefield on its own. Many people – men or women – would force-feed their opinions to her about everything: Ryan’s weight, her parenting style, “even the quantity of my breast-milk for crying out loud!” she exclaimed frustratingly.
She felt that motherhood was a difficult experience and an ordeal she did not want to repeat. A feeling shared by other mothers, apparently; a 2020 State of Motherhood Survey showed a full 89 percent of moms did not think society understood or supported women with children, while 97 percent of millennial moms reported feeling burnt out from motherhood.
“I know [motherhood] sounds trivial because it happens to everyone, but it’s just particularly traumatic for me,” Natasha said.
She was lucky to have a supportive and hands-on husband though. Every time her husband got off work, he would quickly take over the child and do everything apart from breastfeeding. That said, she was still set on not having another child, a sentiment she shared with 59% of other millennial mothers.
Natasha did not regret having a child, yet sometimes she felt it was too soon. She regretted not preparing enough for it. She said she would have done things differently by “voraciously taking more maternity classes,” because she realized that every aspect of motherhood could go wrong.
“My mistake was assuming some things would come off naturally, so I just focused on the excitement and my inner fear. This is my only piece of advice to anybody asking me ever since,” she said wisely.
Childless, not joyless
While social criticism is enough to put fear in Natasha’s heart, to another couple, it strengthens their belief. I met Anne (30) and Riou (31), who’s been married since 2017. They firmly agreed never to have a child. “I just hate children,” Rio said bluntly. His loathing of children stemmed from endless examples of irresponsible parents. He saw them as “loud, bothersome and dependent.”
“I don’t care what parental approach you choose, but please calm your children in public spaces,” he added, there’s an imperative tone in his voice. Children were deal-breakers for him back when he was still dating. Therefore, he was more than grateful to have Anne as his wife.
Anne’s stance on children were not as harsh in the beginning. “I’m indifferent towards children, as long as they’re not annoying,” she said. She kept a wide array of concerns about bearing a child, ranging from climate change to existential crisis. “I don’t really enjoy life. I always think the world is doing fine without me. I can’t even figure out my purpose in life, why I was created by God, and I just couldn’t bring myself to want a child,” she said, surprisingly calm in stating this deep-dark almost nihilistic exposition.
They changed their mind for a while when Riou’s ailing mother wished to have a grandchild from them. They were not pressured, but they got carried away, given her condition. However, Anne and Riou never really worked on it. Unfortunately, Riou’s mother passed away never seeing her wish came true, but Riou’s family was never demanding, something Anne was not so lucky with.
Born into a conservative Minang family, Anne had it way worse when it came to pressure. Her big family was keen on having her be a mother. She suffered her biggest second-hand embarrassment when an aunt of hers stated, “One barren woman is enough for this family,” referring to a cousin of Anne’s. Her mother was not any kinder. She kept reminding Anne that she was not getting any younger.
“I just don’t care. Luckily, my eldest sister has a son so at least she’s distracted at times,” Anne argued, laughing out loud.
Having children was just not for them. They felt pity for children born with built-in burdens unwillingly planted by their parents. Riou restlessly called these parents as mean. He believed it was not fair to the children. “How come all you have to do is give birth and earn a free slave?” he said. Anne elaborated further, “They didn’t even ask to be born. You drag them to this crazy world. It’s your choice to have children.” They believed every human being should be self-reliant through and through.
The couple stated that once they retire, they would want to enter a nursing home. Both Anne and Riou are Muslims, and in Islam, children play an important role in the parents’ lives, being able to pray for their forgiveness once the parents reach an older age. Riou and Anne though, argued that people should pave their own way to heaven, through their deeds only.
A reluctant teeter-totter
Anne and Riou may be sure about their decision, but that’s not the case for everyone. For Heidi (29), the decision is not so clear-cut. Heidi (who’s name been changed for personal reasons) was born to a devout Muslim family, with an equally devout husband. Her husband made it clear he wanted children, lots of it, at least five. He hailed from a small family, hence his desire to make it big with Heidi.
Heidi was never sure from the start. “I hesitated, but my stance was ‘we’ll see,’ though I admit I leaned towards 40 percent of not wanting children,” she said. She thought marriage was a wild jungle, so she wanted to take it very slow to figure things out; once she got the hang of being a wife, maybe she would change her mind.
Unfortunately, being a wife did not make it easy for her. “I’m now 90 percent sure I don’t want a child,” her voice was bridled with uncertainty. She was overwhelmed with the wifehood experience. It did not help when her husband got unexpectedly laid off a couple weeks into their newlywed life. She was the sole breadwinner, yet her husband was not very supportive of the overtime, work travels and the chores she abandoned. Her husband had even once stated that “it was better to live poor rather than to have her neglect her house duties.”
She was not happy with her husband’s stance. “He should be thankful I was willing to work crazily to earn money, he should be grateful because I wouldn’t have to deal with all this shitshow if I stayed single. I secretly blame him for every difficulty I faced during our marriage,” she said.
Heidi could not imagine if there was a child at stake. Her anger stemmed back from the time she was single. She expressed how much she enjoyed her bachelorette life: a promising career, solid circle of friends, a loving family, so why bother? Heidi always knew marriage would alter her life and change is the last thing Heidi needed.
She approached marriage with low expectations. “I don’t wish it to elevate my life. I just wish everything, in general, would stay on the same level,” she said. She further explained how she missed having a steady income, frequently travelled and experienced culinary indulgence – just like when she was single. She thought she found the perfect guy with the rare mix of religious obedience and moderate worldliness in her husband, but when he lost his job, he never recovered. “So, all of my life-long plans were shattered just a couple weeks into marriage,” she said bitterly.
Heidi never regretted being married, but she just wished she would have done it half a decade later. She got married at 29, which is quite late for Indonesian standards, but she was alright with it, as long as it was before 40.
“It’s touching to see him being very gentle and loving among children – any children, but…,” she shook her head in rejection. She was afraid to admit she did not want children, she was afraid of the consequences, disappointment and the religious repercussions she may endure. “Besides, why should we be expected to have children? What for? Do the benefits really outweigh all the trouble?” she pondered. She could never bring herself to a definite conclusion, she still believed that one day, she would change her mind.
As life becomes more complicated, so does parenthood, and though some may be sure about their decisions to be parents, it may be more challenging for others. It is not an easy decision and not one to be taken lightly, but at the end of the day, it’s a personal choice between the people involved. And maybe, eventually, everybody will reach their own personal clarity.