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Not all 8-hour Sleep and Botox: Being Childfree in Indonesia

I’m glad we’re talking about childfree openly now, but can we please stop being distracted by the message and let women decide on their own body?

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  • February 16, 2023
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Not all 8-hour Sleep and Botox: Being Childfree in Indonesia

I was having an unplanned mini reunion with some of my middle school classmates during a recent work trip to Central Sulawesi, when the inevitable question was popped not long into the meetup.

“So, how old are your kids now?”

It has been 36 years since I last saw this set of friends before our family moved away to Jakarta, and we are now roughly in our early 50s. Many of them have children who are already in university or even working – the youngest kids probably being in their teen years, conceived by “accident” in later years by matured parents or by moms who were married later than most of her peers.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised by this question. At my age, people no longer ask, “Do you have any kids?” or “How many kids do you have?” At this age people presume that you have children—unless you don’t, in which case you’re sad or just strange. Fortunately, at this age, you’ve pretty much grown a second armor-like skin so that your casual “I don’t have any” reply does not leave you as vulnerable as it would have been in, say, a decade prior.

I love getting old. I rejoice in the uncomfortable silence that follows my answer.

Also read: Why No Kids

Because no one is rude enough to ask a woman who is theoretically past her reproductive age why she is not a mother, just as most people know better than to ask the reason behind someone’s divorce. Or just as people would never be so insensitive as to inquire what stage a person’s cancer is. Or … you got the point. 

There were times, many moons ago, when my answer would elicit probing follow-up questions like: “How long have you been married?”Or comments like “What are you waiting for?” Worse, they would invite the unsolicited advice: “You should really get in touch with this gynecologist/fertility specialist/psychologist/meditation guru/shaman.”

No one even would even consider for a moment that the childless status is a result of a conscious decision, whatever the reason might be (and, believe me, it’s not always about career, or, God forbid, to stay youthful). The popularity of the word “childfree” is a recent phenomenon. Back then we were mere “childless”, the suffix “-less” signifying what we don’t have, lacking something that makes a person complete or normal.

So it is with delight that I have been following the childfree conversation on the internet with women who have huge social media platforms like Chelsea Handler, Rina Nose, or most recently—and controversially—Gita Savitri (or Gitasav) at the center of the discussions.

I am delighted because it is about time we normalize the fact that a woman who doesn’t have a procreative urge is still a woman, a functioning, contributing, compassionate woman, who probably even has maternal instinct, even if it may be directed towards her nieces/nephews, pets, or social causes, instead of her own offspring.

In the early years of Magdalene about nine years ago, some of our articles written by women who shun motherhood might be considered controversial for addressing what was still a taboo issue. Now they seem innocuous compared to some of the public statements or gestures made by childfree women on social media.

In one her recent tweets, Gitasav, a content creator whose progressive views on issues ranging from LGBT, hijab to being childfree often provoke the outrage of netizens, credited her youthful look – in apparent jest and in response to a praise –to not having kids.

Gitasav might be criticized for her choice of words and the flippant way she frames the “perks” of not having children that may grate people who have kids. But she is brave to put herself out there to be the face of a life choice that is still considered “unnatural” in most societies. For this, I applaud her.

Still, I’m wary that this important discussion about women’s autonomy to her own reproductive system—like any conversation that exists on social media platform, especially, ahem, Twitter— tends to quickly descend into a free-for-all, bash fest on women. The point gets lost amidst triggered mothers who feel “attacked” for having children, the religious crowd who use the opportunity to show what happens when a woman is so out of touch with her God-given nature, and the bros who say, “you will change your mind, and it’ll be too late by then, when you’re in your deathbed with no child at your side to care for you”. Never mind that a lot of adults are actually estranged from their parents, or being overwhelmed with the stress of taking care of ailing parents.

What surprises me most about this latest furor is how it provoked women I know who I expected to have a more nuanced view on this topic to resort to using a logic they wouldn’t have used on other issues with gender dimension. One woman I know in her forties with three teenage kids, posted on her social media a series of photos of her and her children from the time they were little to the present day. The caption implies that with three kids she is three times “awet muda”, an Indonesian term for looking youthful.

OK, granted, she is slim, physically fit and with enviable supple skin. But don’t social class, financial stability, and perhaps a few other privileges factor in when it comes to her youthful look? If she wasn’t financially well enough to not have to struggle to pay for her kids’ education, for the nutritious diet on the table, the exercise classes and skin care regime, and the charming and “healing” family holidays, would she be looking as young as she is now, three kids or not?

I’m sometimes concerned that the whole discussion exposes many childfree women who want to live their lives peacefully and quietly to more judgement, scrutiny and even discrimination. More than what they face already on a daily basis.

Also Read: No, I Don’t Have Children Confession of A Child Protection Activist

Yes, it’s not all Botox and eight-hour, disruption-free sleep in this childfree universe. In many Indonesian traditional cultures, a woman without a child is valued less than one who has (and even more respect given to those with grand children).

In articles and social media, many childfree women admit to being often assumed to have too much extra time, which justifies the extra work they are thus given. A recent survey by Resume Lab conducted in the US – where annual birth rate has dropped by 20 percent since 2007-shows that nearly two-thirds of employees believe those with no children are treated unfairly from their colleagues who are parents. Among the types of discriminations, according to the respondents, are being denied time-off, having  to work overtime, and being given a greater workload.

Some would argue that women who choose to be parents face many challenges at work already (true), and they should be appreciated because they contribute to economic growth (for some economies where the population is aging anyway). But shouldn’t people who choose not to add more burden to an ecologically distressed planet by not birthing more people be acknowledged for their contribution/sacrifice as well?

Like any big choices one makes, we childfree women, too, are often saddled with doubts and worries. Being prepared for old age, for one. And, of course, we don’t need to tell you what a pain it is to go to a family gathering or school reunion and having to fend off inquiries on why we haven’t had children, even being reminded that we are not getting any younger.

In my younger years I often turned defensive when people questioned my choice or when they became presumptuous. At some point, though, I accepted that people would not change their view however much I tried to reason with them, and it was too much a battle for me to wage alone. In those pre-hashtag years, debates on social issues weren’t yet a thing on social media, where people would go to virtually poke each other or leave testimonials on friend’s walls (remember Friendster?).

Being constantly embattled was tiring and I’ve decided to pick my battle strategically. To some people I might admit that not having a child was a choice that my husband and I made. To others, I’d mindlessly recite, “God hasn’t blessed us with one” (never mind that I am agnostic – that’s another story, another battle). But, really, I realize I don’t have to explain to anyone what I choose to do with my body and my life.

Today, I am privileged enough to be in a state where people no longer question my life choices (at least not to my face – what they say behind my back I cannot control), however odd they are. I’d like to say that is a gift you’ve earned when you’ve walked the talk long enough. Unfortunately, to many women in this patriarchal society, that is a luxury beyond their reach.

So this is a call to other women out there: Instead of being offended by sarky social media remarks that tend to get blown out of proportion, let’s focus on the big picture: That we need to stop policing women’s body, and respect their choice to have or not have a child.


Editor:  Devi Asmarani
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Devi Asmarani

Devi Asmarani is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Magdalene. She has enjoyed spending much of her adult life breaking stifling norms and ignoring and exceeding expectation heaped on her gender.

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