As someone whose pre-pandemic life was dominated by travel, it was unusual – rare, even – for a country to leave behind an emotional imprint. Until Vietnam happened. I found myself on the unassuming island of Phu Quoc in 2015 after a traumatic series of events left me without a plan for the first time in years and, almost on impulse, started exploring the country from south to north and falling in love with just about everything along the way. However, it wasn’t until I reached Hanoi that I found purpose again – volunteering at a non-profit that serves children born with birth defects as a result of Agent Orange.
Spending my days with children suffering from severe autism and Down syndrome changed me forever. Between my heartfelt connection with them and seeing their everyday realities up close, I vowed that I would dedicate any surplus time, money, and energy to institutions that cater to children who are already here and in need of help. And with whatever is left of my limited resources (yes, there’s truth to the term ‘starving artist’), I’d rather pursue the travel experiences on my bucket list: sleeping in a yurt by Issyk-Kul Lake, hiking to Everest Base Camp, practising sunrise yoga in Bali, exploring the undiscovered corners of Balochistan, taking a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia, and capturing a rainy day at Salar de Uyuni. And I don’t feel the need to apologise for my priorities – or do I?
The subject of childfree women, such as myself, is a prickly one. Just setting out to write this article in celebration of International Childfree Day, today, led to everything from uncomfortable debates to downright judgemental reactions. For the uninitiated, this annual event created in 1973 recognises “couples who have faced criticism, ridicule, and rejection because they chose to be childless”. And it’s due to the stigma around what is an incredibly personal decision that I felt the need to speak with three resolutely childfree women in the UAE. What I never could’ve predicted is how similar they are – despite their differences. These are women who dote on their nieces and nephews and feel passionately about animal welfare, thereby disproving the stereotype that childfree women are ‘selfish’. Here are their stories.
Born in the UK to an English mother and Iranian father, Deborah works in marketing and moved to the UAE 11 years ago. A few things that she’s passionate about? Animals, the environment, global warming, and everyday compassion. “I’ve become vegan over the last couple of years and, as a result of changing my diet, I think about a lot of things very differently now, including how we use the Earth’s resources and how we treat each other. More than the UK, you see stark differences between rich and poor in Dubai, and I’ve become more aware of that recently – how we treat those most vulnerable in our society, which includes animals that are completely dependent on kindness from others.”
Deborah says that it was a series of events – as opposed to one aha moment – that led to her decision not to have children. “Growing up, I never questioned that I wouldn’t have children. Like a lot of people, I thought I would get married by 27 and have probably two or three kids in my 30s. That was my plan and I never really questioned it, but there were a few different things that happened,” she says. “Firstly, I didn’t really meet anyone that I could see myself marrying. I spent a lot more of my adult life single than in a relationship and, while the relationships that I was in were very much by choice, they weren’t necessarily going to end in marriage.” Like so many of us, her light bulb moment happened in the shower.
“I got to a point where I was in my mid-to-late 30s and asking myself, ‘What if I don’t meet someone in time to have kids?’ And I’d never really thought about that before. I remember feeling a sense of shock that all of these things that I’d assumed would happen might not happen. But after taking a few days to really ponder it, I came out the other side feeling like it’s not the end of the world if I don’t have kids. I didn’t feel like I was going to be missing out on some universal life secret. And I was a little surprised by my indifference,” she explains. Her priorities were more rooted in meeting the right person.
“If I had to make a choice between meeting the right person and having children, I would always choose the former. I knew that I wasn’t going to do sperm donors or adoption if I hadn’t met anyone. And if I met someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and they didn’t want kids, I knew that I would prioritise them. I also didn’t want to have kids within a few months of meeting someone – that’s a huge commitment and you need to be really sure about the relationship. I was around 36, 37 at the time and starting to edge towards a point where it may not be suitable for me to have kids anymore. I never wanted to become a mother in my 40s,” she explains.
It was around this time that Deborah underwent a post-breakup period of emotional recovery that entailed both spiritual work and adopting cats. “I also started looking at life from all kinds of different aspects, including spirituality, which helped shake off the need to leave a legacy in this life. At the same time, fostering and adopting cats made me realise that I could unconditionally love something that I wasn’t connected to by blood, and it freed me from this idea that I needed to physically have a child. It also introduced me to the idea of other options, like I could adopt a five-year-old if I suddenly felt the need to catch up with everyone else. It sort of released from the fear that I couldn’t love a child unless it comes from my own body.”
As fate would have it, she ended up meeting her now-partner a few years after this phase of healing and introspection. “I was 41 when I met him, and we had the conversation about kids early on. He said he would be supportive of my decision either way, but admitted to feeling relieved when I told him that I didn’t want children,” she says with a laugh. “He has children from his first marriage – two teenage boys – and it’s really nice in many ways. We get along really well and, while I’m not their mother, we make a nice family unit when they visit. Those few weeks of activity drop-offs and cooking for them and family time together leaves me feeling like it’s enough.”
Elsewhere, family time comes in the form of nieces and nephews, who helped take some of the pressure off Deborah – not that she ever felt pressured. “Both of my older sisters have children, so I wasn’t depriving my parents of having grandchildren. They have six grandkids and that’s plenty,” she says. Explaining her stance on connections, she asserts, “If you are supposed to be part of somebody’s nurture, it doesn’t matter whether you gave birth to them or not.” While Deborah says she has never felt the need to explain her decision to people, she does occasionally address the proverbial elephant in the room – just in case they’re wondering.
“But I tend to find that people who have kids never really question me on it,” she tells me. “And people who’ve known me a long time understand that it wasn’t a snap decision. It’s just the way that life unfolded, and you go with it.” As for what advice she’d give to women who are facing pressure or judgement as a result of their choices? Two words: dog mentality. “My advice is the same as it is for a lot of stuff. I understand that people have opinions or beliefs based on where they’re from. And that’s fine. But the best way that you can ever address anything is with a bit of kindness and empathy – even if they’re not kind and empathetic towards you.”
Being an animal lover, Deborah says she always asks herself what a dog would think of a particular person. “Dogs don’t notice your designer shoes or the size of your apartment or your body type. They’re just going to go, ‘Oh, this person is lovely! Do you have something nice in your pocket? Do you want to play with me?’ Dogs – and animals generally – give people the benefit of the doubt and approach people with positivity. Humans on the other hand? We’re the exact opposite. We care what you wear or what you look like. Along those same lines, dogs are completely unaware of the vehicle they’re in. All they care about are the simple things – who will feed them and who will be friends with them. And that would be my advice to such women, you know? People are always going to have opinions that you can’t change, so be who you are and be really comfortable with who you are.”
Mia, who works in business administration and marketing, hails from the UK and has lived in Dubai for eight years. Her parents migrated from India to England back in the 60s, and she says that her mother (who she describes as a go-getter) has been instrumental in her ability to question social norms. “My mum broke a lot of barriers in her time. She was the first woman in the community to learn how to drive, for example. And it was her strength and courage that has not only inspired me achieve a lot in life, but also influenced where I am today – getting married and having babies feels like a bit of a social institution.”
As a result of witnessing the breakdown of several marriages around her, Mia started to look within at a relatively young age. “I started questioning the decision when I was 21. Why should I have kids? Because society tells me to? And getting married and having children is the be-all and end-all? Is it an expectation from my parents? Or is it because I don’t want to feel lonely when I’m old? None of these reasons felt meaningful enough.” She tells me that she was a serial dater in her late teens and early 20s, but that changed after some key realisations. “When I was younger, I had to be in a relationship because there was this kind of urgency – I need to get married, I need to have children. And then I realised that I didn’t have to get married if I didn’t want to. I’m not going to settle. And I don’t really need to have children. That was a real wake-up call and it enabled me to have quite a healthy relationship with myself.”
Like many women who are childfree by choice, Mia says that seeing friends and family members with children doesn’t stir up anything. “I love children. I’ve got lots of nieces and nephews who I absolutely adore, but it doesn’t make me feel broody. I’ve got friends who hit 30 and panicked about their body clock ticking or being unmarried. I don’t have that feeling. I never have.” Mia says she gained newfound wisdom when she turned 30 and became a lot more accepting of her decisions, but not everyone followed suit. Over the years, her choice to remain childfree has been met by everything from incredulous gasps to patronising comments like, “You’ll regret your decision when you’re older and it’s too late.”
Like Deborah, Mia is the youngest of her siblings, all of whom went down a more ‘traditional’ route. “My siblings conformed to society, getting married and having children, which gives my parents the enjoyment of grandkids. But it didn’t spare me from the incessant questions about my future. There was this whole ‘it’s a part of your religion’ argument. But I’m Muslim, and part of my religion is also to give back,” she says emphatically. Between rescuing cats and educating children – tomorrow’s animal owners – on more humane treatment, Mia is determined to bring change in the future.
“Look, I go around picking up all the disabled ones that really need help, so what’s stopping me from going to an orphanage and adopting a child that really needs help? That’s kind of my motto in life – giving opportunity. And I’m very fortunate to be able to do that. For me, having children is about bringing someone into this world with the intention that you’re going to create the best version of that person and give them the best kind of chance in life. I feel I can do that through adoption someday. I don’t necessarily need to give birth to be able to do that.”
Despite observing a move towards a slightly more tolerant mindset in general and across Indian-Muslim communities, Mia says there’s room for improvement when it comes to respecting one’s decisions. “I’m quite open about why I’ve chosen not to have children. And it’s not something that has come about recently, you know? I’m 35. This is a belief that I’ve been carrying for 15 years. I’m not going to start conforming just because I’m the only singleton at a dinner table with couples who are married and have children. And people need to respect that. We just have to respect how a woman chooses to use her reproductive organs, really,” she says wryly.
As for women in the Middle East? “We are entering into an era where women are able to challenge the longstanding limitations on their freedom. I think it’s crucial for women to be vocal, especially for those who are unsure of their decision or feel they aren’t allowed to think the way they do. This is a fundamental move to be liberated from the patriarchal system. Don’t be ashamed to speak up. I mean, we’re becoming more and more tolerant about people’s choice of gender identity and sexual orientation – why should it be any different for what a woman decides to do with her body? This particular subject doesn’t get as much publicity as it should.”
A homemaker and long-term expat, Pranjal has lived in Abu Dhabi for over 19 years, but what our chat reveals first and foremost is how her upbringing in India has shaped her into the real-life Dr. Dolittle. “I got my master’s degree in Marine Zoology from the University of Mumbai. I’ve always been a science freak and wanted to be a researcher, but I got married and moved here with my husband. As a child, I was a rescuer before the term was even coined. We had a house full of rescued animals – everything from dogs and cats to snakes, squirrels, and birds like egrets and cuckoos. In fact, if anyone ever found an injured animal or a baby animal in need of help, they would bring it to us. I was used to being around animals all the time,” she says.
Pranjal credits her paternal grandmother – who was an avid animal lover – for her penchant to rescue animals, but says animals were in much better shape back then. Her parents, like many, thought she would simply outgrow her tendency to pick up an orphaned puppy or injured cat on the way back from school. But luckily for the animal welfare scene of Abu Dhabi, she didn’t. “I remember people warning my husband that I was a bit mental about animals when we were getting married,” she chuckles. “But then it happened. I found my first rescue here. Being passionate about helping voiceless creatures, I picked up a poor cat helplessly lying on the asphalt in the summer. And that’s how my story in the UAE began. I’ve since been involved in areas like rescuing, humane trapping, and neutering. And I won’t stop unless I’m really old and unable to do things anymore.”
While I think of the capital’s stray cats as Pranjal’s unofficial family members, I can’t help but ask about her pets at home, and her reply is nothing short of fascinating. “Right now, I have a dog that I found in the street about nine years ago. He’s a big Saluki – and who throws a Saluki out in the street? But they do here. They’re thrown out once they’re considered no good for racing. He’s a hunter and an ex-racer, but he’s a submissive chap and became friendly with my five cats soon enough.” Her next anecdote is just as endearing as she recalls a puppy that she once rescued. “She used to collect shoes from all the villas around our house, and would dump them in the garden. And in the middle of that, she once deposited a baby tortoise at my kitchen door. I remember being puzzled at the time, like, ‘Okay, this isn’t a shoe.’ That’s how I got Ninja, my tortoise.”
Pranjal goes on to recall more incidents – a 47-gram owl that needed to be force-fed by a vet before being released back into the wild, a sunbird that she found lying outside after it hit glass, and countless cats and dogs in need of help. The more I hear, the more I’m moved by her life purpose. Selfish? Childfree women are selfish? What’s more selfless than tending to an innocent animal that can offer nothing in return? Explaining the thought process behind her decision, Pranjal says the ever-growing human demands on natural resources was a big factor.
“I always was and still am a voracious reader, which is how I started learning about ecology and human encroachment on nature while I was in school. The Discovery Channel came to India soon after, which got me into all these wildlife documentaries. And then it just didn’t make sense – if this planet has finite resources and we are clearing things up for the sake of humans to exist, where will these animals go? They shouldn’t be in zoos for us to gawk at. Oh, and that owl I found? That’s because a new community was built in the middle of the desert, and wild animals were suffering. This is what human demand does to the environment. Forests everywhere are dwindling and, whether the land is cleared for livestock grazing or concrete jungles, the animals lose their habitat either way. I started asking myself what we should be doing as responsible humans.”
But while there are responsible humans, there are also nosy humans. Pranjal has been on the receiving end of both positive and negative reactions, some of which are just downright appalling. “I’ve never experienced a friend being judgmental – in fact, I met my best friend here because of our dogs. But I’ve also had women proactively give me phone numbers of fertility specialists. And then there are those who react to the fact that I don’t have kids by saying, ‘Oh no, I’m so sorry.’ At times like that, I ask myself if I should explain, but then I just let them assume what they want,” she says with a shrug. And in case you’re wondering, yes, she has also been called the S-word. “I’ve been called selfish, I’ve been called a child-hater, which I’m not. I love my cousin’s kids and I love kids generally – unless, you know, I’m on an airplane and the kid behind is kicking me,” she confesses with a laugh. Another classic? “You must have at least one child – who’s going to take care of you when you’re old?”
I ask Pranjal what advice she’d give to women who are on the fence about having a baby, but feel pressure in light of societal norms – particularly in this part of the world. “I would say to them what I said to myself: it’s your choice and nobody can make it for you. You should have a child only if you feel driven by your maternal instincts,” she explains, asserting that it’s not an experiment. “You cannot just have a baby and then see how you feel. But if you have made up your mind, like everything else in life, stand by your decision and know that your family will eventually come around. There’s no point making yourself miserable just because somebody else wants you to have a baby. Back then, a 20-year-old girl sitting at home was considered unacceptable, but it’s not like that today. You shouldn’t be pressured into becoming a parent.”
International Childfree Day may have been created nearly 50 years ago, but Pranjal (rightfully) feels that the overall mindset towards childfree women hasn’t changed much. “Honestly, I think that the you-must-have-children camp is much bigger than this small percentage of us who have decided to take this path. People simply need to respect others’ personal decisions – I mean, my neighbour has nothing to do with whether I have children or not. I’m happy there’s a specific day that recognises people like us, but I don’t think a discernible shift will happen anytime soon, especially in this region. Things are totally different in the West, but here, a husband and wife alone cannot be a family. There has to be a child in the equation.”