UNSETTLING

You may be Sania Mirza or Jennifer Aniston, but you’re not “settled” until you’re a mother

Ace against odds.
Ace against odds.
Image: AP Photo/Joseph Nair
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Another married Indian woman has virtually been asked for “good news.” This time, the woman in question is a world no. 1 in tennis, and the man who posed the question is one of the most celebrated news anchors in the country.

For those unaccustomed to the world inhabited by Indian women: “Good news” can mean only one thing—successfully mating with the right man.

And here I was thinking that only ordinary women like me get to undergo their weekly living-room pregnancy tests. That only the neighbourhood “aunties” and nosy relatives were interested in married women’s ovaries.

So it goes that the sporting achievements of 29-year-old Sania Mirza—India’s most successful woman tennis player, world no. 1 in women’s doubles tennis and recipient of India’s third-highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan—pale before her one cardinal non-achievement: no kids, yet.

On July 15, when she sat down for an interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, a leading television news anchor, her global standing was overshadowed because she had apparently not “settled down”—euphemism for finding a guy to get married to and bear children for.

“Amidst all the celebrityhood, when is Sania going to settle down… what about motherhood, building a family?” asked Sardesai, consulting editor at the India Today group. Sardesai was interviewing Mirza about her recently-launched autobiography, Ace Against Odds.

Mirza promptly called out the sexism. “You don’t think I am settled? You sound disappointed that I am actually not choosing motherhood over being number one in the world at this point in time.”

Clearly on the backfoot, Sardesai apologised and admitted that he wouldn’t ask the same question to a man.

But Sardesai’s initial line of thought wasn’t shocking, it was just very disappointing. That is how many Indians are conditioned to approach an adult woman: trivialise her professional achievements to zero-in on motherhood.

To be fair, it is not just in India. Earlier this week, Hollywood actress Jennifer Aniston expressed her exasperation over the media’s obsession with her pregnancy. In an essay on Huffington Post, Aniston wrote:

“This past month in particular has illuminated for me how much we define a woman’s value based on her marital and maternal status. The sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time… but who’s counting) points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children.”

Mirza and Aniston are, however, lucky in many ways. Their frustrations over such treatment at least get a platform in the media.

How about us, the non-celebrities?

As a 30-something, married for over three years, the “settling down” query is by now standard. I am urban, educated and financially independent. But my relatives, neighbours, sometimes even friends, and potential recruiters, often don’t really care.

They feign much concern over my ovaries, instead.

Around three years ago, I had not even finished telling my aunt about my new job and handsome hike when she cut me, with, “Woh sab toh theek hai, ye bata ki good news kab de rahi?” In short: Screw the job, just tell me when are you giving me the—yeah, you guessed it—good news!

I really wasn’t prepared for that. Her cool indifference was unnerving, even humiliating. Success lies in reproduction, it seems.

Over the years, however, I have grown a thick skin. But is it only conservative family members who pose such annoying queries? You’ll be surprised.

A few months ago, a college friend and mother of a two-year-old suddenly took to sermonising. I was “wasting” my life, she said, chasing professional goals. “You can work for the rest of your life, but now is the time to have a baby,” I was told. “When you are old, this career won’t come to take care of you, it’ll be your children.”

This was coming from a friend, once a class-topper, who gave up her career to “settle down” with her husband in the US. I ground my teeth. Sweetie, did I ever question the choices you made? Whatever happened to individual preferences?

One would think these things don’t matter in the professional realm, where talent, attitude, and hard work are the obsessions.

Last year, however, another friend was in for a rude shock during an interview for a job with one of the world’s largest HR consulting firms. With over six years’ experience, she was the top performer in her last company.

“I generate one-third of the revenue of my current employer, but the interviewer was least interested. Right at the beginning, he asked me what my husband does. Then he asked me how long we have been married, and followed up by asking if we have any children,” my friend said. “When I told him that we don’t have kids, he asked me why, and by when were we thinking of ‘settling down’?”

It was once her dream to work at the multinational. Just 20 minutes into the interview, my friend was saying, “Never ever.”

A woman may be at the top of her professional game, but sometimes it all boils down to whether or not she is married to a professionally successful man and has bred.

Sure I want to have children some day, but not for “settling down.” I am settled already, thank you. To quote Aniston: “I’m not in pursuit of motherhood because I feel incomplete in some way.”

Je suis Sania!

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