Choosing children, part 2

Dania Ayah Alkhouli explores what the Quran really says about having children.

Unpopular Fact: A genuinely secure person would not, at all, feel threatened by the life choices of another.

I think of this fact often when I get attacked for my childfree choice, wondering what fuels such intense, almost visceral, reactions from these people. I know what the answer is but to avoid exacerbating the argument, I refrain from informing people that their anger is clearly a byproduct of envy and insecurity.

I was 19 when I first came forward with this decision I had been ruminating over for two years. Ironically, it came out while my mom and I were babysitting my cousin’s newborn. She was finishing up a diaper change and I was clearing up the crib when I anxiously asked, “What would you say if I told you I don’t want to have kids?” Without even looking up, her hands moving at professional speeds, she said, “It’s your life. You do whatever you want.” I was surprised and looking back at this moment now, I realize why exactly I was so shocked at her answer. 

Regardless of how we’re raised and what types of environments we grow up in, the patriarchal system is still in power and will leave its mark one way or another.

For us women, gifted with the right kind of upbringing and empowerment, the unlearning starts earlier and becomes easier with time, but every once in a while, we are reminded of the patriarchal indoctrination. For men, the work is two-fold because they don’t easily see the need to unlearn what benefits them so well.

Despite my mom’s answer, there was a small part of me that almost doubted her open-minded (but still hardcore religious) demeanor. I decided to ask a follow up question, inspired by the obnoxious behavior and rhetoric of her peers. “So you’re not mad that I won’t ever make you a grandma?” She laughed loudly, as if I had cracked a really good joke, and said, “I got to live out my life the way I chose, and I wanted children. Grandchildren are not MY choice to make.” That was it. That was all the reassurance and validation I need to never look back. Though it didn’t ease the isolation I would soon come to face for this decision, it gave me the thick skin I needed to survive.

The reason I blame insecurity and envy on people’s reactions to this choice is because there is no other valid answer to why they behave this way. I remember one time a group of young Arab women were hanging out and, per usual, the conversation revolved around husbands, what to cook them for dinner, and babies. Many were engaged if not already married and they asked me about my plans, specifically how many children I wanted. When I matter-of-factly let them know children were not in my plans, one girl just would not accept. “What?! Oh my god, no. You know what? I’m going to pray so hard that God gets you impregnated ASAP and you end up with seven kids!”

I can’t get (too) angry at people who never grew up with genuine free will. Who were never gifted the time and space to choose their lives. Even if many of these people thought they chose what to study or whether or not to get married or when to have children, the truth of the matter is, these choices were all stemming from unspoken pressure. I compare their reactions with my mom’s and recognize insecurity vs. security. I believe the same goes for men, except men also seem to seek out any opportunity to attack a woman more empowered than they are. Case in point: In 2019 I posted a TedTalk about a woman’s childfree choice and the sexist journey she experienced in seeking sterilization.

The story was incredibly powerful and so I posted it on Facebook. Little did I know it was going to anger a random older Arab (who I don’t even know) so intensely he would take it upon himself to convert me back to Islam. Yes, he doubted the validity of my religiosity and headscarf because I have exercised this one choice. Enjoy one of his many colorful comments I captured as a little reminder:

“…you wear the hijab and say you are a practicing Muslim and embrace the narcissism of putting yourself first above having a family. You definitely are confused sister. It’s your loss, but you will remember this 50 years from now when you are dying alone without any of your children by your side. Children are Gods blessings not his curse.”

See, religion is a failing argument for why one “must” have children, and I’m speaking strictly about Islam and Muslims right now. I understand when we feel sympathy and frustration towards our family, friends, and community members who lose their way spiritually, but choosing not to have children? I don’t understand the religious-based anger or reasoning.

Growing up in a practicing Muslim household means Quran comes up anywhere and everywhere, no matter what we talk about. I recently posted an Instagram video where my mom managed to somehow bring Quran into the conversation about skydiving. That’s literally my home. We eat, breathe, and sleep scripture, so when I make a choice, it passes through every religious litmus test I learned. In conjunction to my upbringing and education, I also read and understand the Quran, and it doesn’t take too much sensibility to see the 5:1 ratio in verses.

Every time someone tries to use religion as an argument for why children are an “obligation” they always turn to Chapter 18, Verse 46:

“Wealth and children are adornments of the worldly life; but the enduring good deeds are better to your Lord for reward, and better for hope.”

It’s a lovely verse, but what part of it is mandating reproduction? The part that calls children an adornment (zeena in Arabic)? An adornment is an accessory, as in an addition, not a foundation. I also think it’s very powerful that God pairs “wealth” and “children” in this verse, that they are attractions of this life, however…

God also provides us with FIVE other clear-cut verses in the Quran that caution Muslims about these two:

“And know that your wealth and your children are a trial and that Allah has with Him a great reward.” (8:28)
“And it is not your wealth nor your children that will bring you nearer to us in position, but rather by being from those who do good; for them are double the rewards of what they did and will be in the upper chambers, secure.” (34:37)
Never will their wealth or their children avail them from Allah.” (58:17)
“Oh you who have believed, let not your wealth nor your children divert you from the remembrance of Allah; for whosoever does so, then they are the losers.” (63:9)
“Your wealth and your children are but a trial, and Allah has with Him a great reward.” (64:15)

The point behind my presentation of these verses is simple, self-explanatory really. God Himself is giving us a choice, presenting to us the pros and cons of child rearing (and wealth). Telling us that those who acquire these adornments should pay attention and not let them steer or overpower their lives. (Allah calls them fitna, and for those familiar with the Quran, that’s a heavy word referring to things that can misguide you in life.) None of these verses mandate or prohibit reproduction and if I were to summarize this series into one thing, it’s this! Having children is a choice, not a mandate.

Consider terminology. When we call reproduction an “obligation” instead of a choice, it alters the weight and value of the entire experience.

When we begin to approach having children as something someone is choosing—and choosing wholeheartedly—it automatically shifts the overall emotional, mental, and physical wellness of both parents and children.

It’s interesting when those of us who choose not to become parents are called selfish, but the folks carelessly reproducing “just because” or “because of religious obligation” are not selfish? Bringing a living soul into this heavy world and not by authentic choice?

I have painfully heard it quite a few times at community gatherings, parents passively aggressively resenting having children… in front of their own children! I’ve wondered how many women in this world suffered from lingering postpartum depression and how many actually suffered from suddenly realizing this is not what they wanted but never had a moment to think about it?

One of the most powerful illustrations of this was on the show The Bold Type, when Sutton Brady induced a miscarriage after finding out the baby had no heartbeat. Her loved ones, assuming she was grieving the loss, offered her comfort, but she later reveals that her grief stemmed from guilt for feeling relieved. The experience had taught her she did not want to become a mom because she had never thought about it.

That’s the problem. We are not raised in a world that genuinely teaches us to reflect on and weigh the decisions painted as necessary life stages, like marriage and childrearing. “You just do it,” is what I hear from most people who still don’t know why they want to get married (or why they are married) and why they want to have children. So anyone who “goes against the grain” is shamed, guilt tripped, and attacked.

I am not shaming anyone for having children nor am I against it (for others). I am simply insisting that we begin recognizing it as the choice that it is. And a choice is not just deciding to have a baby. It’s an active effort to do your utmost best, to make sacrifices, to go through anything and everything to raise as best a human as possible. If someone understands they cannot/do not want to take on this very big responsibility—for whatever reason at all—that person has every right not to have children.

Read Choosing children, part 1 by Dania Ayah Alkhouli. Find Dania on her blog, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.