When Sadaf Ahsan, 32, and her husband began their life together, they knew two children would be ideal for them. “We had no desire for a large family,” says Sadaf. “You see, we live in Dubai which is a rather costly place to be in. Keeping that in mind, two children are normal, I guess. I have one son and one daughter and can’t even imagine having a third child now!”
But Tahmina Saleem holds a different point of view. “What is the point of small families?” she quips. “The raunak created by my six children, the sharing and fighting over stuff, sibling support and rivalries are all the spice of life. My husband and I have no regrets about our large family. In fact, we are considering having one more child to seal the deal!” she adds, cheerfully.
Deciding how many children one can or should have unfortunately isn’t always as easy as settling on a magic number. Especially in an economy wherein stagnant earnings and job difficulties weigh on the minds of parents — most of whom are starting families at older ages than their predecessors — people are seeking help in making the right decision about family size. The problem is that everyone from parents to grandparents to family planning blogs and doctors, all have their own idea of the optimal family size.
Anyone with a thriving Pakistani family will understand that having a large family was the norm in the yesteryears. At times, our grandparents had up to 15 siblings and that too, after one or two had passed during infancy. “The idea was to have lots of help for family businesses, especially in the case of farming,” explains mother of three, Shahida Jamaal. “Plus, lack of proper medical amenities resulted in high infant mortality rates so people had more children to make up for the deceased ones. Nowadays, changes in various socio-economic factors have shrunk the average family size in Pakistan to a maximum of four children.”
It is hardly any breaking news that the skyrocketing costs of living discourage people from having large families. As explained by Saima Hussain, a mother of three, “A single diaper costs Rs22, one litre of milk is about Rs95 and then there is a monthly school fee of Rs8,500 for each of my daughters. Who can afford a big family in such circumstances?” Evidence from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics lends credence to Hussain’s comments as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) of Pakistan has risen from Rs117 in 2008 to Rs173.58 in 2012! Costs of medical assistance during pregnancy alone have deterred many like Raheela Mobeen from having more children. Raheela says, “All hospitals charge hefty amounts for their facilities! These rising expenditures ought to make us reconsider our family sizes!” As a consequence of soaring costs of living, having a small family has been deemed the best option for those wishing to provide quality education, health and home life to their offspring and so perhaps, the old adage bachay dau hee achay came into being.
Most importantly, however, Muzna Hameed, a mother of two, cites the liberation of women as one of the chief reasons for the small nuclear family. “Women have woken up to a life that extends beyond the confines of their homes,” she claims. “Today’s woman wants to achieve much more and make a life for herself. For this, she must strike a balance between home and work and so, she has fewer children than say, her mother or grandmother did.”
But what happens if a couple is not blessed with a child of the desired gender? Dr. Fauzia Khalid shares the story of her domestic help, saying that “Pakistani society, especially in the rural areas, is dominated by men and so, many parents pray for sons. My maid gave birth to eight daughters just in hopes of having a boy. That means, she had a large family even if she never wanted to.”
There is also a general lack of awareness regarding contraception across Pakistan, with many either not knowing about it or deeming is unethical. According to a report released by the United Nations in 2013, the consumption of contraceptives increased from 27% in 2008 to 35.4% in 2013 but in spite of this, much of society remains incognisant of the products, where to purchase and how to use them.
Yet in a country which is the sixth most populous nation in the world and slated to become the third by the year 2050, many Pakistanis like Tahmina still favour larger broods. Brand manager, Syeda Hamana Gul refers to her four-year-old and says “In a large family, there is greater chance of a child acquiring the skills of communication, sharing and general behaviour. He also has siblings or cousins to play with. Single or first-born children on the other hand require constant supervision and entertaining. Not to mention, if not raised well, they can grow up to be real brats in comparison to children with siblings.”
Sultana Wahid highlights yet another benefit of a large family in that she never experienced the Empty Nest syndrome when her five children went abroad for higher studies and marriage. “My husband and I have a bustling household,” she shares. “Although all my children are now married and living overseas, one of them is always visiting Pakistan. And they bring my grandchildren along with them so we never feel lonely. That is definitely a plus-point of a big household.”
Perhaps emotional support from siblings — and even cousins — that one enjoys in an extended family is the most important benefit of living in a full house. “There is always a hustle bustle in our house and it is great fun,” says 65-year-old father of three Dr. Shaukat Ali Khan. “But most importantly, there is always a son or a daughter or a nephew/niece to cheer me up if I am down or take care of me in my old age.” Single mother of two daughters, Jameela Babar agrees. “I was so upset in the time following my divorce that I admittedly couldn’t be there for my own children. But, even though they were young, it was a relief to see them helping each other through. My eldest would even feed her younger sister! I am so glad I decided to give her a sibling — a partner to share good and bad times with.”
At the end of the day, it is safe to conclude that there is no set number of children that will be ideal for any given family. The decision to have children depends largely on a number of internal factors, the most important of which would be the mindset of the parents and their familial responsibilities. Financial standing and career aspirations play an equally pivotal role in determining family size. As witnessed above, some people wish for big, bustling households while others favour a calmer, more projected sort of life. What is more important is to have a happy and healthy household, regardless of how many people comprise it. After all, in the worlds of the great George Bernard Shaw, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, January 26th, 2014.