Mum + Dad + Beta + Beti: Why Are Indians Obsessed With the Idea of a “Complete Family”?


Mum + Dad + Beta + Beti: Why Are Indians Obsessed With the Idea of a “Complete Family”?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

A few years ago, I boldly went where few modern mothers had gone before – into the murky realm of second motherhood. When I gave birth to my second child, the words I heard most often from friends and family were, “Congratulations! Your family is complete!” My first child was a girl (woe betide me) and my second, a bonny baby boy. I had done something fantastic and achieved the apparently “perfect Indian combination” of children – one boy and one girl.

Judging by the overly effervescent greetings from of my most well-wishers, I am delighted to report that my family can now be classified as “having all the necessary or appropriate parts”, as per the dictionary definition of complete.

This underhanded compliment left me astounded. Did it mean my little nuclear unit was incomplete all these days? Were we missing limbs, brains, or parts of our hearts? And what about all those numerous families in the world that don’t have one girl and one boy – are they also incomplete, insufficient, inadequate, lacking?

I am part of a so-called “incomplete” family myself, having one sister and no brothers. Growing up, the world regarded my parents with utmost sympathy. “Oh, you have no sons?” they asked, their brows furrowed and lower lips swollen. Those who didn’t look like they were consoling my mother after great bereavement came across as completely incredulous, as if my mother had a son tucked away in her pallu all along and was just waiting to whip him out with a joyous “Ta-da!”

To these so-called well-wishers, this grievous lack of a male sibling ruined all our lives, at least in their imaginations. But guess how we’re doing with just the two of us? Hint: it’s the opposite of depressing.

The phrase also left me wondering whether in a country like ours, if a family with two sons is considered “incomplete”. Would friends and acquaintances hound the new parents and prod them to have daughters? Probably not, because that’s two boys we’re talking about. Those precious, Y-chromosome-bearers without whom parents can’t perpetuate the “family name”, without whom they can’t designate an heir to take over the business, even if the daughters show more of an entrepreneurial streak. 

My husband explained away the “complete” family logic saying that the word acts as shorthand for a family that can boast a sex ratio of an even 50-50. Clearly, people cannot compliment us saying, “Congratulations for having one of each!” and therefore substitute the pithy “Congratulations, your family’s complete!”

The phrase also left me wondering whether in a country like ours, if a family with two sons is considered “incomplete”.

I rolled my eyes at this explanation. By that logic, families like the Obamas and the Clintons are incomplete. Bet they didn’t know that. And on the other hand, here’s an example of a complete family: Mrs Sonia Gandhi and co. #JustSayin’

Indians would be alarmed to know that in other parts of the world the perfect combination of children is actually two girls! British parenting website Bounty ran a survey of more than 2,000 parents and discovered that the so-called boy-girl combination ranks second in the list. Methinks my fellow citizens would pooh-pooh this finding. 

Clearly the Brits don’t know what we do – one boy and one girl is the best, but if you can’t have that, then the degree of completeness of your family is directly proportional to the number of boys in it. Just ask the studs of Haryana, the state boasting the lowest sex ratio.

Even without a brother of my own, I’ve always considered my little unit of my parents, my sister and me as a complete family. But, hey, you might not be sure if yours is or not. Here are a few combinations of children that will tell you whether your family is truly “complete”:
1. One boy
2. One girl
3. Two boys
4. Two girls
5. No girls!
6. No boys!

Here’s the thing: no matter what combination of children you have, or whether you have any children or not, your family’s complete when you say it’s so, and when you’re happy. 

In our culture, the minute a couple tie the nuptial knot, their kith and kin descend upon them and start meaningfully prodding them in the ribs to demand a baby. When they’ve had one, the family begin chasing them for the second one. Thank God for the “Hum do, humare do” slogans and overpopulation problems, or else this would continue ad infinitum. 

Repeat it with me: my family’s complete when I say it’s so. Got that? Good. Now I’m off to have dinner with my complete family, you plebs.