March 20, 2017

Why No Kids? Teenagers!

Teens sharing earphones, listening music outdo...

Teens sharing earphones, listening music outdoor. Summer time. This image is taken from SCA’s international report Hygiene Matters 2010. For more info, please visit www.hygienematters.com . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As if the prospect of changing diapers around the clock and running after toddlers who learn about the world through their mouths isn’t frightening enough to a non-parent, watching teenagers and their parents struggling in this complex modern world has unequivocally convinced me that I have made the right choice not to have kids. I’ve been thinking about teenagers lately, probably because so many of my friends  and relatives have them now, and because I therefore chat with them often and frequently have the occasion to hear parents lamenting the difficulties of raising them.

Each time I see teenagers of a relative or friend these days, I wonder what they have done with the child who looked an awful lot like them. Even after a small lapse of time between visits, I ask their parents:

“When did she grow breasts?” or “When did he become a baratone and start growing a mustache?”

Inevitably they answer something like:

“Oh, I don’t know. Recently I guess.” Do they change in their sleep, I wonder and what happened to the giggly kids who couldn’t wait to sit in my lap and show me their latest toy or accomplishment? Why do I suddenly rarely merit a hello from them unless prompted by their parents?  How can their parents be so nonchalant about all the dramatic changes in their teenagers?

It’s Not Easy to be a Teen Today

My friend’s high-school aged daughter confessed to me recently that she estimates 70 percent of her classmates are dependent on some prescription drug. That figure was startling enough to me (she goes to a large public school with a very diverse population, in the suburbs of a major American city), but when she also added that the parents are often the ones demanding drugs for their children so that their teens can perform as well as their peers, that stunned me. Even when kids don’t have any identifiable reason for prescription drugs, parents are coercing doctors to prescribe attention enhancing drugs to their teens. Of course, kids are also choosing those drugs without their parents’ permission so that they can focus more on their studies and exams. Unfortunately, many don’t see the dangerous implications of doing so.

With drugs and binge drinking on the rise, never mind the staggering pressure teenagers have to excel at absolutely everything, how do they cope? I watch students  hoping to go to college, struggle to get exceptional grades, to be highly proficient at least one language, one instrument and one sport. Additionally, they are expected to participate in an endless assortment of life-changing volunteer work both here and abroad before their 17th birthdays. Add to their pressure, the rise of mass school shootings, and an increase in teen bullying and suicide,  predators on the internet, the pressure to have an inordinate amount of cyber “friends,”  to communicate with them ceaselessly, to experiment sexually, and the ability to learn anything they want with a few finger strokes, how, exactly do they navigate? No wonder they are turning to synthetic drugs to force them to focus.

My friend told me about a river cruise they took abroad this summer with their two teenage daughters. Their high hopes for a relaxing vacation were dashed when an interesting young man that their daughters had befriended, with whom they spent ten days socializing, inexplicably decided, after a fun evening, to hang himself in his boat bathroom. His brothers discovered him.  How do you explain that to your teenagers?

It’s Not Easy to be a Teen Parent Today

Recently, while dining with some teen moms, a debate arose about whether moms should monitor teen texting.

“Oh, you can’t look at his texts – he’ll never trust you if he finds out.”  was followed by:

“But I need to know what’s going on with him.  He doesn’t talk to me any more.”

I remain oddly silent. Who knows the right answer here. How could the I, the teen-less non-mom, possibly advise? Teenagers’ behavior is wildly unpredictable, unlike younger children who respond with somewhat more consistency. The helpful, cheeky advice I offer to new mothers (much to their surprise from a non-mom), is not relevant here.  Though I spend a great deal of time with kids and teenagers, I’m at a loss here.

Teens in G-string-bikinis.

Teens in G-string-bikinis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An acquaintance of mine recently confessed to me that he started experimenting with drugs as a teenager precisely because his parents were convinced that he was doing them (though he wasn’t). He was that angry about their distrust in him. Therein he embarked on a lifelong career with drugs. Are his parents to blame?

Raising teenagers is like a high stakes game of chess where, with one wrong move, your teenager may not speak to you for  years, or worse.

My friend is visiting from the city.  Before dinner the first night, her teenage daughter waits expectantly at the bottom of my stairs.  Her mother appears. They lock eyes. The teen daughter looks her mother up and down and shakes her head dismissingly.  My friend retreats to the bedroom to change her clothes.

“Really, no one cares what you wear here,” I offer, in defense of my friend, but she is still fixed on the stairs.  Her mother appears again while the daughter shrugs her shoulders, and shakes her head in half submission.  This was enough of an approval for my friend to descend the stairs.

“I’m hopelessly un-cool,” she laments to me over her first martini.  “I just want her to be happy, and she’s so easily embarrassed by me.”  My friend knows I’m suspect of the approval ritual with her daughter though I’ve said nothing of it.

“If you are un-cool, then I must be on the outcast island of un-cool,” I offer hoping to boost her spirits.

“Oh, no, she thinks you are cool.  You’re not a mother…you’re not her mother.”  This surprises me for a number of reasons, but most of all, because being a non-mom somehow gets me cool credits. Interesting.

Teenagers in Las Vegas

On a trip to Las Vegas this fall I witnessed a never-ending stream of intoxicated teenagers, wandering the streets, clubs, and bars in next to nothing for clothes, high heels the young women could barely walk in, most  sporting two foot beakers of alcoholic beverages (day and night). When did micro-minis come into fashion, I asked my friends, since I hadn’t witnessed them in my small rural town. Apparently, for a while now.  Also I wondered: did their parents know where their teenagers were, what they were wearing, doing, and drinking?

On a plane ride to Las Vegas this fall I had the interesting destiny of sitting next to a reality “star.”  My companions on the plane found it highly amusing that perhaps the only person on the plane who doesn’t watch television, let alone reality shows, had the good fortune of sitting next to an icon of the reality industry.  This young man, hopelessly intoxicated on some substance, though just recently bragging on a national talk show of his recent success at rehab, struggled to speak, eat or make his way to the restroom. As I politely fed him my shrimp and held his soda while he continuously nodded of onto my shoulder, the flight attendant smiled at me sympathetically.

The flight attendant was using the drink cart to fend off crowds of teenagers hoping to get his autograph or to catch a glimpse of him. I kept thinking, how did this man become a celebrity? How can teens negotiate this increasingly complex world with role models like him? How did going on drinking sprees on national television make a person worthy of star treatment by so many teenagers? In the end, when he could communicate (and boy did he), I must admit, he was quite appreciative of my help, and the story he told of how he became famous was compelling, but, really what ever happened to Greg Brady?

Bravo, Teen Parents!

For those of you out their who have teens, you have my utmost sympathy and admiration if you have turned out well adjusted interesting teens in this crazy world.  To those of you who don’t have children, get involved. Parents need your help, and teens need more positive role models, be they celebrities or childfree aunts, uncles, or adult friends. It’s a staggering world we live in, exponentially more complicated than the one we faced as teenagers. Teens tend to relate to, and  reveal more candid information to non-parents, and when they are not juggling studies, sports, music, language lessons, and volunteer work, when they are sober and not texting frantically and actually sit down with you, they can be quite compelling.

Childfreedom: More Happiness

It may be my imagination, but my friends without kids just seem happier than those saddled with parental responsibilities. Parents certainly have more responsibilities than those of us not saddled with all the daily feeding, changing, driving, homework helping and the like so it makes sense that they are more tired and squeezed for time.

Then again, those of us without kids often tend to take on more (work, volunteer activities, friendships, social obligations and so on) and people expect more of us precisely because they expect us to have more free time without the burdens of childrearing. The end result according to research? Those of us without kids are happier. Childfreedom equals happiness. Having that extra time to ourselves (or to give to others as we choose) really does seem to pay off, apparently.

A panegyric on the happiness and

A panegyric on the happiness and “Pleasures of the Married State”, published in London ca. 1780. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Independent studies show that married people are happier than singles, but married couples without children are the most content. When couples do have children, their happiness increases dramatically once their children grow up and leave home. This is all revealed in a three-part PBS series called: “This Emmotional Life.” In it, narrator, writer and professor of psychology at Harvard, Daniel Gilbert explores the endless quest of the human species to find happiness. The series features various celebrities and non-celebrities (everyday people, scientists, experts in the field of psychology and the like) with their thoughts and studies on the search for a happy life. Daniel Gilbert explains some of these findings in an NPR interview below:

“Mr. GILBERT: It really is true that if you look at the happiness of people’s marital satisfaction over time, you’ll see that the day people get married, they’re extremely satisfied with the relationship, and it kind of goes downhill from there. Relationships usually are the gateway to hard work: the hard work of raising children, establishing a household, et cetera. The good news is it begins to go up again once children have grown, and according to most studies, it reaches its initial level, or at least very close to it, when the children leave home.

… without children, your marriage might be happier in the sense that you would report more daily satisfaction. People are surprised to find this, because they value and love their children above all things. How can my children not be a source of great happiness?

… although children are a source of happiness, they tend to crowd out other sources of happiness. So people who have a first child, often find in the first year or two that they’re not doing many of the other things that used to make them happy. They don’t go to the movies or the theater. They don’t go out with their friends. They don’t make love with their spouse. All the things that used to be sources of happiness are no longer there.

So yes, the child is a source of happiness. On the same hand, it may be that average happiness goes down.” (NPR)

What do you think? Do your childless friends and acquaintances seem happier to you? Does childfreedom equal happiness?

Here’s a sneak peak at “This Emmotional Life.”

When Kids Have Kids: Teen Pregnancy

Smoking and drinking during pregnancy

Smoking and drinking during pregnancy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I live in one of the poorest counties in this nation.  Teen pregnancy occurs at an alarming rate here.  People tell me in my rural community about some of our local high school young women who are actively trying to get pregnant, and they are not even in committed relationships.  It seems that any old dad will do for some of these young lasses.

Moreover, in my community I’ve heard too many stories of teen pregnancy further complicated by the abuse of synthetic marijuana, tobacco and alcohol.  How do they justify these activities while pregnant to those who inquire?  They are all legal activities so therefore they don’t see the danger they are imposing on their own bodies or those of their fetuses.  Moreover, many justify the practice of using dangerous substances while pregnant by retorting that their mothers did the same and every thing worked out okay.

How, I wonder, can we claim that the young people in our nation are remotely educated when so many of them cannot prevent an unwanted pregnancy, are actively seeking pregnancy as single young teenagers, or are abusing substances that harm their fetuses when they do become pregnant? When teen pregnancy occurs, parents must take some responsibility, but local schools and community have also failed.  Isn’t learning how to control one’s fertility as important in the grand scheme of life as the skill of, say, arithmetic?

Moreover, with the luxury that young people have today in their ability to find any kind of information on the internet, why can’t more young people learn the basic facts about pregnancy (having one and preventing one), even when their parents or schools are not providing that useful information to them?  I suppose along with their ability to learn on the internet, they also have the unfortunate ability to purchase substances like synthetic marijuana and to hear testimonials about how harmless the product is and  to get step by step  instruction on how to smoke it.

Teenagers learn most by example.  When a teenager’s parent or community members are  modeling unhealthy habits of continuing to have children when they don’t want or can’t afford more, and of abusing substances during pregnancy, who are they to break that pattern?  Additionally, with popular television shows that pay pregnant teenagers gobs of money to reveal the banal routines of their lives to a camera, how can teens get the message that being pregnant at 13 or 14 or even seventeen, is not fashionable?

Call me old fashioned, but teen pregnancy will never be fashionable to me.

I did, however  have one glimmer of hope when I recently spent time with a lovely local ten year old girl who is raised by multiple family members who fill in for her  young mom who is continually in and out of drug rehab.  She was talking excitedly about her new cousin that she can’t see because he is premature and in an incubator for a few months (his teenage mother, her aunt, reportedly smoked the synthetic marajuana, “Spice” during her pregnancy).

“You don’t want a baby for a long time, right?” I boldly ask her.

“Oh, no,”she quickly retorts. “Not for a very long time.”  My heart soars.

“I’m going to be a singer,” she proudly exclaims.

“You can be anything you want, you know,” I say as I brush aside her pretty blond hair.  She is a happy, sharp-witted, and outgoing child despite the difficult environment in which she lives, and she has an earthy beauty.  I can well see her on stage.

“Yeah, I know,” she concludes and reverts back to the drawing she’s making of me, her mom, her aunt and new cousin in the plastic box.  Way to go, I think.  Good for you.

Kids’ Manners Matter

365 Manners Kids Should Know by Sheryl Eberly (Image via Rainbow Resource)Is it only my observation or have manners largely gone by the wayside these days? Moreover, how many really well mannered children do we all know?

Okay, so I’m giving away my northern location because generally, the kids I know from the South could teach the northern ones quite a bit when it comes to manners. However, It follows that if many adults aren’t too familiar or interested in basic etiquette, then their children won’t be either.

Are you tired of rude children in restaurants, airplanes, theaters and the like? Do you cringe when your favorite child rips opens your thoughtfully chosen gift with little notice of you or a thanks for the gesture?

Fear not. For those of you who long for a more mannered world, Sheryl Eberly has created the book, 365 Manners Kids Should Know: Games, Activities, and Other Fun Ways to Help Children Learn Etiquette. It’s pure Genius. Has anyone attempted this before? If this kind of book has been offered in the past, it unlikely covered the extensive topics that Ms. Eberly offers. In this information-packed book, the author, a former employee of First Lady Nancy Reagan (well, no wonder – that explains some of her expertise), tackles every sticky etiquette scenario one could ponder.

Ms. Eberly’s advice roams near and far.

  • Anticipating the needs of others
  • Neighborly manners, sloppy language
  • Active listening
  • Writing letters with care
  • Everyday table manners
  • Dress appropriately for the occasion
  • The valued teammate
  • Be a model American
  • Be considerate to people with special needs

And my favorite, Environmental Manners, because “taking care of the environment is everybody’s responsibility.”

She also demystifies “netiquette,” (net etiquette) museum, travel, restaurant, wedding and even funeral behavior. In doing so she goes a step further by breaking down the important details of religious holidays and ceremonies in every denomination. Not sure how children should act at a Ramadan or Kwanza celebration or at a Mormon wedding? She has all the answers. It’s clearly as much for the parents’ education as for their offspring.

Good manners, the author advises should begin at the onset of a child’s birth and “involve more than simply knowing the rules about forks and finger bowls in formal situations – they include good attitudes, respect, and consideration for others every day. If we want our children to be confident, poised adults, we need to teach them the rules of etiquette today. Knowing proper behavior is an essential part of being prepared for life.”

Well said.

The book is informative, never preachy, and a great gift for parents (their children will thank you years from now, or maybe sooner if the lessons are well learned). The only question is how do we give this book without offending parents, without them thinking we’re suggesting their kids are ill-behaved? You’ll have to figure that out. In the meantime I’m passing it around to all my favorite parents. Thank you, Ms. Eberly, from the non-parents of the world.

“Where do your idle hands go while eating in America?” I quickly quiz my nephews on a regular basis.

“On your lap,” they sullenly respond. They’ve been through this before.

“And what if you’re in France?” I fire back.

“Wrists resting on edge of the table, fingers off” they dutifully retort. They are half German and part French so I have always found it important for them to distinguish manners in different cultures.

“What about your hands in Africa?” A harder question they don’t get asked as often, but they find the answer.

“The left hand never touches food, especially communal food. It’s reserved for the bathroom.”

Do they need to know this? Well, maybe if they live in Africa like me one day, or if they visit there, they will not offend. I am proud. At least their table manners are well rehearsed, but I have more work to do.

“Why do we need to know this?” they will occasionally ask.

“Because good manners are important and because you will dine with Presidents and Heads of State some day,” I proclaim. “Do you want to be forever embarrassed because you ate with the wrong fork?” They are not convinced but oblige their silly aunt nonetheless.

“How do you know we’ll ever meet Presidents?” they ask.

“Oh, I know these things.” And we leave it at that.

I suppose this book was just destined to find me.

Leila Revisited

Matti

Image via Wikipedia

In reflecting on the movie Leilait is easy to see the conundrum couples face in traditional cultures when they can’t have or don’t want children.  Many cultures just don’t accept childless unions.  How many people do we know, however, who really might be having children largely for their parents, or for the tradition of having children to carry on their family gene pool, so ingrained in every society, even the most modern of ones?  It’s not uncommon.

I have to admit, the continuity of family heritage, and pleasing one’s parents or in-laws with the gift of grandchildren are compelling reasons to procreate.  My own parents and in-laws have been exceptionally supportive of my decision not to have children, but if I told all of them tomorrow that I had changed my mind, or that I was pregnant, would they be over-the-moon elated?  You bet.  Multiple year-long celebrations would be initiated.  Who doesn’t like to make people you love that happy (especially because of all they did for you)? Who doesn’t like the idea of having your parents and in-laws helping to shape your child if you know they would be great at it?  That part of parenting would be ideal – the part where the baby’s grandparents are cooing over the child, playing on the floor, cleaning up the mess, while you’re reading a book or having cocktails with friends.  But, then the grandparents leave, and you’re stuck with all the responsibility.

Perhaps if we lived with our siblings and parents as adults, like in some traditional societies, raising a child wouldn’t be that daunting, what with all those extra hands to help out. Frankly, multiple wives made it much easier too (but don’t get too excited about that idea until you see the film Leila).

Leila grippingly explores the consequences of ignoring one’s own needs and instincts, and one’s own biological destiny to please another entity, or a culture at large.  It serves as an important reminder to know ourselves and our partners and to ensure that when our partner tells us that he or she does not want a child, to believe it and to discuss that choice with frankness and honesty.

Moreover, people choosing not to have children or questioning whether it is the right choice also need to have those same frank conversations with their parents.  Hopefully, if they love you enough, and if they are not as imperious and opportunistic as Reza’s mother, they will happily accept the grand dog or cat and more quality time together (because you’re not saddled with the time demands of parenting) that you offer them instead.

Barren in Iran

Leila (film)

Image via Wikipedia

I recently watched Leila, a mesmerizing Iranian film that debuted  by Persian film director Dariush Mehrjui. It chronicles the story of a young married couple (Leila and Reza) living in modern Teheran who can’t conceive a child.  More exactly, the couple learns that she, the wife cannot have a child. Trouble ensues.

In one of the earliest scenes the viewer meets the young man’s mother, who, while celebrating her daughter-in-law’s birthday announces that she can’t wait to meet the couple’s son (only they don’t have one).  This woman, so insistent that her only son have a child to carry on the family’s lineage (never mind her handful of daughters who might procreate) soon learns, that her wish won’t be possible.  The couple jumps through some fertility hoops to no avail, and the Reza consoles his wife by insisting to her that he really has had no interest in having children all along.  Leila seems to believe him, and they resolve to enjoy each others’ company without the distraction of children.

Then Reza’s mother intercedes.

Leila and Reza’s love is palpable. Their connection and mutual admiration seem strong. But their love and ties are harrowingly tested in a tug-of-war between their modern marriage and Islamic tradition, between their dreams and Reza’s mother’s dreams.  The film offers a glimpse into the complexities of living in contemporary Iran and the complexities of giving back to one’s parents.

Leila’s mother-in-law persistently, deceptively convinces her that Reza is desperate to have a child. She harasses Leila incessantly until Leila agrees to permit her husband to marry a second wife who can give him a child. Though adamantly opposed to the idea, Reza eventually yields to his mother’s desire and to the traditional Islamic expectations of him.

We watch the heart-wrenching process of selecting a new bride through Leila’s eyes. We witness and understand her anguish.  Ironically, it is Reza’s sisters and father who try to convince Leila to refuse the second marriage. (Ostensibly polygamy is legal in Iran provided previous wives agree.) Leila’s family is horrified when they discover Reza’s plan to remarry.

Leila’s doubt that Reza would be happy without a child and her decision to encourage a second marriage inevitably proves devastating to her union with Reza.  She signs her fate away to external factors and concludes: “God has not given me a child.  He has given me the gift of eternal patience and endurance.”  Her choices test the limits of that endurance (and the viewer’s).

I won’t spoil the plot, because the film is worth watching. We never really know why Leila consents to her insipid mother-in-law’s wishes. Does she hope this will make her a better Muslim and wife? Does she simply wish to please her new family? Does she too desperately desire a child even if impossible through her own DNA? Or does her self sacrificing decision reveal unconditional love for her husband?  Perhaps all of these factors are in play, but the film is so compelling precisely because we never learn the answer.

An Unmet Need for Family Planning

Undecaplets

Image via Wikipedia

I’m reading a magazine to pass the time in my gynecologist’s office when I stumble upon the incredible “historical record” of one 18th century Russian peasant woman who reportedly gave birth to sixty nine children between the years of 1725 and 1765 (without fertility aids, of course).  Apparently, she did this with 27 multiple birth pregnancies and with only two lost in infancy.

“Not possible,” says my gynecologist when I share the figure with her.  That was my reaction too.  Nonetheless, even if the figure was doubly exaggerated, that still leaves a staggering number of children that the human body can create, and a puzzling question as to why any woman would want that many children.  Was she looking to start her own sports league or productive work force for the family business?

According to Yahoo, the “modern” record for the most number of children born to one woman goes allegedly to a Chilean woman (now in her mid 60’s) who delivered 64 babies, though the article qualifies that Chilean birth certificates are “something of a less-than-serious concern in Chile.”

Most number of children to one father, you ask?  The last Sharifan Emperor of Morocco, Mulai Ismail(1646-1727) reportedly sired somewhere around 800 children with 500 wives – a busy man indeed.  One wonders how he had any time to run an empire and one can well imagine many other legendary rulers throughout history who must have had impressive fleets of children as well.

Here are a few more staggering reproduction figures:  The youngest woman to give birth was, in fact not a woman at all but apparently a five year old Peruvian girl who delivered her baby boy by cesarean in 1939 in a small Andean village.  The community thought she had an abdominal tumor.  A pituitary malfunction was speculated to have caused the onset of her menstruation at three years of age.  The baby lived and welcomed his brother thirty three years later.  If this story is true it is disturbing by so many accounts but what I wonder is did they find  the man who molested her and cut off his nuts?  Unfortunately not –  the father remained a mystery.

The youngest father on record?  A twelve year old boy from England who had a son in 1998 with his fifteen year old girlfriend.

Oldest Father? A ninety three year old Australian man who died at one hundred. The oldest mother was a Spanish woman who had fertility assistance in producing twins at sixty seven in 2006 (which of course sparked international controversy).

Here’s another disturbing statistic:  According to Guinness World Records, in 2010 the “youngest identified group of drug addicts:” Unlucky babies born to young mothers in rural Afghanistan who are addicted to heroin and opium from the abundance of poppy crops in their country.  In addition to passing the drugs along to fetuses in-uteri, mothers are known in rural regions to blow heroin spoke at the babies to calm them and relieve pain.  The U.S. State Department “has categorized them as the youngest drug addicted group ever found for which there are no established treatment protocols.”

Finally, according to Nicholas D. Kristof in an Op-Ed article of the New York Times this past Mother’s Day, “215 million women worldwide have an ‘unmet need’ for family planning, meaning they don’t want to become pregnant but aren’t using effective contraception.”  He continues: “The Guttmacher Institute, a respected research group, estimates that if all the unmet need for contraception were met, the result would be 94,000 fewer women dying of pregnancy complications each year, and almost 25 million fewer abortions each year.”

I ask you:  Do these figures not call out a need for affordable birth control and accessible family planning education worldwide?

 

The Right To Breed Again and Again and Again…

Me During a Polar Plunge Defending the Right to Birth Control

Me During a Polar Plunge Defending the Right to Birth Control

My friend’s neighborhood is awash in whispering.  The local mothers are passing along word that their neighbor is having – gasp — her tenth child.

“She is a wonderful mother and her kids are all quite lovely and well behaved,” my friend qualifies to me, but adds: “but honestly, what was she thinking, having another child?”

There it is, out in the open:  Mothers chiding mothers for taking things too far.  The local mothers gossip amongst themselves, wondering what would possess an educated 21st century woman in a well-to-do suburb to have so many children?

The answer?  Religion, perhaps.  The woman is apparently devoutly religious.  They mothers settle on religion as the likely overriding push for their friend to continue her own baby boom.  But can her decision to continue the growth of her family at an exponential rate come from some other psychological yearning?  Maybe.

Here’s what I wonder:  If I stand for a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, which I do (see picture above) must I commend a woman no matter her choice – no children or ten?  Shouldn’t a woman have the right to birth control – or not-  if she so chooses?  How many children are too many?  How man children can a family have before it taxes the parents to the point of incompetent parenting or irresponsible civic member?  How many children should one community have to support from one family?  Should public schools impose an extra tax on families with more than a certain number of children in the local system? Moreover, when a woman has ten children (or more – I’m picking a random number here) is it always her choice, or is it sometimes her husband’s or her religion’s or her family’s or culture’s choice?

As always, especially here, I navigate some tricky waters.  Isn’t this all worth some debate though?

I have had many friends from large families (of five or more siblings) and they all defend their experience in a those families as very rewarding.

With fertility treatments on the rise and on a technological fast forward treadmill, should we expect multiple births, or multiple multiple births to be the norm?  Will huge families make a comeback?  Are they already making a comeback?

Okay, I’ll stop asking so many questions.  My take:  This all needs to be discussed and debated.  Public institutions, communities, friends and neighbors should review the merits of very large families (or for that matter, childless families).  More research should be done to understand the physical, emotional, psychological, and civic consequences of multiple offspring.  Only then can parents make informed decisions about the number of children they should (or shouldn’t) have for the benefit of themselves, their offspring, their communities and the world at large.

 

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Family Planning In African Poverty (part two)

Living in rural Cote d’Ivoire, running a development program I tried to educate the local women of the reproductive freedoms they could gain.  I often failed to find the words, however, to inform them of their choices in social contexts outside of our structured program sessions.

When, for example,  my neighbor, who struggled to feed and care for her seven children, announced she was pregnant with her eighth child, my heart sank.  How can I tell her that she doesn’t need to keep having children if she so chooses?  Is it any of my business?

She hadn’t come to any of my public meetings on family planning, health or sanitation.   She knew I was the woman responsible for the condom wave in town.  If she wanted to know more, I figured, she’d ask.  She didn’t so I kept quiet on the issue.

“I need more money,” she declared, over the wall of my courtyard.  Selling plantain bananas was not earning her enough to feed all the children or herself for that matter.  I was happy to share my meals  with her and her children but I wasn’t going to be there forever.  She had no husband or boyfriend, and had somehow alienated the female relatives and friends who normally would have helped her care for her children.

“Can I wash your clothes?” she quizzed.  I was very uncomfortable with the idea of a woman standing outside over a metal basin for hours scrubbing my clothes by hand, but my own knuckles were starting to bleed from doing so, and she was already washing all of her kids’ clothes.  I consented and it afforded her a solid extra income.

The new baby arrived without fanfare and life returned to normal, as it had been during her pregnancy – no baby shower, no well wishers, or delighted onlookers at the new arrival.  No gifts or photos or time off from work.  No beaming grandmother or mother-in-law desperate to show off the new prodigy.  She was washing, cooking, cleaning, mothering, selling plantains and mashing them with a six-foot stick, a wooden bowl and great rhythmic heaves in her courtyard as she always had.  The rhymes of her life remained, with the addition of another dusty fly-covered baby, dangling from her breast as she worked.

The Children of Cote D'Ivoire

I am so lucky, I thought, as I drifted into a nap on my porch to the beat of the yam pounding women.  I have so many choices.  Choosing not to have a child is a luxury not afforded the women of the developing world and having children gains them no extra attention or applause for their heroic efforts at raising them in difficult circumstances. The women of Cote d’Ivoire that I knew never complained about the burdens their children, but spoke of their sweetness instead.  They loved them, they cared for them, they delivered them in make-shift conditions and got on with their lives.  Children to them were an unavoidable, but fully embraced, gift from God – simple as that.

Family Planning in African Poverty (part one)

“No women meetings in village,” the chief asserts to me.  I translate here his broken West African French.

“Male village elders must be there.”  He concludes.

I am running a development program in a rural village in Cote d’Ivoire, five hours north of the Abidjan capital.

“What if only the female elders were there and report back to you and the other male elders after?”  I muster my sweetest smile.  I know he is partial to and fascinated by my western ways, but baffled by them as well.

“As you like it,” he concedes.  “But babies good”  He asserts, confidently.

“Oh, yes, we just want to space the babies, so that the men can get more rest.”  I flash another straight toothed white American smile at him.  He nods in surrender.

I have won this battle and it is an important one.  My colleague and I are initiating a family planning program in thirty six villages (eighteen of which we regularly visit).  It is part of a larger health care and small business program that we are operating.  Living and working in this West African community, we notice fairly quickly, the problems with the spread of AIDS and the proliferation of unintended pregnancies.

Since we are both women, we decide to initiate a woman-to-woman program to educate the local women on the merits of birth control for family planning and disease prevention, but, like most projects in rural villages, change doesn’t come easily.  The men in charge are nervous about western schemes to limit African populations and to empower women.

We are tinkering with loaded dynamite.  If the all-woman meeting is not a resounding success by the locals’ standards, then all our development initiatives will be regarded with suspicion, particularly ones that relate directly with women.

I was twenty three at that time and had so much to learn, which, living in the middle of an African jungle, I sure enough did.  Before leaving for Africa, I feared that I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to share with the people in my program, but having recently exited college — birth control  — now that I knew about.  I hoped I could empower the women to take control of their reproductive freedom as I had.

The meeting took place, and thanks to some enterprising kids on bicycles, bribed with an invitation to a home made American dinner at our place, word of the unprecedented woman only meeting spread across the community like the rainy season mud.  They came in droves.  Some walked over thirty miles, some caught rides in the back of passing trucks, mopeds or motorcycles and on top of buses.

We are astounded. We scramble to make room for all of the attendees.  The village female elders sit with us at a front table displaying posters about AIDS and breast-feeding amongst an assortment of condoms and tubes of contraceptive foam.

This was an historic moment, for our program, for the village, and for the women who dared to come that day.  For one hour we spoke to the women about the importance of spacing their children.  I had never spoken French in front of a crowd before but my roommate assured me that my skills were sufficient enough for the task.

“Children are a gift from God,” I begin in my best assimilation of West African French.  The opening scores rounds of approving head bobbing from a largely Christian crowd, though the northern and foreign Muslim woman seem to agree as well.

“Your ancestors practiced child spacing because the men had multiple wives.  The men would let the new mothers rest and care for the baby for a while before they would partner with them again.”  Again, more nods, especially from the elders.

We continue with a talk about the physical, economic and emotional merits of spacing children, and the importance of preventing diseases like AIDS hotly on the rise in their communities thanks to improved roads and visiting prostitutes from the city.

The most popular part of the meeting is the frank talk about the contraceptive devices.  Many questions ensue, and waves of giggles emerge when we passe around the condoms.  When we encourage them to open the packages and blow the condoms into balloons the fun really begins.  The laughter that erupts unsettles the village chief who peeks into the meeting.  I motioned to him that all is well and the women elders shoo him away.  I suppose no one had ever seen women having that much fun before.  The women’s laughter was a favorite topic for some time to come.

The meeting succeeded, and we achieved our goal: the women felt comfortable enough to talk about birth control and to ultimately handle the paraphernalia without too much embarrassment.  That was real progress for the community.  We started a door-to-door woman-to-woman birth control program (modeled after the Avon cosmetic concept except that the women selling goods were trained volunteers) and it worked.  While the men were in the fields, the women could comfortably and privately have all their questions answered and discreetly purchase contraceptives.

The meeting was favorably reported in the Abidjan newspaper which hopefully gave the idea to other communities in the country and I gave all the credit to the male village chiefs and local government officials (who had signed off on the event, but did nothing, of course but show up in the villages to show off their fancy western cars and gold jewelry).  I had quickly learned what it took to get things done in that community, and giving credit to local officials was a great way to succeed in important work.

What I couldn’t do that day is tell those women that they don’t even need to have a child if they don’t want them.  That was a message not to be told.  In a region where childless women were suspected of having a curse cast on them by some improper action on her behalf, how could a woman have any true reproductive rights?  When working in the developing world, though, you take the small victories where you can.

In a community where the mentally ill were chained to trees in the center of villages, where very few marriages existed, where young women were encouraged to be sexually active as soon as they reached puberty, where the concept of “love” and “romance” were silly western concepts that evoked confusion when witnessed in foreign films, and where women often conceded that they didn’t think they had  the right to refuse any man who made a sexual advance at them, or the right to ask him to wear protection, how much of a difference could we really make?

By introducing the idea to the women that they could control the spacing of their children, I’d like to think that we empowered the women in a small way.  By teaching them about the dangers of AIDS, hopefully we averted some senseless deaths.   But where a woman doesn’t feel that she had the right to say no to a sexually interested man, how empowered can these women really be?  It was heart-braking in many ways to witness their plight.

The women we saw the most, the neighbors who frequented our porch, the ones who sold us food and goods in the market, the ones who volunteered in our health care program and received small business grants, spoke at length with us, watched us and learned from us and hopefully were the better for it.  I certainly learned a great deal from them.  However, the end of the 1986 film “The Mission” comes to my mind where Jeremy Irons, an 18 century Jesuit Priest, wonders if the indigenous peoples in South America that they came to “save” wouldn’t have been better off if they, the missionaries, had never come at all.

How does a foreigner work with a vastly different culture not accidentally, sometimes, change it for the worse?  Development workers ponder this often.  Was it helpful for the women of an African village to witness the freedoms that upwardly mobile feminist women from America take for granted – freedoms that they may never gain?  I’ll never know.

Upcoming Posts:

  • Friday April 1st: Family Planning in African Poverty (part two)