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.
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.