At 29, female and happily married, there is one question I despise more than all others. Its the dreaded, “When are you going to have kids?” People always throw it in there casually, too. Usually between such innocuous questions as, “Hows your mother?” or, “Wheres the bathroom?” Just as Im getting comfortable in a conversation, someone drops in wondering if my ovaries are firing at full capacity and how often Im banging my man. And while theyre at it, whats my current condom bill? Because really, thats what asking about family planning boils down to. (Source: The Most Invasive Question I Get Asked Daily, by Julie Zack Yaste)
Conservative groups including religious colleges and hospitals continue to pressure the Obama White House to give them exemptions from providing hormonal contraceptives to their employees and students. But the interesting fact is:
“The Guttmacher Institute analyzed US Government data and found that 14% of adult women and one-third of teenagers who use oral contraception are on it for non-birth control reasons. Some use it to manage menstrual symptoms like cramps and heavy periods, others use it to help clear up their skin. About half of the teens who use the pill for non-contraceptive reasons have never even had sex— but all of them are sinners who are going straight to hell!” (Jezebel)
And insurance companies continue to pay for Viagra for medical reasons but not birth control. Where is the fairness in that? Bill O’Reilly famously said that birth control is not a medical condition. He’s kind of right, but that’s like saying Viagra is not a medical condition. It’s not. The very real medical conditions that birth control prevent include: acne, ovarian cysts, irregular menstruation, PMS, etc. I promised I wouldn’t get political on this blog but this is about fairness and if I have to keep watching stupid erectile dysfunction commercials on television I going to scream about inequality and sexism in 2011. Maybe if I had more affordable birth control I wouldn’t be so PMSy.
- Many Women Use The Pill For So Much More Than Pregnancy Prevention (blisstree.com)
- Many Teens Rely on the Pill for Non-Sexual Reasons (scientificamerican.com)
- 1 in 3 teens go on Pill for non-contraceptive reasons (vitals.msnbc.msn.com)
As we’ve pointed out before society has a deeply engrained bias toward to breeding portion of the population. Biology ensures this bias. In the big picture it makes biological sense. Procreation prevents extinction while advancing evolution.
Nothing new there. Except, I’d like to offer up a warm “Thank you!” to all of the breeders around the world who are saving the human race by breeding so that I can focus on my energies elsewhere. Yes, as is often pointed out to me, if we all stopped having children humanity wouldn’t endure for long. I get it. I agree. And I’m deeply grateful to all of you who’ve opted to perpetuate the human race…
Of course, that isn’t what most DINKs are thinking about when they opt out of the breeder program. I’d venture to guess that most DINKs feel pretty confident that enough babies will continue to be born despite our personal choice. And, yes, their are some childfree folks who genuinely believe their choice should be universalized (Don’t dismiss until you’ve considered this. Still hoping for a thoughtful, articulate post on this topic.), but I’m not one of those folks.
So can we step beyond the bias? Perhaps not.
According to Lilit Marcus childfree women endure a deluge of judgment.
Despite the advancements that women have made in the public and private spheres, our bodies – and the choices we make about them – continue to be a battlefield. (TODAYMoms)
In many respects the 20th century was marked by a leveling of the gender playing field. And yet I am consistently made aware of how much more difficult it is for a woman to explain that she’s opted not to have children. When I express my childfree choice I often get hit with a barrage of questions, but acceptance is rarely hard-won. Men who choose not to breed are given a pass in the way that cowboys weren’t forced to pick the new drapes or iron petticoats. Deep in our cultural DNA we make room for men who break with conjugal and domestic conventions. But women are rarely granted this same freedom.
it shouldn’t be important whether a woman has children or not, but most of our culture doesn’t concur. “You’ll change your mind when you’re (five years older than age I am),”… I tried to imagine the opposite situation – a woman my age (28), pregnant or with a child, being told that in five years she’d change her mind about wanting to be a mother. Or what about a guy my age being told that his “daddy instinct” would kick in soon and he would start wanting to pop out kids? I’m old enough to vote, to drink alcohol and to die for my country, but I’m still being told – sometimes by my own peers – that I’m not mature enough to decide about my body, my family and my future. (TODAYMoms)
Hats off to Ms. Marcus for saying it like it is! Women have a singularly difficult time explaining their childfree choice as I witness again and again when my bride sidesteps the patronizing, dismissive comments and endeavors to communicate her intelligent, considered choice. This is especially challenging with other women who often seem to consider Susan’s personal choice an affront. Instead of explaining her choice Susan frequently ends up listening to an emotional diatribe about the merits of motherhood.
Is their a sensible way to explain your childfree choice? I continue to believe their is, but the conversation rarely remains sensible for long and too often veers into emotionally charged, defensive territory. Perhaps we need to develop a less antagonistic methodology. And perhaps parents need to asses why they become so sensitive when our childfree choice is personal and doesn’t imply judgement of their own choice.
Do you have a foolproof way to explain your childfree choice?
- Today Show Gets it Right for Once (mostly) (childfreedom.blogspot.com)
- Martyr Mommies Lie (happilychildfree.com)
- New Childfree Novel (childfreenews.blogspot.com)
- Childfree Women…Our Allies Are Hiding In Plain Sight. (childfreeclique.com)
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… (whynokids.com)
- Family Planning in African Poverty (part one) (whynokids.com)
- Family Planning in African Poverty (part two) (whynokids.com)
- How old is the U.K.’s youngest grandfather? (Hint: under 30) (theglobeandmail.com)
- Medical Panel Recommends No-Cost Birth Control (npr.org)
- Contraception Education (mademan.com)
- Family planning as a global priority (devex.com)
- Women in Haiti embracing birth control despite taboos (sacbee.com)
- Women with Unmet Need for Family Planning (chartsbin.com)
- Family planning key to safe motherhood (testsites.com.zm)
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.
“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.
- Friday April 1st: Family Planning in African Poverty (part two)