April 20, 2017

Childfree Women Lack Humanity

Childless women lack an essential humanity. (Miriam Schaer)“Childless women lack an essential humanity.”

Embroidered across the front of a delicate white toddler’s dress in scarlet letters, this searing slander offers a 21st century modern twist on the proverbial “scarlet letter”. Miriam Schaer a multimedia artist and teacher (Columbia College, Chicago), directs her creative wizardry on childfree women in her online installation for the International Museum of Women‘s MAMA: Motherhood Around the Globe.

New York artist, Miriam Schaer, has created a series of almost disturbing pieces about the perceived value of a woman who chooses not to reproduce… I think you’ll find Schaer’s toddler dresses embroidered with expressions of both confusion and disdain, hurled at women who choose not to have children, both unsettling and thought-provoking. (Strollerderby)

Almost disturbing? I’d suggest that these images are disturbing.

But they also are provocative in their simplicity and their “scarlet letter” resonance. No audio guide is needed to engage the viewer or to invite reflection. These quotations are familiar to the childfree, and they drip with prejudice and downright hostility. But rather than hurt or defensiveness, they trigger a more profound (and more important) question: Why? Why are childfree women threatening? Why do childfree women lack humanity? Why do childfree women meet with intolerance?

Baby (Not) on Board: The Last Prejudice?, addresses the question of why the existence of women who choose maternal independence over child-rearing angers or offends so many people and institutions. The work presented here is part of a continuing exploration of our culture’s pejorative views about women without kids. For Baby (Not) on Board: The Last Prejudice?, I hand-embroidered representative negative comments on baby dresses using red thread to create scarlet letters. Gathered from interviews with childless women, online research, and personal experience, the statements taunt and accuse, and are typical of an endless flow of critical statements that seem to be growing bolder even as non-traditional families are gaining greater acceptance. (Miriam Schaer)

Each image vibrates with smug intolerance, but collectively the images tell a different if somewhat elusive story.

I detect a theme of fragility, of an almost desperate attempt to denigrate and disempower women who have not chosen to be mothers. I detect fear, fragility, urgency, desperation and intolerance. I detect an unquestioning, un-curious, bullying theme. And why? I suspect it is because childfree women are actually gaining respect and acceptance.

Prejudice increases in proportion to the perceived threat, and the perception that more women are choosing not to have children threatens the beliefs and biases of many. In short, the prejudice is a barometer of the increasingly mainstream conversation about a woman’s reproductive freedom. Childfree women are increasingly visible, respected and vocal, so it is inevitable that their detractors will grow louder, angrier. But underlying these images of intolerance is a message of hope, a message of tolerance and perhaps even growing acceptance.

Do you share my optimism? What is your reaction to Miriam Schaer’s images?

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.