Motherhood didn’t used to be a choice

Prescribing birth control for unmarried women was not legal in the United States until 1972, the year I lost my virginity and started taking birth control pills. It only became legal for married couples as I was entering high school in 1965. When Roe V. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, I was 21.

A lot of things were different when I was growing up. In 1974, the year I married my first husband, Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Before that, it was difficult for women to secure credit cards or loans or buy their own homes. Can you imagine that now? What do you mean I can’t have a credit card in my own name?

I know most readers here are considerably younger than I am. In your lives, birth control and abortion have always been legal. As for women being able to run their own financial lives, how could it be any other way? But it was. Consider this: We weren’t even allowed to wear slacks or jeans when I was in school, only skirts. With pantyhose.

I’m reading a new book titled All the Single Ladies. Author Rebecca Traister takes us through the history of the women’s movement and the stories of a persistent percentage of women who choose independence rather than be bound by marriage. It’s heavy reading but fascinating. I will tell you more about it when I finish the book. I want to talk about people who prefer independent lives over married life, but what I have read so far sure makes me think about how things have changed.

Through most of history, women have not been considered equal to men, and they have not had the same rights as men. Traister quotes so-called experts from the 19th century who maintained our brains were not as big as men’s brains and who also said that if we stressed our brains doing jobs not suited to women we would damage our reproductive organs. Craziness, right? But women as recently as my mother’s generation truly saw few other choices in life besides being wives and mothers. Even when I came of age, I expected every relationship to turn into marriage and that would lead to having children. That’s what everybody did. I just wanted to be a writer, too. I’d do it while the kids were at school.

When women found themselves pregnant before marriage, it was a scandal. They had to get married in a hurry or go off somewhere to give birth in secret and give the baby up for adoption. Abortion was rare, dangerous and illegal until 1974, four years after I graduated from high school, four years after several of my classmates found themselves “in trouble.” Being a nerd with no social life and hyper-protective parents probably saved me from that.

I got married two weeks after I graduated from college. If my ex hadn’t put a monkey-wrench into the baby plan, I’d be a grandmother now. Early in our dating life, he hustled me to the student medical center for birth control pills. Those pills were a disaster. They made me sick, fat and depressed. I tried various types of pills. On some, I bled almost all month long. Others caused giant painful bumps to break out on my legs. I experienced the mother of all yeast infections because I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t dare tell anyone I was having sex before marriage. But I didn’t get pregnant. What if I had been born just a few years earlier?

Shortly before the wedding, I switched to a diaphragm. Every time I bought the contraceptive jelly for it, I felt like everyone in the store was looking and judging. Even after I got married.

And yet, I had so many more options than my mother did. I don’t know if she had sex before marriage. I don’t want to know. I do know she and my dad used condoms to stop having children after they had my brother and me. My snoopy brother found them in a drawer, but we never discussed it. God no. For us, The Talk about sex consisted of one word: Don’t.

Birth control took away the fear of pregnancy, both in and out of marriage. Plus, because the times were changing, I was able to work as a newspaper reporter, doing work that men used to do. I was always in debt, but I could manage my own affairs. My mother, perhaps your grandmother, did not have that freedom. She lived in a world where men controlled women’s lives and women’s destiny was motherhood.

Things have changed so much. It’s good, right?

We have so many choices now. Sometimes that makes it more difficult, especially when we find partners who don’t feel the same way as we do about having children. It used to take some doing to prevent the babies from coming. Now we have to fight for the right to have them. It doesn’t seem fair. Or is it more fair than it ever was before?

What do you think about all this? How have things changed in your lifetime? How has the availability of birth control and abortion affected your situation? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

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‘He forced me to have an abortion’

“I was forced into several abortions and wish now that I was still running in fear. At least I wouldn’t be childless.”

A woman calling herself Mary included this sentence in a comment sent in earlier this week. It was a long paragraph full of information about how she had always wanted to be a mother, and she tossed this in like oh yeah, probably should mention this. Dear God, what was she running from?

It’s not the first time I have heard this. Although women cannot be forced by law into aborting a pregnancy, they frequently feel forced into it by disapproving family or partners who threaten everything from abandonment to physical harm if they keep the baby.

I was already shocked by this comment, and then I was shocked again by the statistics on abortions. The numbers vary, with anti-abortion groups reporting far more than government groups that I hope are unbiased. The U.S. Center for Disease Control’s most recent report says there were 664,435 legal abortions in 2013 in the United States, that there are approximately 200 abortions per 1,000 live births every year, and that 91.6 percent take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. National Right to Life reports over a million abortions in the same period. 

Let’s just say there are a lot and get back to the question of forced abortions.

Abortion, always a touchy subject, is particularly volatile right now, with the new president looking to topple Roe v. Wade and people marching both for and against a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body. I’ll say right now that I am Catholic and I’m not keen on abortion. But I believe governments should keep their hands out of our vaginas.

I was even more shocked when I read this article, “The Reality of Forced Abortion in America” by Kristi Burton Brown. Take a moment to read it, if you want, knowing that toward the end it gets a little anti-abortion preachy.

Okay, now. Why would a woman let anyone tell her what to do with the baby that is in HER BODY? Why wouldn’t she holler, “No!” if she really doesn’t want an abortion, if she always wanted to be a mother, and she wants this baby?

Think about the many situations we see here at Childless by Marriage where a person, usually the woman, does not have children because her partner says no. So many readers are struggling to decide whether to let their partner make that decision for them. This week, I got a comment from a woman whose husband was fine with kids until two weeks after their wedding. Suddenly he didn’t want any. Grrr.

But when there’s already an actual baby being created, maybe only the size of a grape now, but still a baby, isn’t a forced abortion the same thing at a more intense level?

I understand that the woman may be afraid to lose the guy and perhaps end up broke and homeless with a baby. Perhaps she’s afraid of a scandal or of raising a child alone. But does she want to stay with a man who would force her to have an abortion? Isn’t that some kind of abuse?

There are some situations where abortion seems almost necessary: when the mother is too young, when she has been raped, or when the pregnancy threatens her health, but when it’s just a partner who doesn’t want a baby, I cry bullshit. How can he do this to someone he allegedly loves? And where was his condom if he was so set on not having kids?

Perhaps my Catholicness is showing here, but I think the right to choose includes the right to choose to have the baby rather than ending its life and regretting it forever. If you both agree that you need to have an abortion, then that’s between you and God, but don’t let anybody force you into an abortion if you don’t want it.

And please don’t stop reading this blog because you disagree with me or hate Catholics. We’re all just trying to figure this out together.

So let’s have your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Followup: If I had it to do over again . . .


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Years have passed since I interviewed the childless women who are quoted in my Childless by Marriage book. I have begun contacting them to find out what happened after we talked. Are they still with the same guy? Did they have children after all? How do they feel now about not having children? Most recently I caught up with “Aline,” who went by another name in the book but prefers to keep her identify private.
When we talked in 2004, Aline, a journalist, told me that her ex-boyfriend had insisted she abort the pregnancy she had at age 30. She had always planned to have children but had not found the right partner to do it with. At age 34, she said she would go ahead and have a child on her own if it didn’t happen within the next six months. As you’ll see, that didn’t happen.
If you were with a guy when we talked, are you still with him?
I’ve been single for the past year.
Did you wind up having children after all? Is there any chance you still might?
Unfortunately not. Considering my age, I think it’s unlikely. I suppose I can still get pregnant, but no man I know wants a baby with a 42-year-old, regardless of how attractive she may be.
When people ask you now why you don’t have children, what do you tell them?
I want to tell them it’s none of their business, but I just smile and change the subject.
Do you regret the choices that led to you not having children?
Yes. It’s eating me up. I feel like I’ve missed out in life. I feel inadequate and everyone makes me feel so.
If you could go back and change things, would you?
Absolutely. I would listen to my mom and be less picky about men. I would also have kept the baby I was expecting at age 30 and wouldn’t take into consideration the father’s (who incidentally is now married with two children) demands that I get an abortion.
Are there stepchildren or other children in your life that fill the gap?
I wish! I have a 13-year-old niece though who often asks why she doesn’t have a cousin from me.
11. Are you worried about being alone in old age?
All the time. It upsets me that no one will be there for me in my old age. It’s a source of anxiety.
What are you proudest of doing in your life so far? Could you have done this if you had children?
I had an exciting career as a journalist and film critic, traveling all over the world. And I live much of the year in Paris. It upsets me that I have no one to share these with. My friends juggle kids and career, so it wouldn’t have been impossible to raise kids at the same time. It just takes organization and discipline.
What would you say to others who are dealing with partners or spouses who can’t/don’t want to have children?
If you really want children and your partner doesn’t or can’t, then you need to re-evaluate your relationship. Do you love the person enough to make this compromise? You may wake up in ten years’ time full of regret. It’s a big and important issue and if you can’t change his/her mind, then it’s time to move on. Never compromise your happiness for a partner. I should know—I did and it kills me a bit each year.

Politics and childlessness: there is a connection

Election day is finally here in the U.S. Thank God. We’ll finally be done with all the advertising and phone calls from campaign people who pretend to be doing surveys when they really want you to commit to voting for their person or cause. Here in Oregon, it’s all pointless anyway, because we vote by mail. Many of us mailed in our ballots days or weeks ago.
So what does this have to do with being childless? Directly, nothing. Indirectly, maybe a lot. The presidential candidates, as well as many of the candidates for other federal, state, and local offices, have strong views on things like abortion and contraception. People talk about the “sanctity of life” or “the woman’s right to choose” or “a woman’s right to control her own body.” Abortion became legal in the U.S. with Roe v. Wade in 1973, yet the debate over whether it should be legal has never ended. A new president with strong anti-abortion views could change things by appointing Supreme Court justices who agree with him or by getting legislation passed that curtails our rights.
Birth control has been legal for a long time, although it took a while to trickle through all the states. When I first started taking the pill in 1972, it had only recently become legal in California. Now, although nobody is trying to make it illegal to use birth control, there is a lot of talk about the money part of it, whether insurance would cover it, whether religious institutions can refuse to provide it. There are also politicians who want to shut down Planned Parenthood, which provides not only abortions and contraception but vital health care for women.
The choices we have had since the’60s and ‘70s have made it possible for couples to consciously decide when or if they want to have children. Those choices have also made it possible for women to do other things with their lives besides being mothers. Being able to choose is a huge responsibility, a frightening one. What if we make the wrong choice? What if we want children and our partner doesn’t, or vice versa? Things were so black and white before. You got married and had children, if you could.
Now we have more choices. We can debate all day about whether abortion and birth control are sinful or immoral, wise or something we have a right to, but I think individuals should be able to decide these things for themselves, taking their own life situations, beliefs and religious views into consideration. I pray that doesn’t change with this election or any other.
By now, you have probably voted, but if you haven’t, go do it now. It matters.