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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Wanting babies but using birth control

Shortly after my boyfriend introduced me to sex, I found myself in the stirrups at the college health center getting my first prescription for birth control pills. I was still living at home, so I couldn’t possibly tell my parents about having sex or needing contraception. When my first prescription led to my first yeast infection, I had no idea what was going on and let it go way too long. That was the first of three different pills and some terrible side effects. It turned out The Pill and I were not compatible, so I switched to condoms and diaphragms, those rubber disks you fill with spermicidal jelly and slip up your vagina just before intercourse.

I wanted babies, but I didn’t want to be an “unwed mother,” as they were called in the days when it was a scandal. When I was married, my first husband kept saying not yet, not yet, not yet, until he just said no.He made sure I had my diaphragm in before we had sex. No accidental babies allowed. Divorce followed, for other reasons. Single again, I put that diaphragm to good use with other men. On my first date with Fred, who became my second husband, we were doubly covered because I used my diaphragm and he had his vasectomy, which I didn’t know about yet.

I wanted babies but avoided the chance of having them, except for a couple slips with one boyfriend, after which I prayed for my period to start. Birth control wasn’t so easy in my early days of adulthood. A lot of things we can buy over the counter now required getting a prescription and facing a certain amount of disapproval. Now they sell condoms at the grocery store.

Looking back, It seems crazy. All those years of pills, condoms and jelly to prevent something I really wanted and expected to have in my life. It was also against my religion, but I didn’t even know that then. Nobody spelled out the rules, and even if they had, religion did not speak as loudly as the parents who told me my life would be ruined if I got pregnant outside of marriage and the men who wanted to have sex but not babies.

I got to thinking about this because my subscription to wedmd.com recently brought a fascinating link to my attention recently. It’s a slide show that looks at birth control through the ages. This is all back before most modern methods existed. They seem kind of crazy now. Take a look.

I would love to know about your relationships with birth control. What have you used? How faithfully have you used it? Have you ever tried to sneak in some unprotected sex in the hope of getting pregnant? Men are welcome to offer their point of view, too. You can be anonymous. Your mother will never know.

Should she stand by her man who doesn’t want kids?

 What is this, 1914?

 A reader asked me that the other day after I advised a childless woman to stick with the man she had rather than get divorced in her 40s in the hope of finding another guy with whom she could have children. I tried to explain that at her age, the odds of finding another Mr. Right and getting pregnant were lousy. She was not happy with my advice. 
I flip-flopped with the next commenter, who was in her early 30s. I told her to go for it.
 Today, I received a comment from a woman whose fiance of 13 years just told her he has decided he doesn’t want kids. I told her to keep talking.
Nearly every day, I receive comments from people, mostly women, who don’t know what to do. Their mate is unable or unwilling to have children with them. They may have said they would be happy to have babies before, but now they don’t want to. Often there are stepchildren who make things more complicated. The couple either fights about it all the time or they can’t talk about it. What should they do?
Dear God, I wish I knew.
My friends, I am not the goddess of all wisdom. I wish I could solve your problems, but I’m human. My views are necessarily tainted by my own experiences and by the fact that I’m Catholic, white and was raised in California by traditional parents of western European heritage in the 1950s and ‘60s. I’m also very practical. I don’t believe in diving out of a boat where you might be unhappy but at least you won’t drown in the hope that another, more beautiful boat will happen along. I also believe that most of us are lucky to meet one perfect life partner in a lifetime. If this is old-fashioned, so be it.
When I was a kid, back in the pre-birth control days, couples who were unable to have children stuck together. Often they adopted, but not always. People who simply didn’t want children either didn’t get married or they sucked it up and had them anyway because if you were having sex it was a lot harder to avoid. It was also more difficult to get a divorce. Things seemed simpler. You fell in love, you got married, and you had babies. Were some people brutally unhappy, feeling totally trapped? I’m sure they were.
But it is not 1914 or even 1954. It’s a new century in which nearly anything is possible. With so many choices, it’s hard to know what to do. I need your help. Feel free to respond to comments at any of the posts here with your own advice and experiences. Together we’ll figure it out.

Should you stay with the guy who doesn’t want kids?

In looking for what to write about today, I keep going back to the comment I received over the weekend on a post titled, “He said he didn’t want any more kids.” 

Anonymous said…  
My boyfriend and I have been dating for going on five years and he has said repeatedly that he does not want anymore kids. He has two kids from previous relationships and basically refuses to even talk about what would happen if we have an accidental pregnancy. I do understand where he is coming from, he lost his daughter in a horrendous and long custody battle after his divorce, and although we see his son on a regular basis, he simply doesn’t want anymore children. I very much want to be a mom at some point, and though I’m only 25 (he is 33) I know I want a child of my own too. I love his kids but it’s heartbreaking and makes me incredibly envious and even a smidge resentful. I have nightmares about being pregnant and him leaving me because of it. I’m terrified of the possibility of becoming pregnant because I love him more than anything and don’t want to lose him, but what if I do get pregnant even while on birth control? I want to know he won’t leave me in that circumstance, but he won’t give me any reassurance on the issue. Any advice would be appreciated!  

Oh boy. As I noted in my reply, my gut instinct is to tell her to get another boyfriend. If he would leave her if she got pregnant even by accident, come on, that’s not right. At least that’s my opinion.

I know what it’s like to be in a relationship that is not good in some ways but still feel like I would absolutely die if he left me. More than once. And you know what? Eventually these men dumped me. Maybe I was too clingy. Maybe I scared them with my dreams of marriage and children and a nice house in the suburbs. Maybe they were just jerks. I’m no expert on relationships, but it does seem to me that if you can’t discuss an issue as important as whether or not to have children, the relationship won’t last. Also, if this guy is so anti-children, why doesn’t he get a vasectomy so there won’t be any accidents?

I would love to hear other opinions on this situation. If you read the other comments on that post, you’ll see that this particular anonymous writer is not the only one struggling with this. It all comes back to the same question: Do you love this person so much that you’re willing to give up having children for him or her?

Please comment.

What would have happened without The Pill?

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } Birth control pills became legal for unmarried women in 1972, the year I lost my virginity. I realized this last night as I was reading a new book called The Baby Matrix, written by Laura Carroll, who also wrote Families of Two. I’ll write more about this book when I finish reading it, but the section on birth control is the most complete I’ve ever seen. I was shocked when I suddenly understood the chronology. In the 1960s, birth control became legal for married couples, but it wasn’t until I was in college that women who were not married had an effective means, aside from abstinence, to prevent unwanted pregnancies. This blows my mind.

I was a late bloomer when it comes to dating and sex. My mother said “don’t” and I didn’t until I was 20. It was only when I met the man who became my first husband that I finally learned how much fun sex could be. The first few months that were dated, he kept pressuring me to “do it.” I knew that he’d dump me pretty soon if I kept saying no. After I finally gave in, he hustled me to the San Jose State University health center, where I got my first birth control prescription. The pills made me sick and fat, but they kept me from getting pregnant. After we got married, I switched to a diaphragm, a rubber disk full of spermicidal cream that I inserted just before intercourse. That’s what I used until several years after our divorce, when I met Fred, who had had a vasectomy. With him, I no longer needed birth control. Conception was impossible.
I got those first pills in 1972, hiding them so my parents would never know. A year earlier, the pills would not have been available. Nor would the diaphragm. We might have used condoms, but the chances were good that I would have joined the many women who are pregnant on their wedding day. In the old days, lots of women got married to men they might not otherwise have married simply because they were pregnant. To have a child outside of marriage was a scandal to be avoided. God help the unmarried pregnant woman and her illegitimate child.
Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , 40.8 percent of babies born in the U.S. are born to unmarried women. Today they have a choice, and they choose to become single mothers while their sisters may decide not to become mothers at all. But before I was 20 years old, we didn’t have these choices. Even then, it took a while for attitudes to catch up with legalities.
Without birth control, it would be a lot harder to choose a life without children unless you also chose a life without intercourse. It would also be a considerably more difficult for a spouse who doesn’t want children to keep from having them anyway. Many of us who are childless by marriage would not be if this were 1963 instead of 2013.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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. 

Religion and childlessness–is there a connection?

I don’t usually get into religion here. Everyone has different beliefs, and I don’t want to offend anyone. In my interviews with childless women, most insisted that religion played absolutely no role in their decisions about having children. This surprised me. But I didn’t consult God in the matter either.

I’m Catholic. Catholics have a reputation for reproducing, but I didn’t know until I started researching my book that using birth control was a sin and that abortion was grounds for excommunication. I had no idea. My formal religious education ended at age 13, when the nuns probably assumed we were too young to even think about sex. In my case, they were right. So they never talked about it. My mother’s entire advice about sex was “don’t.” I didn’t until I met the man who became my first husband.

I had fallen away from the church by the time I started dating Jim. When he escorted me to the student health center for birth control pills, I didn’t think, “Oh no, this is a sin.” I took the pills. Later, I switched to a diaphagm, and later still, after a divorce and several boyfriends with benefits, I married a man who had had a vasectomy. Sin, sin, sin. But I didn’t think of it that way. I was just trying not to get pregnant when conditions were wrong and then wishing I could get pregnant when conditions were right. A strict Catholic would say I was trying to manage a part of life that is supposed to be up to God. Furthermore, they would say that my lack of children now is my punishment for being a big old sinner.

I believe in a kinder God who believes we screw up and forgives us. He may even have planned for me to be childless so that I could do other things. Still, when I’m around my Catholic friends, I don’t say much about how I came to be childless. I just look sad and change the subject.

How about you? Does religion have anything to do with your thinking about whether or not to have children? In what way?

I welcome your comments. Please be kind to one another. I know religion is a dangerous topic. It shouldn’t be, but it is, and I want this blog to remain a safe place for all of us.