The ‘Everybody Must Procreate’ Myth: Freeing Myself From the Societal Imposition of Motherhood

Lately, I’ve been thinking some unhelpful thoughts about the future that rob my mind from experiencing joy in the present moment without distraction. Thoughts that lead me to feel guilty about things that I can do “because I don’t have kids.” For example, I set my alarm many a Friday night to a leisurely waking hour that some folks with toddlers can only dream about. I feel guilty over having time to myself-some might call it ‘me-time,’ but I think that denotes selfishness instead of recognizing our own individual needs for renewal. This is free time that I get to choose how to spend. Time to workout for as long as I’d like, read for pleasure, or simply sit by candlelight in quiet meditation before going to bed. All of this is self-inflicted guilt because I believe I fall into the whole “oh-she-doesn’t-really-get-it-yet-because-she-doesn’t-have-kids” category. I think about the myriad of things my parents did for me and my two siblings; things I cannot even remember, like the hundreds of smelly diapers they changed, or all the times they were patient and forgiving towards me when I threw temper tantrums. And while I’ve been getting better at turning my guilt over these things into expressing gratitude for my parents’ dedication and love, I still get caught feeling like I might be selfish if I don’t do the same for future offspring one day, as though my entire worth as a human being is dictated by whether or not I chose to “selflessly” procreate.

I’ve always intended to have children one day, that is, through the means of adoption. I never was interested in having children biologically, though I’m grateful that there are women who choose to do so, giving the precious gift of life to another human being. Adoption can slow population growth, thus preserving our Earth’s precious resources. It can provide loving parents to one of the 132 million orphaned children on this planet. Additionally, the cost of adoption is not nearly what most might think, with adoptions ranging from $0-$2,500 in US foster care systems, $5,000-$40,000 in private agencies, and $7,000-$30,000 internationally.  Conversely, average costs for a vaginal delivery are $18,329 and $27,866 for a C-section. Despite my research, I’ve been criticized by some for my interest, and was even told surly, “That won’t REALLY be your child!” by someone close to me. I remain undismayed by this, knowing firmly that an adopted child is every bit as much MY child— yes, the kind of child you see on stage or in the pool and want to stand up for all to see, shouting, “That’s MY kid!” Beaming, overflowing with pride. Pride because I’ve dreamed of this child for so long, wondering in which country s/he would be born. Pride because I’ve wanted you, imagined you, and—if I decide to follow through with this desire– will one day treasure you as my very own child. So when asked if I want to have kids, my response is usually: I want to adopt one day, but the age that I wish to adopt gets a little bit later every year as time moves forward while my desire for motherhood halts.

And so, when I see pictures of my friends’ babies on Facebook, or see frazzled parents running to practices and meetings all over town, I lie in bed at night, wondering if that’s my same fate. I see women with pregnant bellies and am grateful that they would be so giving as to spend nine months, sometimes in discomfort, to give someone the opportunity to experience the incredible gift of life. Though I’ve never been pregnant, I contend that we, as a society, are sometimes inattentive on how to treat a woman who is pregnant. I’ve seen people excessively stare at a woman’s belly instead of make direct eye contact with her face. I’ve seen people lose interest in a woman’s personhood, ceasing to ask questions about the woman and her life, instead solely talking about her embryo, as if they choose to now view her exclusively through the identity of mother, instead of a mother AND a person. I imagine myself pregnant and cringe. Some months, I experience dysmenorrhea so intensely, that one time, I had to lock myself in the bathroom at work to lay down on the dirty floor in privacy to relieve severe menstrual cramps, as lying completely flat and popping round-the-clock ibuprofen are my only anodyne. Given my experiences with just having a monthly period, pregnancy sounds like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from until you’ve given birth…and then, there’s breastfeeding.

Let’s be clear. I know what I’m saying is probably skewed. I lack the perspective and maturity to understand the full realm of pregnancy as both a beautiful, miraculous thing to be celebrated, in addition to being something that can be painful or potentially socially isolating for some women. I don’t balance both sides of the beauty/discomfort scale, and my perception of pregnancy is entirely skewed because of it.

Skewed or not, though, I’ve given myself permission to not even have kids. To not even adopt, though my ardent depiction of adoption I mentioned earlier might suggest otherwise. Oh sure, I may very well change my mind. But by giving myself permission to not have children when many of my friends and family members are and when many societal, religious, or familial voices expect that each woman “should,” I am discovering blissful freedom. By loosening myself from the forced grip of motherhood, I am better able to love, understand, care for, support, and be present in the lives of women who wholeheartedly desire and embrace motherhood. I can love such friends (and their kids) without feeling as though I have to be doing what they have chosen to do with their lives. And who knows. One thing I’m learning about life is that things change. Despite being an obstinate person, I’ve changed views and decisions on things that I was once so sure about (like deciding not to go on my Peace Corps assignment). Perhaps in another 5-10 years, I will feel differently about the whole parenthood thing. My views, beliefs, and opinions that I held 5-10 years ago are not tit-for-tat those that I hold now. We exist in a life that is fully evolving, each day marked by choices that twist and turn us into people reignited, perhaps now with gifts like perspective and maturity

MotherhoodChoosing to become a parent is a deeply personal, intimate decision that only you as an individual, and then ultimately, you and your partner as a couple, can make. It is indeed a choice, though, especially if you use effective birth control (I understand that “oops-es” can happen- and I’ve met some beautiful people that were brought into this world through an unintended pregnancy). Having children is not a requirement. It’s not a demand. Certain religious voices might tell you otherwise. That’s what Evangelical Christians tried to tell me for years- that “motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.” But, like author Rachel Held Evans points out, “A Christian woman’s highest calling is not motherhood; a Christian woman’s highest calling is to follow Christ.”  What’s more freeing than anything else, though, is remembering that none of us have to do anything that isn’t the best choice for ourselves, just because it is the best choice for many others. You can serve and love unselfishly without having children, just like you can serve and love and have children. Not having children can be a great choice for you, just like having children can be a great choice for you. The important part is not to judge other’s decisions and to remember that you have a choice in the matter.

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My friend Jasmine with her daughter Alana, age seven.

dad lauren

Dad and Sister, April 2010

I keep meeting and spending time with couples who have intentionally chosen to be childless. I’m amazed by their firm commitment to serve their communities, places of worship, and for using their time to promote goodness and peace in this world. Similarly, I’ve been meeting couples that have intentionally chosen to have children, and I’m amazed by how they love their kids with such character, teaching me so much about patience and dedication- what it means to truly love when it’s easy, and even more so, when it’s hard. They’ve taught me that if you quit and give up early, you miss out on beautiful memories that would have never been possible. I’ve watched my own parents deal with behavioral challenge after behavioral challenge in raising a daughter with Down Syndrome. But everytime I see her smile and hear her laugh, I am once again so grateful for their steadfast commitment to not give up on unconditional love, patience, and kindness, when anyone else would understand if they did. Yes. I’ve watched couples create identities as mothers (and fathers) as well as identities in their own personhood, interests, and dreams. Both of these kinds of couples- childless and child-filled alike- help mold, shape, and stretch my perspectives as I carefully, prudently choose the path that fits best for my life.

So until I’m ready to make a firm decision, you will find me musing, and asking questions- LOTS of them. I thank all of you who have patiently let me ask you very personal questions. I especially thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. It’s been said that “maturity is not believing everything you’re told.” So I’m ready to maturely move forward into my adulthood, freed from the critical voices that used to clobber my mind, and unburdened by anyone’s unspoken expectations, knowing that one day, if I decide to become a mother, it is because it was the cry of my heart, the melody of my passion. No expectations. No demands. Just love.

“The Point at Which a Family Starts”

Another beautiful piece from my writer friend Amber Cadenas as she tackles the meaning of family with beautiful poignant truth.  http://amber-beautifulrubbish.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-point-at-which-family-starts.html#.VEbmsfnF-1T

“And so, with the questions coming not long into this story of marriage – But when are you going to start a family? – I squirm inside, protesting. But don’t you see? We already have.”

Photo: Amber Cadenas

Photo: Amber Cadenas

“It is not children who make a family a Family. It is people, loving each other, in abundance and in lack, in sickness and in health, in desire and in struggle, till death do us part.”

If you enjoy reading about spirituality, grace, and finding God in everyday experiences, be sure to check out her Facebook page for updates.

The ABCs of Gender, Sexual, and Racial Equality

Photo credit: Leanna B. Powell

One of Baltimore’s cafes that promotes equality right on down to bathrooms. Love Red Emma’s! Photo credit: Leanna Powell

I’ve been having some of the most mind-opening conversations of my life recently as I’ve been interviewing women and men about gender and listening to podcasts covering privilege, gender, and sexuality. In discussing and listening, I’ve come across terms that I was unfamiliar with (such as “cis-gendered”). This piqued my curiosity to learn more about gender, sexual, and racial equality. Below are some terms that may be helpful in educating ourselves and others about gender, sexual, and racial equality. This list is by no means comprehensive, but just a smattering to get your feet wet. Whether you’re well-versed in your equality vocabulary, or just beginning advocacy efforts, you are needed. No matter where you are in the journey, let’s ask each other questions, have a posture of a learner, ask how we can help one another as allies, and change the world. Comment below with your experiences in allyship, advocacy, or questions about these words/topics.

Asexual: one who does not experience sexual attraction
Ally: (in context of equality) one who unites with other causes, organizations, or people to promote the global concept of equality promotion (ex: a gender ally, an LGBTQIA ally)

Binary supremacy: the belief that genders fall into two (and only two) separate and distinct categories and that a male or female identity is superior to other identities
Butch: A woman who adopts what would typically be considered masculine characteristics. Note: This is not a derogatory word when used for self-identification. Just like “gay,” or “retarded,” the word is not inherently disrespectful; it’s only disrespectful when used inappropriately.

Cis-: as in, cis-gendered: identifying with your biological sex.
Cis-privilege: The benefits and privileges that go along with identifying with one’s biological sex.

Dyke: Lesbian. Note: this is not a derogatory word if someone self-identifies as a “dyke.” Some women do not like the word “dyke” because of its oppressive roots, while others have reclaimed the word and found identity as a “dyke.”

Egalitarian: Having equal rights, regardless of social, economic, or other distinctions such as income, race, or religious or political beliefs; as in egalitarian marriage (vs. complimentarian marriage),  for example.
Equity (vs equality)In simple terms, equity is equipping everyone what they need to be

equity

Photo credit: Everyday Feminism

successful. Equality is treating everyone the same. Consider the image below- if everyone was equal, they’d have the same view, right? But what about the children? They need a boost to be able to enjoy the same view. Policies like affirmative action are temporarily necessary to give equity to educational and career opportunities until people of less privileged backgrounds who’ve had long histories of exclusion can experience equality.

Femmephobia: The devaluation, fear, and hatred of the feminine and anything commonly related to femininity (the color pink, high heels, etc.) that denotes femininity as inherently inferior.

Gay masculine of center: One example of many forms of self-identification, this identity is used by some women who tilt toward a masculine side of gender identity
Gender binary:
Classification of sex and gender as two separate and distinct identities: feminine and masculine

Hapa: A term that originated in Hawaii to describe one who identifies with mixed racial heritage, with partial roots in Asian/Pacific Islander ancestry.
Heteronormativity: The social and cultural constructs that assume heterosexuality is the norm.
Homosexuality: A word some find hurtful, as it links to days when homosexuality was a clinical disorder (some instead advocate using “a person who is gay/lesbian”); a term that The New York Times dropped from usage in 1987, while Fox News continues to lag behind.

Intersectionality: The concept that cultural oppressions (i.e. gender, race, class, and sexual orientation) are all intertwined and that we can be oppressed through multiple identities (ex: a gay African American can be discriminated against for being BOTH gay AND African American)
Intersex:
A condition experienced by approximately 4% of the population in which there are genetic, hormonal or physical differences thought to be typically male AND female. Some choose to self-identify as intersex, while others find this identity troubling. One thing we can agree on: Don’t use the word ‘hermaphrodite!’

Jail: The place 97% of rapists don’t enter; the place where a gay Ugandan can go by law simply for being gay through the 2014 Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act (rooted in laws from British colonization); the place where interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving were sentenced to for interracial marriage in 1958.

Kinsey scale: A rating scale developed in 1948 in order to account for research findings that showed many people did not fit into neat and exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories.

Late onset adrenal hyperplasia: One example of an intersex presentation affecting 1 in 66 individuals.
LGBTQIA: Acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual/Ally

Microaggressions: small, everyday examples of negative statements about a non-dominant group or marginalized identities; may be implicit or explicit.  
Monosexism: Belief that a person can only be attracted to ONE (and only one) gender.

Non-binary: Umbrella term for anything that doesn’t fit in the stratified gender binary model; one can self-identify as non-binary.  

Outing: When someone reveals another gender identity or orientation often without the person’s consent or approval.

Pixie manic dream girl: A female trope known to be carefree and playful and whose primary role in a film, book, or television show is to awaken the heart of a man. What does this have to do with equality? Equality is a byproduct of acknowledging the unequal or oppressive messages we encounter in everyday life, including media and advertising.
Privilege: A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. In simpler terms, “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.’

Queer: Umbrella term for one who identifies outside of the societal norms in regards to gender and sexuality; once was considered a derogatory term but has now been reclaimed by many LGBTQIA as a desired form of self-identification.
Queer femme: One of many forms of self-identification; typically someone who identifies as a lesbian who exhibits typically feminine traits.

Racialized sexism: When women of color are discriminated against in both race and sex, often stemming from issues of privilege

Sexual entitlement: Belief that another “owes” you sexual encounters that can take the form of sexual harassment, ogling strangers, and demanding sexual favors. While any gender can act sexually entitled, women disproportionately experience male sexual entitlement as expressed in many media, language, and cultural norms or attitudes
Sexual fluidity: Term used to describe that one’s sexual identity and attractions can shift throughout the lifespan; there is a tendency for sexual minority women to experience higher levels of sexual fluidity than men.

Third wave feminism: Current wave of feminism (though some advocate we’re in the fourth) that began in the 1990s focusing on changing cultural constructs of language, embracing intersectionality and allyship (in regards to sexual orientation/identity, race, and class), securing equal opportunities for women, and celebrating the accomplishments of women past and present.

Photo credit: UN

Photo credit: UN

UN Millennium Development Goal 3: One of the 8 goals established in 2000 by the UN to “promote gender equality and empower women” internationally

Vagina Monologues: Play written by Eve Ensler depicting womens’ experiences with masturbation, rape, sex, orgasm, female genital mutilation, menstruation, love, and birth.
V-Day: Global activist campaign started by Ensler to end violence against women and girls. V stands for Victory, Valentine, and Vagina.

Women only space: A place committed to empowering women in safe spaces; historically the women’s movement failed to include trans women but is now changing to promote inclusion. Opinions vary about women-only spaces. I personally have benefited from women-only spaces and also felt torn about them- a post for another time.
Woke: (Often “Stay woke”) A phrase used to encourage critical thinking about social injustice, often used in relation to racial injustice. The term can be traced back to singer Erika Badu in 2008 but became popularized during the Black Lives Matter movement.

Xenophobia: fear and hatred of strangers or of anything that is unknown or “foreign”.

You:  A person needed to address equity and privilege while engaging others in the discussion.

Ze and zir: Gender neutral pronouns that can be used the same way “he” or “her” are used. Ze is singular, as in “he” or “she-” “Ze laughed.” Zir is a possessive pronoun, as in “it:” “I called zir.”


 

 

 

Resources/Education
-Developing your awareness of cissexism
-8 Ways to Stop Street Harrassment
-Identifying problematic language
-Identifying gender neutral language
-Strategies to move past “privilege guilt” 

Share your own! Comment below!

 

 

“I. Choose. You.” Brief Thoughts on Marriage From An Unmarried Feminist

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Photo: MO, 2013

“I wonder what I’m locking myself into,” a friend shared recently when we were talking about marriage. I laughed an understanding laugh, because I got it. “Yeah! It’s hard for me to imagine seeing the same person over and over again every day and night. ‘Aw man, you again?'” I (half-jokingly) shared. A natural introvert, I annoy even myself sometimes. A partner is bound to get annoyed at me, too, and hey, that’s ok.
It’s just that the closer I get toward the possibility of marriage, the more I seem to take a step back from it. Critique it. Question it. Recognize its historical and political roots that have nothing to do with love and everything to do with legality. And I haven’t thought about marriage the same way since reading things like Commited by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which I learned about things like “coverture” for the first time.

But lately, I’m recognizing the cyncism with which I view something that’s inheritently good and beautiful, allowing myself to ponder the beauty of marriage too. I’ve been watching, studying, inspecting long-standing couples who’ve been through adversity. Who experienced beautiful things that wouldn’t have been possible had they caved when things got hard. Had they given up before seeing the redemption and beauty part of the story. Because whether a relationship ends or is unending, every story can experience the kind of resolve that makes you wander out to a lake all by yourself, sit on a log, and tear up at the thought, “I know the journey is hard. But it is good too.”

I experience that kind of beauty and resolve when I think about the first couple most of us can observe firsthand in our own lives: our parents. Of all the memories of my parents that I treasure most, the moments that stand out the most viscerally come from four weeks in October 2013 when my mom was in the ICU. She was protesting that she wanted to go home, tired of the hospital. And instead of pushing against her resistance, my dad took out a comb, sat down on her bed, and gingerly started brushing her hair. He made small talk with my sister and I while the sun shone through opened window blinds. Later on that hospital visit, he pulled out a picture of the two of them when they were engaged and showed it me. They were high school sweethearts, and their picture captured what it means to be “young and in love.” As things in the hospital worsened, my dad sat by her bedside three times a day to do nothing but simply be next to her. Those moments in the hospital are precious to me. My parents’ marriage hasn’t been easy. I do not think their story is mine to tell. But I do know that there have been many beautiful memories and laughs that didn’t seem possible in periods of challenge several years ago.

When I look at my grandmother and grandfather arm-in-arm in photos taken of them in places all across the world, I experience similar beauty when I look at their smiles. Smiles that say, “things haven’t been easy. But I am for you, and you, for me, and together, we make a choice… I. Choose. You.” I think of the last wedding I attended of two friends whose love has taken them through every shade of emotion possible. There’s just something different in these couples. Because these couples want to give out of their utmost.

Perhaps this is what I’m most amazed by. The every day choices that married couples willingly make to affirm their commitment to one another; to look someone in the eye everyday and say, unwaveringly, “I choose you.” For years, Evangelical Christians tried to tell me “a woman is supposed to submit to her husband, who is the leader of the home.” That imbalance of power always made me cringe in fear of watching my identity disappear. Some other Christians I know use the world “yield,” which sat a little better in my (very independent) heart. Because the kind of “yielding” they described was irrespective of gender. It’s one person yielding to another’s needs or requests as much as you can because you love them. Because everyday, you want to find ways to say through your actions, “I. Choose. You.” And after the arguement—the one over something stupid, and the one that really wasn’t; the one that required the two of you to make life-changing decisions—- after those kinds of fights, to return again in love: “I. still. choose. you.” The other partner does the same exact thing. It’s not tit-for-tat. It’s not some assignment where everyone gives and takes in methodic equality, each paying the other back in detailed increments like credit card statements. No. It’s more like loan forgiveness. It’s sincerely wanting to do all you can for someone you love so much. You still can have your most imminent needs be met and your preferences preferred while all the time doing this giving over and lending to and loving sacrificially.

In my dating experiences, I’ve come to find that this “yielding” is the hardest part. I’ve discovered how selfish I can be. How much I want to ensure that I, as a feminist female, am heard by my partner, a man. How reluctant I am to provide deference because I can think back to an entire history of humankind in which women have been deferential to men. And the terrible repercussions of unreciprocal deference speak for themselves. But it’s a lonely road when your only reason not to give to someone is because they’re of a gender that’s historically been the recipient of privilege. It’s a lonely road when you try to stratify independence and intimacy, instead of accepting the harmonious synergy of interdependence and partnership. A love that doesn’t bend as much as it breaks doesn’t create an inspiring story. No beauty. No real love, anyway.

Real love is found when women and men are allies. When we’re for each other, not against each other. When we forgive the thorny path of past actions and inactions throughout the centuries that both genders have done to oppress or diminish the other- because we both have. I’ve always known this in my head, but it wasn’t until my first serious relationship came and went that I realized my heart is sluggish on my contribution towards being an ally. Heck, it wasn’t until my first serious relationship that I even noticed how all this gender stuff plays itself out.

So one day, when I’ve processed this stuff, developed a framework of feminism that’s empowering for both genders-because that’s what true feminism does-, and stopped being afraid of the commitment and unknowns that marriage entails, I plan for these words to be read aloud at my wedding. More clear than any passage of scripture I’ve read, more real than any marriage book that’s been written, it encompasses to me what “I Choose You” means:

“I will give you this, my love, and I will not bargain or barter any longer. I will love you, as sure as God has loved me. I will discover what I can discover and though you remain a mystery, save God’s own knowledge, what I disclose of you I will keep in the warmest chamber of my heart, the very chamber where God has stowed Himself in me. And I will do this to my death, and to death it may bring me. I will love you like God, because of God, mighted by the power of God. I will stop expecting your love, demanding your love, trading for your love, gaming for your love. I will simply love. I am giving myself to you, and tomorrow I will do it again. I suppose the clock itself will wear thin its time before I am ended at this altar of dying and dying again. God risked Herself on me. I will risk myself on you. And together, we will learn to love, and perhaps then, and only then, understand this gravity that drew Her, unto us.” -Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (God as female emphasis my own, not author’s)

But until that day, I’ll practice this giving over, in all of my relationships with people I love. And though at times it feels unnatural, I know there’s no other way to look someone in the eye to say “I choose you” with sincerity.

“I. Choose. You.”
It’s a beckoning, hard call.
I dare to say it’s impossible.
But all around me, I see couples who are willing to do the impossible.
I hope I can live up to it.

One of my favorite couples that inspires me to love well: Anastasia and Joe June 2013

One of my favorite couples who inspire me to love well: Anastasia and Joe
June 2013