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.

j mom

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.

Gender Equality: Not Just The Promotion Of Women

“In order to do this,
we must see men as our allies,

our partners through thick and thin.”
-Ana Ake, Tonga, Africa

Photo credit: UN

Photo credit: UN

With the 2015 target deadline fast approaching, many NGOs are evaluating how far we’ve come in reaching the Millennium Development Goal benchmarks. These are 8 goals officially established on September 8, 2000 at the UN Headquarters to set an action plan in place for international development. Of the 8 goals, the goal that I feel most passionate about is Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3: Promote gender equality and empower women.

This goal has come a priority for me to carry out in my personal life. I’m still sorting out what it looks like—- and what it doesn’t look like.

For most of my life, I’ve viewed gender equality as focusing on changing the stereotypes of women and ensuring women equal opportunities outside of the home. However, as public policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in her “Can We Have it All?” TED talk,

“I still think we should do everything we possibly can to empower women, but that’s only half of real equality. I now think we’re never going to get there unless we recognize the other half…”

To share a personal example of how I see this in my professional life, let me share some of my thought processes in working with men and women living with HIV and substance abuse. In this particular grant project, I am assigned to both male and female patients for a six month behavioral intervention focusing on empowerment to achieve health and social goals, including HIV care and substance abuse. When I would be assigned to partner with a woman, I’d get really excited at the prospect of seeing a woman empowered to live out personal, economic, and health-related successes. When I was assigned to work with a male, I would feel an initial sense of disappointment because I thought that somehow I wasn’t living out my passion for women’s empowerment. But to stick with this mindset is a narrow-view of gender equality. As USAID notes, “Gender equality means that males and females have equal opportunities to realize their full human rights and contribute to and benefit from economic, social, cultural, and political development.” In my work context, I now see how healthier men, free of substance use, who become elevated to greater personal, health-related, and economic prosperity turn into allies in the journey towards gender equality. When men can be healthy, whole, expressive people without mountains of societal expectations placed on their shoulders, women can also be healthy, whole, expressive people without having to see “work OR family,” but instead, the both/and: “work AND family.” I learned to change my perspective and now, whether working with a man or a woman, I realize that I am contributing towards gender equality when I view the larger picture of the societal impact of healthier women and men. For some, this is a no-brainer, but for me, it took some time to connect the dots between male and female empowerment.

Though I still feel convicted that more energy, capital, and social will need to be given towards advancing the promotion of women and girls, as partners and allies, we also need to see that part of gender equity is highlighting non-traditional roles of males in the media and in our lives. When men are portrayed as fathers, caregivers, educators, and participators in home and family life, we alleviate the burden of women being pigeon-holed into these roles. We offer women and girls a larger perspective of parenting- that not all of the responsibilities of parenting will inadvertently fall on one parent simply because of their gender. Girls and boys see that men and women truly can become and do anything. 100 years ago, it was hard for some to imagine a world where women could vote. 50 years ago, it was hard for some to imagine a world where interracial marriage was legal, let alone socially acceptable. 10 years ago, it was hard for some to believe that any more states would come alongside Massachusetts to instate marriage equality. And today, thought it might be hard for some to see men as care providers and other “non-traditional” roles, history has shown us time and time again that,

“the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
(Martin Luther King, 1965)

Men At Work

Photo credit: UNFPA

Thoughts in the ICU.

I have her black and white newspaper picture hanging on my bedroom door. She’s 17, an exchange student on the beach in Brazil, riding a motorcycle. Her Brazilian community wrote a newspaper article about her in Portuguese. It’s probably my most favorite picture of her, telling me the story of my mom before she was a mother. She seems so full of life, so spunky. I bet we would’ve been friends had I been around during the ’60s. But I guess I got lucky; instead of just a friend, I got a friend and a mother.

She’s not “La Garota da Motocicleta” (The Girl On The Motorcycle) right now, but that spirit is still in her; I see it, even though there’s tubes and cords and a central line running through her body. I’m with my family in the ICU at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia. It’s quiet, minus the steady beep of the EKG monitor, signaling life, and hope, and of the steady rhythm of another day to be alive. My dad touches her forehead and my sister pats her on the shoulder. I kiss her on her cheek, pausing, grateful for this moment. It’s been a long time since I’ve kissed my parents, especially on the cheek. But in this moment, I’m grateful to be close and at peace.

We sit there, in silence, with the occasional interruption of updates from the nurse. “We’re monitoring the blood pressure; as you know it’s low again. This is just more fluids to help aid in that process,” she says, changing an IV bag.

The first person my age that I knew to lose their parents was my friend Sarah, during the last month of our senior year in high school. Her parents died in a car crash and her mother was the art teacher at our middle school. It was the first funeral I’ve been to for someone’s parent, and shortly after, friends and I headed to Sarah’s home. That’s the first time I was introduced to “sitting Shiva,” a practice in Judaism in which family members receive visitors in the home of their deceased love one, for seven days. Shiva translates to “seven” in Hebrew, based upon Job grieving the death of his father for seven days. Traditionally, during the period of Shiva, mourners sit on low stools or boxes while they receive condolence calls. Often, doors are unlocked to allow visitors to enter quietly without knocking. Once in the presence of mourners, it is customary to wait until the mourner speaks before greeting the mourner. A minyan (prayer service) is held for the mourners each day during shiva. Shiva creates an atmosphere of condolence and support while allowing one to disengage gradually from the life of their deceased love one.* There’s something about this tradition that I find so beautiful.

Though I am hopeful for my mother’s recovery and personally not anticipating death, I think about Shiva. Sitting in this room in soft silence and occasional chatter between my family, I feel as though I’m celebrating a living shiva, feeling melancholy, and yet a very real, sincere peace.

There’s some connection I feel to my mother, as I think about all she’s experienced during her lifetime. My dad shows me a picture of the two of them, before they were engaged. My dad is on the left with dark, shaggy hair, and my mom to the right, in long, blonde pigtails and bell bottom jeans.
“Who is that?” we ask my 29 year old sister, who has Down Syndrome, while pointing to the photo.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s Mom and Dad,” I tell her.

“Looks weird.” She states, never having been a bashful one.

We laugh.

I watch her breathe with the support of intubation. Occasionally, she tenses and one of the tubes fills with liquid. She’s sleeping and under heavy medication, but still able to make small coughs that help bring the fluid from the pneumonia that’s gathered in her lungs. It’s strange to think, in this moment, that there was another time, and another place (not the ICU),  in which my mom and I were once connected. I feel as though right now, I’m a fly on the wall, or a shadow of my spirit, zoomed out, as I picture my mom holding my brother, then my sister, then me after birth. It’s a humbling experience to think about a day I can’t even remember, but a day that was quintessential to my very life. It’s in this moment I’m acutely aware of what a gift it is to have loving parents to bring you into life in this world. I suppose I may never know fully unless I become a mother one day, but here, in this moment, I’m as close to “getting it” as I might ever be. We all make sacrifices for each other. Fathers. Mothers. But right now, I see most clearly the amazing gift we each receive from a woman who uses her very body to provide life to another. Don’t get me wrong, women who choose not to have children can live every bit as sacrificially as those that do, but for right now, I’m looking at my mother in a hospital bed. And I’m so grateful that she, along with my father, made my life possible.

“Better get going,” my dad motions to my sister and I. Lauren, my Aunt and I are going to go home to make dinner, then head to the movies for a laughter break.
But I don’t want to leave.
I’m so sick of living my life focusing on getting tasks done.
I’m tired of half-listening to my roommate when I come home each day, as I tend to the dishes and listen to her talk in between my clanging of pots. She never does this when I talk to her. She stops what she’s doing and looks you into the eye…No, no, no. She looks into your heart.
Dinner can wait, I think We can order takeout to make it quicker. This time is much, much much more important. My sister and I linger over her bed for another twenty minutes. The nurse told us that even though she’s under sedation, she can still hear us, and encourages us to talk to her in short whispers as part of the healing process.

“Love you Mom,” I whisper softly and give her another slow kiss.

My sister and Aunt and I leave the room, and I glance back through the glass window to see my Dad, currently on furlough, sit quietly beside her, where he’s been since her admission ten days ago. Last weekend, I watched him brush her hair, gingerly, especially at the ends where a few tangles had gathered. As my siblings and aunt and I talked in her room last weekend, he stood beside her bed, touching her forehead every few moments or so. As I walk further away from my mom’s hospital bed, I admire his love. He always knew how to keep people a priority and go out for a run when his head needed clearing. I love that about him.

I don’t think this is it, but I was told there’s always a chance. I think that spunky young woman on a motorcycle is going to beat the pneumonia, heal from the staph infection which triggered her initial hospital admission last week, and come back from this in due time.

But what do I know.

What do I know about death.

What do I know about what it must feel like, to be near it, or perhaps around it, or perhaps still far from it, but not too far.

I don’t know.

But I remember the words of my youth pastor who watched her own mother pass away:

“I will tell you all this–never be afraid when this time comes. You could actually see Mom’s spirit leave her body, hover a while, and go. She looked so happy, so peaceful. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

I cling to this hope, and the hand of my sister as I whisper “I love you,” steadfast with the optimism that I will be back here tomorrow, watching her chest rise and fall. But even if for some reason, I cannot, I let the words and experience of my youth pastor nestle deep into my heart until a satiated peace comes over me.

I’m sitting a living shiva.
And I’m so thankful for the prayers and support of friends and family like you.

IMG_2438

*http://www.shiva.com/learning-center/understanding/shiva/

 

Dear Mom…

Dear Mom,

Happy Mother’s Day.

It’s taken me a while, but I think I’m starting to see what this day is about… and also what is isn’t.

You see, society has ingrained in us to see this day as a day to express gratitude for you, a mother, giving me, a child, life. Moms giving someone life. Motherhood, then, inseparable from its relation to other people, thus establishing an identity through what you’ve done, what you’ve produced– offspring, life, a living, human, pulsating, oxygen-breathing, wide-eyed curious human being through you. A type of experience involving every part of you- your heart and love, your intellect, your very body, day in day out, for the past 32 years since my big brother was born (now that I see that number, I’m grateful to be the youngest, not the oldest).

All of this is good, is great; it’s sacrificial, and quite beautiful.

I’m so in awe, now, of all you -and all those moms out there- do. The pain you went through just to introduce someone like me into this world. The challenges you faced in balancing the scales of work, life, and family, perhaps like a juggling acrobat on a tightrope wire, all without falling off. The stories you told me of gender discrimination at work, circa the time you were pregnant. The daily patience you exhibited when I was a whiny, ungrateful kid, with a knack for spilling things (some habits don’t change) and wanting your attention for every single underwater hand-stand at the pool and climb of monkey bars. Your financial support that went into not just sustaining my life, but enhancing it. (Remember when I used to take art classes? Well, that didn’t go a lot further than my clay lime popsicle I found on a shelf gathering dust in my room when I was home a couple months ago. But those swim lessons you put me through as a kid, even when I would hide in the bathroom when it was time for them to start, turned into a love for the water that has given me a blessing thousand times fold, and shaped who I am today.) From everything within me, thank you.

Thank you.

But if can impart some wisdom to you, as you’ve done for me, may I remind you that this day isn’t just about motherhood. It’s not just for those who have had biological offspring. It’s for every woman out there who’s ever looked out for a child, as a coach, mentor, leader, teacher. It’s about personhood. It’s about you and the fabulous human being you are, regardless of whether or not you procreated. There’s a reason, Mom, why I have that picture of you on a motorcycle in Brazil when you were an exchange student taped on the front door of my room. You were cool then; you’re still cool now. You have an identity apart from me, apart from Eric, and even apart from the time-consuming role you’ve had in raising a child with Down Syndrome, my sister, both of whom I love and cherish to have as siblings.
I value that identity.
Though I know you as a mother, I desire to know you as a person. Though I know you as a parent, I aspire to know you as a friend. Though I’ve known you for the past 26 years, I want to know more of you who you were before then– say, when you were 26.

I’m still not sure where I am with this whole motherhood-thing. There’s some days where I don’t want to have kids. Ever. I think about all the uncomfortable changes your body went through just to help me be here typing these words right now, and I still contend with God that sitting on eggs would be a much more enjoyable option than, well, you know. You dealt with it. The whole ordeal sounds pretty awful to me. But to give someone the opportunity to breathe, to think, to discover, to wonder, to dream, to play, to laugh, to experience every ounce of feet touching Earth or sky, well… that’s pretty beautiful. Pretty special. Quite a gift.

I’ll think on that one a little longer.

In the meantime, happy Mother’s Day to you.

I’m grateful for you.
I love you; I always will.

Mel.

mom mel