It’s Mothers’ Day today. Growing up, Mothers’ Day was not a thing. I do, though, remember sermons about Mothering Sunday. Until I went to boarding school where peer group pressure made me pay attention and “do the right thing”. My mother’s response was less than enthusiastic which, with hindsight, I still don’t understand. Was I hurt? I don’t remember. I do remember that my peers looked at me funny when I said that in our home we didn’t “do” Mothers’ Day – or Father’s Day – for that matter. I was used to the funny looks. They have quite a lot with why, for a patch, the adolescent and young adult Fiona worked hard at two things: conforming and being invisible.
Mum was not my friend
It’s no secret that my relationship with my mother was difficult. I don’t miss her or think about her very often, the way I do my father. I’m no longer envious of women who are friends with their mothers. At one time I was and longed for that sort of relationship. It took years to recognise that during my young adulthood, I had been blessed with friendships with women who cared for and comforted me in a way my own mother never did or could. It was they with whom had some of those very uncomfortable conversations that I think daughters should be having with their mothers. Similarly, it was with them I shared some of my most happy life events and experiences.
Motherhood and universal kinship
As I approach the end of my third score, I remain constantly perplexed at what women expect of each other. It also astounds me how some assume that within minutes of what will most definitely be a passing acquaintance, they may ask, “Do you have children?” Some women welcome that question and will happily wax lyrical about their children and/or grandchildren.
Others dread it.
I am one of those.
Because no, I don’t have children. And the person – usually a woman – asking, generally does.
A negative answer doesn’t end the conversation. If she’s smart, she’ll change the subject. Regrettably, that’s not often my experience. After her face registers confusion and sympathy, she believes that she now has license to quizz, “Why?”
Because women have an inherent kinship, right?
I sometimes wonder whether, if the boot were on the other foot, and she were asked why she has children, her answer would be an honest or comfortable one. I suspect, in some cases, not. I know some women who, if they are brutally honest, will say that having a/that child was not their preferred choice.
That confession is not something shared with a comparative stranger. Nor is it expected. Why, then, should a childless woman be expected to explain that she might not have had children because:
- she’s infertile
- her partner’s infertile
- she just does / did not want children
Each of those (of a myriad other) answers opens new cans of worms, some of which bore their way to the very core of women’s intimate spaces.
Choices and judgement
Women most easily “forgive” first two possible answers. It’s the last one that is confusing and often not forgivable. It confuses me because what is so unforgivable about making a conscious choice? Judgements range from (and these are not exclusive to me) from –
“How can you be so selfish?”
“You would have made such a good mother!”
and the piéce de resistance —
“You don’t know what you’re missing!”
Society hasn’t really changed
Biology aside (which we know has not changed over the eons), “we” like to think that in the 21st century, society is more “advanced” than it was a century ago. In some ways it is, but it really depends on where women find themselves – even in the same village. I remain astounded at how so much social and other media reflect a world in which a woman can only be happy if she finds a man, marries (preferably) and has children.
The burgeoning wedding industry and the rise in popularity of uber romantic destination weddings does nothing to dispel this, either.
Granted, there are well-documented correlations between socio-economic level and these expectations, which are also often connected with both religious beliefs and level of education. That said, women who eschew some of these conventions – and I’m one of them – find themselves constantly judged for, and defending, their choices.
Freedom to decide and choose
It’s partly Mother’s Day, and partly the leaking of the possibility that the seminal Roe v. Wade judgment could be overturned, that has me pondering. I know four women who had pregnancies terminated in South Africa in the 1980s.
Each one of those women agonised over that dreadful decision. I’d go so far as to suggest that it was the single most difficult decision any of those women have ever made in their now nearly 60 years of life.
Only one of the terminations was legal and that by virtue of her economic circumstances and access to medical professionals who knew how to work the system. The other three all had backstreet abortions. Relatively speaking, they were safe – also by virtue of their economic status. They had the connections to be able to find a “practitioner” and managed to afford to have the procedure – at night – in what was probably a private day clinic. There were no follow-up visits. No checks to see that all was ok. All three knew that if there were complications, there were other potential consequences, other than not having an unwanted pregnancy.
Two of these women went on to have children. One has three boys – now grown up. Another, that I am aware of, subsequently went on to marry and have a child. Divorce and then have another. She’d resolved never to have another termination. As did one of the others and who is not unhappily childless. I lost touch with the fourth.
Where were the sperm donors?
In the case of the legal termination, and one of the women, I have no idea whether the sperm donors played any role in the decision. In the third, he simply ended the relationship. The fourth abdicated any involvement in the decision:
Whatever you decide is fine with me. I will support you.
It’s unfathomable that an opinionated, educated man had no opinion on something potentially lifechanging – for two, potentially three, lives. He did, once she had made a hard, solitary decision, contribute half the cost of the then illegal procedure.
The death statistics
In 1997, the year that abortion was legalised in South Africa, a study showed that 95% of women hospitalised were admitted because of incomplete abortions. Of that number, another 95% of those in public hospitals died of complications associated with abortion. The study concludes that “methods used in this study underestimate the true incidence” – because the procedure was then illegal. Statistics that have significantly dropped since that legislation was implemented.
Why Roe v. Wade reverberates for women all over the world
Most women who are pro choice are only too familiar with the symbolism of that 1973 judgement. Its rescinding will be as symbolic. It’s less about defining when a foetus can survive – and thrive – in the big wide world than it is about women’s autonomy. It’s about our being able to make choices that affect our lives – and bodies – every moment of our lives.
As astounding as I find the questions about progeny, I find the pontifications of women who are happy mothers, and who chose to procreate. I am equally flummoxed by their damning judgement of women who chose differently.
How fortunate are they who have not been confronted with having to make a different choice.
Making it illegal for women to choose is not going to stop us choosing.
Deciding to terminate a pregnancy is a choice as old as history. A change to the US law will have a knock on effect around the world and particularly in the global south where the US supports public health initiatives as happened under the Trump administration. It’s a change that will result in death for many women.
My parents didn’t want children
I grew up being blamed for my parents not going to Australia. Somehow, I was conceived and that plan was scuppered so they sailed back to England. After my mother’s death in 1999, my father told me that he’d never wanted to marry, let alone have children. The marriage, he happily blamed on my mother. The first child remained a mystery. They had taken every precaution.
How did that make me feel?
I admit to having been a little startled. An irrational emotion because had I either not been born, or he’d kept that secret, I’d be none the wiser.
I was loved – by them both. Even if my mother was not my friend.
Whether she had a choice, or made a choice, I do not know. I never will. Either way, it’s a choice that was entirely hers to make.
On this Mother’s Day, spare a thought for those women for whom it’s a day that evokes all sorts of thoughts and emotions. Sadness for mothers no longer around, unknown, not understood. Or for those women who are again forced to confront – again – their decisions about motherhood. Whether or not they have had the freedom to choose.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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