This blog is really all over the place isn’t it?
On the one hand, it’s my blog, and I can write about whatever I like. On the other hand, since I am the wife of a Foreign Service officer, there is a general theme at work (most of the time). Because being a Foreign Service officer is more than just a job. You don’t clock in at 9 and clock out at 5—and your family certainly doesn’t.
I wouldn’t call it my life, because, well….ew. I’m just not a person who can say “my husband’s career is my life.” I mean, really, that is never going to happen. But, because of his career, I have spent most of my adult life living in other countries. And that has shaped my thoughts and opinions on just about everything. Including this latest stuff going on in the States about contraception.
What follows is my opinion, and my opinion only.
Most of the women—in fact, all the women—I know are just gobsmacked that contraception can even be considered “controversial” or an “issue” in 2012. That includes women who have never lived anywhere outside the U.S. It includes churchgoing Baptists, Catholics, and women from every generation. You definitely do not have to have lived overseas to be completely amazed and royally pissed off at what is going on.
Some people are convinced that this is about “religious freedom.” I have not yet heard one woman of my acquaintance express this point of view. Not one. Because we know that contraception is as basic to health care as childhood immunizations. And we know exactly what’s going on here.
I have a feeling that I would be plenty angry about this “Mad Men” mass delusion that is going on even if I had never set foot outside my home state. But having lived overseas, and particularly in the third world, my anger has an extra edge.
Beatrice was our housekeeper when we lived in Zambia in the early 90s. She was a smart woman with what I would say was the equivalent of middle school education. She could read and write fluently in English (not her native language), do sums, and take accurate phone messages. Her brother held a clerical position with British Airways. Beatrice had dropped out of school to go to work so that he could continue with his education. Otherwise, I am certain she would have been capable of working as a secretary, at the very least.
Beatrice was about 35 at the time she worked for me, and had eight children, which was actually below the average per woman for Zambia at that time. But hey, she still had a good ten years to work on that. She was always tired, slightly stooped, and walked like a woman twenty years older than she was. Her breasts were long, wrinkled tubes that she pulled out of her blouse and literally unrolled when her youngest needed to nurse.
Halfway through our tour, her husband (who was older than she was and had already worn out one wife with several children) dropped dead in our backyard while sitting outside their two-room concrete house. This left Beatrice with all those kids to feed, clothe, and educate (school is not free in much of the third world). But, she was determined that her oldest daughter would stay in school, and watched her like a hawk whenever the maintenance men were around.
I do not know what happened to Beatrice after we left Lusaka. Fortunately, Beatrice’s little house came with the job, and it had a garden plot as well. But, not everyone would be willing to take in a housekeeper with eight kids running around. (In fact, to be honest, we kind of got suckered into it.) She may well have ended up jobless and homeless. I really doubt that daughter was able to stay in school.
Now, imagine Beatrice’s prospects with just two or three kids. Imagine the kids’ prospects. Imagine how much healthier and better-educated they all would have been, with or without a husband and father in the picture.
In the Foreign Service, we have just about all known at least one “Beatrice.” They aren’t dumb, and they aren’t lazy. They work their butts off, as a matter of fact. But they lead impoverished, shortened lives because they come from large families themselves and have too many children to support.
By the way, I once talked with a Catholic missionary in Lusaka who earnestly explained that they were teaching women the rhythm method so they could learn “self-control.” This, in a country with a stratospheric HIV rate, a high incidence of rape, and a serious machismo problem. Lack of female “self-control” was not the reason for the birth rate or the HIV rate in Zambia.
It was difficult to keep a straight face. What planet was this person living on? Evidently, the same one currently inhabited by Rick Santorum and Bob McDonnell. Planet Mad Men. A world in which men with no medical knowledge (and no uteruses) get to decide what is best for women, whether it’s deciding that birth control is not essential to health care or that women should be forcibly subjected to medically unnecessary procedures as “punishment” for accidentally getting pregnant.
In the Foreign Service, we quite often feel like we’ve entered a time warp and are getting a peek into a reality that is long-gone on our side of the world. Including Planet Mad Men.
I have done a lot of research on my own family’s roots. Nearly all of my ancestors were poor-to-respectable southern farmers. Of my four great-grandmothers, one had ten kids (producing them continuously until she was 47 years old—older than I am now!); one had nine kids and lived a long, if hard, life; one had nine kids and died when youngest was two years old, leaving her oldest daughter to raise the rest; and one limited her family to four kids—maybe in part because her own mother died birthing her seventh child.
In short, less than a hundred years ago, my great-grandmothers were not living all that differently from Beatrice. The babies just kept coming, and the work never stopped. It wasn’t until my grandparents’ and parents’ generations that the babies slowed down. It was incredibly hard on the women, but it was difficult for the men, too.
My grandfather dropped out of school in third grade because he was the oldest of seven surviving kids and had to work in the fields to help feed everyone else. And what did he and his wife do? They held the line at five kids (four plus one surprise) and every single one of them graduated college, mostly through military scholarships. I don’t know what my grandmother did to limit babies, but she evidently figured something out.
And what did those kids do? With readily accessible contraception they all held the line at two or three kids who grew up in middle-class households with no doubt whatsoever of a college education for both the boys and the girls.
I have two kids, one-fifth as many as my great-grandmother. My barely literate grandfather’s great-granddaughter is on a full academic scholarship to an excellent university and realistically considering Ivies for graduate school. The sky is her only limit, and she can have five kids, two kids, or no kids. It’s completely her choice (though of course I’m hoping to get a grandbaby or two eventually!)
The other lines of my ancestry tell similar stories. Each generation produced fewer kids that were more educated than the previous one, and went on to greater prosperity than their parents. And the women, as a rule, lived longer, healthier lives the fewer children they had.
OK, so contraception may not have been the only factor at work here. But was it one of the most, if not the most important factor? Absolutely.
In part because my overseas experiences, and in part because of my own family’s history, when I think about the Beatrices of the world, I think: there but for the grace of contraception go I.
So, Rick Santorum, Bob McDonnell, and all the rest of you sad little men who would like to send us back in time?
You all can kiss my healthy, birth-controlled, educated, middle-class, well-traveled ass.