When I was in my early 20s, an older friend of mine got pregnant with her ex-boyfriend who had no intention of being involved in raising a kid. When my friend decided to keep the pregnancy, I was terrified and puzzled. How would she go about life? Why would a young woman want to raise a kid by herself, I remember thinking? She had recently graduated from university and had just begun studying to become a teacher. What would happen to her life? I knew that living in Brighton, UK, she was in a much more liberal and supportive environment than in southern Italy, where both of us had been raised, yet still all I could envision were obstacles and difficulties. Of course, my friend proved me wrong quite quickly by getting a teaching job and a mortgage rather quickly and raising a daughter who herself is now about to leave home for university.

I often find myself thinking back about my judgment at the time. It seems like I was completely sold on the overall idea that a single woman should not have a child, an idea that is constantly reinforced through stereotypical moviesunsupportive public policies and overall stigma.

It’s easy to be sitting on the outside creating a sort of check list of all the ideal elements in a child’s life: two supportive and loving parents, access to free healthcare, childcare and education, a roof over their head. It’s easy to judge from the outside: that person, that woman, is not up to being a mother, she will ruin her life and possibly also her child’s. This is exactly what was going through my mind some twenty years ago.

If only Breasts and Eggs, the novel by Japan’s Mieko Kawakami, had been around when I was that age! It’s my latest favourite read, and some of you members have already heard me talk about it in our monthly meetings. Natsuko, the novel’s main character, is a struggling novelist from Osaka living in Tokyo by herself. At some point she starts to desire a child in a visceral and concrete way: “It’s not that I want a child. I don’t want them, I don’t want to have them. I want to meet them. My child. I want to meet my child and live with them.”

She goes online to research donor conception and comes across infertility blogs, with women sharing their personal experiences. “I knew these women were only venting their frustration and their anguish, but so long as they had someone, they were blessed. Technology was on their side. They had options. There was a way. They were accepted. That’s even true for same-sex couples who wanted kids. They were couples, sharing a dream with someone who could share the load. They had community, and people who would lend a helping hand,” reflects Natsuko. “What if you were alone? All the books and blogs catered to couples. What about the rest of us, who were alone and planned to stay that way? Who has the right to have a child? Does not having a partner or not wanting to have sex nullify this right?”

The questions in the book stayed with me and they made me think about my own biases: who has the right to have a child? Through the novel, Kawakami tries to address a deeper patriarchal belief that single women are not capable of caring for children and should not desire to have them to begin with. (She is a feminist author from working-class origins and came to shake up the Japanese literary canon writing in an Osaka accent.) Who can guarantee that two parents will stay together, anyway, thinks Natsuko? Aren’t women the ones who are stuck with children anyways these days, she continues?

I had just finished reading the book when the case of a volleyball player in Italy made headlines.

Let me set the scene for you: an athlete is made to sign a contract saying they cannot have a baby, or else their contract will be terminated. When the sportsperson notifies the club they play for that they’re expecting a baby, the club terminates the contract. Not only do they not pay the athlete for the final month played, but the club later sues the player for damages after the club loses the season. The club’s lawyer says the athlete, who was 38 at the time, should have told the club they intended to have a child in the first place.

Think about it – could this happen to a male athlete, anywhere? The athlete in question is called Lara Lugli, and the biggest tragedy of this whole thing is that the club didn’t even change its stance when Lugli lost her pregnancy.

Professional athletes signing contracts promising not to get pregnant, or to let their club know if they’re considering pregnancy, has been the norm. But athletes at the highest levels have shown over and over again that they can stay fit during pregnancy and be back on the field after their maternity leave, ready to kick ass again. Just think of Serena Williams’ incredible comeback after she almost died after giving birth. Or think of US football player Alex Morgan’s amazing tricks when she was seven months pregnant. Only this December did the football-governing body FIFA approve a new rule allowing maternity leave for players, sort of saying: Ok, we will finally allow football players to desire to become mothers. And this month, Argentina’s sport minister Inés Arrondo, a woman and retired World Cup-holding field hockey player, has added a much needed gender perspective by making parental leave a right for all national athletes.

Let’s now think about other people who encounter constant obstacles if they want to have a child because others don’t feel they have a right to have a child: people living with disabilities. Until December, Spain had a law that allowed the forced sterilisation of people with disabilities. Similar laws are still in place in some parts of the United States, while worldwide people with disabilities are constantly questioned about their fitness to be parents at all. I remember an exchange I had with a couple of members at The Correspondent. One of them, Micaela, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair, said: “I want to live in a world where my decision not to have children is simply a valid choice, not something I’ll grow out of, or something that needs to be excused by my disability.”

What are your deeply-held beliefs about who can become a parent? And if you’ve changed your mind, like I have, what made you change your mind? I’d love to hear from you. Scroll to the bottom and leave your message there to get the conversation going.

What I’ve been reading

Imagine being named after a Cold War spy, a cousin of your father’s, and trying to find out about that person’s past as you grow up. This is the essay that Stacy Mattingly writes, which is well worth a read, because it’s packed with a beautiful southern US scenery and vague black and white memories. I also recommend reading the “behind the essay” author interview in which Mattingly says: “Naming is a powerful act. We can see evidence across literature. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, names get changed to signal — or call forth — a transformation in character.”

What I’ve been listening to

I’ve recently discovered Subtitle, a podcast about languages conducted by journalists Patrick Cox and Kavita Pillay. I love languages and the way they unite and divide people, and I love the stories that Cox and Pillay tell. Their latest episode, My Notorious Name, is about the importance of names given at birth, and what kind of wrong connections can happen if you are called Ivanka, for example. Like the previous essay, it’s yet another interesting segue from the story I wrote about first names last week.

What I’ve been watching

I’m proud to say that I actually managed to watch a film this week! (It happened on Sunday while Lorenzo napped). Nobody Knows I’m Here is set in a beautiful, remote corner of southern Chile, in the Patagonia region, and it tells the story of Memo Garrido, whose childhood experiences left him traumatised. Director Gaspar Antillo withholds information from the viewer to create a strong narrative tension, while actor Jorge García (who plays Memo) shifts from a world of fantasy to moody antics quickly and realistically, bringing the viewer on a beautiful, soulful journey. Recommended!

Who’s been inspiring me

Get ready for The Rights Studio, “a new creative hub for people and organisations to engage on human rights issues affecting children, young people and future generations through the arts and other creative expressions.” They are officially launching through a cool online festival full of thought-provoking installations, interactive events and even comedy, which will take place throughout April 2021. A disclaimer: I’m involved in the festival, where I’ll introduce Drops of Joy, a Brazilian film about the importance of embracing play in our lives, even as adults. The event is on 20 April and you can sign up, for free, here.

What’s making me hopeful

Here I go again, another sign of hope coming from New Zealand. The Kiwi parliament has voted to give mothers and their partners three days of bereavement leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth. Jan Logie, a member of parliament that backed the bill, said it was an important step forward toward breaking down the taboo and silence around pregnancy loss. “That silence that has caused so much harm has, in part, started to be broken by this debate and by parliament’s attention,” Logie said. When I read this story, I found out that other countries have similar provisions. For example, in India, women are allowed up to six weeks’ leave if they miscarry. I’d be interested to know how many women actually make use of this. If you know more, please let me know. (Also, thanks to Marius, a member of this community, for flagging the story!)

My Greek word of the week

Enthusiasm comes from the ancient Greek ἐνθουσιασμός (ἐν + θεός + οὐσία), meaning to be inspired or possessed by a god. The term was initially connected to the idea of religious inspiration, but then came to mean a strong excitement in a far broader sense. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron says that “enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work”, when she talks about creativity. “Far from being a brain-numbed soldier, our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.”

What members are saying

After last week’s story on how we pick our children’s names, I received some interesting messages. This one by Lynn stood out: “Our daughter was named after her grandmother, my partner’s mother who passed away before I met him. (…) It occurred to me that in naming a child after someone who has passed away, we are paying tribute to the person no longer here, and we’re also trying to keep their memory alive – in the same way we often take photographs in an attempt to stave off forgetfulness. But of course in both cases it only works so-so: our children’s names become attached to them, the living take over from the dead – just as photographs can often, to paraphrase Maggie Nelson, replace the memories they were meant to preserve.” Check out why I didn’t name my son Diego, and the conversation that followed after Lynn’s comment by logging into the website and going to the comments section of last week’s story, here.

What I’m missing out on and would love your help with

Weeks ago, I was speaking to Amanda, a member of this community, during one of our monthly Zoom meetings (if you are not a founding member, but curious to participate, please drop me a line and I can send you an invite!). She asked me to find information about places in the world where single mothers are not seen as incapable or heroes, but where it is a norm and is more accepted. Do you have any suggestions on reading material or places in the world where I could find such a different approach? Please let me know!

With love and care,

📣 Imogen Champagne, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Bega, Australia. Thanks, Imogen! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

15 thoughts on “Who has the right to have a child?

  1. Irene, you always provide so much to think about! To consider your question “What are [my] deeply held beliefs about who can become a parent?”…I wish I could say I had a more enlightened answer, but until comparatively recently, I bought into the judgmental perspective that generally “people who can afford to” was my answer. Then I saw something — on either Twitter or Facebook, of all things — expressing the idea that having children should not be thought of as a luxury. This really struck a chastening nerve with me, as I acknowledged my own position of privilege and this dysfunctional belief that parenthood is something to be earned. I hope I am going to be able to disentangle my own prejudices and work toward better public policies and more supportive cultural norms, but I realize now (thanks in part to this newsletter) that it’s going to take a LOT of effort and introspection.

    1. Hey Bonnie, Thanks for being so honest and for sharing your own judgment, I think what you write will resonate with a lot of people.
      A couple of years ago I had a long argument with a young economist who was convinced that children (and parents) should not receive any support from the state because it was the parents who wanted them and they should take care of them. When I said that this would lead to societies in which only the rich can afford to conscientiously have a child, while those with little or no choice re their reproductive rights will just be stuck in poverty, the economist stopped to reflect.
      I am now investigating policies worldwide that offer support for children from the start, so I will come back to this topic a lot.

      1. Your response to the young economist is precisely what came to mind for me when I was confronted with the idea of child-bearing as being a luxury. One aspect of your writing that has consistently resonated with me is how your thinking is rooted in the very personal and visceral, yet is reflective of broader issues in global policy. All children need to be supported from their beginning, by mere fact of their personhood. The reflective process for creating and maintaining that support can start from either the personal or the public perspective.

  2. As written, the question “who has the right to have a child” is really about “who has the right to birth a child.” Professionally, I regularly encounter the question of “who has the right to have the child that they have birthed.” A different question, and one that I will expand upon, but one related to the original piece, and to the first reply.
    I once cared for a child who had been returned to their family following physical abuse twice, and returned to my care a third time nearly dead from repeat abuse. The judge then had to make rulings on where this child will go after my care, and who should have the right to visit the child in the hospital. So, should the mother who conceived, carried, birthed, and cared for this child “HAVE” the child on that basis, when the child has been badly beaten on multiple occasions and hospitalized three times for the injuries. What about the parent who brings a child into a chaotic home, with inconsistent and punitive parenting and angry violent arguments between family members. That child might not be physically injured, but there will be mental scars. I would agree that anyone has the right to conceive and birth a child. I don’t think we are in a position to police reproduction, and it has taken us a long time to get into the imperfect state we are currently in on that issue. BUT, a child has the right not to be HAD. Blood relation is a poor basis to give a person the rights to have a child, once they are born. I won’t pretend that getting communities and courts into the middle of a parenting relationship is not a fraught, last-resort option, but when they find themselves there, the right of the adult to have a child should not carry more weight than the right of a child to have an optimal childhood. Societies have a lot of responsibility for facilitating optimal care of a child by a well intentioned “good enough” parent. But some parents are not “good enough”, and societies should not grant them the RIGHT to HAVE a child, regardless of the biological relationship.

    1. Your perspective is quite thought-provoking. As you rightly point out, there’s potentially some ambiguity involved in using the word “have”. [Certainly conceiving and birthing a child is conceptually distinct from maintaining custody of a child, and of course it is dysfunctional to have a child remain under the guardianship of ANYONE, biologically related or not, who would undermine a child’s personhood. Perhaps, I hope, we would both agree that in NO case should a child be objectified as chattel to be passed off to someone with presumed ownership-like rights.

      I’m not so sure that society has much business in granting rights of parenthood but could (should?) be responsible for terminating any presumed rights of custodianship when a child is endangered. I certainly believe that it would be better if preserving the well-being of children was not entangled in the idea of possession or ownership, which it seems to me happens far too often where I’m from (the US).

      1. Hey Steve and Bonnie, thanks so much for pushing these thoughts a little further.

        Steve, what you point out is very important indeed, and very good to discuss when we discuss rights. I guess I make a distinction between prejudice and society’s preconceived assumptions on who would make for a good parent, while you write about the cases of parenting gone horribly wrong, and a child’s life being endangered or at least made to face unnecessary trauma.
        I really love what you say about “a child has the right not to be HAD”. In Breasts and Eggs, the novel I refer to, there are many references to this idea in a more philosophical manner, but the way you put it is very visual and real. A child has the right not to be in a blood family that is harming them.
        I think the question I would like to explore further is how we handle those parents that are not good enough and what happens to the children. It’s been on my list for a long time and sooner rather than later I would like to explore custody, foster homes, adoption and more, so thanks for putting that back on my radar.
        I guess a controversial question to ask is whether what you see on paper can tell you whether a person will be a good or bad parent. What do you think about that, Steve?

        Bonnie, as for the idea of ownership, Catherine also touches upon it in her message below, here: https://www.thefirst1000days.news/who-has-the-right-to-have-a-child/#comment-38
        What do you have in mind when you say that the well-being of children is entangled in the idea of possession or ownership? I would love to hear more.

        1. Here is an example of something that comes to mind for me. Without going into it in detail I will note that I have seen this in Texas and certainly elsewhere in the US. One entanglement I have experienced is the way children are weaponized in divorce court. Children are frequently treated by the parents and their attorneys as a bargaining chip to negotiate for advantages in how property is to be divided. That’s bad enough as it is. But also, parents –again in consultation with their attorneys — are sometimes encouraged to make accusations of abuse and neglect to purposely make the proceedings contentious and harrowing. This is reprehensible behavior. It objectifies children in the former case, and in the latter case, it further endangers children who are truly being abused by taking resources away that could be applied to rescuing them from harm. These are among the most serious examples I can offer. But the idea of children as possessions reflecting on parents’ wealth or status, success, reputation, etc. is in my mind damaging to the well-being of children in the short- and long-term. Abuse and neglect are not just “poor people problems.”

        2. I’ve been absent for a few months Irene, and you have published several other pieces since I last posted. If you still get this, I will say that there are pen and paper instruments that have been shown to predict how a parent will function vis-a-vis abuse. That said, this is always a statistical likelihood answer, not a crystal ball, and thus someone will always have to apply a value based decision of what level of risk is unacceptable, what is the threshold for action. These things are intended for use in deciding whether, or when, a parent should be given another chance with their child AFTER they have already done something that has drawn bad attention. The idea of a parenting test BEFORE deciding who should have the right to bear and raise a child is quite a bit too Big Brother for me, even with all that I have seen. Your lead in to that question mentions adoption. That may be a special case, but whether it is some human drafted “test”, or a machine learning derived AI based on huge data sets, we have to be really clear that we are not inserting values and biases that are not shared very very broadly.

          1. Hey Steve, this is very interesting, as usual. Whenever I end up writing about abuse (I keep avoiding it), I will get back in touch to hear about the pen and paper instruments you mention to try and assess whether a parent would commit abuse again. It is very interesting, and very delicate, I can imagine… (And yes, I get these messages even months later, and sometimes it takes me some time to respond!)

  3. Very thought-provoking! When an athlete’s body is policed as a commodity, and we engage in ownership thinking about possessing (birthing/ having/ keeping/ acquiring through adoption, etc.) children, it seems we are separating our bodies from our very humanity – and our shared humanity – which is a dangerous space to enter. This false separation denies the much richer reality that all of our children collectively (those we raised and those raised by our neighbors, globally) embody our future, and our future is best served with generous, loving care in our present. This care must extend to the bodies and whole wellbeing of everybody’s children, and also to their caregivers! Many communities have long understood this, or are finding creative ways to return to this thinking. Whether the right to have a child is extended or denied, the children are with us, and they are nobody’s possessions.

    1. Hey Catherine,
      Thanks so much for pushing my thoughts further with your comment.
      I hadn’t thought about the idea of “possessing” children vs collectively raising children, but the way you phrase it has made me think about lots of topics to get into in the future.
      I am curious: you say many communities have long understood the importance of care that extends to children and caregivers. Do you have specific communities in mind when you write this? Real-life examples are always a great inspiration to me in further exploring topics.
      Thank you!

  4. Thanks Irene, so much food for thought! Are you going to investigate further this topic? For example, I would love to know how many countries discriminate against people with disabilities, indeed, I would like to hear their voice. I have to confess that I didn’t know anything about it, what a naive person.

    1. Hey Vava!
      Yes, I would love to investigate the topic further, and knowing that you are interested is a good reason to put it even higher on my list.
      It may take me some time, but in the meantime I will look for interesting resources (like articles and such) to share while I start investigating. And hopefully I can invite a person living with a disability to share their own experience of parenthood.
      Is that the focus you’re mainly interested in: the intersection of reproductive rights with living with a disability, and the lived experience?
      Thanks for your support and glad my piece offered a little opening into a new topic.

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