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 movies, unsupportive 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!)