The other day I was wandering around Paris with my daughter in search of the perfect patisserie.
We were talking about completely random topics when she suddenly erupted in rage over a passing implication that she might one day have a baby of her own.
"I will never have children! I don't know why everyone keeps telling me I will!"
I was shocked; I had not meant to upset her - I was just commenting on how far we have come from the bereft town we were both born in. I did not mean to conjure images of grandchildren, I only meant to acknowledge our shared history as a teenage mom and hyperactive genius baby who somehow, against all odds, escaped the fate predicted for us.
"What do you mean? Do people seriously hassle you about having kids? Who?"
She nodded and explained - apparently this is a common conversation in her life, and the question does not just come from her boyfriend. Her friends, academic peers, professors, extended family, people who hit on her at parties, even strangers all ask. And, when she says that she has no plans to start a family, they dismiss her opinion. They tell her that she will change her mind.
When I was her age I had this exact conversation, with an equally vast array of people, but in reverse. The world at large wanted to tell me, at age twenty-one, that I had no business having children. Even (or especially) when my three year old daughter was standing next to me.
Friends, colleagues, strangers on the street - everyone felt that they had the right to express an opinion. I remember the feelings of rage and anguish each of these conversations caused, and how I craved privacy. I did not want to defend my choice, justify my existence, plead for acknowledgment. I did not want to be the exemplary mother, or the scummy statistic. I did not want attention of any kind. I just wanted to love my child.
But the reality for women all across the world, in all countries and societies, is that our bodies are not strictly our own. The culture at large takes an interest in our reproductive capacities, setting up rules and laws targeted directly at our wombs.
Female sexual autonomy is frightening on a fundamental level because it is directly connected to procreation. This is true even in the most radical and progressive environments. I started Girl-Mom in part because even in the relative safety of Hipmama.com there were too many well-meaning people second-guessing the choices of young women as they defined their own families.
If my daughter chooses not to have children that is her choice, not her partner's. It isn't any of my business and it is certainly not something her employer or acquaintances have any right to comment on.
Pro-choice does not just mean supporting access to contraception and the right to legal abortion. It also means fighting for the right to have children. Even if you are young, or old, or poor, or sick, or queer, or somehow different. Pro-choice means pro-choice.
When my daughter was born I was a teenager living in poverty -- with cancer. The difficulties we faced were punishing, extraordinary, and completely unnecessary. I was a good mother and the proof is her: this audacious girl who says she does not want to have babies of her own. That is her right, and I support her with all my heart.
I've been a parent more than half a lifetime, and knowing my children has been a brilliant adventure. Particularly when they take me to Paris to eat cake:
Ever since his fourteenth birthday my son has been exasperated with me, and frequently asks why I do, oh, anything and everything.
I quickly learned to answer "Because I am old, and stupid."
He accepted this, and proceeded with the activities most dear to an adolescent.
Except one day he asked why I was doing something so obviously routine and necessary I answered "Because I am old, and stupid, and boring!"
He paused, thought about it, and replied "You're not boring."
Hilarious, accurate, and probably not intended as a compliment. My faults as a parent and human are numerous, but my offspring do acknowledge that I am interesting - exasperating, yes, but they say I provide high entertainment value.
The least offensive word to describe my antics is 'quirky,' but beyond my tendency to pontificate and obsess I have always kept them well supplied with novelty: moving to a new country, traveling the world, hanging out with scientists and historians and musicians and circus performers. We've had grand adventures.
And throughout our twenty years together they have rarely, and only very reluctantly, attended school. Because I do not approve of the formal institution, but also because they are. . . eccentric. My daughter was performing in front of thousands of strangers by age nine, my son has worn a suit and bow-ties ever since he could walk. They have strong opinions. About everything.
From the earliest age the children have made their own choices at every critical juncture. My daughter attended perhaps two years of school, total, before deciding to go to university. My son has clocked more time in regular classrooms, but he dropped out a few years ago.
What has he been doing with his time? Animation. Film. Theatre. Physics. And a few months ago he asked for tutoring in the core curriculum subjects - to catch up on dread topics like 'how to write a formal essay' and 'how to conjugate French verbs.'
Doom! Because this was the first step back to institutional learning. And there was no arguing with his desire, because as he pointed out, it is hard to make friends in a new place when you never meet anyone your own age.
I harboured a sincere hope that he would not be able to find a school, and the city cooperated - it is difficult to enter UK schools at age 14 because of the way the curriculum is structured, and central London is wildly oversubscribed.
I put him on the wait list for the nearest and least horrid school, and felt relief every few weeks when another letter arrived notifying us that there were no places available. In fact, he was taken off the list three times, as the default is that people in our position put the kid in private school. I wanted to tell him his wish was impossible to fulfil, but that would have been wrong. I just kept putting him back on the list.
Last week, the school called - a place had opened - did he still want to attend?
Every last shred of me wanted to say no, turn down the spot, lie to my kid if necessary. But to do so would be unethical and contrary to the very reasons I have kept the children out of school. I wanted them to learn from life, to make their own choices, pursue their own interests, make mistakes, fail, try again, on their own terms, for their own reasons.
Fundamentally it is up to my son to decide. And he chose. . . school.
This is England, so school means uniforms. Structure. Schedules. Tests.
Over the weekend we filled out his schedule. He had never been directly confronted with the fact that the school system is divided explicitly into college prep and vocational, even at this age. My kid is of course, before he even shows up on the first day, college prep. Because his parents and sister have attended university. No point debating, or even meeting the child, this is just the disastrously unfair way the system works.
The schedules are a morass of flow charts, acronyms, and conflict: if you take triple science, you cannot take media studies. If you take art you cannot take drama. If you take the college prep route you are excluded from the option of vocational skills classes, no matter how interesting. Does any of this make sense? Not if you care about education as opposed to test results.
My kid started arguing and I pointed out that school is about training clerks, soldiers, and clergy. I said "Don't think, just obey!" Then I started laughing wildly.
A representative of the Historic Royal Palaces (capitalisation their own) just wrote to ask if I can change a link on a foment.net post. From 2005.
In a slightly related note, I have just spent several obsessive hours in the hipmama.com archives. Yes, it is true, I keep everything.... the question is, can I find it again? But anyway, I dusted off a bunch of stuff that I myself formatted. Except my computer INSISTS that 1/3 of the words are spelled incorrectly.... cause my machine is now properly British.
Yesterday I was walking through a seedy part of East London talking to my fourteen year old son. Ahead, about half a block away, I noticed a cluster of ruffians obstructing the path.
Specifically, one man stepped out in front of us, planting himself solidly in my way. He was what in the UK we would call a hardman; the shorthand from home would be skinhead, though that term means something entirely different here than it did where I grew up. In short, his tattooed muscular form did not convey "cute hipster bartender."
Without any conscious thought whatsoever I sailed straight at him, filled with a serene and righteous indignation.
He didn't move. I did not slacken pace.
There was aggressive eye contact. There was bristling. Then I was literally in his face and fully prepared to break his fingers if necessary and. . . he stepped aside.
I stomped along, still not thinking about much of anything at all, until we had travelled another block and I remembered that I am a parent.
I turned to my kid and said "Never, ever do what I just did."
He rolled his eyes. "As if."