oh, mother – let’s open up to discussion

Mother’s Day is here and odes to Mom are popping up like daisies in May all over social networking sites.

I hate to be the one to pick on declarations of love (I truly believe these messages are genuine and beautiful), but certain posts have left me feeling frustrated with how we define motherhood, and more specifically, good mothering. While I could spend much time deconstructing  objectionable posts, I will focus on one that has to do with a serious and important issue that is worth every moment of discussion: the mother and reproductive rights.

With the annual March for Life just last week, and a call for the (and dismissal of) re-opening of the ‘abortion debate’ headlining Canadian politics as of late, it is timely to look closely at what issues are necessary to consider when broaching the topic. To “open the abortion debate” has come to mean “to want to change abortion legislation in favour of criminalizing abortion”, but I would like to ask that in the final paragraphs of this post, we open up a dialogue on reproductive rights and motherhood that ignores legislation. Of course, the issue of criminalizing abortion is relevant to any discussion of reproductive rights, but so are definitions of motherhood. How often does that get sidelined for an oversimplified, dichotomous argument either for or against killing babies? Human life and bioethics should most certainly be included in this dialogue as well, but my point is that the issue of reproductive rights should not be fragmented to serve your stand in the debate. An honest and productive dialogue should discuss all concerns – or at the very least, acknowledge them.

I’m afraid that this is what I am going to do – acknowledge. I hope the above paragraph did some justice to the myriad of concerns many people with divergent views on the topic have, because I would like to return to the post I spotted today, and issues I find with it only. Even then, my discussion may quite possibly be brief and incomplete, since my voice is only one on the subject.

“Choose life. Your mother did! Happy Mother’s Day to all the courageous women out there, we can never thank you enough!”

There it is, the post that compelled me to speak up in my own way.

My first response to this post was severe: how arrogant, how privileged! But I would like to walk through why I thought this and to offer a fair repsonse to this post. My concerns are the following:

1.  Did My Mother Choose Life?

I get where the poster is going with this: if I am alive, my mother did not have an abortion, and therefore, she chose life. I get it… except, my mother did not choose life in the way this poster assumes she did: in a conscious, deliberate way.

When my mother found out she was pregnant, she was married, employed (as was my father), financially stable (although not rolling in money by any means) and was looking to start a family. There was no reason for her, upon finding out that I was on the way, to ask herself whether she wanted this baby or not; whether she could have this baby or not. It was just a fact for her. A happy fact. A welcoming fact. Yes, she could have been saddened by it, she could have regretted knowing she was pregnant but she didn’t. What I am trying to say is, a woman does not ‘choose life’ in an abortion-debate sense by virtue of simply having a baby. An 18 year old who is about start university may choose to either continue with pregnancy or not. A 27 year old woman who is no longer with her partner may consider her choices. A 46 year old woman may consider her choices. But not everyone does, because many women (but by no means all) find that they are pregnant at very opportune periods in their life. That is not to say the pregnancy is necessarily planned, but that abortion does not even have to come up for discussion. My mother didn’t ‘choose’.

The argument “Your mother did [choose life]!” bothers me because it is a very simple interpretation of a woman’s history. You can ask me to ‘choose life’ because you think it’s important that I do. I can consider your beliefs, as I consider the beliefs of others who either agree or disagree with you (or sit in the multiple views in-between), but my choice to either have an abortion or not will be a reflection of my own experiences (cultural, religious, socioeconomic) and situation at the time. It will have nothing to do with whether my mother has ‘chosen’ life or not. She may guide me in my decisions (if I feel there is a need to make any decision at all), but the very fact that I was born to her and am alive, does not in my mind affect how I feel about reproductive rights.

2. What defines a courageous mother?

I mentioned above women who could potentially feel the need to consider abortion. It would be a privielege for all women to never have to face this issue – that every pregnancy is welcomed and possible. However, there are women who, finding out they are pregnant, are in a position to think about abortion.  These women are no less courageous than the women who have a child. My mother, in having me, is not more courageous than women who fear serious retribution from their partner or society or acts how she feels is appropriate for her and her family’s future. In defining a courgaoues mother, where do we place mothers who suffer from post-partum depression/psychosis? This mother would be faced with choosing life every day of her illness – her’s and her child’s. And were she to take her child’s life as a result of her illness, how do we see her in the spectrum of “good” motherhood?

How do we imagine mothers who commit suicide? I feel that most children would not be happy to hear news of their mother’s death, but does that negate the actions she made before hand? The love she gave her children before she took her own life? A mother who commits suicide, may not be choosing life (for herself – but consider the effect this has on her child, too), but she is courageous in every moment she has smiled at her children, in every moment that she fights to be there for them.

Are mothers who choose to have a child and abuse or neglect them more courageous than mothers who choose to abort their child (regardless of whether this decision is because they would or would not be ‘good’ moms)?  The mother who has an abortion and later gives birth to children that she cares for dearly – is she a courageous mother? Does the fact that she did not ‘choose life’  initially make her less of a good mother, or more so because she ‘chose life’ in the end? How then, do we see a mother who has and loves two children and aborts her third pregnancy?

In these example I would like to call upon how dangerous (or problematic, to be less severe) it is to frame good or courageous motherhood solely by the actions a woman takes during pregnancy.  Why does choosing to see your pregancy to term define your goodness as a mother? Instead of placing the act of giving birth as marker of good motherhood (as beautiful and wonderful as it is),  the actions a mother takes and the sacrifices she makes during her child’s life until she dies should also be remembered and seen as a true gift. This is not to say that this poster does not consider the actions of a mother after pregnancy as important, but that simplifying good motherhood for the sake of anti-abortion beliefs is not a strong way to engage and influence people in a discussion on abortion. Finally, I do think the woman who chooses to carry their child to term despite fear for her, or her child’s future, is courageous. Of course. But again, let us consider the multiplicity of voices that tell unique, individual histories.

3. Whose life is it anyway?

This is the big one! I know this issue can be debated dry: When does life begin? and Whose life are we concerned about?

I’m going to stick with the second question. Baby or mother. One side will argue, you do not care about the baby! The other: You do not care about the mother! Well now, as long as we are engaging in a discussion where both mother and baby are considered, we’re off to a good start. I’m weary that the poster has focused their concern only on the life of the baby, on YOUR life (having been born). The poster does acknowledge a courageous mother, but does not explicitly congratulate mothers for the acts of courage they take every single day after the baby is born.  Nor the shameful acts. Nor the mistakes. It happens!

Also, although we can argue over the role fathers have in a reproductive debate, a mother’s partner’s life is important to remember, too!  A woman’s partner may play a role in any decision being made during pregnancy, and they may also be involved in many of the ups and downs of parenthood. I know, let’s save it for Father’s Day – but, if the discussion is about abortion, the father (whatever gender, biological or not) is important. It may not be their decision to make ultimately, but they should be saluted for supporting whatever decisions their partner makes, and criticized for forcing any particular action on her. If a couple is in disagreement, that may lead to a dissolution of their relationship, and most certainly a difficult period of decision-making because it is never just about the baby’s life. Many people play a role in how women address their pregnancy.  Ultimately, a woman’s reproductive choices should be respected, but a partner’s own life and views should be valued as well.

This post, although long, is limited. It did not touch upon many issue regarding abortion, but I hope that it encourage a discussion on how we frame motherhood, reproductive rights and life.


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