A tribute to the matriarchs who taught me how not to get pregnant
This is my first Mother’s Day without my Mom here in her physical form. I do not feel deeper in my grief today than I might on any given one since she died unexpectedly last September. My mom, Lynn, was smart, funny, kind and beautiful; sparkly, brave and forgiving. Sometimes we were deeply connected, other times, we weren’t. Lynn thought Mother’s Day was all Hallmark and didn’t take it seriously but as a kid, I still made her cards, coupons and attempts at breakfast nonetheless. Later when I left home, I would often call FTD and send her flowers which she appreciated despite her protests; years later, when I had my own kids, I would package up their art to send her which she loved most of all.
This is a Mother’s Day post about the overwhelming gratitude that I feel, approaching my 50th birthday, that I was raised by women, Mom and Grandma, who didn’t presume that I would become a mother and who talked out loud about birth control from really as early as I can remember.
The realization that the way I was raised is still too unusual for women in this country hit me hard this week when I was listening to two different podcasts — On Fresh Air, Teri Gross had a conversation with the excellent activist Nicole Lynn Lewis about teen pregnancy. In their discussion about teen pregnancy Teri Gross asked Lewis if her mother had ever talked to her about birth control and she said no, she never had. A few days later, I was listening to a conversational episode with hosts Holly Frey and Tracy V. Wilson from the Stuff You Missed in History podcast — they are also women about my age or slightly younger who also shared about how birth control was not only not discussed by their moms but that it was definitely a shameful topic in their homes. Hearing all three of those women, over just a couple of days, describe that experience shocked and saddened me— and grounded me in gratitude for the forward-thinking wisdom of the women who raised me.
My Mother’s mother Minerva taught me about what birth control was before she got into any details of sex (there were always plenty of children’s books around our home that illustrated reproductive anatomy; I often chose them for my Mom to read as my bedtime stories). Minerva told me about how smart and progressive her mother Sarah was. Sarah (whom I write more about here) was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who believed in education above all things and the possibilities of what women could do beyond motherhood. She revered Margaret Sanger and read to young Minerva from the Yiddish papers about Sanger’s work and why it was essential for women to have access to birth control.
(An aside, but a story I can’t help but think of when I write about Minerva talking to me about sex: When she was 15 or 16 she went to New York City from her small town of Phillipsburg, NJ to visit cousins who lived in a typical Lower East Side tenement. As was typical in those overcrowded houses, the cousins used the rooftop as a sort of outdoor patio. After dinner, a boy from the flat across the hall invited young Minerva up to the roof to look at the stars. While they were stargazing, he leaned over and tried to kiss her on the lips. Minerva pushed him away. The boy said, ‘What are you — a virgin or something?’ Minerva exclaimed, ‘I most certainly am NOT!’)
Because Sarah talked to Minerva about family planning, Minerva did the same with Lynn who raised us with open conversations about birth control, no shame or embarrassment attached. I remember shopping with her in a big box store a week or two before I was leaving for a semester in the Netherlands during my sophomore year of college. We were madwomen, shoving multipacks of saline solution and disposable razors in our cart, afraid I wouldn’t be able to get what I needed in the small town pharmacies where I’d be staying. We passed the aisle with condoms and Mom asked me to look and see what I wanted. We stood there, going back and forth about what was going to fit best in my bag (only two suitcases allowed per student) until she finally grabbed a few huge packs, threw them in the cart and said share them with your friends.
Beyond keeping me safe from an unintended pregnancy, my Mom also made space for our conversations about how I didn’t know if I ever wanted to become a mother myself. I would have been the first woman in her family line to make that choice and she respected and understood it. Lynn was a teacher and earned her master’s degree in elementary counseling, but her primary goal was to become a mother. She did not project that dream onto me. As a young woman, I always imagined myself as a writer, but could only sometimes visualize becoming a mother.
It’s been a beautiful, complicated, heart-opening. difficult, amazing experience, bringing my children into the world and raising them as best as I can with what I understand in the moment…as it is for every mother, by birth, by adoption, by being an auntie, teacher, or friend helping to raise children. With my own daughter, I am so grateful to have this legacy to share, to teach her that becoming a mother may be one part of who she imagines herself to be, if she wants that someday. There is no pressure. It will be her choice.
Thank you for reading. If you click the little ‘clap’ symbol it will help more folks see this blog.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may want to check out my books and more.