Raising daughters in a country that upholds (some) values you don’t share can be tricky. Perhaps braver moms than I remained steadfast and spoke their mind. I opted to wait to share my views until the children were old enough to think for themselves. This was no easy thing since my nature is to question, speak up, and push against injustice. By the time I was a mom, I’d tossed out a myriad of political theories and isms. Why would anyone listen to those who talk and talk and never walk the talk? People claiming to have answers for everyone else wore down my patience, leaving no space for listening.
In the late sixties, arriving in the United States, starry-eyed and eager for adventures, I fell in love with everyone and everything in my new country, well, except pizza. Anyone who’s fallen head over heels in love knows that feeling and the expectations of happy ever after. It’s an exquisite high. It’s also a fairy tale ignoring that elation and disappointment are roommates who grow up and move apart. I loved Michigan’s summer weather, nature, unlimited opportunities, driving my car, and an endless supply of new friends. But just as we start noticing that the “love of our life” chews his nails, it seemed my new country had a mean streak, a condemnation of women who gave birth outside marriage and of their offspring. I learned the word “bastard.” Teenage girls sent into “hiding,” returning as if nothing had happened. It seemed that only the fathers were spared. I learned the word abortion.
Working as a waitress at a Big Boy restaurant in Michigan, one of my co-workers, Pat, got pregnant. It was on a first and only date. Her father was a minister who “must never find out,” she told me. She had enough money to fly to New York for an abortion. Pat was different after that, older looking and tired. Pat had given in to fear of her father and society’s disapproval, finding herself alone, facing dark nights of the soul.
It was different in Iceland. ”Borgdís is expecting,” mother commented at the dinner table. The Andersen clan was hungry for food, not for details of a common occurrence. “She is a strong young woman,” mamma continued. “She shouldn’t have to miss much work.” The value voiced was caring for the two most affected, mom and baby. But there was no beating around the bush; the culture expected the mom to take on and handle her responsibility. There was no stigma or drama attached to any of the parties involved. Borgdís would receive small financial support available to all children, 0 to 16 (or it might have been 18). Government policies provided health care, child care, and education. It’s how Icelanders look out for their people, opportunities to continue learning, and a soft landing should health issues strike. Soon after birth, surrounded by the extended family, the babies were baptized in the Lutheran faith. Fathers who got behind in their monthly child support found themselves in Kvíabryggja, a no bars or fence prison located on an old farm in Snaefellsnes, West Iceland. Today, it’s a prison for white-collar criminals who, in 2016, demanded they be served red wine with their food on special occasions. They didn’t get it.
In the late sixties, almost 30 percent of babies in Iceland was born out of wedlock. At the same time, in the US, it was about seven percent. In 2014, the OECD (The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) reported new numbers, near 70% in Iceland and 40% for the US. (The term “birth outside marriage” is a legal standing. It includes mothers living on their own, cohabiting with a partner in a “de facto” union, divorced, or widowed. In other words, any woman whose status is “not married” at the time of the birth.)
Fast forward to 2020, there’s been a seismic cultural shift around the world, especially in the West. The proportion of whites in the US started declining around 1950. By 2019, in 26 states more whites were dying than being born. According to a Wikipedia article, “White Americans” in 2010, Non-Hispanic whites represented 60.7% of the total US population.
When I asked my forty-plus son the outcome of his Ancestry test, he said, “Well, mom. Let’s just say that I am a white male—nothing to announce from the top of Mount Sinai in today’s climate.” He couldn’t change the direction of the wind, nor did he want to, so he shifted the sails. At my local park one morning, an old guy whizzed by me on his bike wearing a t-shirt with “Old Guys Rule.” We can pretend we can hold onto the past, but can we deny that new winds are brewing?
Women love all their guys in the rainbow of skin colors. I would bet that for every male, even a murderer or a rapist, there is a woman who loves him. Then, there are women who not only took their husband’s name but, in time, adopted their values, even when it was not in the best interest of women. But in the West, this group is shrinking. The number of women leaders around the world is on an upswing. A growing number of men support this change and see the benefits of adding women’s voices. Women speak for those easily ignored. We oppose endless wars. Wanting instead to invest in the common good, schools, health care, housing, and unpolluting our Earth.
With women taking greater roles in government and business, their voices will grow, their values of taking care of others will root. We may be at The Moment of Lift, the title of Melinda Gate’s book. She is a Catholic, who believes providing birth control will empower women and make the world better for all. It’s hard to argue that giving women the power to decide about their own bodies is anything but just and fair.
Today in the Western World, marriage is less necessary for women’s financial stability or social engagement than when I came of age where women’s career options were primarily nursing or teaching. What has not changed are government policies are lagging in breadth and depth. What’s happening in the halls of Congress is old fiction, while reality lives in the NOW on Main Street.
Two decades ago, one of my sons met his significant other on match.com. I was surprised and confused. Twenty years later, women in Western societies are electing to have children with or without a male counterpart. Digital platforms offer an array of options for men and women, a smorgasbord of choices on how to bring a child into your life. We have services like PollenTree.com that connect egg and sperm donors, matching would-be parents who want to share a child without romantic expectations or living together. We may balk at this idea, creating a family without the falling in love part, marriage, or living together, but it’s the world we live in. And this is only one of a plethora of changes taking place.
Old systems and ideas are falling apart. Confronted with endless cultural shifts, our temperatures spike. This is a step too far, we tell ourselves. Nail meet coffin, we worry. We catch technophobia from a neighbor and suspect self-driving cars are death traps. I don’t know how this will turn out, but I choose to see this as an opportunity for human spiritual growth.
Women’s interconnectedness is stronger than the mind-made stories that divide us. To the degree we can be open to our own discomfort, we can feel for others. My pain and worry is no different than my sisters and vice versa. Sorrow is sorrow. Anger is anger. Worry is worry. Pema Chödrun refers to it as “free-floating qualities” we all share. What’s mine is yours; what’s yours is mine. Understanding what others go through deepens our compassion and gives rise to a desire to make the world better. We are one big human family, and we need each other.