My Mother’s Story: Still a Reality for Far Too Many Women

As we prepare to honor our mothers, I am struck by the difference between my mother’s childbearing experiences and my own.  I had many choices; she had few.

As we celebrate 50 years of “the Pill” and prepare to honor our mothers this Mother’s Day, I am struck by the difference between my mother’s childbearing experiences and my own.  Thanks to an array of modern contraceptives, I was able to plan my fertility around my life, delaying my pregnancies until after I had finished my education and launched my career.

My mother’s story was the complete opposite…

Sylvia was born in Switzerland 82 years ago, the seventh of nine children.  Immediately after WWII, in her early 20’s, eager to make her way in the world, she accepted the position of governess with the French Consul and moved with the family to Tunisia, a country she knew nothing about, except that it was in Africa.  There, she met my father, married him, and left behind the comforts of Geneva, only to find herself living in a rural farmhouse with no electricity or running water.  Nine months later, she was pregnant—in spite of careful adherence to the only method of birth control she knew—the rhythm method.

Afraid to have her child in Tunisia, where medical care was rudimentary at best, she flew back to Geneva to have me. After I was born, my mother returned home to Tunisia where, to her dismay, she became pregnant again.  So, 15 months later, she was traveling back across the Mediteranean, this time with a toddler in tow, to deliver once again in Geneva. 

Anxious to keep from getting pregnant again, she turned to her mother, her sisters and the doctors for advice.  But all they knew about was the rhythm method.  So, back in Tunis, with two infants in diapers and no running water or washing machines—just the bright sun of Tunisia to dry the diapers hung up on the roof—my parents committed themselves faithfully to timing intercourse with the days of the month.  But, only 3 months after delivering my sister—and while still breastfeeding– my mother became pregnant again!

This time the doctors told her she would need to stay in bed for the last 4 months of the pregnancy if the baby were to survive.  So…once again, it was back to Geneva.  This time it was my father making the trip to drop me and my sister with our grandmother while my mother stayed in Tunisia to deliver another child – her third in 2.5 years!

About this time, her older sister Janine, who had married an American scientist and moved to the United States, sent her a new contraceptive device from America – a plastic cup called a diaphragm. (Because this was before the discovery of spermicides, the diaphragm was used alone).  And yes, you guessed it… my mother got pregnant again.  Only this time her doctor warned her that if her pregnancy continued she would not survive – she was so depleted.

Once again Sylvia traveled to Switzerland where an abortion was permitted to save a mother’s life—but only with the approval of two physicians.  After this experience, sex, as my mother puts it, was pretty much out of the picture.  That is it was, until years later, when my parents emigrated to the United States and gained access to modern contraception.  There, in California, ten years after my birth, my brother was born.  It was my parent’s first planned pregnancy and a happily anticipated birth.

This story took place fifty years ago, before the advent of the pill, so you would imagine things have changed.  But sadly, it is my mother’s experience and not mine that best mirrors the reality of women in developing countries. An estimated 215 million women who want to space and limit their pregnancies do not have access to modern contraceptives. Even more distressing, every 90 seconds, a woman somewhere in the world dies from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The reality for far too many women continues to be that, if, like my mom, you have the resources to travel and search out care, you can deliver safely or even obtain a safe abortion.  But if you don’t, you risk disability and death with every pregnancy. 

In the 21st century, access to contraception should be a fundamental right of every woman, no matter where she lives.  As we celebrate mothers everywhere, let us commit to closing the gap between those who have and those who don’t and ensure that all women have a chance to experience a safe, healthy, and happy motherhood.

This Mother’s Day, honor your mother, sisters and aunts by supporting a new bill called the Global Sexual and Reproductive Health Act of 2010 (H.R. 5121), which would support voluntary family planning services, education and outreach, the reduction of unsafe abortions, prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and the training of health care professionals.  Tell your Senator and Congressperson that you support the act and want them to bring it to a vote.