Interview with Lauren, a Childfree Texan Yogi

Childfree African is starting an interview series of people who identify as being African and are committed to being childfree.

The first interview is with 29-year old Lauren Holmes, a yoga teacher from Texas.

How do you identify?

I am a straight African woman of the diaspora.

How long have you know that you are childfree?

I didn’t know the name for it but I’ve known since I was pretty young, five or six. I could never picture the white picket fence and the kids, just me and he husband or a dog or something.

I didn’t tell anyone, though. I kept it to myself because I knew it wasn’t quite what I was “supposed to” want— I grew up in a very Christian household where the traditional gender roles were pushed pretty heavily. Women were supposed to be submissive, and all that jazz.

As a result, I thought I was probably going to have children, just because it was so expected and so ingrained that I didn’t think there were any other options.

When I got older, when I was in high school, the issue wasn’t even really on my radar. I grew up in small town where sex ed was nonexistent. Like, 20 girls that I graduated with were pregnant, or had had kids. When someone got pregnant, all I knew was that I didn’t want that.

When I was a sophomore in college, I met my (now) husband. We had started dating and he said he wasn’t a big fan of kids. I was so relieved. That was when I realized, “hey, this was a choice a couple can make!”

I had no idea there was a community or even groups of people that didn’t want to have kids, because where I grew up up, you were considered an adult when you had a child. Which is a little ridiculous, because I have 16- and 17-year old cousins who have children. Family members ask me when I’m going to grow up, and… I’m an adult I work, I pay taxes.

How do people react to you, a black woman, choosing to live a life without children?

Not well! [chuckles] When I tell people I’m childfree, I might as well be saying “my husband and I are monsters.”  The reaction is so visceral sometimes. It’s like people are wondering what’s wrong with us… Did we have horrible childhoods? Were we abused?

I just like my house quiet. I don’t’ want to step on Legos. It’s just not an ideal lifestyle for me.

Do you have siblings?

I have two half-brothers, one brother has 13 kids. The other one has four. I remember when the Maury Povich show, where he does these “are you the father” things, I used to live in fear that my brother would appear on there.

I’m my mom’s only child, she wants her own grandbabies. So, even though my brothers have children, it hasn’t taken the pressure off the expectation for me to have kids. This is especially the case with my husband’s family. He’s the eldest, and his family keeps asking when he’s going to have a baby, because there’s this idea that the family line will crumble if he doesn’t.

Do you have any support systems?

Other than random Facebook groups, I don’t really have any kind of a support system. We’re in an interesting situation because my husband is in the military, where it’s expected that you have to have a huge family. We only know one other couple that doesn’t have children. Every other couple we know, and even single people have children because it’s part of the military lifestyle. Everyone has five or six kids, but I try not to pass judgement.

It would be great if we had a black childfree community. We live in a condensed, predominantly white area. It’s hard to find black people in general let alone black people that are childfree. We’re kind of isolated right now. We’ll be here for another six or seven months.

What do you dislike the most about being a childfree African?

I can’t stand the judgement. The rest of it is awesome. We go where we want, at the drop of a hat we can decide where we want to go. I love that. The only thing I dislike is the judgement that we get and the isolation that we feel.

We Don’t Owe Men a Goddamn Thing

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You really think I care if some hypothetical man wants me to have kids?? How cute!

I have been crap about blogging for months. I have no real excuse. Weeks just turned into months, before I knew it, summer was gone and now we’re halfway through October.

This summer, my mom came to visit. She had never been to Europe before so we did a lot of traveling. None of this would have been possible had I had a child to raise, and who knows, maybe she would have made it to Europe years ago had she not had two kids.

Recently, I came across Bethany Webster’s blog post, Leisure Time, Motherhood and the Mother Wound, where she discusses women’s agency within a patriarchy: “…The age-old lie of patriarchy to men is that they are entitled to the control of women. The lie to women is that we are ‘less-than’ and deserve to be controlled.” Although the idea that men are entitled to control women is clearly absurd, it’s also a pretty prevalent one in nearly every society around the world.

Women are taught that they should be submissive to men, both through subliminal messages and overt aggression. The president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, just made the ill-advised statement to the press that his wife, Aisha Buhari, after she criticized him publicly, shouldn’t be running her mouth because she belongs to various rooms in his house. A tape of American presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women recently surfaced, and people are tripping all over themselves to defend him, stating that it’s locker room talk and that American women read 50 Shades of Grey, and therefore men are entitled to their bodies, or something.

Poland recently tried exercise even more governmental control over a woman’s body by completely banning abortion (which was already illegal except for cases of rape or if the woman’s life was in danger), and now a right-wing member of parliament who I’m not even going to name is trying to force women to carry unviable pregnancies to term, because religion. And it’s not like abortion access is free and fair throughout the rest of the world.

I have heard countless times, from both men and women that women need to be submissive. When I was living in Senegal, a Ghanaian ambassador told me upon finding out that I don’t cook — completely seriously, mind you — that I needed to cook because my husband would pay the bills while another diplomat told me no Ghanaian man would every marry me because I don’t cook.

A Cameroonian woman I met recently, upon finding out that I’m not going to ask children, asked what I would do if I met a man who wanted kids (my favorite question). I told her that it’s my body, and therefore, it is my decision, and that my decision is not to have children. She told me that was “extreme”.

A woman thinks that another woman exercising control over her own body is extreme. She found it more important that my body is used to fulfill some hypothetical man’s wishes than it is for me not to be miserable. She’s not alone, but that really struck me. The underlying assumption is that a woman’s primary purpose is to belong to a man — cook for him, bear his children, clean for him and do all of his emotional labor. Fuck her own desires and her agency. Fuck basic human rights. A hypothetical man out there might want to force his will on another human being and force her to use her body in a way she doesn’t want, change the course of her entire life, and relegate her to doing chores and childrearing that she never wanted to do (in every society, women are still responsible for doing the bulk of unpaid housework) and that is his entitlement, goddammit.

This mentality is also responsible for the prevalence of violence against women. People who think that women don’t have the right to control their own bodies, well, don’t think women have the right to control their own body. Our bodies and our entire existence are meant to be in service of men. As Webster put it,

For those espousing the viewpoints of patriarchy, nothing is more enraging than a woman who doesn’t feel indebted or self-deprecating…

Nothing is more offensive than the woman whose presence unapologetically states:

                         I don’t owe you a child.

                         I don’t owe you a fuck.

                         I don’t owe you my approval.

                          I don’t owe you ego-stroking.

                          I don’t owe you explanations.

  I don’t owe you my attention.

  I don’t owe you anything.

I am enough as I am.

I don’t owe you shit.

 

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Is being childfree only for white women?

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“But how do you not get that you’re obligated to give me kids because I’m a man and I say so?”

I was in a relationship years ago that got serious pretty quickly. I was always clear about the fact that having children was not something that would happen if we stayed together. At first, he was disappointed, but he later on seemed to change his mind. I say “seemed to” because after once having told me that he would be fine if we never had kids, he later told me that he thought the reason I had agreed that we should get married was because I had changed my mind and decided to have children.

I had always been completely honest and never, ever led him to believe that my mind had changed and I would have children.

Before we got together, one of my friends got pregnant unexpectedly. Well, unexpectedly probably isn’t the right word (it wasn’t an immaculate conception), but she hadn’t been planning on having children any time soon. She is also a feminist and we have similar views regarding gender, feminism, and sexuality. My ex wanted to know why, if we had similar views, she decided to have a child. In fact, he asked me this repeatedly, and I think (although I’ll never know for sure) that is because he wanted me to tell him that even though she didn’t want to have children, she knows that it’s her responsibility to do so as a woman.

I think this because I told him at one point that although I always thought I would have children, it was never a thought that filled me with joy, and that it had occurred to me when I was 22 (and had discovered the feminist blogosphere) that parenthood was something I had no obligation to participate in. He kept asking me “who told me” that I didn’t have to have children, a question that really annoyed me, because no one “told” me anything. No one has to tell me anything about my own rights to do what I want with my own body.

Like I’ve mentioned before on here, this same ex’s sister was incredulous that I could “deny” an African man children. I suspect that the reason he kept asking was because he wanted me to eventually admit that the most prominent (English-language) feminist bloggers who talk about not having children are white.

As in, he, along with many other people, believe that it’s something that white women have a choice in, but it’s something that I, as a black, and more importantly, an African woman, have absolutely no right to decide. Aside from my parents, not a single one of my family members has supported my choice.

One of my cousins, whom I have written about previously, told me that I “couldn’t decide” that I wasn’t going to have children, because what if I met someone who really wants kids?

One of my aunts told me I have to have kids, because it would make my dad happy, and because we are African.

Is the idea that the childfree lifestyle is something that white women (regardless of where they come from as long as their ancestry began in Europe) can choose, but as African women, we don’t have this luxury something that you’ve heard?  What do you say? What do you do?

Guest Blog: Mental Health and Reproductive Freedoms

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What is “normal”?

Many people consider the answer to that question to be “common sense.”

However, some of us feel the same way about “normal” as we feel about the definition (or existence) of “common sense.” Subjective, biased, socially constructed, perceptually based, and culturally and demographically variant. These are among the ways social scientists examine “normalcy” and normative versus deviant, morality versus immorality, and appropriateness versus inappropriateness.

When sociologists say much of people’s awareness and understanding is created and socially constructed, we are not saying our awareness and understanding are any less “real”, “true”, or “factual” as far as people are concerned. Social construction means individual and group identities and forms of reality are, to varying extents, up for debate and subject to change. One illustration of such fluidity and conceptualized realness is when people say “men are dominant” with such definitiveness and assertion, as though this is 100% provable and unquestionable fact.

Well, here is the thing about people’s behaviors that have persisted for generations and for centuries: it can become “real” and “true”, not because it is provable fact; innate; or provably hormonal, biological, or genetic. It is one of many examples of ways in which our beliefs and behaviors influence us physically and mentally. Beliefs and behaviors persist because they are taught from generation to generation—within and across generations. In addition to learned beliefs and behaviors, this is also about people’s attachment to other people and social institutions— including the family, employment, education, and spirituality (or faith or meditation or religion).

Through these institutional attachments and learned beliefs and behaviors, people often exaggerate and attach unprovable or disproven meanings to biological sex, for example, that exaggerate differences between females and males. These turn into exaggerated and unfounded meanings and differences between girls/women and boys/men in a cisgender system. This also can apply to how people understand sexuality, race and ethnicity, and all other meanings and differences across groups of people. People are willingly or unwillingly placed into identities, categories, and groupings which include gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, spirituality, religion, socioeconomic status, physical ability and mental ability, and other sociocultural dynamics.  Historically and contemporarily, people tend to compare and contrast themselves to other people and to identify with similarly situated people. This tends to result in what Charles Tilly (1998) called “durable inequality” through which within-group and across-group comparisons and distinctions lead to inequalities.

People have used stories, myths, fables, and spirituality-faith-meditation-religion to understand life, explain life, and justify life across different societies and cultures. Understanding how people operate shapes our understanding of the subjectivity of “normal.” “Normal” exists in the sense that it is culturally variant and contextually relative. It is through this lens that I do work (also) in mental health, suicide and self-harm. Yes, mental health is “real.” Yes, mental health conditions are “real.” But, no, mental health and suicide and self-harm are not objective and culturally neutral. While there are trends, patterns, and generalizations to be made, a factor that influences the well-being and life outcomes of one individual or one group does not necessarily have the same effect on the well-being and life outcomes of another individual or another group.

So, what do we do?

One of my first missions is to add voice to Black women (across various demographics including spirituality-faith-meditation-religion, gender identities, and sexual identities) who experience sadness, depression, anxiety, and other longstanding mental and emotional conditions. A common misconception is that mental health concerns, suicide, and self-harm are uncommon in African diaspora communities around the world. Historically and contemporarily, people of the African diaspora have been taught and encouraged to use denial, silence, submission, violence, aggression, assertion, defensiveness, or spirituality-faith-meditation-religion to “heal” or “cure” physical and emotional ailments. This is partly based on the strongly held notion that if something is ignored it does not exist— an example of this is the persistent message in spirituals and gospel songs that “trouble don’t last always” and “God does things for a reason”.

It is my argument that mental health among the African diaspora and especially women of the African diaspora is negatively influenced by a number of factors including overt and covert reproductive force and reproduce coercion. Examples of force and coercion include longstanding cultural beliefs that reproduction is not about personal health, personal decision, and choice, but instead about cultural obligation, true womanhood, and spiritual or religious meaning. This is one of many examples of “pronatalism” in almost all societies.

Since I used the “p” word, let me say, it is quite difficult to call something “pronatalist” and criticize “pronatalism” in a manner that is culturally non-combative and sensitive. In turn, it is understandable when people are dismissive or outraged when told their beliefs, behaviors, and overall way of life are potentially problematic. Although this can be disconcerting for most people, women across (predominantly patriarchal and gender unequal) societies are the people left with the responsibility of investing in and using their fertility, and women are also the ones who primarily care for their offspring. This responsibility tends to be forced upon women (overtly and covertly) through cultural, religious, social, and physical means. There are also millions, if not billions, of women who seem to willingly and voluntarily commit to such a life. Is this, however, the true meaning of “choice”? It remains a topic debated by some feminists, Black feminists, womanists, and gender egalitarians whether this is the true meaning of “equality” and “liberation”— when women can choose whatever they please even if it is a lifestyle that might be frowned upon in certain settings.

Is it possible to not be presumed judgmental, condescending, and patronizing when telling women of the African diaspora that they are not, and do not have to be, perpetually strong for the sake of raising children and saving families? Can women of the African diaspora be told to focus on self-identity, self-health, and being self-aware? Because, after all, people who are not physically healthy and mentally healthy cannot make their families physically healthy and mentally healthy.

Is this an unreasonable request?

Or, are women of the African diaspora free to choose a life in which they might end up stressful, worried, exhausted, and in which their identity and happiness are fully within the context and confines of other people (their families, religious institutions, and anything other than self-health)? Can women of the African diaspora define their happiness and fulfillment in that manner?

Is this “normal”?

And is it okay for this to be one person’s “normal,” let alone billions of people’s “normal”?

Kimya N. Dennis is a criminologist and sociologist with interdisciplinary research and community outreach on suicide and self-harm, mental health, and people who choose not to have children.  Kimya reaches a wide range of communities with particular emphasis on underserviced communities and Blacks/African diaspora. Originally from Richmond, VA Kimya collaborates with community activists and researchers in New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. Kimya gives presentations and participates in panels on various correlates of crime and deviance, mental health, suicide and self-harm, and cultural dynamics including gender, race and ethnicity, and religion-faith-spirituality-meditation. 

 

Book review: Swallow

 

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Sefi Atta’s novel, Swallow, was both a blessing and a curse. I bought it three years ago to read on my Kindle because I knew that I had a long bus ride coming up, but I couldn’t put it down after I purchased it. I was already halfway through it before I even boarded the bus. There was a lot of thumb-twiddling for the last two hours of that journey.

It was hilarious, insightful, harsh, and nerve-wracking. I really got into the characters. Atta discusses everything from workplace sexual harassment, corruption, poverty, what those of us raised in the West would call “child abuse” and what our counterparts raised in Africa would probably just call “parenting,” prostitution, to relationships- between mother and daughter, husband and wife, roommates, neighbours, and colleagues.

One central theme is motherhood and its relationship to marriage. One of the characters says that in childhood, she believed that

the worst thing for a woman was to be married. Yes, I knew that I would be one day. All girls did. You reached a certain age and you were married off. Your family arranged that. They received your dowry: cloth, yams, palm oil, goats, or whatever your husband’s family could afford, to show his appreciation for your upbringing. It was a token, noting more. You moved into his home, had children, and took care of them.

The same character, later, when berated for not having had a child thinks, “So that was all I was born for, to give birth?”

Although she’s a fictional character speaking about what I’m guessing is the early 1960’s, is it really all that different from real life in 2016? Although those in urban areas are less likely to participate in the dowry system, in my experience, it’s still a given that you leave your “father’s house” to go and join your husband. My maternal cousin, for example, when she knew that I was getting married (don’t worry, that crashed and burned spectacularly) and wanted to have the wedding in Japan because that’s where I grew up, agreed that’s where it should take place, but for a totally different reason: “He’s coming for you, so you should have the wedding your parents are.” “Um, no,” I said. “He’s not buying me.” She said “I know he’s not buying you, but he’s coming for you.”

How is that different from buying me?

My paternal aunt also once made a comment that when I get married, since I will be absorbed by my husband’s family, maybe the family curse would be lifted for me.

I was working at a human rights organization where I was chastised for not subscribing to gender roles. A human rights organization. People constantly tell me that I’m never going to find a man who will accept that I don’t want to have children. I was once at a birthday lunch where my Ghanaian-American friend who I’ve mentioned before announced to the entire table that I didn’t want to have kids because I didn’t want my body to change, and everyone (except the birthday girl, who, ironically was pregnant) began attacking me for it.

I am not joking. They descended upon me like a bunch of fucking vultures on a wildebeest carcass. Arguing with me that their bodies bounced back, trying to analyze why didn’t I want to,  and my friend’s mom telling me that I’m a woman and I have to give a man children because they’re entitled to have them, and wouldn’t tolerate a woman who wouldn’t have children.

Right.

It’s common for everyone to think that they know a woman’s mind better than she knows her own- she will change her mind about wanting to have children, or she will realize that it’s her obligation to her husband/the earth/as an African, and will do so. When you add specific cultural expectations, it seems to me that women’s agency is nonexistent; that personal rights are meaningless, and that the messages in Atta’s book are reality for so many.

Have you read Swallow? To what extent do you think it reflects the realities of being an African woman today? Do/did you feel pressured into having children even if you didn’t want any? Do you think an African woman is obligated to have children for her husband?

What About Your Husband?

 

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You might meet this guy. He might want you to have kids.

One thing that African people like to ask me— well, if I’m being real, it’s not just Africans, it’s damn near everybody— likes to ask me when they find out that I’m not having children is “What about your husband?”

I asked my mom a few years ago if she wanted grandchildren. She said it wasn’t really about whether or not she wanted grandchildren, but that was about what I wanted. And besides, would I really have a kid just because she told me to? I was not expecting her to answer this way, and I extremely relieved to have that pressure lifted. Then she said “What about your husband?”

I have a Japanese friend who also doesn’t want to have children. In his words, “I can see no benefit to having a child.” We talked about it a lot. Then one day he asked me “But what about your husband?”

I don’t understand why people are so preoccupied with this phantom husband. Why do the wishes of this hypothetical man trump my own rights to determine what happens to my own body?

I was at a conference for work a few years back in Accra, and I met a  Ghanaian woman who had married a Norwegian man and moved to Norway, and yet somehow had the audacity to lecture me about not having African values. Yes, of course; the best way to demonstrate your commitment to African values is to marry a white man and then immigrate to Scandinavia. (Note: I’m not against interracial marriage. Or immigration. I just found this a strangely obtuse and hypocritical thing to say, given her choices.) Among a bunch of other stupid shit she said, she told me that my boyfriend at the time was going to have to be the head of the household, because he’s a man, and there’s no way two people can be equal because the United States has a president and a vice president.

Obviously, I disagreed, since I’m a grown-ass human being, and no one is going to be the “head” of anything in my life simply because he was born with external genitalia and I wasn’t. She asked “what about when you have children?”

I can’t lie. If I had been able to lie, I would maybe have said something along the lines of “We will parent them equally.” Or as one of my friends said about her house “We rule jointly has heads,” which cracked me up. (Specifically her use of the word “rule,” as though her house is a kingdom. Queendom, I mean) Unfortunately, I said “Yeah, I’m not having kids.”

[Cue storm of shit.]

“But- you- well, he’s still an African man, you know. If you’re not going to have kids you need to tell him now. You have to have children.” (This same woman had passed around pictures of her “three beautiful children” earlier completely unsolicited, so she might just have had an irrational preoccupation with parenting.) Why she thought I wouldn’t have discussed that with my own boyfriend, I will never know. I told her that being my boyfriend, he was already well aware of the fact that I was not having children, and she did a bunch more sputtering about “the love you have for a child” and how “he’s an African man” and that “No one ever dies wishing they had spent more time at the office.”  And you know what? She convinced me.

Just kidding, of course she didn’t.

When I was still with the aforementioned ex, he told his sister that I didn’t want to have children, and reported that she had something along the lines of “How can she deny an African man children?” and that she was going to want to lecture me about it when we met. He also told me that she said he could find a “better girl” than me who will have kids.

The idea that a man is entitled to use someone else’s body, a woman’s body, for his own desires makes me sick. This “what about your husband?” business is rooted in misogyny. It’s just a way of reinforcing the idea that a woman is secondary to a man in every way, and specifically that African women are secondary to African men. The idea that a man is entitled to use a woman’s body because of where he comes from is completely abhorrent, and it’s completely sexist.

For most people, the expectation that a woman is “supposed to have children” doesn’t seem to be an issue because most people want to be parents, and most people also don’t question the ideals they were brought up with. That’s how it’s all “supposed” to function. The man pays a dowry (buys a woman from her original owner, her dad), then she moves into his house, becomes his property, and when she gestates, births, feeds, and raises the children, they get his name, because he is the “head of the household.” And according to these patriarchal standards, a woman who understands that her role is to submit and to continue a man’s lineage is “better” than one who has the audacity to think she’s in charge of her own body.

My mom’s question floored with me with how sexist it was, and it also showed me that I’m a child that she had for her husband, and I have nothing to do with her family. As a woman, I’m to do the same thing for my husband, even if I don’t want to, or even have a husband. According to my ex(’s sister), I don’t have the right to “deny” an African man a child. What fucking right does anyone have to “deny” a human being the right to decide what happens to their own body, African man or not?

Oh, that’s right, I’m not a human being. I’m a woman. By default, I have conceded control of my sexual and reproductive rights, because some man somewhere might marry me, and my life and body are all about what he might want.

What do other childfree Africans think? Are you married? Do you want to get married? Will you forego marriage because it means that you don’t get to be childfree? Did you want to have children when you didn’t want to because of societal expectations? What’s the obsession with the imaginary husband?

Photo credit: Mila Supinskaya via Shutterstock

 

You’ll Change Your Mind

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One thing people love telling me when they find out that I don’t want to have children is that I’ll change my mind. I remember when I was living in Shanghai, when I was 23; I was with an American friend, his Spanish girlfriend, and another American guy. All three of them kept insisting that I was going to change my mind, and that I should “never say never” and a bunch of other clichéd expressions. I was a woman, after all, and all women want to have children. Even the ones who are absolutely certain that they don’t want children will change their minds, because women are too stupid and fickle to know what they want. Clearly.

I told them that I didn’t appreciate being patronized, which set off another round of patronizing drivel. My friend said it wasn’t patronizing, because did I believe the same things now that I believed when I was five? No? Well then, I shouldn’t be so sure that I would never have children, because I would change my mind someday.

A Ghanaian and American friend of mine (as in, same person who is both Ghanaian and American) kept insisting that I would change my mind. A few years ago, I was going through an awful break up and trying to find a way to convince myself to have children (because I certainly didn’t want to have them). She said “you’re never going to change your mind, so why bother?” I was really confused, and said “Aren’t you the one who kept insisting that I’d change my mind?” She said that she had been convinced that I was on the fence, but now she realized I wasn’t.

Why would you think I was on the fence? Why does anyone ever think that I’m not sure about what I want? I never say anything that even comes close to implying that I might change my mind about wanting children. I have always been 100% certain and clear about the fact that I absolutely do not want and will not have children.

One of my best friends who is a mother, but still supportive of childfree people “That’s like telling someone that you’ve gotten engaged, and that person saying ‘oh, don’t worry, you’ll change your mind.’” Interesting analogy, but she has a point. Why is it that one’s personal decisions need to be met with condescension if they’re not the same choice you’ve made for yourself? I’m the one living with my own mind, I’m fairly certain of what’s inside it. I will not change my fucking mind.

Do any childfree African men or women have people keep insisting that they will change their minds? How do you respond? Have you ever had anyone not insist that you’ll change your mind and just accept your decision?