Saturday, January 9, 2010

Birthing the Bastard Nation

My granddaughter was born this week. All of the energy of the last nine months was released in her birth. Now all the questions of her gender, how her arrival would play out, and how everyone would respond have been answered.

There is a new flurry of emotion and activity around her entrance. For me it involves more contact than usual with family, my ex-husband, and friends. There are more phone calls daily, and emails asking for photos nearly immediately after she was born. (To me this is an acknowledgement of the ever increasing belief that information of any kind needs to be transmitted as it happens, as though we are all reporters embedded in the outlying foreign regions of our daily lives recounting the struggles of living: “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”) They ask for my explanations and recounting of the details of her birth, her looks, her parents, and the plans for visits.

For me it also involves thoughts of the invisible child. The one no one would call about, ask for photos of (none were ever going to be available) or ask to hear about the details of her birth.

I had a child when I was sixteen in 1969. She was illegitimate. I was not allowed to admit her existence. My granddaughter was born on January 5th; my first child, a daughter, was born on January 7th forty-one years ago. The pressure of the dates, gender, and family fill my mind with reflections on relationships and guilt, freedom and repression, women and society.

In American culture at that time, or in any time in any place in the history (or lack of history) of women’s lives, this was the shame and ruin of a good girl/woman. Once a girl/woman was in this predicament she was no longer good, but the effort that went into hiding, denying, even ending, the child’s existence, and the success or failure of this effort, could redeem her, creating a new type of good woman, the one who was silently repentant, and so was redeemed: a woman who was humbled; she had learned her place and the length of her tether. Without this silence and surrender she would remain a whore with a bastard child, enduring the scourge that comes with lack of obedience to the world as shaped by the beliefs of men.

We of the unwed mother world of the pre-talk show discussions of baby daddies, famous couples with children and no license of marriage, and single women choosing motherhood without a partner, are ghosts. Unless of course, we are among the women who have the joyful, tearful reunions also viewed on national television. Today these mothers and bastards are heralded with a kind of warmth that supposedly reaches all of us and speaks to the importance of love and family connection.

What happened to these women inside as they were forced to give up these children is not so uplifting. Where were the cameras then? What would these people who are the understanding, supportive millions who make this televised redemption a kind of gladiator event, a kind of resurrection after the crucifixion, have thought in my day? Nothing kind. I can assure you.

I want to open the conversation to include these thoughts on wayward or wanton women. Was it different for the men who fathered these children? I never heard men called unwed fathers with derision. The man/boy who fathered my first child was not held up to public scrutiny; if anything it seemed to verify his virility and attractiveness.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Richard Wagner, August Strindberg, Confucius, Eva Peron, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe were all bastards. Perhaps this marked them for a less ordinary life; but what about the women who birthed them, they were most likely ordinary women in an untenable situation. How extraordinary to be asked, directed, to surrender a child for the comfort of the society that has no time for you even before your transgression. For if these women were considered valuable to society perhaps their progeny, conceived on the other side of the sheets, would not be so vilified, consequently pulling the mother and child bond to pieces. On the other hand, if women matter not, then why the need to monitor their sexual behavior at all. So what if these wanton, boundless women brought children into the world without marriage, without a man?

If society in America appears more tolerant of bastards and the women who bring them into the world, it may be temporary. If this appears to be accepted now, it does not seem to me it is due to women being valued more as free individuals. In the right circumstances this could all change back.

This is not an essay. I am not postulating an answer. These posts are merely prompts to help us discuss, question, and comment. It is to continue the conversation of a woman’s worth. Ask the questions, struggle for answers. Our lives may depend on it.

Talk amongst yourselves.