Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Unplanned Parenthood

In our first getting-to-know-you interview with our doctor, several months ago, things went amazingly smoothly. We were prepared for a clash of philosophy on how best to conduct childbirth, but none arose. But I wasn't prepared for how jarring I would find one of her questions for us:

"Was it planned?"

We looked at each other sheepishly. Sure, we had hoped to have children someday. And we were well aware that they were liable to occur. But planning was something done with spreadsheets and calculators; it seemed too formal of a word to apply to our laissez-faire approach. And, truth to tell, we had been a little surprised at our rapid success. Yet without the imprimatur of the word "planned" it sounded as if we were being irresponsible.

But something else bothered me, which I am just now putting my finger on. The question and distinction by themselves unconsciously reflect the disregard our culture has for childbearing and even for children.

The former distinguishing mark of a problematic pregnancy was an "unwed" pregnancy. This drew a clear-cut moral line based on an outside standard: if you were married, getting pregnant was acceptable; if you weren't, it wasn't. Sure, married women often found their pregnancies inconvenient, but then, most of life is inconvenient. You deal with it.

An "unplanned" pregnancy, in contrast, draws no moral distinctions except one of self-actualization. Does this baby fit into your goals? Did he make a previous appointment on your schedule? Is he meeting your current perceived needs? If not, then clearly you have a problem. If he is, then there is no question of the morality of your actions. With "planning" the primary concern, babies cease to be ends and become means.

The other evening, DOB and I were discussing one of those no-brainer studies that stated that, although babies could hear in utero and talking to them is fun, no evidence showed that prenatal education programs would make them smarter. What seemed strange to us was that people would go to such lengths--but then, DOB pointed out, it's a symptom of this attitude towards children. How many people nowadays have children to reach some other goal of the parents, whether it's to keep up with their friends, gratify their own egotism, attempt to patch the void left by an unsatisfactory marriage, or simply because children, like SUV's, are a proper accessory to middle-class life? So naturally people whose childbearing purpose is intellectual exhibitionism are willing to try anything to give their child an edge--whether it helps, hurts, or is indifferent.

The "planned" distinction also drives a further wedge between sex and childbearing. Chances are very, very slim that the people involved didn't know where babies come from; yet we expect that we should be able to indulge in any pleasure we want without accepting the natural consequences. We call people who try to indulge in food this way bulimic. And it's a mindset with severe consequences, both physical and psychological.

But food was meant to be digested, and sex was meant to make babies. And sometimes it happens despite all our "plans."

I've seen what happens afterwards; the mothers sitting together, one whispering with the tiniest edge of resentment in her voice, "Of course, this one was a big surprise." The child seems to be ignoring the dull adult conversation, but can the attitude not affect them?

Planning, is, of course, a good thing. We're all for it. We like our spreadsheets. But the planning should be for the babies, not of them. When you got married, you issued an open invitation. Make plans for your guests, but don't greet them with the announcement that you would have preferred it if they hadn't come.

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