Family Planning

Lessons in Love, from Women Deliver and My 5-Year-Old

My older daughter wants to marry her sister.

I suggested she can marry a girl if she chooses, but her sister may be someone she wishes to keep as a dear friend only.

If she marries her best girlfriend, Alex, she of course wants to know who will be the mom. “Which of us will have babies?” She wants to know.

I say neither, either or both of them can be moms, and she nods. “Yeah, sperm bank, right?” she asks.

I laugh. True story.

Two kids in her Montessori class of 20 have same-sex parents. The flexibility with which she approaches gender, assigned parental roles and even childbearing duties and options is remarkable to me.

I grew up in suburban San Antonio, in a middle-class, Catholic household. My parents talked to me of justice and equity, non-discrimination and (even!) feminism, but I didn’t live out any of these principles in as dramatic a way as my daughter is doing. At age 5 1/2.

The closing plenary of Women Deliver here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was at turns raucous, academic, combative and inspiring, with an emphasis on the last word–inspiring.

How else can you describe a session where Kavita Ramdas sang snippets from Aretha Franklin, a traditional spiritual, and a Broadway musical?

Where Frances Kissling talked of women who give birth as heroines, deserving of celebration as much as the fireman who runs into a burning building to save a life.

The premise of the session hinged, in my mind, on why this fundamental work of women’s rights and empowerment is unfinished business, still, after all this time and despite overwhelming evidence.

While the fight for justice can’t be only an intellectual exercise, those of us who work tirelessly as advocates do need to step back, take a deep breath, and appreciate the profundity of our battle.

From women as Parliamentarians, to ending child marriage, from access to contraception for young and unmarried women, to sexual orientation and gender identity, we must own how potentially upsetting a threat our work is to the current balance and allocation of power.

We toil away, day after day, fighting for access to contraception as a woman’s right, but feeling reluctant to acknowledge that this access has a history–and sadly still a present, in some places–that reeks of coercion and barriers to choice.

We laud the economic empowerment that can come with control over one’s fertility, but we don’t tackle violence against women, which undermines any gains we make on labor workforce participation.

We build alliances with the sustainable development community, because we need them and they us, but we’re exasperated and ashamed when confronted with the incompatible truths of energy poverty in Africa and rampant materialism in the U.S.

So my take-away message, from this plenary, but also broadly from the three+ days of deliberation?

To build cross-movement alliances, sure, but you’ve heard that from me before.

To speak truth to power, but in a way that ensures one is heard by those whose ears are most likely to be closed? Of course.

But more basic and fundamental than either of those is the willingness to change ourselves in order to change the world, and to advance that agenda of self-transformation through empathy for those who disagree with us.

And although I lack Kavita’s courage to break into song in front of thousands, a certain tune does come to mind–one by Morcheeba, called Fear and Love.

We will never truly love unless we overcome our fears.

And we must overcome our fears as it stops our ability to love.

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