Poor women having children is a crime against society…

…or so you will come to believe if you read Jamaican newspapers and take public opinion as gospel.   The latest example of how Jamaicans love fi tek poor people mek beat’n tick emerged this week.  The Jamaica Gleaner has been doing a series examining how various individuals are managing to meet their needs in a steadily eroding economy.   The most recent story was one featuring Mrs. Karen Davis, a single, widowed woman who manages a 29-person household in the Kingston/St. Andrew area on very little.

The comments in the newspaper have leaned towards heavy blaming and moralising, with the occasional intervention of a few brave souls.  It can be a fairly brutal experience to go against the popular viewpoint among Jamaicans.  But sometimes, you just have to do what’s necessary and take the lashes.

On the FB thread started by Donna Hope-Marquis, a faculty member in Cultural Studies at UWI-Mona, they’ve been vicious, to say the least:

“what I don’t understand is why these idiots continue to have children and not able to feed them. Fools never realise what’s going on around them..”

“I see parents of these kids as selfish. They are not thinking of the kids and the life these poor lead and the effect lack of food has on development and education.”

“Stupid people!”

I responded to the above statements as such:

Wow. I wonder how many of us would be around if all persons living in poverty chose not to have children until they were no longer poor? And we seem to forget that poverty is not an individual situation; it’s a social condition.

I’ll say it again, even though most of us choose to ignore the basic fact and replace it with moralizing:

Having many children does not make one poor. Family size might lessen the amount of disposable income that you have, but it doesn’t determine whether or not you have an income or access to social resources to begin with. Public policies that govern access to education, quality housing, transportation, utilities, etc. make the difference.

A who tell mi fi guh seh nutt’n? Donna ready fi tek mi aawn:

Natalie D. A. Bennett, I can see you are taking this personally for some reason. Well I am taking it personally because I come from a very poor background, much worse off than this one where there was no rice and chicken back on any day, as we could not afford either one and had to live on what ground provisions we had, sometimes with a little salt. And one thing I learnt early was that having multiples of children in poverty and not gaining education and some source of income is going to keep you poor. You tell me and all the others what kind of public policies are going to improve the lives of these able-bodied people without their input. If you have ever been truly poor you would know that PATH programmes and other forms of social relief and welfare are designed to keep you poor since it is not enough to live a decent life off much less to carve some semblance of social mobility. Rich in nature and poor in pocket is not just a saying but a reality. When people who know better encourage others to stay in these situations with all kinds of cliches and shifting of responsibility to states and governments we remove the full agency from people to take charge of their own lives. Stuffing some contraceptive in diverse parts of your body is as important as getting up and looking some gainful employment that can be multiplied by the number of able-bodied adults who could spend their time more sensibly, rather than trying to ensure that the nation is populated. When that is added to whatever state benefits there are then one can only marvel at the possibilities.

I read and re-read this response, and then decided to reply because it seemed to be responding to things that I didn’t say. But I was also really taken aback by the shallowness of the analysis:

@ Donna – Because you choose to make your social background a part of your public identity, this story is personal for you. Perhaps you need to create some distance so that your personal experiences can stop clouding your vision. I’m probably way off, but I do expect that as someone who is a professor of cultural studies would know how significant public policy is to shaping people’s lives, choices and identities even in Jamaica.

So, when you make statements like

“one thing I learnt early was that having multiples of children in poverty and not gaining education and some source of income is going to keep you poor”

and

“When people who know better encourage others to stay in these situations with all kinds of cliches and shifting of responsibility to states and governments we remove the full agency from people to take charge of their own lives.”

and

“Stuffing some contraceptive in diverse parts of your body is as important as getting up and looking some gainful employment that can be multiplied by the number of able-bodied adults who could spend their time more sensibly, rather than trying to ensure that the nation is populated.”

I can only conclude that you don’t have nearly enough distance to see clearly, or that I am mistaken with regard to your knowledge of public policy.

Being able to stuff contraceptives anywhere is a matter of public policy
Being able to go to school and get an education that can translate into adequate income is a matter of public policy
Being able to find a job is a matter of public policy
Being able to go to work is a matter of public policy
Having a place to live (or not) is a matter of public policy
Getting old enough to become an able-bodied adult is a matter of public policy

I also expected that you would pay attention to the data presented in the newsarticle. Let’s look at that again:

“Widowed four years ago, Karen said the loss of income from her husband, Sherman, who was a fisherman, has also led to a decrease in their purchasing power to maintain the large family.

Ranging from age two to 53 years old, the family consists of 12 children and 17 adults. Twelve of them are Karen’s children and nine her grandchildren. The other eight comprise of cousins or partners of her children.

Five of the adults have permanent jobs, while the others do the occasional odd jobs here and there.

Of the children, two are in high school, two in primary school and five in basic school.”

Mrs. Davis is 53 years old, a widow and head of household. That means she was born around 1959. What were her options when she arrived at childbearing age, roughly 1970? The oldest child mentioned is 31 years old. I don’t know if that’s her son, but let’s pretend he is. That would means he came along when she was about 22, around 1980 or so.  If I just counted 12 adults chronologically (again, we don’t know who is who), her youngest child would be 20 years old, being born in 1981.

You don’t know if she had any abortions, miscarriages or stillbirths before then and since then.

You also don’t know about the quality of healthcare that she had. When one has access to good care, doctors and midwives tend to pay attention to women with histories of twins, as she does, and with multiple births to begin with.

We don’t know what her relationship to her husband was like.

Five out of 17 adults have permanent jobs; we don’t know if they are fulltime or part-time, minimum wage, etc.

We don’t know how long odd jobs last, or how lucrative each is.

We do not know the relationship between the adults.

We do not know if it’s the children vs. the partners who are more likely to be employed.

Of the 12 school-aged children who live in the family, we don’t know who they belong to, and how those children are distributed i.e. if one person had 5 of them, or if its 1 per adult, etc.

In short, we do not know a lot.

What we do know shows how severely people are shortchanged in Jamaican society, not least of which is developing frameworks that enable people to become their best selves.

The only thing we know for sure is that Mrs. Davis runs a large household on very little, and has more love to go round than most of us will experience in a lifetime.

You raise the question of agency, as if such is disconnected from structure (or that other apparatus that manages structure, public policy). But in doing so, you also decided what “agency” should look like for her. Isn’t that a rather disempowering, and frankly, disrespectful, claim to be making on Mrs. Davis’s behalf?

To go back to your personal story, it’s also fascinating that you choose not to see the amazing display of agency in a newsarticle (which doesn’t even give us adequate details to justify the moralizing, mind you). Mrs. Davis could have CHOSEN to abandon her children, or to discourage them from staying close to her. She didn’t have to work this hard at preserving some notion of stability even in their difficult circumstances. Instead, she seems to be very committed at maintaining her homestead as the “haven in a heartless world” for family and kin, to use a cliched expression.

Compare this news story to all the other stories that populate the newspaper encouraging scorn against the archetypical careless, irresponsible woman who doesn’t even know who her children’s fathers are, is mean and abusive to her children, and has no sense of dignity or moral interior. Can you honestly look at Mrs. Davis’s story as presented and not see a display of courage and tenacity beyond what I (and perhaps you) would even be capable of in such circumstances?

As for your comment about “encouraging people to stay in their situation”, I don’t know how you got to that. You don’t know anything about me or my politics regarding women’s reproductive choices.

What I do make clear is that I don’t care to judge Mrs. Davis or anybody else for the choices they make. What I try to do is understand what obtains, and why they feel the way they do.

No amount of moralizing about what Mrs. Davis should have done, no amount of insults leveled at her about how stupid, irresponsible and careless she was for having 12 children, etc. can do her any good. Instead, what it does is far more harmful. It is exactly attitudes like that, coupled with an “I understand because I was in her situation” that would lead policymakers to want to forcibly sterilize women who have more than 3 children, and have that proposition be taken seriously.

I made a vow to myself many years ago, perhaps an outcome of being a medical student, “to do no harm” with the life that I live. I see people as human beings, and that requires me to pay attention to what makes it possible for them to have the best choices that they need. That’s the only way I can know how to be of best service.

In other words, as someone who *does* know that the circumstances of Jamaican women’s childbearing decisions are not as simple as some of us would present, I am not going to capitulate to “commonsense” when I don’t know enough about this person’s situation to begin with. And yes, I’m going to point out the problems inherent in presuming what choices she should have made, without also prescribing for her.

I certainly hope that Mrs. Davis does not get a whiff of the kind of stuff that is being said about her on the internet. The article presents her as a stoic woman who is far more devout than myself. Certainly far above telling people who are calling her stupid to eff off.

But then again, this is part of what it means to be poor isn’t it? To always have other people telling you what choices you should make and what kind of person you are, but who never actually do anything to improve the range of choices you have.

So basically, if you aren’t going to berate this woman as careless, irresponsible and fool-fool for not having used birth control, for “allowing” her grown children to “live off her”, and for working hard to take care of her extended family, then you shouldn’t say anything.   In fact, there’s plenty to say, but it won’t necessarily fall on open ears.   I did say that I wanted to do  more public writing that engages the discourse around poverty and childbearing, and particularly the woman-bashing, so I guess I might as well begin right now.  Aaah bwai.

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