A Villiage of Single Mothers

I’m travelling now and this makes it a bit more difficult to manage the comments, but I came across this story in the paper today (long plane ride=read paper closely) and thought it worthy of note.   It’s about single mothers in Vietnam, really, although it begins with the story of a group of single mothers from one village.

These are single mothers by choice, but as must always be true their choices were made in particular and specific circumstances–circumstances defined by culture and by history as well as all the other vagaries of time and place.  I think the story struck me because some commenters here have been quite critical of those who would deliberately have children who are cut off from a genetic parent.   I can’t help but wonder if people would say the same of these women who are in such a different context.   (I should be clear that I cannot say myself since I am not particularly critical of the women who make the same choice here in my own culture.) 

So here’s the context.  These are women who fought in the Vietnam War.  Because they were occupied, they didn’t marry and have children at that point in their lives.  By the time the war ended, they were past the ideal age for marriage and the men their age looked for younger brides.  (They were, by then, well into their twenties.)

There were strong cultural mores against children out of wedlock, but the choices these women faced were stark.  They could perhaps marry much older men or they could not marry at all.   Some chose not to marry and yet they wanted to have children.

Perhaps this is a selfish desire in some contexts, but as the article makes clear, it can be more than that–at least in the culture of rural Vietnam.  There was no instutional old-age care–no social security and no retirement homes.   Aging people were cared for by their children.

So at least some of these women had children, assisted by men who would have nothing to do with the raising of the children and would be no part of their family.   In these circumstances it isn’t just self-indulgent to have a child.  (In fact, I think it is awfully easy to label the choice to have a child as a selfish one, while the reality is that having a child is in many ways an extraordinary act of selflessness.   I’ve written about this, but do not have the time to review the topic just here.)

What’s most striking to me is the response to the actions of these women.   While they were initially shunned, in time their communities came to at least partially accept the choices they had made.

Although the plight of the war generation single mothers was only one factor, in 1986 the government passed the Marriage and Family Law, which for the first time recognized single mothers and their children as legally legitimate. It was a victory for the mothers in Loi, and for others like them.

“Every woman has the right to be a wife and a mother, and if she cannot find a husband, she should still have the right to her own child,” Ms. Ngoi said.

It’s a striking conclusion to reach.  I’m not entirely sure what I think of it–there is an element of gendered essentialism (women have a right to be mothers–but do men have rights to be fathers?) and yet still, it is something to think about.

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