My Dead Grandmother Advises You To Use Birth Control

You can see it in any old cemetery—the family plots full of children who died at birth or in infancy and the women who died much younger than their husbands, sometimes a row of them. The current societal debate on birth control seems peculiarly unaware of what women’s lives were like until the mid-20th century…basically, what my grandmothers’ lives were like.
MOTHERS! DON’T LEAVE YOUR CHILDREN ORPHANED! reads the handbill advertising birth control from Margaret Sanger’s clinic. Women dying of illegal abortions—and women dying from child bearing—were most likely the married mothers of big families, often upwards of ten children. For these women, their lives were haunted by a choice: attempt to refuse sex with their husbands or shorten their life expectancy by having a baby every year or so. Immigrant women in the slums of Manhattan’s lower east side gave birth on the kitchen floor, on newspaper, often tended by their eldest daughter, who might be a pre-adolescent girl.
There is a family story about this I have long wanted to tell. My maternal grandmother, Sadie, a Russian Jew, had a friend and neighbor who was Irish Catholic. This women had more than a dozen children. Her doctor told her one more would kill her. Her husband was willing to use birth control (it would have been condoms at that time), but she wasn’t sure.
Sadie drew herself up to her full height of 4 feet 11 inches and proclaimed: “God is telling you, through me, to use birth control. Save your life and take care of your children.” Apparently my grandmother trumped the Pope, because her neighbor lived to see her own grandchildren. Forget that my grandmother was a complete atheist—she was a good friend.
My maternal grandfather’s mother died giving birth to him. I always wondered about that—how did it happen. Until an inherited condition almost killed me in childbirth, a defect in the placenta causing it to stay in the uterus and cause violent bleeding. A D and C saved me, but I suddenly thought of my ancestress bleeding to death, but not before she passed this problem on through her DNA and eventually to me.
My reproductive history has been mercifully low-key—one pregnancy, one child. My mother, like her own, was a strong advocate of family planning and passed this on to me. I had a scary flirtation with pre-eclampsia during my pregnancy, and I was only 34. So I obviously wasn’t built for childbearing too late in life and was grateful I didn’t have to face the possibility.
Our grandmothers often had to weigh sexual intimacy in marriage against the threat of bodily destruction and death. This wasn’t good for relationships—and it wasn’t good for them. Without reproductive rights women’s lives aren’t just worse in every way. Without these rights, we may not be able to live at all.

5 thoughts on “My Dead Grandmother Advises You To Use Birth Control

  1. My beloved Irish grandmother lost her mother in childbirth, too. My grandmother was born in 1900 in New York. She was orphaned at 5 years old when her mother and the infant she was expecting both died. Her father couldn’t care for her and sent her around to various relatives to raise her. She spent her youth in Ireland, then returned to New York where she eventually married an Irish cop and had my mother, but that’s another story.

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