My mother pushed herself to graduate high school in three years rather than four and was therefore able to start university studies at age 17. She'd been in love with a boy since she was 14, and she wanted to be at the university with him. Her father didn't approve of this boy (he suspected that the boy was of sub-standard ethnic stock, and he also knew that the boy's family was far less wealthy and educated than his own). Mom, with the support of her own mother, didn't obey her father's instructions not to see the boy; Mom said that from the first moment she saw him, she knew that he was the love of her life.
While Mom was studious, her high-school sweetheart was more interested in aspects of life besides his studies. He left the university and joined the U.S. Army. Because the U.S. was embroiled in what is known as the Korean Conflict, his decision frightened my mother.
"I didn't want him to die without being my husband first," she told me.
Mom left the university after a year and married the young soldier who one day would be my dad. She was 18, and he was 19. Mom faced the harsh reality of being a teenage military spouse during wartime.
She gave birth 11 months after the wedding.
A year later, she gave birth again.
Three years later - again.
Just over one year after that - another child.
17 months after that birth - another.
Four years later, she gave birth again. This child was stillborn.
My parents used contraceptives, but the contraceptives didn't always work well. While Dad would smile and say, "It will all be OK," Mom would cry. She didn't want so many pregnancies, and frankly, she didn't want to raise so many children. She certainly had never wanted to bury a baby, which she had to do at the age of 30.
Two years after Mom delivered my stillborn brother, she was finally legally allowed to take birth control pills. She did so, but she used her diaphragm along with the pills. She was frightened of having any more children. Her aunt suggested that Mom simply stop having sex; Mom was horrified. She did not want to give up the sexual element of her marriage whatsoever.
Mom encouraged Dad to have a vasectomy. Dad agreed to have one, but finding a physician willing to perform one proved difficult, then impossible. Mom hadn't given birth in four years, but yep - she discovered that she was pregnant for the seventh time.
This was a rough pregnancy. My parents were warned that Mom, or the baby, or both, would likely die. My parents discussed the possibility of abortion, but that procedure was illegal in their state. They considered traveling to a different state in order to obtain an abortion. With five children and mounting debt, they simply couldn't afford the costly procedure.
My parents spent an entire pregnancy terrified. They were terrified that they would endure what they'd already endured - the loss of an infant. They were even more terrified that the infant would survive but that Mom would die, leaving six children without a mother. And, whether or not Mom wants to admit it, she was terrified of having to raise one more child.
Finally, on July 22, 1968, Mom delivered yet another stillborn baby. While medical professions frantically struggled to bring the infant to life, other medical professionals struggled to help Mom, who was not in good shape herself. The medical professionals were successful this time. Mom is alive, and here I am typing this. Here I am – a stillborn child who survived.
Mom, Dad, and my older siblings raised me; our home was one of books, science experiments, math problems on bedroom chalkboards, irreverent jokes, cooking lessons, art and craft projects, and strenuous outdoor play. In retrospect, I realize that I was a weird kid. Dad has an audiotape of me talking when I was three years old, and I sound like I'm a 10-year-old.
I was bored in kindergarten, because I could already read, write, and work simple addition problems; the teacher found those skills off-putting. She was uncomfortable with the feeling that I wasn't there to learn from her. My mother said to the teacher, “Then find something you can teach her. Don't complain that she's smarter than you want her to be.”
The teacher could have taught me that in 1972, gender discrimination in education became illegal. She could have taught me that in 1973, women gained the right to terminate a pregnancy. She could have taught me that in 1974, women were legally permitted to have credit in their own names. I would have found all of these facts interesting. I would have wanted her to explain exactly why gender discrimination had ever been legal, and why women had previously been forced by law to remain pregnant when they didn't want to, and why it had ever been illegal for women to have credit in their own names.
I would have thought of my mother, of what my mother had lived through and what enormous changes she was now witnessing in her country.
My mother has lived her entire life in Illinois. Under Illinois law, my father could have legally raped her during more than 40 years of their marriage. Heck, under Illinois law, my own husband could have legally raped me during more than a year of our marriage.
My mom was raised by a mother who wasn't permitted to wear pants. Mom was raised by a mother who was shocked and confused to gain the legal right to vote. Mom lived decades herself during which she could be fired for getting pregnant.
When my very shy sister was humiliated at school because her skirt was half an inch too short, Mom changed into the shortest mini-skirt she herself owned, and she stormed into that school and confronted the principal. When another of my sisters was hauled into the principal's office for reading a book deemed inappropriate, the principal told Mom he was confiscating the book for the remainder of the semester; Mom asked him, “Why? Will it take you that long to read it?” When I wasn't permitted to try out for the 5th-grade basketball team because I wasn't a boy, Mom told the principal, “Apparently, you don't approve of the ERA. Too bad, because she's a better player than those boys are. Your loss.”
Mom is now a hospice patient. My family and I care for her at home with assistance from a nurse and two nurse's aides.
In late July of this year, I sat at her bedside and held her hand. I told her, “Mama, a woman has accepted a major-party nomination for President of the United States.”
Mom isn't exactly a fan of this particular woman, but she opened her eyes, nodded at me, and whispered, “About damn time.”
I climbed into bed with her and lay down beside her while she drifted off to sleep. I stayed there with her for over an hour, thinking about her lifetime and what she has experienced, thinking about my daughter, my granddaughter, and my nieces. I thought about myself, too. Mom won't see much of what comes next, but we will. And we will stand strong and raise our voices so that rights for women move forward, not backward. With every step forward, I will hear my mother whisper, “About damn time.”
Erin Rockhill Brown is a freelance writer from Central Illinois. She has worked as a journalist, a copy editor, and a high-school English teacher. She lives with her husband and three dogs, and she frequently gets visits from her daughter and granddaughter.