My why has to do with a young Ellie witnessing the essential moral challenge which my mother and her seven sisters faced as Catholic, Cuban-born women living in the U.S.
Through whispers and hushed conversations, I tried to understand the anxious struggle of my mamá and tías to claim moral agency and the God-given responsibility to discern decisions around their childbearing lives.
The defining Catholic female issue of their generation was whether or not to use birth control — an option their newly adopted country made available to them in the 1960s. The Catholic Church’s condemnation of prescription birth control was clear. Yet the choice was alluring as my mom and tías struggled to feed, clothe and educate the precious babies that kept emerging of their bodies. Where they to prioritize their souls or their sanity? Out of respect for the confidentiality of my tias, I’ve changed their names but kept their stories from my limited niece perspective.
Tía Elena, the oldest sister, chose her soul. As a young 20-something woman she chose to enter religious life, a vow she stayed committed to for more than 60 years until her death.
Tía Celia also chose her soul through marriage and childrearing, but after giving birth to her sixth baby, she spent three months in a mental hospital for exhaustion. Nevertheless, she continued to pursue her soul and gave birth to four more babies. The story goes that on arriving home with the tenth child, she put the baby in her husband’s lap and walked out the door, unable to return for at least three years. My cousins were raised by a housekeeper and extended relatives.
Tia Patricia was the first to choose birth control, scandalizing many in the family. But after having brought four children into the world with the help of her emotionally-wounded veteran husband, she declared she had reached her limit.
Tía Ana identified as a lesbian, also scandalizing many in the family. Paradoxically this holy woman, a nurse and a therapist, never had a need for birth control and spared herself that sin, although many worried she had taken on another sin.
My mother gave birth to three children and then tried natural family planning. After giving birth to two more beautiful children, she gave my father an ultimatum. Either they give up sex or my father was to find a priest who would give them permission to use birth control. My father sought out a Cuban priest who led family retreats and had opened his heart to seeing the struggle. He said that if my mother’s conscience didn’t have a problem with using birth control, then my father should follow her lead. In this kind and merciful priest my mother found a way to preserve her soul and her sanity.
Tía Beatriz brought four children into the world and then mysteriously never gave birth to any more. I never heard her utter the words birth control.
Tía Cristina, a champion Cuban tennis player, took a gunshot wound to her abdomen from a communist soldier during the Cuban revolution. My tía lived, but was left infertile and had no need of birth control. Fate saved her soul, and she adopted two lovely daughters.
Tía Anita gave birth to 12 children. She was well organized, a devoted orthodox Catholic woman and funny, a winning combination that allowed her to raise a dozen smart and athletic children. She truly saved her soul, and periodic doses of Prozac helped to take the edge off exhaustion, thereby also being able to preserve her sanity.
The enormous luchas or battles of my mother and my tías allowed me, my sisters and my cousins to make decisions about birth control with less fear. We stopped believing that our souls might be at stake and in the process have preserved more of our sanity.
Still, the issue of Catholic women and Catholic lay couples having moral agency and a God-given responsibility to discern their reproductive decisions remains controversial. Do we accept the Catholic catechism to prescribe one reality about being female, while we quietly live out a different reality? Or do we publicly tell our stories, and the stories of our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers and in the process forge a much-needed Catholic sisterhood? Do we dare to tell the truth about our loving, our bodies, our baby-making, our mothering, our exhaustion, our joy, our desires, our dreams?