The majority of married women of childbearing age are no doubt familiar with the incessant nagging of their parents to have a child. They want to be grandparents, after all, and only you can make that happen.
I too am no stranger to these pleas, and not only from my parents, but also—to a much-filtered extent—from my in-laws, and other relatives and family friends. A few weeks ago, my husband’s brother said (with the best of intentions) that he wanted to become a chacha (the term used to indicate one’s father’s younger brother) this year. Having already heard from my sister how much she wants to be a massi (one’s mother’s sister), I am accustomed to these light-hearted nudges. However, this one really struck me.
So, I thought about why I had such a strong (internal) response to the statement.
Let me break it down:
My brother-in-law wants to become a chacha. He wants the identity of chacha. He can only be one if his brother has a baby (right now, we’re only talking about biological children). That can only happen (again, in the heteronormative sense) if his brother’s wife (me) gets pregnant and hosts the fetus for about nine months (give or take a few weeks), and delivers this baby. The minute that baby is born, my brother-in-law becomes a chacha. My birthing of a baby, alas, is also a birthing of an identity for my brother-in-law…and one for my sister…and one for my parents as nankas (maternal grandparents)…and one for my in-laws as dadkas (paternal grandparents)…That’s a lot of birthing that I’m doing!
The desire—as wholesome as it is—for these identities is predicated upon my reproductive system. And to repeatedly articulate the desire for this identity is to ignore the way in which my reproductive system will be required as a tool for each person for this desired end. And we haven’t even gotten to the demands American society makes on mothers once they have the baby (and we won’t in this post)!
Now, I understand it isn’t just about the identity of grandparent or aunt or uncle, but it’s about having a baby whom to spoil and with whom to play and who one can return to me when she starts crying. However, for now, what I’m interested in is the underlying linguistic and cultural assumptions made by the statements we use so offhandedly.
When my father jokes about the moral obligation I have as a daughter to produce a grandchild for him, I instead hear that he has a right over a part of my body, that my body owes him something. The same with my mother’s regular reminders of my age and fertility. The same with my father-in-law’s reminder to not forget about their family legacy. I know that no one actually considers me as an incubator for their legacy, but jeez…
Do you not see the way in which all these well-meaning statements are implicitly based on the reduction of women to their reproductive systems? My husband thinks I’m reading too much into the whole thing and I shouldn’t let things get to me. But a liberal arts education has taught me to look at language metaphorically and to interrogate what power structures are hidden within it and enable its usage.
When we talk about someone else making us an aunt or an uncle, we are utilizing verbs whose subject is a woman’s reproductive system. And while that agency should be empowering (my uterus makes you an uncle!), it doesn’t culturally signify that. Sure, we can say that our use of language is value-neutral, that no one else is suggesting claim over another’s reproductive system. But nothing is value-neutral, least of all language, and we can all at least agree on the millennia of female subjugation. Our society may have changed in the last fifty years, but our use of language hasn’t caught up with the change. The power structures hidden in these statements perpetuate—however unintentionally and implicitly—the dominance others feel over a woman’s reproductive system.
And don’t even get me started on all the aunties… more on that next time.