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This is my personal story of my decision, as a Dharmacharini, as to whether or not to have a baby. It is explored within the mores (conventions) of the time in Triratna.
I was 20 years old, and in my last year at University, when I became accidentally pregnant. I knew that I did not want a child at that point in my life. I had thought, however, since I was a child playing with my dollies, that I would have children one day. I was a very troubled young woman and I felt that it would be a disaster for me and for the child, if I went through with it. I shut down and made my decision to have a termination. This was 1967 and legal abortion was not yet an option. The termination happened in secret, between me and a couple of people who helped and supported me. I will spare you the painful details, but suggest that you could watch the film Vera Drake, for some idea of that period in Britain, and of that experience.
This experience cast a long shadow over my life, emotions and health. Its effects are what brought me to the Dharma and to Triratna a few years later, when I was 24. I deeply regretted having had to make that decision, and I was troubled about it for many years. I was very clear that I did not want to be in that situation again, so I took great care with birth control. The contraceptive pill was not freely available, but a couple of close friends who had become pregnant and had had their babies adopted (a different kind of extremely painful experience) introduced me to their social worker, who put me on a trial for the pill. This involved me turning up at St Mary’s Hospital sexually transmitted diseases clinic along with the local prostitutes. One day I saw a different doctor and he refused to renew my prescription, as he thought it would lead to promiscuity, even though I was in a stable relationship, and needed to be for the trial. His solution to the risk of pregnancy to which he exposed me was celibacy! When I later complained to my social worker she said “we hope that Doctor Lee is born a woman next time around!”
Meeting Bhante and the Dharma in 1970 was a life saver for me, and I soon became fully involved, living in a residential community, and working full time for the Centre. We were all very young, and we were trying to co-create a Movement and Order from scratch, which was wonderful and inspiring. However, we were full of youthful and naive idealism combined with very little life experience.
As activities became more single sex in the 1970’s, it became obvious that there were fewer women in the Movement and not many Women Order Members. I did worry that if anyone had a desire to have a child and needed to leave (the building site situation at Amaravati women’s community, where we were living, was no place for a child) that everything would fall apart. I had read about the Ivy Benson Girls Band, a touring all women swing band of the 1940’s. “Benson’s band had a high turnover of musicians, as they frequently left to marry G.I.s they met while touring.” She once commented, “I lost seven in one year to America. Only the other week a girl slipped away from the stage. I thought she was going to the lavatory but she went off with a G.I. Nobody’s seen her since.” I thought this might be what would happen to us! Well, not with the G.I’s, I guess!
My life was very full and I was enjoying my Dharma practice and creating community and was not thinking about having a child. I realize that I may not have been very sensitive to that desire arising in others, for which I am truly sorry. Later a friend told me that her desire for a child was so strong that her womb ached all the time and I thought that if that had been my experience; I would have needed to have followed that through. I am happy to say that she did later have a family.
In those days, as an Order, we could all get together in one room and discuss the development of the Order and Movement, as we did on early Order conventions. In 1973 Bhante began to run seminars, and while these always focused on a Dharma text, much of the discussion would be about how to live a Dharma life. This would include talking about everything pertinent; semi-monastic community life, single-sex, families, children, sex, relationships, relationships between genders, work, as well as meditation, study, and practice in general. We were exploring all aspects of our lives in relation to the Dharma, and learning in the process. Sangharakshita must also have been learning. We were his first students, or disciples, if you don’t mind the word. We were his first female disciples, and we were so young. Yet some of those discussions became ideas, practices, even ideologies. I am asking those of you from later generations, to stand in our shoes, the way we were then, with empathy. We certainly debated all those issues amongst ourselves in the Women’s Order. I can remember Order days devoted to discussing motherhood or not, and the relationship between motherhood and Stream Entry. In 1983 all the available Dharmacharinis went off for a month’s retreat to the Isle of Muck, during which, apart from meditation practice and study, we discussed issues relevant to us, which included children and the spiritual life. Some Dharmacharinis present were already mothers, and some would go on to have children of their own.
One thing to try and remember is how we viewed being an Order Member in those days. Sangharakshita had taught us that commitment was primary and lifestyle was secondary, and later that commitment was primary, the precepts were secondary and lifestyle was tertiary. However, there was a strong emphasis on Going Forth, and an understanding that if you came into the Movement with responsibilities that you would fulfill them, but that after ordination you would not take on more responsibilities, especially for a family. Sangharakshita’s wish was for Order Members to be as free as possible to pursue their own practice and to spread the Dharma. We needed to think about how this impacted upon, and would be worked out, for women in the Movement and Order.
To illustrate this I am quoting from another Dharmacharini’s memory, with her permission, of a conversation she had with Sangharakshita about this topic.
“Bhante wanted to make it very clear that he only wanted women to question whether they really needed to have children, once they were ordained. He didn’t ‘per se’ think women shouldn’t have children, or that it was a ‘spiritual handicap’ in any way. It was more that if you were free to choose whether to have them or not, as a Dharmacharini, he felt that we were so much needed in establishing the Dharma and that that would be a better use of our energies. But more than anything he wanted me to pass on that he felt it was absolutely imperative that women Mitras felt free to have children. As Order members we should strongly encourage Mitras and Friends to explore the issue, and to feel completely free to have children. He didn’t believe it was an impediment to spiritual progress, and he had no qualms about ordaining women, who already had children, if they were considered ready for ordination, as had always been and continued to be the case. He went on to say he thought that for many women having children was a significant factor in helping them to get ordained as it was an integrating, and ‘humanizing’ experience, in the same way that having a career would be.”
This is why we discussed motherhood amongst ourselves and with the Mitras. There was an encouragement to try to be as clear as possible in an area where it is very easy to be unconscious. We were committed to a very full-on Dharma Life, consisting in high attendance at all Order events, community living, team based right livelihood, and teaching at our Centres. We also had very little money, and often insecure housing, which were not great conditions for starting a family.
In our discussions with Mitras we were interested to know whether the Mitra might be thinking of starting a family at some point. Ordination, from our experience, is a big spiritual experience, and one that needs some time to absorb. Motherhood is also a big experience and especially in the early days the baby needs full time attention. We felt it would be better to either have a child first and then get ordained after a couple of years, or when ready for ordination get ordained and then a couple of years later, start a family. Life, of course, cannot always be so carefully planned and in the actual event women have come back from their ordination retreat and become immediately pregnant, or found that they were on their journey to their ordination retreat. Several women have been ordained while pregnant. In the end each woman is different and in different circumstances.
We also realised later, that when people get ordained when they are young they cannot know whether or not they will want a family later on in life. Many Order Members have started families after ordination and have a strong personal practice and contribute fully to our community.
For many years I had a very full Dharma life with which I was happy. But the biological clock ticks, and in my late thirties I thought I should really think about whether or not I wanted a child. I had worked very hard over the years to forgive my youthful self for feeling that there was no choice but to have an abortion in my early 20’s, and to free myself from much of my painful childhood conditioning. I thought then, in my late thirties, that I would make a good mother. I am sure I thought about this decision as much as I could. I would have talked to my friends, reflected in meditation, and no doubt consulted my dreams. In the end I decided that I did not want to have a child. I also realised, however, that I did need to make a change in my life after thirteen years total immersion in Triratna life and responsibility. I went back to University for three years when I was 40, to study Religious Studies, which I loved. I went on a solitary retreat shortly after leaving College and realised that something quite subtle had shifted in me. It was like the question, shall I have a baby, that I imagine is always there, in women at least, at some level, had gone, or been answered. I have no recollection of being persuaded against having children but I do remember a Dharmachari suggesting to me that I should have a child because, otherwise, I wasn’t really a real woman and would never feel fulfilled! Fortunately, that has not been my experience and I have never regretted my life choice.
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