The 70-Year-Old Mother, Steel Magnolias, IVF, and Why We Judge

7 years ago

Back in 1989, America wept over the death of Shelby in Steel Magnolias. Like her mother M'Lynn (Sally Field), we wanted to know why. We wanted to "know how that baby will ever know how wonderful his mother was! Will he ever know what she went through for him!" And we cried buckets.

Shelby, the focus of the play and film, is a character based on author Robert Harling's sister, who died after complications from diabetes. While most women with diabetes can have a healthy and uneventful pregnancy, Shelby is given instructions by her doctor not to attempt pregnancy, disregards them because her desire to be a mother is so strong, and dies less than a year later after a failed kidney transplant.

Writing the play and the movie may have been an act of catharsis for Harling and his family (many of whom were on set or in the film), but it was also a cathartic movie for American filmgoers who could tap into Shelby's desire for a child who is a combination of herself and her husband, Jackson, while cursing the unfairness of a child who loses his mother so young.

So why the hell are we so judgmental of Rajo Devi Lohan?

The Indian woman made history by becoming the oldest woman to give birth at age 70. She is currently dying, having never recovered from complications after pregnancy. While there may be 70-year-old bodies that can withstand and bounce back from birth, like Shelby, Rajo took a risk and is currently paying the price.

Yet also like Shelby, it is a price Lohan feels is worth the prize. She states:

I dreamed about having a child all my life. It does not matter to me that I am ill, because at least I lived long enough to become a mother.

It's a sentiment many can relate to even if we wouldn't make the same choices, yet when we steer into cultural territory, we suddenly stop seeing the misty-eyed Shelbyness of it all and instead begin an ethnocentric-laden judgment of women willing to die in order to create life. Where it's admirable from Shelby, it's selfish from Lohan. With Shelby, we cluck that you just never know what will happen to a young mother--any of us could die after birth. With Lohan, we snarl that she greedily just created a motherless child.

Yet few can understand the pressure that exists within certain cultures to produce a child, and it's a sentiment that is summed up by Deva Singh, father of the triplets born to the oldest triplet mother in the world (a spring chicken at 66).

Bhateri has fulfilled my dream of having a child and giving my family an heir. She was my first wife and after she failed to conceive a child, I married twice but again. I did not have any child from my other wives also.

Americanly, I would have been pissed as all get out if Josh had taken a second wife while we were battling infertility. But examining Singh's statement with cultural relativism, I see how strong the need for an heir is that it would move a man to take multiple wives (and support multiple wives) in order to have a single child. And seeing the length a man would go through to build a family, I can begin to understand the length Lohan or Singh went through to achieve pregnancy and give birth. The need for an heir trumps happiness, it trumps love, it trumps money or health. And while it's not a cultural standard I would choose for myself and luckily, I don't live in a society where Josh could take a second wife due to my wonky ovaries, I can still appreciate a culture that is different from my own.

After all, I have a strong feeling that other countries look at Steel Magnolias and shake their head over Shelby's hubris. Believing she knew more than her doctor? Believing that everything would work out in the end despite evidence to the contrary? Start examining her actions under a judgmental microscope and you'll wonder why you cried over her death rather than thrown something at the screen. But just as I give Lohan and Singh room to make their choices, I also give the Shelbys of the world the room to follow their heart. And damn it, I still get choked up just thinking about that funeral scene.

Read on...

Strollerderby muses on the ethics of pregnancy at 70 and admonishes Lohan on her deathbed, asking, "Sure, you lived long enough to become a mother, but who is going to take care of your infant daughter now? Your 73-year-old husband? As it stands, her 60-year-old sister, Omi, has moved in to take care of the child."

True/Slant while being critical admits, "I have three kids and, frankly, can’t blame these people for going through with it. I sometimes think if I hadn’t had kids in my 30s -- if that had only become an option for me in my 50s or 60s or, heck, at 70, I’d be the first in line to try and make it happen."

Happy Hour Mom draws a connection between Lohan, Kate Gosselin, and Nadya Suleman.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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