The Deadly Dance of Perfectionism: How the Rhetoric of Family Planning Hurts Children

Growing up in the culture of sociology taught me—and others of my generation—to engage in a set of behaviors to ensure that we would “always be wanted.” Although the term “wantedness” was a quality originally assigned to births, the concept began to touch all aspects of children’s lives, teaching us to engage in a dangerous—sometimes deadly—dance of perfectionism.

As a child, I never knew exactly what my dad did, but I knew that his office was the first place where I had ever seen anatomical pink and magenta models of the uterus and the embryo. I remember sitting with my mother in our family station wagon and looking up into the exotic jungle of scarlet bougainvillea that pressed against the glass of his beautiful corner office, displaying its deeply ridged flowers, just like the pink plastic model.

My father and I used to race each other up the stairs of the Population Center, and I remember the feeling of my heart pounding in my chest as I reached the last step before he did. I would triumphantly turn around and wait for his brown shoes and white cotton socks to appear on the top step before jumping out so that he could pretend to be surprised. Beating my father up the stairs confirmed my feeling that someone wanted me. I was strong and fast, and thus worthy of my father’s love. (Later, this would develop into a mania for long-distance running and endurance training.)

“Wantedness” was originally a term coined to describe a mother’s attitude toward the birth of a child. Sociologists decided that the degree to which a birth was wanted could be measured by accounting for less than perfect timing, less than perfect finances, or simply emotional hesitancy on the part of the mother. Yet its wider applications had more to do with phenomenology than with science. It could describe a person’s value in the social economy and the environmental factors limiting that value.

As I grew older, moved out, went to college, and began a career, my father would return periodically to the question of wantedness. He would ask me if I was content with my life’s circumstances, my partner or boyfriend, and so forth. It was his way of measuring my happiness. He taught me that there was nothing more important than arranging your life in such a way as to create a balance between your “wantedness” and the events of your life. It was essential to make careful choices in order to achieve the outcomes you wanted. Yet, to me, it seemed even more important to make the right choices to ensure that I would continue to be wanted by others. At any of life’s crossroads, I might slip into a state of “unwantedness” simply by making the wrong decision.

Surprisingly enough, the result of being exposed to wantedness was not conformism, but a rigid perfectionism based on achievement

Where family planning stated that educated reproductive choices resulted in better families, the unspoken assumption was that educated sexual choices would help separate sex from reproduction. As a child, I concluded that the “right” behaviors were those that resulted in being continually wanted by my parents, and then by friends and peers. Surprisingly enough, the result of being exposed to wantedness was not conformism, but a rigid perfectionism based on achievement. My conclusions were shared by a whole generation of women and men who could only prove self-worth through professional achievement. As adults, we switched academic institutions and professional specializations frequently, and did not let ourselves be taken in by marriage or even by long-term professional commitments. Being depressed or heartbroken was just the price of having a career. The unspoken promise that was embedded in perfectionism was that the political system would eventually reward high-achieving people by having our sexuality set free from the conditions of biology through advances in contraceptive technology—a promise especially aimed at women academics: do everything right, and the political system will make sure that sex stayed far away from sexual reproduction.

The Gospel of Public Health

I grew up within the emerging culture of population studies and maternal and child health. My father, J. Richard Udry, and his colleagues sought to bring the new science of fertility measurement to third-world countries, thereby preventing an imagined population explosion of unwanted births. Behind the new science of population studies, however, lay the old science of eugenics. North Carolina, like many other southern states, still had sterilization programs in place until the mid-nineteen-seventies. Politically and culturally liberal social scientists reframed eugenics in updated language, emphasizing the need to give women control over their fertility and then rewarding them if they made decisions to have fewer children.

In the fairy tale world of public health, no mother would ever again have a baby and then suffer with feelings of guilt or regret, and no child or teenager would ever again feel pressured into gender roles that didn’t suit his or her deepest inclinations. Potential fathers would voluntarily register for sterilization rather than produce children in less than ideal environments or prevent their wives from pursuing educational and financial opportunities. All this would come about by discipling communities in the new science of family planning. The gospel of public health said that women’s desire to have children and nurture the young could be modified through education. Educating the mother of the household about contraceptives would result automatically in smaller families, because that’s what “everyone wanted.” Public health continuously projected the image of reproductive progress: a perfectible male and a perfectible female to go along with a perfectible human family, shorn of excesses to fit into a modern world.

Public health continuously projected the image of reproductive progress: a perfectible male and a perfectible female to go along with a perfectible human family, shorn of excesses to fit into a modern world.

One of the target geographical areas for the new science of fertility control was southeast Asia, and Thailand in particular. As the Population Center’s funding grew, it began to attract large numbers of students from Thailand and India. On Friday nights, graduate students from Thailand would gather at our house to play table tennis and talk shop in the basement. Part of the idea of these get-togethers was to introduce the graduate students to American academic culture and to model the benefits of family planning and fertility control. The family was presented not just as a procreative and biological unit, but as an aesthetic and social one. The symmetrical ideal was a family of four, and this “family planning pyramid” began to appear everywhere on posters and flyers related to family health. As one part of a two-child family, my sister and I were supposed to model this ideal—the lower the number of children, the more likely it is that the individual child will be intelligent, gifted, and nurtured. I felt this pressure keenly. To be loved and wanted, and to do my part to spread the gospel, I knew that I had to play my part perfectly.

A Dangerous Dance

In his work, my dad made numerous trips to Bangkok. Once, he brought me a little dancing golden prince from Thailand, with crescent shoes and a hat shaped like a little, upside-down golden cup. He danced with one arm up and one arm down, standing on the end of one of his long, pointed shoes.

In spite of his placid expression, the prince’s dance looked very difficult. If he moved too quickly to one side or the other, the pagoda hat might slide off. If he did not stand correctly, his shoes would surely bend, and he would stumble to the ground. To me, negotiating friendships felt like the dance of the Thai prince: my ankles ached and my arms throbbed, but I didn’t dare stop proving that I was worthy of being wanted. One day, in the fourth grade, we learned a polka in which we had to change partners. I was so upset at the thought of my best friend dancing with someone else that I walked up to the new girl and kicked her sharply in the shins. Any time I was rejected in a friendship, I interpreted it as a final judgment on my worth as a human being. Any time I attempted a new undertaking, it had to be perfect. I already knew that I had to continually win my parents’ approval and attention to continue to be “wanted.” It was only natural that the same should apply to my other relationships.

When I was ten years old, my father’s sister died after an overdose of sleeping pills. My parents told me it was because “she could not control her own fertility.” I did not know if they meant that she had suffered through an unplanned pregnancy and abortion, or if my four cousins were just too much for her. In any case, I concluded that motherhood had gotten in the way of what my aunt really wanted: fewer children. Clearly, “being in control” was very important. I must learn to do it very well, for if I failed, I might pay with my life. The prospect that losing control over fertility could so quickly lead to lethal “unwantedness” made the idea of having a family very dangerous. Since I was female and soon to enter puberty, it seemed to make me dangerous, too.

The prospect that losing control over fertility could so quickly lead to lethal “unwantedness” made the idea of having a family very dangerous

The gospel of family planning was not only preached in Southeast Asia. It was also taught to us at school. “Health class” now meant “sex” class, and sexual experimentation seemed to be the only acceptable way to become a healthy person. I was taught to apply the new philosophy of sexual freedom to constructing myself. Any conclusions based on biological clues as to my sex were to be ignored on the grounds that they were too conservative and would constrain me to follow traditional gender roles. All conclusions based on my individual gifts, inclinations, and predispositions were to be evaluated according to the social standard of progress, and I was rewarded for making decisions that went counter to my own biological sex.

Well into college and graduate school, my perfectionistic quest to be wanted corroded my soul, mind, and body. There were now so many conditions being placed on what could make me desirable—as a student, as a potential mate, or as an employee—that I couldn’t win. I could no longer reliably know how to make myself desirable in the eyes of the world. It was better, I decided, to work on fulfilling my own wants and desires. The fear I had developed about friendships in grade school turned into a tendency to verbally tear down other women who dared to challenge my fragile ego. Sarcasm had been the daily catechism in our house—a form of verbal warfare in which science always won. Contempt was heaped on those of differing political, cultural, or intellectual views. Even as an adult, these lessons lingered. I had a pathological need to prove that I was smart by putting others down—a practice that has sadly become a standard feature of social science.

The Language of “Wantedness” Hurts Children—and Adults

Today, we are living in a society where the ideals of family planning that were envisioned in the seventies have largely been realized. The way couples talk about family size and fertility in casual settings has been so touched by “the magic wand of family planning” that we imagine there is one-hundred-percent correspondence between an imagined number of births and the shape of the families we have. Not only family size, but the sex and genetic makeup of a birth are subject to the rubric of “wantedness.”

Even when people talk about their personal fertility, no one questions the logic of “wanted vs. unwanted births.” Yet when this kind of rhetoric permeates a society, the first thing to go is the capacity to form and sustain long-term relationships of the kind that hold the family together, like marriage. The decision to have children ceases to be something that people plan for by becoming married. Instead, it is viewed as extraneous to marriage as an institution.

Classifying human beings as “wanted” and “unwanted” has insidious and enduring effects.

The effects of the family planning rhetoric of the 1970s changed a generation. One can hear the echoes in the way we talk about the family today. Classifying human beings as “wanted” and “unwanted” has insidious and enduring effects. Instead of family bonds, it creates groups of human beings who have to prove they are worthy of life before receiving it. For my generation of late baby-boomers, we were not so much career-driven as driven to achieve in any area. We delayed child-rearing, and opted for long-distance relationships that lasted only until the next academic opportunity arose. Instead of being resilient, we were unable to endure conflict and were crushed under criticism, a disease that ruined collegial cooperation and stifled academic discourse. Our assumptions could not be criticized, and any challenge had to be met with total resistance.

The ideology behind the perfect family was not nearly as pretty as the sterile plastic models of the womb looked. The beautiful pink and magenta models of the womb in the big, sunny office never became what they should have become: life. The ideology said that families would be improved when sex was kept far from birth, and that when a relationship or a person was no longer wanted, one simply did away with it, setting it aside to die like one of my father’s potted plants. Over time, anatomical models became frightening to me, because they never changed—the embryos were always suspended, never complete. The plants in the office window continued to fascinate me though, especially the “Crown of Thorns,” a tangled tree that forced scarlet flowers up through wooden thorns. Messy, tangled, and uncontrolled, it was a survivor, a desert tree, that continued to produce life even in old age.

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