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Elderly Motherhood, Steel Magnolias, and Why We Judge

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.

Cross-posted with BlogHer (so check out the comments there too).


1 Mommy-in-Waiting { 06.17.10 at 8:36 am }

One of the saddest movies of all time. The first time I ever laughed and cried at the same time! Not sure I can support someone knowingly bringing a child into the world to become parentless at a young age, but I can so relate to the desire to be a parent. Somehow though I believe that parenthood is about selflessness and leaving your child an orphan is not selfless in my view. But isn’t that the beauty of the world that there is so much diversity and so many different opinions and perspectives. Nice post given me something to think about!

2 Rach { 06.17.10 at 9:07 am }

I can relate to the desire to become a Mum obviously and even to produce an heir but I’m sorry to attempt and then go through pregnancy at 66 and into your 70’s?

That’s just irresponsible.

Even IF she hadn’t encountered problems from the pregnancy and subsequent birth, what future does the child have when his or her mother is in her 70’s when you’re born?

I thought that when I heard that Kelly Preston and John Travolta were having another baby, he’ll be 57 when their child/ren is/are born; 67 when the child/ren is/are 10 and 77 when he/she/they are 20.

Parenthood is THE most selfish act humans commit, topped perhaps only by the act of having children beyond the age of 50+. Having children that late show’s that you’re not thinking of the child you’re producing and bringing into world, rather just yourself and your own selfish desires.

3 Delenn { 06.17.10 at 9:16 am }

I like this film, always crying at the same parts. What struck me more was how M’Lynn stayed by her daughter’s side, even as others could not bear it anymore. How she was with her daughter, fighting for her daughter to the end.

4 a { 06.17.10 at 9:16 am }

I think Mommy-in-Waiting has hit the nail on the head – we Americans believe that parenting is a selfless vocation. Other cultures see producing children as a way to (eventually) make the family prosper. Plus, for the triplets, even if their mother does not live for very long, there are back-up mothers available. Perspective is everything…

5 Mel { 06.17.10 at 9:26 am }

A has nailed it–everyone who thinks this is selfish is viewing that from a Western perspective and, of course, this could be viewed as selfish if we were talking about a family in the US or Canada. Which is why I ask that you view this with cultural relativism–a society that doesn’t operate with a nuclear family doesn’t create an orphan when the mother dies. That we have children for very different reasons for why people have children in other areas of the world. And our reasons are not “better” nor are their reasons “better.” They are merely different. I think it speaks volumes that we don’t judge Shelby and can understand a young woman still attempting motherhood when told clearly by her doctor that she shouldn’t vs. an elderly Indian woman.

6 Rach { 06.17.10 at 9:31 am }

I did/do judge Shelby though. She knew the risks and yet chose to ignore them, not only did she pay the consequences but Jackson did as well because he will grow up with his “mother”, yes other members of the family can and did and will step in but it won’t be the same as having his mother.

I can accept it if a mother to be dies during childbirth or after from an accident but to knowingly bring a child into this world knowing that your age will hinder the child having you in their life for the majority of it – sorry no, totally unacceptable and still in my eyes selfish.

7 Rach { 06.17.10 at 9:32 am }

*Jackson will grow up WITHOUT his mother is what I meant to say – bad night sorry!

8 mash { 06.17.10 at 9:32 am }

Tough one. Yes, the desire to have a child is unbelievably strong, it’s an animal like instinct.

And 100 years ago, the Shelby’s of this world would not have known that they were in danger if they had a child, so the event would have simply taken place without anyone overriding a doctor’s decision. But there’s no way that 100 years ago a 70 year old woman would have had a baby.

And maybe that is where medicine has gone too far. Putting that kind of decision in the hands of ordinary people is dangerous. Octomom is another example. I understand her fear of letting the embryos die. But I don’t condone what she did.

My grandmother was an extremely strong matriarch. She drummed into everyone’s heads that children’s rights should come before all others. The child IS more important than the parents, because it didn’t ask to be born. The child’s future counts way more than the parent’s desire fulfillment.

9 Meredith { 06.17.10 at 9:44 am }

Really great, thought-provoking post! I watched Steel Magnolias for the first time last fall and balled so much during that scene where Sally Field is with her friends at the funeral.

It’s fascinating to think about infertility and polygamy, including male-factor infertility. This will be a tangent, but after reading this post I thought of Henry the 8th. Does anyone else remember when they first learned that men determine the sex of their offspring? My grade school teacher referred to Henry the 8th and how he’d blamed his wives for not giving him a son. I’d forgotten the line in their story (courtesy of Wikipedia): “All of Catherine’s children died in infancy except their daughter Mary.” The picture of infertility and infant mortality is so complex worldwide…

10 Kristin { 06.17.10 at 10:22 am }

I really think A hit the nail on the head.

11 Circus Princess { 06.17.10 at 10:47 am }

One of my all-time favorite scenes from a great movie!
You make a good point as always, I do think it’s important to base your opinions of this on facts and relate them to the culture in which the events took place. I think the biological aspect is also interesting, it seems to be more important to these women that their genes are carried on than to actually mother their children…

12 Chickenpig { 06.17.10 at 10:48 am }

My husband could marry as many women as he likes, his sperm would still suck. 😉

As for the motherhood thing, I think it is something that most women can understand. Guys can put the most stupid things imaginable on their ‘bucket lists’…sky diving, climbing Mt Everest, having sex on an airplane…whatever, but as far as goals to reach before you die I think that becoming a parent and perpetuating your genes is a HUGE one. After all, most of the animal kingdom exists only to breed and die, but that existence is still incredibly important.

13 Anjali { 06.17.10 at 10:52 am }

In certain cultures, if one isn’t able to reproduce, they are not only cursed in this life (and completely ostracized by their communities), but for all eternity. (Imagine truly believing that you will be reincarnated as a rodent because you couldn’t bear children.) They are really, two very different scenarios.

14 N { 06.17.10 at 11:22 am }

I can’t (and try very hard not to) judge the mothers in the recent stories, since I am not in their lives, in their culture. It’s not something I agree with, but I can understand it. Does that make sense?

Having said that, seeing SM (as a play, for the first time, a few weeks ago – and seeing what would happen from a million miles away), I did judge Shelby. Not a lot, because oh how I understand that feeling. But as somebody said above, I do feel like there’s a difference between knowing that something can happen at any time, leaving our children parent-less, and knowingly putting yourself in danger.

At an old job, one of the big wigs was in his late 60’s and had a pre-teen/young teen (I can’t remember precisely) son. He loved that boy to death. But he was never WITH him. Knowing that he’d likely pass away before his son was even in college, instead of spending the time with him, he worked and worked and worked to leave him money.

I don’t know. It’s all just so complicated.

15 Hollie { 06.17.10 at 12:00 pm }

First, I LOVE Steel Magnolias! Top Ten Favorite movie in my southern belle book. I think we ALL take risks to have children. Even perfectly healthy people. We don’t know the outcome. I didn’t REALLY think I’d get OHSS and spend 5 days in the hospital, gain 50 pounds in water weight, have acute kidney failure, etc. But I did. I was that one in a million shot. Also, I took a HUGE risk doing IVF the second time. That time producing the eggie that became my 8 month old son. Life is just risky. I am NOT a gambler, but the one long shot I took in life gave me my dream. I Can’t judge someone else and their choices. Thank goodness we live where these choices are a possibility.

16 Kir { 06.17.10 at 12:23 pm }

I’m always glad you MAKE me look at things another way.
I’ll also admit, that because my mom is a nurse and Certified Diabetes Educator , while I watch Steel Magnolia’s from the place where my heart breaks for M’Lynn I can always hear my mom’s voice in my head saying things like “if her drs are warning against it ..why do it? ” and knowing it comes from my rational mom, my nurse mom. I always “FEEL” for M’Lynn in that movie (even before the babies) and less for Shelby. I am not proud of it, but it’s true.

baby Jack lost his mom, but M’Lynn lost her baby too…and because she Knew her it hurt..in ways that Jack may never know…

Plus I can agree now that the 70yr old woman just getting and staying pregnant…is a miracle. Because I talk to miracles of my own every day and I know that it doesn’t always happen, the dream doesn’t allow come true.
So you have to look at it from her knowing what she wanted her body do (Like ALL of us here in the Land of IF have )..and commend her for working to make that dream come true.

Mel, I’m so thankful that you made me look at this from another point of view, it has made all the difference, as it normally does when you “talk”

17 Melissa G. { 06.17.10 at 12:27 pm }

Part of me thinks that it is indeed selfish to have a child at 70, but in their culture there will likely be the proverbial “village” to raise that baby. It also makes me think of the line in the movie said by Shelby when she tells her mother of her pregnancy: “I would rather have fifteen minutes of wonderful, than a lifetime of nothing special” … And I can relate to that.

Fabulous post yet again Mel.

18 S { 06.17.10 at 12:41 pm }

Honestly, I sometimes wish my husband could have another wife who could give him his own child. Clearly I have utterly failed him in that regard.

I could use someone to take care of the house while I work, too. So as long as he found a fertile domestic goddess for wife #2, I think I could learn to live with it. 😉

19 one-hit_wonder { 06.17.10 at 1:00 pm }

my aunt did the same thing. she had lupus – as a teenager she had already escaped once from death – and she was advised not to conceive. wanting only to be a mother, she had a baby and died three months later. as desperately as i wanted a baby, if it had been a threat to my life, i wouldn’t have gone through with it. so was she the selfish one or was i? i don’t know.

20 Myndi { 06.17.10 at 1:07 pm }

While having a child I knew I would not be around to raise is not a decision I would make personally, I’m with Mel on this one. Who are we to judge or decide? We all have choices to make in life and our motivations for the choices we make are often quite different, especially given vast cultural differences. Sometimes the choices of others can be hard to understand, but the reality is, it isn’t really our business or job to understand it.

21 K { 06.17.10 at 1:41 pm }

I’m part of the same culture and I get the pressure, my grandfather took multiple wives in search of an heir so its not a foreign concept for me, but at the same time I find what she did was wrong. I feel bad for that child and I think the doctor was wrong for going through with it.

But that’s just my opinion and the world does not spin based on what I think- its just one person’s point of view.

22 Half of a Duo, Raising a Duo { 06.17.10 at 2:04 pm }

Doesn’t anyone recall the late, great, Tony Randall? He married a young’un and had at least 2 kids. What about the late Dennis Hopper? Or the late David Crosby?

Why is it ok for older men (with questionable backgrounds dabbling in drugs, many times) to shack up w/a young ‘un and have a boatload of kids? But it’s not ok for a 40+ woman to become a mother?

There is such a double standard it isn’t to be believed, right here in the USA.

23 K { 06.17.10 at 2:16 pm }

Half a Duo, I would say that a 70 year old man having a baby is equally troubling

24 Mina { 06.17.10 at 2:33 pm }

I also agree with the point of view that, although we are quick to judge, we do not understand their differences in culture, thinking, approaching parenthood. There must be a reason why Indian men make some of the best fathers in the world, they are statistically known to not betray their family, work hard to provide for all members of that family, support the wives through thick and thin… Of course, we are talking at cultural, general level. Yet that percentage is higher than in western societies.

And families are made of a different fabric, there are not so many ‘dysfunctional’ or modern families as we in the ‘West’ have. They do have their fair share of ‘rotten’ people, but still, you know what I mean.

Benefiting from such a wide support network, and also under the pressure of providing the family with an heir (to the point of aborting female foetuses), women in the Indian culture face a whole different set of prejudices and standards. So I guess it makes sense not to judge them according to our standards and prejudices.

The most honest ‘judgement’ I can make is to try and imagine what I would do in their places, both Shelby’s and Lohan. What would I do for a child? Anything. Even depriving the child of his or her mother from quite early on? I do not know. I think I would hold on the hope in a miracle until the very end. So perhaps yes, I would risk a pregnancy that would hasten my early demise, all the while unwaveringly hoping and praying for a miracle to ‘cure’ me. If I could do this at the ‘fertile’ age of 34, when I theoretically have half of my life before me, during which I could pursue other means of having a family (adoption, for example) and still be happy, why wouldn’t I do it when I am 70 and have nothing left to lose, but everything to gain (all prejudices and societal constrictions, morals, whatever aside)? But I do not think I would live to reach 70, I think I would die much earlier, mostly of a broken heart.

I am sorry for leaving yet another essay instead of a comment, Mel. But your posts are so zestful, really! So yes, in true western tradition, it is not MY fault, obviously, but yours. (Deny, deny, deny! ;-))

25 Dora { 06.17.10 at 4:02 pm }

First of all, Half a Duo, David Crosby is not dead. Just FYI.

As an “advanced maternal age” mother (I will be 47 in 9 days), I’m sure I’ve been judged negatively. The OB who delivered my daughter asked me why I waited so long while prepping me for my c-section in the OR. Although, that is the only time anyone has said anything to me directly. I assume this is because I don’t look my age. Interestingly, after my mother accompanied me to a couple of OB appts, she commented on the apparent advanced age of some of the pregnant women she observed in the waiting room. I reminded her that they could be my age or younger. Most women my age have lines on their face and gray hair. By the luck of the genetic draw, I don’t. I do have age appropriate ovaries. Thank goodness for the generosity of those willing to donate gametes. Does appearance matter when discussing older parents? It seems to in terms of perception. Even when told my age, many people brush the number aside saying, “but you don’t look it.” I sometimes wonder what their reaction would be and what they would say if I looked my age. The reality is, regardless of looking like I’m in my mid-30s, I am old enough to be my daughter’s grandmother.

Myself, I don’t give a damn. Yes, I’m tired, but so are young mothers of babies, and I know I have more patience than I did 20 years ago.

26 Kami { 06.17.10 at 4:39 pm }

I agree with you. I don’t know about this person’s particular culture, but if it is similar to what I experienced while living in Western Africa, I would say that it is very much as you see it.

I remember the Peace Corps nurse – and African American married to a Gambian telling me that she was never fully accepted into female friendships until she had a baby. Having a baby is almost the only reason for a woman to exist.

Then there is the close family ties. Aunt’s were called “mom”. I remember taking months to figure out the small area of my own village. Children of the women in my compound lived in another compound and since aunt’s and mom’s were all called “mom” I couldn’t figure out who belonged to whom. Finally, I would ask “Is that your mom or your other mom?” “Other mom” being the term for an aunt.

When I went back to visit in the midst of our infertilty, my host mother said that she would give me a baby to raise if I lived closer. I didn’t see that as I would a western style adoption, more like I was raising her child as part of the family.

27 Tally { 06.17.10 at 5:38 pm }

Hrm. This kinda hits close to home.

After our m/c from the first IUI (our 3rd mc), the doctor I was then seeing told me that my pursuit of any further treatment would be irresponsible, and that he would/could not be held responsible for my health. BUT he was willing to get a second opinion and, if that second opinion validated my position (continuing with treatment), he would “think about it”.

In my case, my weight, my age (a young 38), and my medical history makes for a scary mix. There’s no denying that I am putting my life in danger, and I am running a distinct risk that I could DIE giving birth. i went ahead with treatment at the place where I got a second opinion. I am pregnant now. I have made out a will. I have sorted out my affairs, just in case.

Making the conscious choice to give birth knowing that it could negatively impact my health is just that – a choice. My instinct and choice is to bring forward a child to carry on for me/my husband/us. Yes, I am risking the possibility that my baby will not have its biological mother around to raise it. Yes, I am risking the possibility that I am going to leave my husband with a girl to raise on his own. But it was a measured choice. A deliberate choice. And I am grateful I could make it freely.

I say let ppl make their choices. We may not agree, we may feel like we have to “clean up their messes” (or not…). But I am of the mind that this child I now carry is not mine alone to raise. It really does take a village, and that community surrounds and supports no matter what.

FWIW, I am caucasian, 2nd generation Canadian.

28 Heather { 06.17.10 at 6:07 pm }

I don’t think I could judge anyone for what they do for the want of a child. I know the things I have done and while my life has never been at risk directly, I’ve thought about the risk of ovarian cancer from the excessive hormones my body has been subjected to. Should I be condemned for that? I think not.

29 caitsmom { 06.17.10 at 7:16 pm }

Hmmmm I think it’s selfish for all to become parents, but that’s the point isn’t it. To desire to become a mother for whatever reason is about you–the one making the decision. It gets confusing though, because you love your child to the exclusion of all else. I don’t judge any of them, really, but I do identify with the mother whose adult child died. “I’m supposed to go first,” she screams. And that’s the natural way. Trust me it sucks beyond anything imaginable when your child dies before you. I treasure the time my daughter lived and made me a mother–and that’s feels selfish. She gave me motherhood, then she died. There’s something about death of a child that blurs the lines between either and or; life becomes about and & both. Having my daughter at my age was both selfish and selfless. Losing her at my age has left me without the energy to judge another about their selfish and selfless choices. Peace.

As always, thanks for prompting my thoughts.

30 V { 06.17.10 at 8:57 pm }

I guess I’m a practical kind of gal. A diagnosis that said carrying a child could end my life, I might consider a surrogate or adoption. I’ve already been told not to try another pregnancy and it’s breaking my heart, but I have to be realistic. I truly believe for everything there is a season, and whether we want to admit it or not, by 70 you are pretty close to the life expectancy limit, so I think it’s not only malpractice for a doctor to do IVF on a woman that age, it’s unkind to all involved, mother and child. As a SMC, I guess you could judge me as selfish too. Who knows, only time will tell.

31 Alexicographer { 06.18.10 at 12:07 am }

Honestly, I’m with Caitsmom in believing that anyone who chooses to become pregnant or to cause someone else to become pregnant in this day and age is selfish — assuming they can choose to avoid pregnancy, a choice less or un- available in many parts of the world. Does the world really need more people in it?

That said, I gleefully (finally) became pregnant and bore a son with my 50-something husband (I was in my late 30s when our son was conceived). And in the 3 years of fathering he’s had to date, our son’s gotten more and better care from his father than I’ve gotten in my lifetime from mine, who was around 40 when I was born and is still alive.

And, yes. Everyone reading this was born and will die. But in between those two events, for me, having a child (I’d have chosen to have two, but have surrendered at one) is far and above the most wonderful thing I’ve done, so much so that I’d choose all sorts of difficulties (like early death) if they made it possible. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who does the same. And I hope we all do what we can to ensure that our children will have people beyond us to care for them if we are unable to do so.

32 Sue { 06.18.10 at 1:30 am }

I would suggest that even within our own Western culture there is quite a lot of pressure to have children, even to the detriment of our own health. Even as women accomplish more and more in our careers, the first and most common question is: do you have any children? (baby-bump watches, endless shows and movies about pregnancies and multiples — even commercials are featuring more pregnant women.) We are most rewarded by society when we have a baby, particularly if it involves self-sacrifice.

Thanks for posting this, Mel.

33 Bea { 06.18.10 at 7:31 am }

Ok, so first of all: SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT! I have seen the first third of Steel Magnolia about half a dozen times but never the last two thirds and now I find out she DIES AT THE END?? Do you know how many people have been carefully avoiding telling me that and for how long?

Secondly, no I don’t believe it has anything to do with cultural relativism. Shelby was a woman of usual, child-bearing age wanting what most women of child-bearing age want. People of all cultures can identify with that. Lohan is a woman of roughly twice childbearing age wanting to do something which is highly unusual for her stage of life. Of course few people identify as readily with that.

And we are right to question motherhood at that age – no matter what culture – because it falls outside the tried and true pattern of human development and therefore raises uncertainty about how that sort of lifestyle will work for everyone involved.

Now, as always with ethical questions, context is everything. Elderly motherhood is going to be more understandable and even more acceptable (note: understandable and acceptable are not the same thing) depending on a variety of societal, community, and individual factors (which – I hasten to point out – is a long way from saying it’s ok for them because they’re not From The West, but not ok for us because we are, or vice-versa, or that we can’t judge people from other cultures because, horrors: the same rules apply to everyone, but the circumstances do change, and we should allow for that in exactly the same way as we try to allow for it within our own societies). However, fundamentally this is not about ethnicity at all. And I’m pretty sure you could translate Steel Magnolia into any culture and the tears would flow just the same.

What are they saying about it in the Indian Press? Now that would be a telling study.


34 Bea { 06.18.10 at 8:09 am }

“And our reasons are not “better” nor are their reasons “better.” They are merely different.”

No, some reasons are better – only the circumstances are different. This is my whole point, I guess.

Ok. Sorry about this, but. I have to.

Cultural relativism is bunk. For a start, there is almost no disagreement between cultures when it comes to fundamental values. Secondly, if you believe in it, you must logically believe such things as: it was morally right for Nazis to kill Jews, it was their culture. Not better, not worse, just different. It was morally right for hijackers to take down the Twin Towers – the Jihad is part of their culture. It was kind of ethnocentric of America to get so upset about it.

Cultural relativism is useful when it reminds us that, where differences occur, we could be wrong just as easily as They could. It’s useful when it reminds us to seek background context when judging certain moral behaviours, rather than simply clinging to cultural norms or moral absolutes (if indeed you believe in moral absolutes). It’s useful when it invokes sympathy for individuals caught in difficult, culturally-specific situations, and for the choices – right or wrong – that they make. And it’s a useful mindset for anthropologists, who are called upon to observe foreign cultures with a kind of cold, scientific detachment. But this whole not-better-not-worse-just-different nonsense is… just that – nonsense. Of the worst kind.

Ok, I need to go to bed now, but feel free to draw me into a continuation tomorrow.


35 Battynurse { 06.20.10 at 2:30 am }

Very good point.
I have no idea how many times I’ve seen that movie but I still cry at that scene every time.

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