I was shaking, literally.
I wondered if I had raised a few eyebrows or worse, lost friends.
How my face and heart burned.
As I left class to cross the road, desperately wishing I had been more articulate or eloquent, two classmates came to give me a hug, telling me how grateful they were for someone who had the courage to speak the truth, and stand for hope.
I was still shaking.
Maybe the professor had meant for his question to be a joke, or to be a provocative academic exercise.
In any case, others and I did not take lightly to his suggestion.
We were learning about population dynamics. He was sharing his story about meeting a mother from India who had drowned each of her ten infant daughters because she wanted her firstborn to be a boy.
So he suggested that allowing technology to give such families the option of choosing the sex of their children and making it widely available should be the solution to stopping female infanticide in India and the rest of the developing world.
“I say, if the woman wants boy, then give her a boy! Let her choose. Does anyone agree with me?”
A few hands went up.
“Does anyone disagree with me?”
More hands went up. In particular, three female classmates from India raised their hands and shared gently how this would worsen the problem by reinforcing cultural norms.
I’m not sure what came over me. Maybe it was a sense of having what I had thought were the immutable laws of ethics and morals overturned on me, or just insanity.
I stood up.
“I’m from Singapore. As my classmates know, I’m a new mother of a baby girl.”
What I said after is now a blur to me. Everything moved so fast and slowly at the same time like an old vintage movie. It felt like I was in a play on stage where I’d forgotten the lines but remembered my character and so spoke from my heart.
“In Singapore, we have immigrants from India, China and all over the world. But as we evolve and continue to evolve as a society, even if it takes time, WE have the responsibility to challenge and shape cultural norms, to make ethical decisions about our responses to birth and life, instead of shifting the benchmark of ethics to suit our desire to play God.”
My heart was racing.
There was silence. The professor looked at me and the class, muttered a sentence, and then dismissed us abruptly, ten minutes before class was supposed to end.
I left class, my face and heart burning.
I always knew I wanted to save the lives of underprivileged mothers and children in developing countries through public health, but I thought I would never have to revisit this subject again, on so personal a note.
For years, I had known my own story, that I was predicted to be a boy as the doctors said and I turned out, on labor day, to be a girl. My name was Plan B. Nonetheless, since my encounter with God, I now know for sure, that my life and my gender was not an accident.
When I myself was expecting, that hurt sowed years ago as a tiny seed sprang up to choke me, when, friends and people I respected speculated the sex of our baby based on folklore, myth and their opinion based on my husband’s and my personality, and the shape of my belly.
Expectations, both unspoken and unfortunately, spoken, were placed on me, sometimes with unintentionally-misplaced excitement- “Maybe you’re having a boy, how exciting!”
Was the contrary less so? I wondered.
At times, I was baffled by how the issues I was grappling with in the 21st century were still the same ones women struggled with centuries ago, struggles which had led to the greatest atrocities of all times, leading to generations of women to be lost forever.
These were educated people, people from religious and non-religious backgrounds, people who were Asian and Caucasian, people who were joking and not joking, who told me reason after reason about why they thought we would have a boy, why boys were better, why if we had a girl, I would lose out because girls always become “Daddy’s girls” and “get harder” because they are “more emotional.”
During my pregnancy, I had the opportunity to travel to 8 different nations for various reasons, work-related and otherwise, and it surprised me that both eastern and western cultures contained the same elements of folklore and disdain.
It drove me nuts.
Then, I found out we were having a girl.
A woman whom I respected and whom I shared the news with uttered words I did not expect.
It cut like glass.
The pain tormented me for months. Curled up huddling my growing womb, the nights were stained with tears. The shame I felt for feeling sad tortured me relentlessly. I was certain I had failed already as a mother. I wanted to forget, wanted for my child never to know what her mother had felt because it was so wrong, so wrong.
So I promised myself not to let our unborn child or myself face the further, unnecessary hurt of meaningless speculation and banter. My husband and I decided not to announce her gender till she was born, even though people continued to pry and speculate.
At that moment in class when those words left my lips, it suddenly became crystal clear to me, why I had been through that pain and humiliation in my pregnancy, a pain I wanted to bury and forget, to have a taste and glimpse of the agony, magnified a thousand, million times in other cultures, so I could feel a shred of the anguish faced by the millions of women since time immemorial, who drowned, aborted, killed their own children, due to a great extent by cultural pressures…
But more importantly, I was reminded of my own resolve to be a part of that radical shift in cultural change, even if my entire worldview and life impacted just a tiny, incremental shift in the grand continuum of change.
It reminded me of the girls who changed my life 12 years ago, the girls whom I had stayed with at an orphanage in Nepal, who were abandoned by their families because they were girls. Those girls inspired me to write and paint my first book called “Kitesong”, to raise more than a $100’000 to build a permanent home for them. Today, many of them have grown up to become mothers, teachers, and nurses.
At that street junction where my two classmates hugged me, I remember their words dearly, “You spoke HOPE, Wai Jia. That we CAN be culture changers. It was the most hopeful thing we heard in all of class today.”
You, Sarah-Faith, are the very reason why I’m proud to be your Mama, why I’ll always be proud of you for being my firstborn daughter.
Because more than me choosing you, God chose you, above my weak wishes, and beyond the petulant whims of this bizarre world… He chose you to make a stand and make a difference, as a girl and as a woman in this crazy, crazy world.
You, Baby, were born in an age that is astoundingly progressive and puzzlingly regressive when it comes to women, but you represent the generation of culture shifters and world changers who can make a stand for what is pure, and what is true. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
That very same afternoon, I received an email. The timing could not have been more uncanny- it was from the senior editor of a national newspaper in Singapore, thanking me for a letter I had written to the Forum regarding a moral stance I took some time back, one which I received flak for by naysayers, but also rousing support. I remember being certain of losing a few friends that day my letter got published, but it became clear to me, that the danger of not speaking out in a public sphere regarding what I felt was deeply and ethically wrong, was greater than my own personal risk.
Baby, Mama hopes that someday, you too will stand up for something you believe is worth fighting for, something that stands for goodness, for purity, for truth, even if it comes at your personal expense.
In your first six months of life, you’ve already, in your own quiet cherubic ways, challenged cultural norms by joining Mama for classes at grad school and refusing to be cared for by childcare.
Remember, don’t let anyone tell you what’s impossible just because they haven’t done it.
Precedence is not a determinate of Possibility.
And remember too, that it doesn’t matter how many academic degrees you have or how smart you become, because if you have not character or ethics or morals as your foundation, if you treasure not the sanctity or divinity of life, if your heart is hardened to the injustices of this world in your pursuit for more knowledge (Mama’s going to be honest with you here)… then all your education counts for nothing.
Nothing. Remember that.
You are Mama’s firstborn, not because it was a mistake or a disappointment or second-best, not because Mama or you did something wrong or our fates were less than perfect, but because it was God’s perfect plan as a testimony to this reeling world…
Mama and Papa pray for you every day, that your life would fulfill the highest destiny God has called you to, to be a star, anchor and compass, to bring light, truth and hope to this dark and dying world.
Mama will, forever and always, be cheering you on.
Keep bringing hope and light to the darkness, Sarah-Faith, as you already have, already are.
I’m grateful for your life, Precious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You go, girl.