The Third Generation of a Child
by Jill A. Bolstridge
My grandmother, Mildred Hathaway, was born in 1915 in northern Maine, USA, a time and place where options for women and girls were limited.  Pine was the major product of the region, so at that time, boys grew up and worked in the lumber industry, or they became potato farmers.  And girls had only one option: marry, keep the house, and produce children.  After being diagnosed with lung cancer, my great-grandmother, Dolly Hathaway, found herself in a very difficult position.  Her husband, Lance, was an unstable husband and my family was very poor.  She knew she would die soon: what would she do about young Mildred?  There were no distant relatives she could ship her off to, and money for schooling was out of the question.  Therefore, Dolly Hathaway did the best thing she could think to do for her thirteen-year-old daughter; she found her a husband.
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Yet no one in the West has been critical of this quickly-growing practice.  More and more families are encouraging their daughters to put child-bearing off until later in life in order to pursue education and/or careers.  On July 25, 2005, CNN.com ran an article on this very subject entitled “Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies.”  While the article does outline the risks of child-bearing after age thirty five, the central theme of the article, as one can guess by reading the title, are the benefits of waiting until later in life to embark upon motherhood.  Other mainstream media sources have recently run similar articles.  Despite the danger to both mother and child in this most unsafe and unnatural practice, the concept of “Moms After 35” has seemingly won the public seal of approval in the West.

And while this increase in the age of mothers has managed to escape public criticism, we in the West continue to point the finger at other countries where girls procreate at unsafe ages, and public criticism for arranged marriage continues to thrive.

I believe that this criticism is derived from the cultural taboos we harbor in the West.  Perhaps I am more sensitive to this subject, for I am the bi-product of a child bride.  Taking one look at my blond hair and blue eyes, no one would ever guess that about my heritage, but it’s true.  My grandmother was wed into an arranged marriage when she was just thirteen years old. 

In many countries throughout the world, arranged marriages are customary.  Often, these marriages take place as soon as the girl hits puberty: in some cases, even earlier.  It is not uncommon for girls to be married off as young as nine or ten, often to men three or four times their age.  In recent years, arranged and underage marriages have become a source of great criticism for the countries in which they are practiced.  The West points the finger at parents and families, and the society in general, often labeling entire cultures as barbaric or amoral.  But all too often, these sweeping indictments are made without ever taking a look at our own society.

On March 20, 2006, under the featured title This Week: Afghanistan, the Yahoo! online project Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone published an article entitled “Child Bride.”   The article covers the story of twelve-year-old Gulsoma, an Afghani child who was forced into marriage at the tender age of four, and who was subjected to years of physical and emotional abuse, in-home slavery, and deprivation at the hands of her thirty-something-year-old husband and her father-in-law.  The story discusses Gulsoma’s horrific tale of being starved, forced to sleep outside in the cold, and being brutally beaten, burned and tortured.  Ultimately, Gulsoma was rescued by a rickshaw driver, treated at a local hospital, and, with the help of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan, was taken to a Kabul orphanage where she lives today.  Her husband and father-in-law have been arrested, and, according to the article, will remain in prison until Gulsoma requests their release.

While the horrific account of Gulsoma’s abuse may be disturbing, we must constantly be aware of the way in which stories are perceived.  One look at the comments posted following Sites’ article will quickly reveal the response this has generated from his Western audience.  Amongst the throng of comments praising the girl’s courage and sending her prayers and well-wishes, the comments posted quickly developed into an attack on Islam.  The following are comments made by readers of Sites’ article:

“Another sad example of the kind of abuse that is commonplace in Muslim culture.” 

“Islam should be outlawed. It is far too dangerous.” 

“This is exactly what happens every day in backward countries where uneducated masses are duped by even more uneducated mullahs. Such is the sad reality in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and all the other mullah ran countries. Unfortunate..but true.”

“Look what they do to poor kids in Middle East! The only way to help them is to bomb the crap out of Iraq, Afghanistan and just about anything else in the middle east! Sure, there will be casualties, but at least we are saving some mistreated children (those that are not killed by our missiles, of course)”

These comments are just a few very minor examples of the misconceptions of other cultures which are quickly growing in the West.  Many ill-informed westerners are quick to point the finger of blame at anything outside of their own Judeo-Christian norm.  Here in the West, the burqa is widely regarded as a symbol of women’s oppression.  Yet the nun’s habit is just as widely regarded as a symbol of chastity and love for Christ.  Orthodox Jewish communities have very specific clothing restrictions both for women and men, yet this is not considered a form of oppression.  Such is the tunnel vision with which things are defined here in the West. 

Accounts of child abuse and pedophilia are rampant in the West.  When we hear of child abuse on our own soil, we do not point the finger and say, “Look!  That happened in a Christian home!!  Christianity condones this behavior!”  Inhumanity exists everywhere; it is ignorant to label an entire culture based on one extreme case of abuse.  Indeed, one of the most extreme and widespread cases of sexual abuse against children was recently uncovered from within the walls of the West’s very own Catholic Church.  No one is labeling all Catholics as pedophiles.

In the case of young Gulsoma, many of the comments posted seemed to indicate that the readers were more upset about the age at which she was married than the abuse itself.  Indeed, even the title of the article, “Child Bride,” seems to indicate the age as the central problem, and not the abuse.  Child abuse is prolific in every society.  The major difference between Gulsoma’s case and so many similar cases in the West is the role of the perpetrator; Gulsoma was abused not by her parents, but by her husband and father-in-law.

In regards to child brides, one of the key points of the Western critic is the inhumanity behind forcing these young girls to carry children when they are only children themselves.  Yet, in the mainstream media of the West, we only see and hear about the most extreme cases.  In the majority of these societies, when a young girl is married off, tradition dictates that the marriage is not to be consummated sexually until the girl reaches an appropriate age for child bearing (generally around the time she hits puberty).  Certainly, there are recorded cases of miscarriages due to the inability of these young girls’ bodies to carry children.  Yet the same thing happens here in the West.  We, too, have problems with teenage pregnancy.  Just like in other countries, these extreme cases are not the socially accepted norm.

What has become the social norm in the West of late is pregnancy too late in life.  Wanting to “have it all,” many women in the West have made the conscious decision to put off having children so that they may pursue their careers, and understandably so.  But the dangers of this unnatural practice have yet to generate public outcry.  According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, the likelihood of chromosome abnormality, including Down Syndrome, is much higher in children born to older mothers.  At age thirty, the risk of birthing a child with Down Syndrome is one in one thousand.  At age thirty-five, that risk increases to one in four hundred.  By the age of forty, the risk increases to one in one hundred.  Additionally, the risk of miscarriage increases with each passing year (15% before age thirty-five; 20-25% up to age thirty-nine; 35% up to age forty-two; and a startling 50% after age forty-two).  Other complications, including gestational diabetes and the need for a Caesarean Section, are far more likely after the age of thirty-five as well.  Yet, despite these frightening realities, middle-aged women in the West are procreating more now than ever.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the birth rates for women aged thirty-five to thirty-nine and forty to forty-four more than doubled in the United States from 1978 to 2000.

Millie was surprised to be picked up from the one-room schoolhouse early that day, and even more surprised when her mother informed her: “Today is your wedding day.”  Before she even knew what was happening, Millie was whisked off to a chapel where she was wed to a long-time family acquaintance: thirty-seven-year-old Stanley Bolstridge.  My grandmother did not even know the meaning of the word “sex” until later that night, when her new husband provided all the sex education young Millie would ever receive.  Mildred’s young body was not yet ready to bear children, and she went on to have four miscarriages.  At age seventeen, she birthed her first child.  Two years later, my father was born.

Many reading this story might label it as a horrific event.  But if my grandmother were alive today, she would tell you, simply: “that’s the way it was.”  Most of the women in the community where she lived married in their early teens.  My great-grandmother did the best thing she thought she could do, and my grandmother accepted it.  And what’s more, my grandmother loved my grandfather dearly.  Stanley Bolstridge was a potato farmer and an unbelievably hard worker.  Stanley and Mildred moved into the home he had built himself back in 1918 and that was where they raised their six children.  Though she was a young mother, Mildred raised her children in the best way she knew how.  All four of their sons grew up and joined the military, and, years later, both of their daughters were able to attend college.  In 1986, my Aunt Cherry retired as GS15 Program Analyst in Washington,  

DC, and currently resides in her home town in Northern Maine, working as a freelance writer in her retirement life.  My Aunt Alice served as a lecturer of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati for seven years, and currently teaches at the MAGNET School in Limestone, Maine.  My father, Rodney Bolstridge, was the eldest son of Stanley and Mildred.  And now, here I am, the third generation of a child bride. The moral of this story is this: simply that the majority of parents do the best they can to raise their children.  It is human instinct to want to protect our children and to give them the best life we can: preferably, a better life than what we had.  In many of these developing countries, parents find themselves in difficult situations when forced to make decisions regarding the welfare of their children.  All too often, wars are being waged and poverty is rampant.  That poverty is often caused by the exploitation the country is suffering at the very hands of those who condemn them.  In a situation where options for girls are limited, marrying a young girl off to an older man is often the only way that parents can ensure their child will be provided for. 

Certainly, in an ideal world, all children would be able to enjoy childhood to its fullest, in all of its glory, with a plethora of opportunities awaiting them when they come of age.  But that is not the case all around the world, and parents are forced to make choices based on their given circumstances.  It is easy for citizens of the West to take the moral high ground in these situations, but we all too often forget to look in the mirror before making our arrogant condemnations.  One hundred years ago in the United States, women could not even vote.  Fifty years before that, we were buying and selling human beings on the open market.  If developing countries are truly developing, then we must acknowledge that.  Certainly, we should be helping these countries to improve in every way possible.  But the way to do that is not through condescension and disapproval.  A look at our own society and a reexamination of our own past are the portals through which we can foster understanding, compassion, and respect: ideals which will enable us to help improve the quality of human life for every person on earth.

1st April 2006
Mildred Bolstridge with daughter Cherry and son Rodney (the author's father), about 1934. Photo courtesy of Cherry B. Danker.
The author's grandparents, Mildred and Stanley Bolstridge, on the family's northern Maine potato farm in 1966.
Photo courtesy of Cherry B. Danker.