Elizabeth Futrell and her daughter Lily. Photo credit: ©2012 Tyler Kaschke

Put Mothers in Charge: Ensure Access to Contraception

Maternal health is fundamental to global health and development. After all, mothers are the source of all life. In order to have healthy families, communities, and nations, we need healthy mothers who have the power to make decisions about their own lives and families.

Among the most critical decisions I’ve made as a mother are whether and when to have children. Yet for so many women, these central elements of life are not decisions at all — they are circumstances beyond their control.

Thanks to contraception, I never had to worry about becoming a mother before I was ready. When I did become a mother at age 32, I was married to a great partner. We had good jobs, supportive families, and a stable home. We had made a conscious decision to try to have a child, and I had good prenatal care. We took an in-depth childbirth course and had our baby in a state-of-the-art hospital that was only 10 minutes from our home. Most of the world’s mothers can only dream of these circumstances.

Still, the first hours and months of motherhood were more challenging than I could have imagined.

I had a long and difficult labor, hemorrhaged, and didn’t recover well. Breastfeeding was painful. And when my baby was two months old, she became life-threateningly ill and spent a harrowing three weeks in the hospital. If we had lived in another part of the world where we did not have access to world-class pediatric specialists and care, my daughter wouldn’t have survived.

Even after we were able to bring her home and slowly nurse her back to health, I was scared. A few years before my daughter was born, my father died suddenly. Nearly losing my baby brought back the overwhelming realization that tragedy could steal the most important people from my life in an instant.

I sought help to overcome this paralyzing fear, and I remember the counselor asking me the order in which I thought I should prioritize the following: my own wellbeing, my relationship with my partner, and the wellbeing of my baby. As most mothers probably would, I answered that my baby was my top priority, and then my partner, followed (at a distant third) by myself.

“Wrong!” my counselor said. “What do they tell you on an airplane? Whose oxygen mask are you supposed to put on first? Your own! If you lose consciousness, how can you take care of anyone else?”

She had a point. Mothers are the caretakers of the world. If mothers’ health and rights are not protected, everyone suffers.

Luckily, backed by many safety nets, including good health insurance and care, friends, family, and supportive employers, my daughter, husband, and I bounced back from that difficult postpartum period and thrived.

Family planning was and is among my most important safety nets. Because I had access to contraceptive counseling and services, we were able to wait until we found our footing as a strong, healthy, family of three before we tried to become a family of four. And once we did become a family of four, I was able to choose to limit the number of children we had by accessing a long-acting contraceptive method.

So many of the world’s mothers lack this ability to decide. Where would I be, and where would you be, right now if we hadn’t had access to family planning — to the ability to decide?

This week, both the United State of Women summit and the Gender 360 Summit convened in Washington, D.C., to take stock of the world’s progress toward gender equality and to identify critical next steps to work toward a world where women and girls have the power to unleash their potential and determine their own destinies. As part of this process, we must reflect on the necessity of taking care of all mothers with respect and dignity by making sure they have access to contraception and other essential services.

If we care for the world’s current and future mothers, everyone has a better chance at thriving.

This post was originally published on the K4Health blog.

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