Don't tie people into knots over tying the knot

By Hong Phuc   May 11, 2020 | 05:04 pm PT
Family planning policies should not infringe in any way on people’s right to get married and have kids (or not) of their own volition.
Hong Phuc

Hong Phuc

A 10-day summer meditation course I attended five years ago opened my eyes to the nature of suffering and inner peace.

The oldest of the three persons staying in the same room with me was a 45-year-old woman. She was elegant and gorgeous. And she was a good meditation practitioner.

At the end of the course, we were allowed to talk to each other, and she told me her story.

Her parents passed away when she was young. She moved from her hometown, Da Nang City in central Vietnam, to Ho Chi Minh City. She was good at doing business. Soon, she owned a house and several apartments for renting out.

Her success in the marketplace, however, was not replicated at home. She went through three marriages. All the three men had actively pursued her in the first place. The first husband was her high-school sweetheart who had put in a great deal of effort to have a family with her. But shortly after they had a daughter together, he had an affair with someone else. The second one had became a drunkard after they got married and hurt her mentally. The third one was a rich man with his own company, and was the worst of them all. He had all the flaws of the two previous men plus a bad temper that drove him to physically abuse her.

She told herself that she would never ever get married again. Time passed and she got along as a single mom. Her daughter grew up into a beautiful and smart young lady. She envisioned a normal, happy life together, until her daughter dropped a bombshell. She brought home a woman and announced that they would live together as a couple.

The woman was devastated. Unable to accept it, she even tried to kill herself once.

The gorgeous woman was not alone in her suffering. As I talked with other people who’d joined the meditation course, I found each and every one of them had his/her own reasons to be upset – problems with spouses, children, lovers, parents, friends, colleagues and even with themselves.

The course made me see clearly that misery is a sickness everyone has to suffer. It appears everywhere like a fact you cannot deny. And yet, what disturbs our equilibrium and peace, delivering considerable dissatisfaction, are petty issues, for the most part. When we want something we cannot have, see someone acting in a way we do not like, or have experiences that we are not fond of, we are upset and lose our balance. When this happens, it is usual that we take out our frustrations on others, and show it in the way we talk and act. The reason that we can't have inner peace is inside us.

I saw the gorgeous woman again about two months after the course. Then, she could not stop gushing about the good news and positive developments in her life. She had patched up with her daughter and accepted her for who she was. She even let her daughter and her partner manage the renting of apartments. Now, she was being taken care of and supported by not only her daughter but also the daughter’s partner. She had discovered happiness from seeing her daughter happy.

The lesson? Happiness is not a uniform that regularizes things for everyone. One cannot decide what makes the other happy.

The woman, her daughter and their story came to mind when a government's decision on marriage and having kids was issued late last month.

Issued by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the decision aims to maintain a replacement of total fertility rate between 2 and 2.2 children for each woman in her reproductive life, increasing it in areas where it is currently low and vice versa. It calls for people to marry before they are 30 and bear children early, and advises that women should have their second child before 35.

That friend of mine is unlikely to have grandchildren, as her daughter and partner can’t respond to the government’s urging of "bearing children early."

While the government’s decision is reasonable from the perspective of national population security, it requests localities with a low birth rate, such as Ho Chi Minh City, to "step by step pilot measures to increase the social contribution responsibility of individuals who do not want to get married or get married too late," and "step by step issue and apply policies to encourage married couples to have two children and discourage people from getting married late, giving birth late and having less than two children."

I wonder what these solutions and policies will do to the youth.

I do not advocate a selfish lifestyle in which people only care about their own benefit and do not think for the community and its future. I agree with the government that "each family should have two children for the benefit of that family and the stable future of the country" but getting married and having two children is not merely a matter of age or even fertility. In the case of my friend’s daughter, what would it take for her and her girlfriend to have two babies together? Are they ready or equipped to take such a crucial decision, both in terms of their mental health and their financial abilities?

"Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution," according to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Couples attend their mass wedding in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Anh.

Couples parade on the street of HCMC before their mass wedding ceremony. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Anh.

Many people who are married do not want to have kids. In many countries, governments have used different methods to encourage their citizens to give birth. Sweden entitles its citizens who have children to a child allowance, a financial support package that is automatically paid to all parents from and including the first month after birth until the child is 16 years old. It also recognizes that the father has responsibilities towards the mother and the child, even when they are not officially married. In Japan, people have been paid to have babies and the husband must take one month off to take care of his wife. Germany and several other European nations also offer a lot of policy support to mother and children including monetary payments.

A positive encouragement to get married or have children without getting married is fine, but I wonder at the implications of "measures to increase the responsibility of social contributions" or "policies to discourage people from getting married late, giving birth late and having less than two children." Can any nation "punish" citizens somehow for refusing to get married or giving birth?

We’re still not sure what specific measures and policies the authorities will come up with "to increase the responsibility of social contributions" for citizens who don’t want to get married or have children.

What if someone has not met "the" one by the "right" age? What if a couple living together are still not completely sure about each other, far less ready to start a family and have children? What if a couple are happy with each other but have no desire to have children?

Authorities can offer incentives and support those who do want to get married and have children, those who want to have children without getting married and those who want to have more children, depending.

However, no policy should in any way infringe on affairs of the heart and the mind and on the right of an individual to make her or his own choice about getting married (or not) and having children (or not). No civilized society can discriminate against people who make choices that do not harm others in any way.  

In trying to implement a "practical" solution, we should not end up creating a problem.

*Hong Phuc is a mother working as a journalist in HCMC. The opinions expressed are her own.

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