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Health Getting birth control when you have immigrant parents

Nov. 4, 2020
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For me, nothing is more painful than public humiliation; I'm the child of immigrants. My childhood was littered with events in which I was painfully reminded of how different I was—from the way I dressed to the foods I ate to the way I pronounced certain words. A common yet unspoken motto among first-generation immigrants is “assimilate, or fail to survive.” And in this country, to be different is to be an outcast. Or at least that’s how it seemed back in the ‘80s when my parents came to America. Things have obviously changed since then; now, acceptance of different cultures is the norm and harassing someone for the food they bring to lunch or the clothes they wear is no longer acceptable. 

When it comes to birth control, shame and embarrassment are the predominant emotions in my family. They’ll frown when it even comes up in conversation.

It’s safe to say that, for this reason, doctors visits have always been a problem for me; the invasive questions about sex were always tough to answer in front of my mom, who would flinch if I mentioned anything of the sort to her even in private. It was only last year that I finally felt comfortable asking my mother to leave the room during a check-up. Talking to my doctor privately was great, but the argument I had with my mom on the way home wasn’t. The next time I saw my doctor, I was told I had a problem with my hormones and needed to be put on the pill to regulate my period.

As it turns out, I’d had that problem for three years—but since I couldn’t answer questions accurately or thoroughly with my mom in the room for fear of punishment, my doctor had no way of knowing. It didn’t help that I never felt comfortable asking questions for the same reason. 

What I remember best from that check-up was the way the doctor carried herself. She wore wooden beads around her neck modeled after Earth and Jupiter; she was confident while refuting and tearing apart every baseless argument and excuse my mother brought up; she spoke about her son and told me my own wisdom mirrored his. She advocated for me as if she knew me. Perhaps she did; perhaps she’d been where I was once. She believed me without hesitation, something I wasn't used to. The moment I suggested my research on my condition—gently, as so not to seem like I wanted to be put on the pill—she started coming up with a plan to break the news to my culturally bound mother.

The following months yielded many fights, accusations, and slammed doors. My mother said I only wanted to go on the pill because my friends were on it, because I had a boyfriend, that I was being ridiculous and I needed to sleep more and eat better. When I finally ended up going back to get the pill, my mother was sent to a secondary waiting room by the receptionist as I waited in the main one. I reveled in the genius of this; even the waiting room was safe. 

I got my pills that same day, and eventually realized two months in that if you have a side effect like depression, it would be dangerous to tell your parents if they had different opinions about the pill to begin with. They might advocate for you to stop taking the pill altogether. I could’ve found a way to get the pills myself without my parents ever knowing—but then I wouldn’t be protected financially. 

At the end of the day, my journey to being put on the pill was marred by cultural restraints. There are conversations that need to be had over and over again about the shame that is perpetuated in immigrant families when it comes to reproductive health. After dealing with my mother’s seemingly endless hostility, I came to realize just how important it is that we work toward destigmatizing women’s health in immigrant families.  

Photo by Beth Sacca for Refinery29.