My neighbor, I’ll call him Sean, is in love! He’s met the woman of his dreams, they’re due to be married next week, and he’s on the moon with happiness. Meanwhile, those of us who know Sean, even casually, are devastated. Why?
He’s 21, the love of his life and his first girlfriend is 20, and she’s pregnant. It’s enough to make his ex-pat neighbors bang their heads on a wooden table.
Welcome to Belize. I used to fantasize about situations like this, before they became quite so close to home. Driving through the neighboring village of Santa Familia, inhabited exclusively with Spanish speaking expats from Guatemala, the one main and only paved street is a constant thoroughfare of short plump women walking through the village with an assortment of children in their arms, in their strollers, and on their bicycles.
Relationships: a major limitation of lives
As I drove through the village, I so often wondered how it was that one’s horizons became so limited, one’s ambitions so small, one’s view of the future to be what I consider so bleak. My awareness was this: in this country where education is only compulsory and tuition free only until 14, you have a lot of adolescents with a lot of time and not many skills on their hands. Though English is the official language and compulsory in school, the average Belizean in this village is fortunate to be able to carry on much of a conversation in English at all. When you add hormones and the prospect of the thrill of first love to the mix, the result is a lot of pregnancies which we expats, if not Belizeans, would consider early pregnancies.
My neighbor Sean, for example, has been hired for us for some laboring type jobs on the construction of our house. Most of the time he doesn’t show up. “Sean’s not one made for physical labor,” observed my husband. This is unlike his father, the father of 17 kids, who works full-time and far beyond at lawn mowing, “chopping” (cutting back the insistent growth of Belize with machete and weed-eaters), harvesting, selling, and planting trees, and anything else he can do to generate the money there’s never enough of. I wonder what else my neighbor could do, what are the prospects for his future, which is surely stretches further ahead of him than mine does as a semi-retiree.
“Maybe I can make a room on the front of my dad’s house,” says my Sean, obviously unable to imagine a future without his family as the meeter of his needs. At dinner last week one of my ex-pat friends was just commenting that the brain is not fully developed until age 27. This child, which Sean is delighted to welcome (“I’ve always wanted to be a father”) will only experience his parents’ brains being fully developed when he/she is 7 years of age.
At the moment, this neighbor and father-to-be is living rent-free in a neighboring ex-pat’s house, in exchange for providing companionship (increasingly rare for my ex-pat neighbor, now that Sean’s in love and planning a birthday party and wedding), some contribution to chores, and a sense of security to an older man living alone. This benevolent neighbor informed him about the nuts and bolts of birth control, clearly to no avail. Condoms are expensive items in a country where the average income is $400 per mo
What will this relationship create for their lives?
If you’re literate enough to be reading this, and you are more than 20 years old, you can see trouble ahead. His father has 17 kids and a slew of grandchildren for whom he also provides food and his wife, child care.. Condoms may be expensive from one point of view, but they are quite a bit cheaper than raising a child, even in a society where material needs are much less due to both culture and environment. (Lots of fruit grows on trees, Belizeans generally don’t go hungry, and a minimum of clothes are required where the average temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit.) So why don’t we who live here stop this insanity?
There’s one little caveat. However much awareness we can have of trouble, even what we would consider disaster, ahead, the choice is not ours to make. None of us have been asked for our opinion, only invited to his birthday party this weekend and wedding next weekend. Our opinion that the choices ahead are disastrous, even so much less than we would wish for any young person, the reality is, the choice is not ours to make. If we presume, even for 1 second, that the choice we would make for him is better than the choice he is making, we fall into the trap of judging. What’s wrong with that? The difficulty is that any judgment, however well-informed and well-meaning, limits our ability to see anything which does not match that judgment. Furthermore, directing judgment, again however well-intentioned and well-informed, at anyone, almost always has the effect of solidifying them in the choice we are trying to stop them from making. However foolish his choices in our point of view, he is still technically if not in behavior an adult and an infinite being, still the best expert on what choices will work for him.