Women Who Broke Vietnam's Motherhood Mold

After the war ended in Vietnam, one group of women there, unwilling to accept solitary lives, decided to have children even if they couldn't marry: One by one, they asked men to help them conceive.

They had no plan to break barriers or cause trouble. But 30 years ago in this bucolic village in northern Vietnam, the fierce determination of one group of women to become mothers upended centuries-old gender rules and may have helped open the door for a nation to redefine parenthood.

One recent morning in Loi, as farmers in conical straw hats waded quietly through rice paddies, a small group of women played with their grandchildren near a stream. Their husbands were nowhere to be found, not because they perished in the war, but because the women decided to have children without husbands.

The women's story began during the American War, as it is called here, when many put the revolution before their families. As peace settled more than a decade later, it became clear that they -- like so many of their generation -- had sacrificed their marriageable years to the war.

At that time, Vietnamese women traditionally married at around 16, and those still single at 20 would often be considered "qua lua," or "past the marriageable age." When single men who survived the war returned home, they often preferred younger brides, exacerbating the effects of a sex ratio already skewed by male mortality in the war. According to the Vietnam Population and Housing Census of 2009, after reunification in 1979, there were on average only about 88 men for every 100 women between 20 and 44.

Unlike previous generations of unwanted Vietnamese women who dutifully accepted the "so," or "destiny," of living a solitary life, a group of women in Loi decided to take motherhood into their own hands. They had endured the war, had developed a new strength and were determined not to die alone.

One by one, they asked men -- whom they would never interact with afterward -- to help them conceive a child. The practice became known as "xin con," or "asking for a child," and it meant breaking with tradition, facing discrimination and enduring the hardships of raising a child alone.

"It was unusual, and quite remarkable," said Harriet Phinney, an assistant professor of anthropology at Seattle University who is writing a book on the practice of xin con in Vietnam. Purposely conceiving a child out of wedlock, she said, "was unheard of" before the revolutionary era.

It was a product of the mothers' bravery, said Ms. Phinney, but also of a postwar society that acknowledged the unique situation of women across Vietnam, including thousands of widows, who were raising children alone.

Some of the women in Loi were willing to share their stories, though they always kept the names of the fathers a tightly held secret. One of the first women in Loi to ask for a child was Nguyen Thi Nhan, now 58.

Ms. Nhan had led a platoon of women during the war, and though she never saw battle, she was awarded a medal for her exemplary leadership. Her husband, with whom she had a daughter, abandoned her after the war. Ms. Nhan moved to the cheapest land she could find, a field near the stream on the outskirts of Loi, where a few refugees from bombing nearby still lived. She then asked for a second child, ending up with the son she wished for.

Her first several years were hard. Despite her best efforts, food and money were scarce. The villagers eventually set aside prejudices and accepted her choice, offering to share the little food they could spare. Eventually, Ms. Nhan was joined by more than a dozen other women. Among them was Nguyen Thi Luu, 63. She had fallen in love with a soldier who was killed in battle in 1972.

"I was 26 when the war ended," Ms. Luu said. "That was considered too old for marriage, in those times. I did not want to marry a bad, older man, and no single men came to me."

But Ms. Luu wanted to become a mother, not least so she would have support in her old age. In Vietnam, nursing homes are scarce, and care for the elderly is considered a filial duty.

"I was afraid to die alone," Ms. Luu said. "I wanted someone to lean on in my old age. I wanted a child of my own."

Although her decision at first angered her parents and brother, they soon accepted it and embraced her two daughters. Her parents bought her a plot of the only land they could afford -- here in Loi, in what had by then become known as the community of single women.

"It was comforting to be in a group with other women in a similar situation," she said.

Outside Loi, many women across Vietnam had made the same decision. The growing number of single mothers, especially those who had fought for the revolution, at length caught the attention of the Women's Union, the government agency that oversees programs for women.

"Many women gave everything in the war, and it was important to recognize their sacrifice," said Tran Thi Ngoi, head of the Women's Union in the Soc Son district of Hanoi.

Although the plight of the war-generation single mothers was only one factor, in 1986 the government passed the Marriage and Family Law, which for the first time recognized single mothers and their children as legally legitimate. It was a victory for the mothers in Loi, and for others like them.

"Every woman has the right to be a wife and a mother, and if she cannot find a husband, she should still have the right to her own child," Ms. Ngoi said.

Since then, the government, working with international organizations, has continued to push for equal rights for women and to improve their health and education. Today, single mothers in the countryside still face hardship, discrimination and shame, but they benefit from government initiatives that started with the older generation.

In Loi, only four of the 17 women who founded the community are left. Three have died, some have gone to live with their children in other villages, and others married men who were widowers later in their lives.

Those who remain have upgraded their huts to real homes, with small gardens. Their children, now grown, send a portion of their small salaries to support their mothers. None of the women see themselves as pioneers, nor do they dwell on the impact of the choices they made.

"I don't know if I ever served as inspiration," said one, who did not want to be identified to preserve her privacy and that of her son. "I just worked on my own decisions. I just wanted to be a mother. No one could change my mind."

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