My story starts when I was twenty-one… or maybe that’s when it ended, depending on your point of view. I grew up extremely religious in the fundamentalist Christian church. Both my parents were preachers, and all their parents were preachers too. My mother was even a pro-life activist. You could say I come from a long line of extreme anti-abortionists. When I was sixteen I received a letter from my grandparents threatening to disown me if I were ever to be in a de-facto relationship.
So when I found myself pregnant halfway through my first year of tertiary it was literally a nightmare scenario. I became an atheist in my early teens and developed strong feminist politics before I even got to art school so I was long divorced from the ideals of my family, but that left me the lone black sheep in a large family of fanatical Christians. I didn’t even have any non-Christian friends until I was about fourteen and due to media restrictions in my childhood I knew very little pop culture – age fourteen was also when I found out who Michael Jackson was. Thus socializing was quite difficult for me and like many young adults, I threw myself into the party scene when I moved to another city to study. The sexual repression of my family only fuelled my drive to explore my own blossoming sexuality.
I considered myself a well-informed, sexually empowered young woman at the time, and frequently availed myself of the services provided by the drop-in family planning nurse at my campus. We received five boxes of condoms every time we saw her, so I had no excuse except drunkenness and youthful idiocy for not using one the night I got pregnant.
I remember going to that same nurse for the blood test to confirm what my dizziness, nausea, cramping and missed period had already told me. I didn’t cry when she told me the test was positive, or made arrangements for follow up. I didn’t cry when I walked back to my studio and blurted out the news to some of the older female students who were hanging around. I didn’t even cry at my first ultrasound appointment even though the technician made me feel terrible for wasting her time by not arriving with a full bladder (which no one had told me to do).
I did finally cry at the second appointment where they successfully found the heartbeat needed to book me for a termination. Understand the need for this process but it felt unusually cruel at the time – being forced to listen to the heartbeat of the child I didn’t want, even being offered a keepsake CD of the ultrasound. I had no one to go with me to that appointment. I held it together until I got to the bus stop to take myself home, then let myself sob like the infant I couldn’t possibly have.
There had never been any question of me keeping the baby. I had never wanted children, fearing my own Clinical Depression/Generalized Anxiety Disorder would be passed on – it had already begun to be wildly exacerbated by my pregnancy hormones. I also knew having a child out of wedlock would rock my family. I estimated that only my mother would have stood by me without question but she had disappeared the year before to save her failing mental health, escaping to India where I kept in contact by occasional email. At the time I felt burdening her with my pregnancy would threaten her mental condition so resolved to keep it from my family entirely.
The father was my flatmate who had since gotten into a relationship with my good friend. When I told him about my pregnancy and desire to terminate, he said very little. I was angry about his lack of reaction and eventually got him to reveal that he didn’t believe it was his at all and didn’t care either way. In the end the only people I had any support from were my best childhood friend and people I had studied with for just a handful of months.
It was one of these tenuous new study friendships that helped me the most – my closest female classmate offered to drive me to the hospital for my appointment. This was no small offer, for whatever reason this service wasn’t offered in our city so it required driving to a hospital an hour and half away. Without the help of my friend I would have had to figure out a complex bus scheme to make it to my 9am appointment. She even let me stay the night prior at her house so we could leave directly from her place. She stayed with me when I had to take a pill to soften the cervix first, and then wait in a grim room full of comfortable armchairs occupied by uncomfortable women. Some were young like me, others looked old enough to have had a few grown children. It was understood we were all there for the same thing, but none of us spoke to each other. It wasn’t a community any of us wanted to belong in.
The surgical process itself was quick and painless, with the most unpleasant part coming when antibiotic suppositories were administered with only the briefest of warnings. I remember the doctor confirming the estimated conception date, which I luridly imagined resulted from him counting limbs or some such.
Afterwards I was offered the option of keeping the remains, which I declined. I saw other women from the same group with brown paper bags, which are apparently the standard for concealing the containers. The social worker, who had briefly spoken with me at the beginning of my appointment to confirm my mental incapacity, kindly told me that the hospital would cremate my foetuses remains and bury them under some kowhai trees. This became a symbol of my pregnancy to me, and in my stray thoughts about might-have-beens I sometimes name my never-was baby Kowhai.
Even though it felt like a fait accompli from the minute I learned of my pregnancy, I still had a lot of hesitation and regret. This is never a decision that is made lightly, whatever pro-lifers accuse us of. I was not equipped financially, physically or mentally to carry any baby to term at that stage of my life and I truly believe I would have killed myself before the foetus ever became viable. Still, for many years after I found myself looking at children who matched the age of my not-baby. I even quit a babysitting job because the three-year-old girl was too close to the mental picture I had built up of my own imaginary child.
I told my mother a few years later. She expressed support and regret that she hadn’t been there for me – although she insists she would have raised a child for me, not quite understanding I couldn’t have ever survived that baby. She is still staunchly pro-life and has given me grief occasionally over my reproductive choices (IUDs are the same as abortions, in her view). I have told only one of my siblings, I’m still not sure how the others will react.
My expected due date was March 17th, Saint Patricks Day. All of my mothers grandparents were born in Ireland, so it would have been quite an apt birthday. I still don’t know whether to mark this date as special in any way – I don’t feel entitled to grief. A lot of people would consider me a murderer, I don’t know if I think so myself but I feel like this silent grief is my punishment. I’ve thought about getting a Kowhai tattoo to commemorate that little life, but it feels somehow selfish. Maybe one day I won’t feel this weird mixture of guilt and relief and will be able to openly claim my story. Writing this down is the first step.