When I was a little girl and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always had the same response: "a mum". Perplexed, they would ask the question differently: "But as a job, what do you see yourself doing?" I would stare back, blankly: "a mum". "Right", they would say.
I suppose that as the daughter of one of the first women at her school to study science at university, who had grown up after the advent of contraception and sexual liberation, they found my response tricky to reconcile. Why didn’t I want to be an astronaut or a lawyer? In truth, "mum" was the only role I felt sure I was destined for.
Like every other liberal-minded feminist in the UK, I watched the Repeal conversations unfold in Ireland this summer with great interest. As someone with many links to the Emerald Isle and a passion for equality, I never questioned that a woman’s right to decide what happens with her body should be as implicit as her right to breathe. And yet, as someone who had also never been pregnant or in a position where they’d had to make this decision, it was more of an intellectual problem for me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sympathise with people in that position, but rather that I didn’t have the emotional experience to be able to empathise.
On the night that the "yes" vote won in Ireland, I went out to meet some Irish friends at a pub. Everyone was giddy with joy at what seemed like a giant – albeit long overdue – leap towards equality, in a world that appeared to be marching in the opposite direction. One beer turned into two and then three, and as my brain turned foggy with alcohol and the weather took an inauspicious turn, I decided to pop in to see a long-term (but very casual) fuck buddy who lived nearby. Riding on a wave of excitement and fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol and arousal, risks were taken and personal boundaries pushed.
I found myself, alone in my flat one Friday night in a maze of contradictions, shaking violently from the shock while trying to suppress an instinctive feeling of joy at finding out that for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t truly alone.
A broken condom, a hazy memory and a morning after pill later, I awaited my period with more anxiety than usual. Like many of my contemporaries, I had taken a few morning after pills in my time and had never had cause to doubt their efficacy. But something felt different this time, although I couldn’t quite place my finger on what. I felt physically uncomfortable in a way I hadn’t before, as if I were an expanding balloon that needed to burst but couldn’t. Then, a week after my period was due, fully expecting to be proven wrong, I took a test and found out I was pregnant.
I had often imagined the moment I found out I was pregnant as a joyous one, something wholly happy and positive. I had watched close friends and relatives go through this rite of passage and joined in with their excitement. In my social circle up to that point, unplanned pregnancies hadn’t really occurred, and those who had crossed the threshold into parenthood had done so willingly and emphatically. And yet here I found myself, alone in my flat one Friday night in a maze of contradictions, shaking violently from the shock while trying to suppress an instinctive feeling of joy at finding out that for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t truly alone. As I lay frozen on the bathroom floor I let myself imagine for a moment that I would keep the child, and for those brief 10 minutes, the future felt exciting.
As a master of avoidance, over the following weeks I did my best to eschew making any decisions until I absolutely had to. If I ignored it, I thought, perhaps I’d accidentally pass the point of no return and not have to make a decision at all. As the pregnancy hormones took hold, it was difficult to make sense of what I was feeling. Did I want to keep it, which – while feeling like the most natural thing in the world – would simultaneously spell the end of the life I’d previously imagined for myself? Or did I want to terminate it, and forever live with the guilt of preventing a child from being born? Would I always wonder who that child was and what our relationship would have been like? Or would I always resent the child for abruptly stripping me of my independence and the opportunity to build the life I so desired. Suddenly, this "choice" I’d been reading about throughout the summer didn’t seem like a choice at all. I desperately wished that someone would take the decision out of my hands so that I wouldn’t have to live with the guilt.
Despite being told that one in three women will have an abortion during their lifetime, and being fairly open with my situation at home and work, by the time I had mine, I had met only one person who’d admitted to having one: my mum.
Whenever I’d read about abortion in the past, I had naively imagined young women in vulnerable positions who were unable to support a child either emotionally or financially. By this logic, the reasons not to have an abortion in my case had decreased with every passing year: I had a good job, I owned a flat, I was happy in life with a good support network and, at 30 years old, was the exact age I’d imagined myself being when I started a family. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling in my gut that this wasn’t the right time to have a baby. So, contradicting my natural instinct to nurture and protect the raspberry-sized cluster of cells swelling in my uterus, I booked an appointment at an abortion clinic; first for a medical procedure and then – when that didn’t work – a surgical one. I did this because, despite my desire to have the baby, it didn’t feel fair to bring a child into the world when I couldn’t say with absolute confidence that it was the right thing to do.
When I later shared the news with friends, I was commended for making a difficult decision. They were "proud" of me. And yet, what the majority of these well meaning souls seemed to miss was that I hadn’t made this decision for myself at all. No. Absent the ability to think of my own interests in the situation, instead I had focused on the raspberry. Would it have a good start in life? Would I be able to provide a stable environment on my own? Would I be able to be the mother I knew I was capable of being, and which the baby deserved, given my lack of emotional readiness?
When it comes to abortion, silence seems to be the prevailing response. Despite being told that one in three women will have an abortion during their lifetime, and being fairly open with my situation at home and work, by the time I had mine, I had met only one person who’d admitted to having one: my mum. Our situations had been so different, though, and it was difficult to compare. She had been 17, on the cusp of an exciting academic career and without the means to support a child. She had also since gone on to have three healthy children, so her experience did little to quell my feeling that this might be my only chance.
I write this because, despite the offer of counselling from the clinic, my lack of interaction with somebody who’d had an abortion meant that nobody had warned me about the guilt, the anger and the sadness that might follow. Nobody had told me about the crippling fear of never having another chance to be a mum. Nobody had mentioned the resentment I would feel towards others who were pregnant and able to carry their baby to term. The sense of injustice I would feel every time I saw or held a baby during the subsequent weeks. The jealousy of seeing strangers in the street pushing a pram. The longing. The grief. The regret.
It is time for us to start having an honest, open conversation about abortion and its emotional after-effects. Because, until we do, millions of women will continue to find themselves alone and confused when faced by this emotional downpour, and we can do better than that – we really can.