When I was 20 years old I was a total mess of a human being.
The snowballing of bad choices began in my 18th year at around graduation. The end of high school coincided with the end of my first real love relationship. I was to blame for that, and because I was to blame, all my friends—who were his first—were no longer my friends.
I took a gap year and did nothing but work at a donut shop. No travel, no nothing. Just a dead-end job and a lot of self-hatred. I drank heavily, smoked. Partied.
The drinking was necessary for the partying as it was the only way I could start to get comfortable in a crowd. The smoking gave me something to do when I was feeling awkward.
Many nights during that year ended up with me drunk and having gone home with some stranger.
I hated my life. Hated myself. Felt fat, gross and worthless. During a bout of excess-induced illness, I decided that enough was enough, that I wanted to go back to school. I applied to Concordia and was accepted.
But habits are easily formed and very difficult to break.
When I moved to Montreal at the age of 19 I had a ready-made community. They were my cousin’s friends, from my mom’s small hometown in the Saguenay. They were not going to school. They worked in factories, and cafes during the day, went to the bar at night. Their lives consisted of dead-end jobs, hot kniving in the kitchen and drinking king cans in front of hockey games.
Because I was hanging out with them, I made no attempt to meet anybody at school. In fact, I don’t think I made a single friend at Concordia during the year and half I studied there. Instead, I attended classes and headed straight home to my one bedroom apartment where I would smoke and eat grilled cheeses and wait for my other friends to tell me which bar to meet them that night.
Some days I felt so disgusted with myself I could hardly get out of bed. In the second semester, I started dating a nice fellow from my cousin’s hometown. He was working at a café and looked like an intellectual though he really wasn’t. He had nice, tight curly hair he kept in a pony tail. He was gentle, shy and kind and as much of an alcoholic and smoker as I was. We got a long pretty well.
I would go to university during the week and then, starting on Thursday nights, would party with him all weekend. If I remember correctly, he did a lot of coke. Though now that I think about it, I might have made that up to make myself feel better about what came next. But I think that’s true.
Truth is such a hard thing to pin down, especially after 25 years. Looking back now, I bet he was just going through a similar thing I was —scared of growing up, not sure of himself or his own potential, not sure where he fit in. But in my head, I made him out to be way worse than he was because I was so ashamed of myself. I wasn’t so much to blame for the shitty place I found myself in if I could make him out to be a dick, right?
Yeah, right. Uh huh. Oh, projection and all the other distorted ways we try to escape responsibility for our choices and actions.
The semester ended and I gave up my apartment to go back home to Victoria and work. This was never really discussed with boy, nor was the break up. We just simply went our separate ways, which was a testament to how lukewarm our romance was.
I can’t remember if I knew I was pregnant before leaving Montreal, or if I took the test in Victoria. I think I might have gave boy a courtesy phone call regarding the pregnancy and subsequent abortion, but I am not positive. I do know he did not have a say nor did it enter my mind to give him one. Either way, that is how my first year of university ended—with middling grades, a pack a day smoking habit, a bit of a drinking problem and a bun in the oven.
I have never really talked about my abortion. Not because I am ashamed of it. Not because it was a difficult decision. Not because it haunts me and I have lingering trauma.
No. I don’t talk about it because it wasn’t a difficult decision. I did not hesitate. And it does not haunt me. I knew in my heart and especially my brain that it was the right thing to do.
But I felt like it should have been difficult and hard. I felt I was missing a piece of me, that piece that made people agonize over their unborn babies. I did not feel anything close to remorse or grief over the loss of a baby that was just a small kernel in my belly, abstract and not quite real. All I felt was relief.
Because I did not feel that grief, I felt ashamed.
I felt ashamed for not feeling ashamed.
That isn’t to say I didn’t feel shame— I did. Mostly, my shame was reserved for the circumstances that led to the abortion. I was not treating myself with any sort of honour or respect. The life I was leading made me feel dirty and worthless. Having to get an abortion symbolized a very low point in my life, a kick in the ass, so to speak. I knew that things had to change, that this could not happen again.
I also knew in every fibre of my being that I was going to have children someday, that this just wasn’t the right person to have them with, nor was it the right time. I was barely able to take care of myself, let alone a small human being.
Now this isn’t the case with every woman. Some women know they do not want to have kids. Others are ambivalent. Some decide that even if it was a mistake, it is a mistake they are prepared to live with. Those are all valid life choices. Keyword being choice, of course.
A few months later I met the person who became my husband and a few years later we were married with two beautiful daughters. But, ahem, that is another story….
Most importantly though, I didn’t want to be a mother yet. And how do you responsibly bring life into this world, if from the very moment of conception you are resisting it?
How is that fair to the life?
I am very, very privileged. Because of where and when I live, a solution to my young and stupid mistake was easily accessible. I had an abortion in a controlled, regulated, non-judgemental environment. I did not have to frequent a back alley butcher armed with a dirty clothes hanger or go through a wall of angry protesters hurling insults at me to access my abortion. There was no damage to my insides.
When I finally chose to have children, I had the easiest two home births imaginable. Two healthy babies that came at a time when I had the capacity to take care of them.
I am thinking of this now, as you can probably imagine, because of the political events occurring in the States. I am deeply disturbed by the focus of the conversation, as if the only consideration is whether a fetus has a heartbeat. This feels so deeply irresponsible to me, to ignore the consequences of bringing life into this world because of one fuck-up (pardon the pun). In my mind, it is not so much a question of whether or not that seed of life has a right to exist, but whether or not we are ready to take on the lifelong stewardship and nurturing of it so it can grow and blossom.
If a state or a country is going to ban abortion, are they also prepared to legislate more support for single mothers? Will there be free daycare and education opportunities and subsidized housing for them? Will there be more stringent laws about child support for the men who are also responsible for the pregnancy?
(It is hard not to see the Strindberg-level absurdity of this debate for what it really is— a very thinly veiled attack on women’s sexual freedom. It isn’t really about babies and their heartbeats at all. It is about a draconian view of women’s sexuality, the fear it engenders and the panicked attempt to control it. But that’s a bigger conversation, for another day.)
I just attended my youngest daughter’s graduation ceremony this week. I have been a mother for over 20 years, a single one for the last 4 (or 5 unofficially). As much as I have shaped my children, they have shaped me. They taught me what it means to love someone so deeply it sometimes hurts as much as grief, the enormity of what it means to be truly responsible for someone else, to have two people wholly depend on you.
They taught me how to own my shit, how to be a better person so I could be a better mother to them. Mostly they taught me that whatever decisions I make in the future, that I am not making them only for myself. That they will always be affected by what I do, where I go, how I decide to be in the world.
Having children is a lifetime commitment. Raising them is the most rewarding and most difficult task I have ever faced. It demands a continuous re-evaluation of myself and my motives, a reckoning with my pre-conceived notions of who I think they are and who I think I am.
And yes, it takes sacrifice. To create a stable nest for them to someday fly out of, you have to be stable. You need a steady income, to pay the bills on time and have food on the table. All this costs money. More importantly, you have to be willing and have the capacity to put their needs for a while before your own. You are not on your own anymore—you have decided to make living beings who require your attention even if sometimes you don’t feel like giving it.
If you want to properly shepherd your kids into adulthood, you have to make sure you’re present to deal with anything that comes up.
You are basically on call for the rest of your life.
Having kids is so much more than getting laid and creating a heartbeat. It is a lifelong, all-encompassing endeavour that requires your full attention and willingness. If we are going to talk about the ethics of abortion, then we have to widen the conversation to talk about the ethics of child poverty, abuse, abandonment and everything that comes with bringing children into the world when a woman is not ready, able, or has the support (family, institutional, societal) to care for them. To not talk about everything that comes after the heartbeat is, in my mind, deeply immoral and unethical.