By: Dr. Sharon Zink – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
My mother was nineteen had been dating my father for four years. She wore Mary Quant black and white dresses and looked like the 60’s model, Twiggy, whilst he was a darkly handsome sometime professional football player. Their relationship was apparently tempestuous, being off and on, but also so passionate that if they drove past each other, they’d have to stop and hook up, right there and then.
Hence I was conceived in the back of a car to the sound of The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time,” perhaps dooming me to forever to a love of soul music.
Except it was 1972 and babies born out of wedlock weren’t seen as socially cool, especially in the conservative small town where my mother grew up.
We were still seen as bastards, illegitimate, without a name.
Worthy of shame.
Add to this the fact that, three months into her pregnancy with me, my mother had come home from work, expecting to get ready for a date with my biological dad, and her brother had asked her if she’d seen the local newspaper.
She then opened it up, only to read that my father had announced his engagement to another woman, despite still seeing my mother regularly and knowing I was on my way.
My mother is never someone to take anything lying down, so she went to confront him at his home, but he pretty much laughed in her face and told her his new fiancée would forgive him for getting my mother pregnant and smugly handed over her address.
When she got there, this other woman declared that she didn’t believe I was her intended’s child and that, anyway, she’d have more children than my mother, like I could be bred out of existence.
I can only imagine my mother’s devastation at such cruel behaviour, plus her vulnerability as she now knew she would be raising me alone.
There had already been huge pressure from my grandfather for her to have an abortion.
He was not a rich man, being a long-distance truck driver and living in a council house (what is known in the US as social housing), but he’d still offered to pay for the procedure (which had only been legal since three years before in the UK), being utterly mortified that his adored daughter was “in trouble”. He’d stopped speaking to her when she refused, a domestic Cold War going on for months until eventually my grandmother packed her bags after over three decades of marriage and said that he either needed to accept my mother and me, the coming baby, or she’d leave him and take us both with her.
I’ll never know whether my gran meant what she said, but her brave threat changed things and my granddad warmed up to my mum again and then, when I was born the following February, he instantly fell in love with me.
After he died of cancer when I was 10, my gran would often tell me I was Gramps’ God and that he’d survived for over four years rather than the predicted six months due to wanting to see me grow up. Love is evidently more powerful than cancer.
And, I can honestly say that, even though he’s been gone over thirty-five years, I miss him every day – we were that much of a blessing to each other.
So why then, when I myself came so close to being aborted, do I still believe in a woman’s right to choose?
Probably, it’s because my childhood wasn’t just full of unconditionally loving grandparents and happy memories.
Probably, it’s because my childhood was also jammed full of abuse enacted by the same mother who’d fought so hard to keep me, including taunts that she’d wished I’d been aborted and that I was my father’s revenge on her.
Basically then, there was the message as I grew up, conveyed through verbal and multiple actual attempts on my life (which only mental health professionals who’ve treated me and those closest to me know the details of), that I shouldn’t have been born.
So now, unsurprisingly, as an adult survivor of such vicious trauma, I deal with severe depression and Complex PTSD, fighting on a fairly regular basis to believe I deserve my place on earth.
Please know that I don’t write any of this to vilify my mother – we’re estranged, but I’m not out for revenge as I’ve devoted most of my life to therapy and spiritual practices which have helped me heal and grow, so I don’t really feel anger about my past any more. Indeed, I will always love my mum for her smarts, beauty and humour and a big heart which can offer so much at some times and which gave some of my own best character attributes.
Mostly now, to tell the truth, I feel sadness.
I feel sadness for my mother with her broken heart who was too distraught after I was born to even name me. I was supposed to be called something grand like Natasha or Octavia, but I ended up being boring old Sharon (which is seen as common in Britain) because my working-class gran liked it.
I feel sadness that my mother was twenty and too young and uneducated, despite being intellectually brilliant, and too alcoholic, as it turned out over the years, to really be the mother to me she wanted to be.
Because I know she loved me fiercely in her own way.
That was never in doubt from the moment she fought to keep me, risking total rejection by her beloved father and social ostracism.
But life’s not that simple and love isn’t really enough to raise a child, especially if your destructive impulses and own severe emotional issues undermine it at every turn.
Hence I’m glad I’m alive and I am grateful to her for her standing by her wish to keep me, but I am also aware our relationship has been complex and painful and that I often also sometimes terrifyingly don’t want to be here as a result – and then I think that maybe she made the wrong choice.
For both of us.
The fact is, there’s hardly any support for women who keep kids when they’ve been left, when they’re too young or have had a traumatic experience as my own mother did with my biological father leaving, even in wealthy Western nations.
I was blessed to have loving grandparents who stepped in and then I benefited from the financial security of my mother’s marriage when I was two, even though she would never let me get close to my adopted dad, who I see as simply Dad, telling him, “She’s not yours” for reasons I cannot fathom.
I was luckier though than most kids born into my circumstances in terms of having this structure of a family and basic security, but I was often left alone as my parents worked long hours, drank, had affairs, and left me to literally starve when they finally and bitterly divorced when I was 17 and both refused to pay for my food.
I was born then into a mess of chaos and hurt and the riptide of my young parents’ unmet needs which I am still trying to understand and make peace with 46 years later, including dealing with the chronic illnesses and pain triggered by my childhood trauma, and, the reality is, this journey of mending myself will probably take me my whole life.
But I don’t write this for pity (or to hurt my father either) – I write it so people might start to understand the complexity of insisting or encouraging women to keep their babies, no matter what.
Because the sad and messy fact is, children can be both wanted and unwanted at the same time.
The world may want to sentimentalise parenthood, but many of us aren’t cut out for it and, being thrust into it unprepared or at a young age or when someone has suffered rape or abuse can lead to all kinds of horrors for both the mother and the child. Horrors with lifelong consequences.
So, the part of me which feels compassion for both myself and my abandoned mother says let women make their own choices, let them get a termination if they feel unready or unwilling and thus save a child not feeling good enough or fit for life – that sickening feeling which often still arises for me in my depressive bouts and which has nearly cost me my life multiple times.
Because kids know – they know before language, from the moment they are born and research is starting show that stress affects babies even before that – whether they are safe or loved.
My mother, after fighting to have me, used to regale anyone who would listen that she’d said, “All that for a girl” when I was born and had declared how ugly “it” (that is, newborn me) was after a fight with a pair of forceps had given me a black eye as they’d lost my heartbeat and had to drag me into the world.
Things thus started as they meant to go on and so, no, whilst I love life and all the pleasures it’s given me in terms of my amazing grandparents, friends, lovers, travel, writing, education and creativity and I would never unwish my presence here, except on my darkest days, I don’t judge the women who make another choice.
Until we support women better as mothers, until we educate them, until we meet all their needs – financial, social, medical and emotional – there will always be stories like mine where someone kept a child and then tried to destroy it, even if unconsciously, because some part of their soul felt it had made the “wrong” decision.
Parents can regret having kids, even as our society refuses to look this fact in the face.
Parents can, indeed, be deeply ambivalent towards their own flesh and blood. Indeed, my mother often told me in recent years that she loved me, but didn’t like me.
Maybe my mother isn’t a reliable advertisement for a woman who kept her kid in difficult circumstances, being as mentally unwell and narcissistic as she probably is, and I do know of women, including close friends, who unexpectedly got pregnant at young ages and became extraordinary mothers, but still there’s something in our private mother-daughter story which always gives me pause when pro-lifers rant about the immorality of abortion.
I do believe abortion is a tragedy and I never want one single woman to be put in such a terrifying position to have to make that choice, especially as reproductive rights and access to birth control are both being ever more eroded in America, in particular, and I do sincerely believe life is a wonderful gift. Something sacred, even.
However, I also believe and know from personal experience that child abuse or simply the pale smoke in the air of not being wanted is also an appalling thing for a kid.
Most abuse remains behind closed doors, in fact, like my parents’ very well-painted ones, and no one would guess what was happening, let alone think of intervening.
And, indeed, even if I’d got lucky and not been so dramatically maltreated, the sense of not being quite wanted would likely have lingered, even if my mother had managed to be consistently loving, as I never got to meet my father, who went on to have four more children who I believe don’t even know I exist.
And these are deep emotional issues the evangelical right don’t and possibly cannot address – yes, as a feminist, so I want see more material support for mothers and children, more paid leave, better healthcare, safe childbirth, access to contraception, free childcare and on and on, but there are things which are, arguably, are as or maybe even more important, which will forever remain beyond the reach of the government.
The simple fact of someone actually emotionally wanting to be a mother to a child and being constitutionally able to do that.
You can’t force love. You can’t force care. You can’t artificially create safety, sanity, a sense of belonging from people who don’t have it within themselves.
You can’t coerce a connection between mother and child by making a woman look at a sonogram of her unborn baby or expect some mythical nature to take its course and for all the right feelings and practical skills and willingness to, frankly, engage in huge self-sacrifice to suddenly spring into being upon hearing a baby’s first cry.
It’s not that these women who don’t manage to successfully navigate the maternal journey are monsters – it’s often just that they’ve just often been plunged into this lifetime mission without warning or consent, let alone training, and have often been conned by a patriarchal society which says the only way to have power and kudos as a woman is as a mother and so made this choice to conform, rather than with their whole hearts.
When you’re told you’re evil if you don’t want to complete a pregnancy or even if you don’t want to have kids full-stop, you end up with many women keeping or even having planned babies which, deep down, they never wanted.
And then all bets are off as to how their family life goes.
Let’s face it, all bets are off and parenting mistakes get made, even if you badly want a child and have all the personal and financial resources you need, so how much harder is it for women who didn’t expect or truly want to be in that position?
And adoption is so hard to navigate that the oft-preached notion of keeping a child often means youngsters being in care long-term, often zigzagging from one foster home or orphanage to another for their whole growing up and frequently facing abuse in such environments (this happened to people I know) and developing significant attachment disorders as a result.
So I say, despite the way I myself came close to being aborted – give women a choice.
To have children or not.
It’s not just about whether abortion should be legal either or when the cut off point should be – it’s about having a more nuanced insight into this issue, so, if we say we want more women to keep their babies, they need to be given all possible support and that will mean right-wing governments reaching into their pockets in a way they don’t like.
And, as I said above, the true price of unplanned or even simply socially conformist pregnancies (it’s just what’s done) for the mother and child is sadly not solely economic and thus even if evangelist governments were willing to do everything to support women with unplanned pregnancies (laugh bitterly now at the prospect of that happening!) arguably could not possibly halt much of the deeper suffering which can come from arriving into the world in these circumstances. That is unwanted, or half-wanted at best.
The right needs to be willing to address the fact that abortion isn’t the only tragic outcome here and that there can be immense trauma as a result of being born to someone who wasn’t ready to be a mother, even if there’s also love and cats and music and books and tea and exotic places and all the treasures that make life also so, so worth fighting for and something I feel so glad my own goddaughter and my friend’s adopted daughter from Russia gets to experience.
Yes, life is the ultimate precious thing, but it’s worth supporting women to do what they want with their bodies, whether that is to keep or terminate a pregnancy, so that we end up with kids who profoundly and unshakeably know they belong here in the heart of our human family.
As for myself, I mostly feel alright with existing now, with my purpose here, my worth.
It’s sometimes a precarious thing, my hold on this life, like a fragile vase in a window which could tip one way or another in a breeze – tipping gently and safely to the table nearby or smashing fatally down to the garden below – but inside are pink scented lilies and beauty, so I go on, day by day, month by month, year by year, and gradually I find, as my Buddhist teacher once told me, that, though I wasn’t invited to this party, people like my presence and I like the music and chitchat and, mostly, it all makes me very happy.
More by Sharon:
Dr. Sharon Zink is the author of Welcome to Sharonville (Unthank Books, 2014), which was longlisted
for The Guardian First Book Award, and she is also a feminist writing coach on a mission to get more
women’s books written, published and out there changing the world. You can find out more about
her work at www.sharonzink.com.
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