For years, I've had trouble explaining how I feel about unexpected pregnancies and the choices we talk about as if they're political statements, rather than the expression of personal hopes and dreams. For me, the opportunity to make that choice came into my life in 1996.
My first real dating, fall-in-love experience was with a guy a good bit older than I was (16 years). I was in college, already struggling with my grades, my life, and my emotions due to a series of stupid lifestyle choices I was making. Everything in my life felt like it was spinning out of control, and he seemed to stand pretty solid and settled in the midst of everything I felt I was missing in my own life. He was older and "more mature" than most of the guys my age (who were mostly involved in frat parties, stupidity, and their own egos). He had a real career, was a real business guy, yet at the same time was a real southerner. He grew up the son of a country hellfire preacher, and had gone on to Emory to get two bachelors degrees, a masters degree, and was ABD for his PhD. He was good conversation, good fun, and a good friend, or so I thought.
And then came the phone call when he didn't come home from work. I thought I was calling his parents... and everything came crashing in on me, and nothing would ever be the same. After the nightmare began, I went through 4 years of back and forth, more lies, not knowing the truth, being strung along, dropping out of school, and not really knowing what I wanted anymore. And somewhere in the middle of that chaos, my first child was conceived. I was 20.
From the time I learned I was expecting, I was just that-- expecting a baby. It wasn't a medical condition; it was a complete and total changing of my life forever, and I knew from the moment I learned I was pregnant that I wanted this child. I knew, somehow, that this child was special, even though so many of my friends from college thought I was crazy for not getting an abortion.
I spent a lot of time during my pregnancy trying to figure out what I had to do for my child and myself. I spent weeks on end at the Convent of St. Helena, living in the guest house. By day, I tended to daily chores, helped with yard work, took Eucharist, Bible study, and prayed all the daily prayers. Every night, I would curl up on the couch in the guest house with a cup of hot tea and a book from the library-- Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard von Bingen, Thomas Merton-- anything... just something to help me make it through. I remember the curious faces of neighborhood kids sneaking up to the building, hoping to catch a glimpse of a real, live nun, and startling when they saw my growing belly, asking, "where's the nuns?" I wrote letters to my son's dad, to his family, to my family... letters that never were sent... letters to help me heal my heart.
None of it was easy. There were many tears, and many nights where I felt I didn't really want to be a mother yet, that I wasn't ready, or that I didn't have what it takes (emotionally, physically, financially) to provide for a child. I alternately doubted myself, hated myself, comforted myself, encouraged myself, believed in myself, and kicked myself in the ass for ever believing anything my son's dad ever told me. I had volunteered for a couple of years as a telephone counselor for a local suicide hotline; I ended up moving in with another of the phone counselors I had met-- someone who, like me, had been through an unplanned pregnancy as a young, single woman, and who had spent nine months being pummeled with a Bible in a home for unwed mothers. She and her husband offered up their spare bedroom, and I became a part of the family.
Just before my angel was born, I moved into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment, ready for the first time to give it a go on my own. I set up a crib in the livingroom and a bassinet in my bedroom, and thought I was ready.
Somewhere in my eighth month of pregnancy, I was driving home from work in the rain, singing along to some Eric Clapton song that reminded me of my son's dad, when my car was rear ended, thrusting my car into the rear of another car. I went into labor early, and little man was born 5 weeks early. He was a BIG boy to be so early-- 7 pounds 8 ounces-- but group B strep got into his blood, and when he was a few hours old, he quit breathing. At 16 hours old, he was on a ventilator taking 600 breaths per minute, and his tiny blue body was shaking with the force of the machine. He still wasn't getting enough oxygen, though, and we went with a risky (especially at the time) procedure called ECMO, with all its complications and all the fears that went along with them. It was 4 weeks before I got to hold him again, and almost 2 months before I got to bring him home. Only then could we really begin the process of learning to be a family of two.
My son changed my life in ways I couldn't begin to describe. Self-destructive things I used to do when it was only my life I was ruining were no longer options where his life was concerned. Relationships that were not great, but good enough for me, were not good enough for him. I quit thinking about how much better the world would be without me in it-- I now had someone for whom to be strong. I took my life from the hole it had fallen into, and began the long crawl out into becoming a decent human-- a functioning member of society. I moved to where I was more than a one-day drive from my son's dad (to make it easier to get him out of my head), and got back into college. I graduated from college in 2002 with a 3.95 upper level GPA (because I wasn't just going for me; I was also going to make a better life for him). He gave me all the motivation I needed to get my life back on track.
And then there's his life. I don't believe I've ever seen a more intelligent, gentle, sweet-spirited, brilliant, funny, deeply sensitive, beautiful child. He is so compassionate, and so loving; I can't imagine the world without him in it.
I read things sometimes about choice, making abortion more accessible, and the devastation having a child can wreak upon a young woman's aspirations, career, and education, and all I can think about is how little I knew before having my child about what real love was. I think about how unprepared I was for the blessing I was about to receive, and how it wasn't really until he was a few years old that I began to understand how powerfully he had transformed my life. I think of how easy it would have seemed for me to have made a different decision, and how much I would have been missing without ever even knowing it. I think about all the legitimate reasons I could have had to not have my child.
We tell women that as single mothers they will give up their education, give up their careers, and give up the social/dating life that most girls their age have. I imagine that if we supported single mothers, helped them to find ways to go back to school, and worked to create a society in which dating was a more healthy, trust-based process to begin with, that we could reduce the abortion rate without ever marching in the first rally or passing the first law. It never should have been reduced to a mere political issue to begin with. Unplanned pregnancy is a deeply personal situation in which too many women find themselves, and one in which support from family, friends, and caregivers can go a long way towards taking away the fear that often guides women's decisions. A fear-based decision, whatever that decision, is unlikely to be a decision that changes a woman's life for the better, and the decision about whether or not to have a child is far too important to make lightly. You won't know what that child could bring into your life until much later...