I didn’t want babies. I was often unhappy as a child and I didn’t see how I could raise happy children. At thirteen, I declared I would not have children. Ever. At sixteen I said “Well maybe after I’ve turned thirty. But probably never.” At seventeen, I was pregnant.
I learned something about myself, sick in a hospital bed, a few weeks pregnant. I learned that my emotional and physical body disagree with abortion. For me that is, not you. You do whatever is right for you. Always. Despite the Darwinian desire to recreate myself, I was terrified of being a mother. Even stronger than that fear was a certainty that, now pregnant, I had to get on with it. My nature was definitely stronger than my nurture in that instant!
The pregnancy was sickly. Morning, midday, afternoon and night sickness. And not just the first trimester. I spent much of it in bed. When I ventured out, I had to find new routes to town as we lived in a bustling almost city, full of takeaways belching out nausea-promoting odours. I had to avoid the bus routes too. A bus in the Eighties emitted a filthy fuel stench that encouraged in me a street-vomiting session. Mostly, I stayed home and cried. The father brought me weird herbs and concoctions designed to temper sickness along with dry toast; arrowroot and such. I vomited. And I cried.
So there I was, eighteen and a mother. Having spent the entire pregnancy convinced that I could love a Barnaby but not a Naomi (intended names for first child) – did not want the responsibility of a girl, did not love myself enough to create a mini-me – I birthed a daughter. Her father doted on her. He changed nappies, he sang to her – he took part in all of it bar the breast-feeding. He even got a job.
My emotions were all over the place. I fed her. I cried. I played with her. I cried. She slept, I stood with a damp finger under her nostril to make sure she was alive and I cried. She cried. I cried.
I think it was the day I gave up breastfeeding her that I fell pregnant again. This pregnancy could not have been more different from the first. Now, an experienced old hand at motherhood, Naomi having reached the ripe old age of one year with no bruises; state intervention or death, I was ready. I wasn’t sick. I didn’t cry. I got on with looking after my little one and my body. This pregnancy saw me dancing in the snow at seven months, a bump so neat you couldn’t even tell from behind. The only dampener was the the fear, the exact opposite of before, that I now could never love a boy. My love for my existing girl was so fierce.
I needn’t have worried about the gender. Following an event-free pregnancy, Audrey arrived. In distress, cord around her neck, blue – it was all over in a terrible hurry and a terrifying birth experience, for both of us. I had no emotional support following this harrowing event. Their father tried but he was tired from work and drink and, being almost twenty years older than I, of a less emotionally-mature generation of men. However, she was an easy baby, thankfully. She slept when I put her down. Weaned early and easily and smiled a lot. I filed ‘dealing with difficult birth’ as emotionally pending.
Being a parent to two children under two was difficult; as they grew they became ever more competitive. My relationship with their father became increasingly difficult as he drank and I tried to keep up with him. I ended it around Naomi’s sixth birthday.
It did not take me long to meet another man. It’s never taken me long. I took almost fifty years to meet myself though.
I had two daughters at school and a job in mental health that I loved and was good at. When I fell pregnant the third time, I talked myself into an abortion. I was not putting myself through all that again. He, however, had other ideas. He had two girls from a previous marriage, daughters with whom he felt he hadn’t been able to spend enough time. He begged me to keep the child. He promised me I could go back to work, that he would take the child if anything happened between us, that I would never be assumed to be wholly responsible.
It was another difficult pregnancy, with more than one hospital admission – all day all night every day every night sickness with malnutrition and dehydration. The obstetrician explained that my body was really good at growing and feeding a baby – to the extent that it neglected my own body’s needs. This time, I had no particular wish for either gender. I think I disassociated very early on, telling myself I was having this baby ‘for him’.
A third girl child! I refused to feed Petunia when she was born. I did not want to connect, knowing what a wrench returning to work would be. I asked the midwives to take her to the nursery overnight so I could sleep. I tried so hard to not connect.
Returning home was fraught. Between my husband and I, this girl had four big sisters! My hormones had kicked in, I was programmed to protect her but I felt like I was giving her away. I shut myself in my room and I cried. He took her out. I cried. Her sisters cooed over her. I cried. When she was six weeks old, I returned to work. I cried. I was on night shifts when Nynex began drilling outside our home during the day. I couldn’t sleep. I cried. Shortly after, our landlady died and her daughter sent people to value the house and do it up for sale. Not for us, just for their profit. I cried. By the time Petunia was little more than two years old, I was crying just before 11 am every single day. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I would just stop and cry. I wore sunglasses all the time! Small surprise then that I had a complete breakdown. At the risk of writing a cliche, the breakdown turned out to be a breakthrough. I rediscovered my creativity and vowed to be true to myself – no more compromise – they might not learn how to be a great mum from me but my daughters would learn about freedom.
Lots happened – I enrolled on a music course, I worked two jobs, I formed a band. He stayed home, cooking, washing and getting stoned. (I did the last bit with him, ever the codependent!) Inevitably, wanting different things and never having really understood each other in the first place, we separated. He was true to his word. He took her and raised her. I moved away. Contact was sporadic. It took me a long time to realise the effect of intoxicants on mine and my children’s happiness. I’m clean and sober now and… better. I know that it could be too little too late but it is what it is.
My daughters are all adults now. They are incredible young women, in spite of their parents. They are making their own choices – having babies, travelling, drinking, writing, studying, staying sober, getting stoned, singing, dancing, playing guitars, making things, walking in the woods, picking mushrooms and throwing them away.
I’m told it isn’t nice to let your child know they weren’t planned, maybe not even wanted but I don’t think it’s nice to pretend. What a precedent that sets.
There is so much more I could write and maybe one day I will. For now, as my youngest – the beautiful and fragile Petunia flower, turns the Discordant and magical age of twenty-three – I want to declare that I love my daughters with the same burning fierceness I experienced at their births. I want them to be safe like I did when I sobbed and howled as the family took the newly born Petunia out for a walk. No more denial, no more running away – only love. I want to connect.
I hope you’ve learned and are still learning about freedom.