When I was seven, my aunt sat me at my grandmother’s kitchen table and gave me the “needle and thread” test to determine how many kids I’d have in the future. The narrow room smelled of wet clay and treacle cake. My grandfather’s work boots sat by the door, the soles caked in mud. My cousins romped in the garden.
I placed my palm flat on the Formica tabletop, eager to play along, and my aunt held the needle, dangling from a blue thread, above it. First, the needle swung back and forth in a straight line. “That’s a boy,” my aunt said. After a few seconds, the needle started making big circles. “That’s a girl.” The needle paused and began its back and forth swing again. “Another boy.” After that, the needle rested. “Three kids!” my aunt beamed. I beamed, too. I felt like a success, like one of the women in my family: a baby-maker.
“You choose. It’s me or the baby,” my boyfriend said when I got pregnant at nineteen. I chose him. The hospital ward had high ceilings and old-fashioned beds. There were steel grids on the windows. Outside, the grey English sky reminded me of home, but I felt lost. The year was 1992, the year of the X Case in Ireland, when a fourteen-year-old girl, pregnant as a result of rape, was denied the right to an abortion though she was suicidal. In 1983, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution introduced a ban on abortion in Ireland by recognizing the right to life of the unborn. In response to the X Case, the government granted women the “right to information” and the “right to travel” abroad for an abortion. I was one of the lucky ones who could afford to go.
Three women in the ward were Irish, too. We’d all taken the dawn flight from Dublin Airport to Liverpool. One woman was with her husband, a quiet man who held her hand for hours. They had three kids already and couldn’t afford another, she said. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be married with three kids. This wasn’t one of my “needle and thread” babies, was it? My boyfriend and I had been together for two and a half years and though our relationship had faltered over the summer, I assumed we’d get back on track and marry in the future. He was six years older than me and I trusted him. One of the nurses asked how old I was as they wheeled me to the operating room. “Looks no more than sixteen,” she said. After the procedure, my boyfriend asked if he could bring me anything: “McDonald’s strawberry milkshake,” I said; he brought me chocolate. When we got home, he dumped me.
Our relationship over, I returned to college and tried to act like I wasn’t devastated by grief, confusion, and shame. I’d sit in the college canteen with friends, watch them share stories and laugh, unable to participate. I was listening to the voices in my head and couldn’t detach myself from feeling dirty, criminal. In Ireland, abortion is a crime that carries a fourteen-year sentence. Self-inflicted isolation was my punishment. The voices called me names: murderer, failure, monster, as I walked along the curb and imagined diving into oncoming traffic. The baby wasn’t real until it was gone. My body felt its absence.
I’ll never forget the look of disgust my professor gave me when I failed my exams at the end of that year. To her, I’d thrown away my potential. I didn’t know how to tell her I was living in despair caused by a secret I was desperate to share. In my desperation I’d confided in the college nurse. The college nurse, a small-town woman who wore a starched, white uniform, was horrified by my story. “What will you do if you get pregnant again?” she asked, as she recoiled from me and grabbed the crucifix round her neck. Uninterested in the answer, she kicked me out of her office. I told no one else. Instead, I drank too much and kept too quiet. Eight months after the abortion my ex told a mutual friend he was sorry we hadn’t kept the baby. “Bit fucking late now,” I responded to the friend in a rare display of my true feelings: anger and regret.
With time the wound turned to a scab I learned to ignore. No one was interested in my sad story so I pretended it didn’t exist. All I wanted was to be “normal” instead of the girl who’d had an abortion, a murderer who craved forgiveness. I secured two degrees in marketing, had the wardrobe of a young executive and a fledgling career. The rave scene was at boiling point and I spent my weekends clubbing. But as the years passed, I found it hard to hold onto jobs or relationships. Nothing soothed the unease that dogged me and each loss compounded my sense of failure. At twenty-five, a psychiatrist confirmed I was clinically depressed, prescribed Seroxat and told me not to stop taking them without notifying her. They gave me a headache, which interfered with my drinking. After five days, I threw them away. I was already a master of self-medication.
By the time I found out I was pregnant the second time, at twenty-six, I hadn’t seen the father in weeks and had no way to contact him. He was a tall, bald, unassuming guy who shocked me when he confessed he was only nineteen. I ended our short relationship straight away. We had sex once. Neither my life, nor my mind, was stable enough to have a child. I had a mediocre marketing job that paid paltry wages. I was in night school, studying copywriting though my ambition had been crushed by years of self-doubt. When I wasn’t out getting drunk, I was home alone getting stoned. I lived in fear of being seen.
I didn’t want to be pregnant but I blamed myself—I was reckless, a bad girl. I certainly didn’t want another abortion. Murderer. I had no idea how to be a mother to myself, never mind a baby. Failure. How could I be a mother? Monster. I tried to imagine life with a child, taking care of it and juggling work, but it was too surreal, alien. All I could feel was the pain of the previous loss. A new word joined in the chorus of voices: slut. I couldn’t tell my parents, couldn’t bear their disappointment. Didn’t want them to see me as a slut. The voices were loud.
“That’s due to stress,” the doctor said when I explained how bad my morning sickness was. The doctor, a refined woman with a progressive attitude and fancy office, recommended abortion as if it was a foregone conclusion when she heard my circumstances. Her lack of faith in me was both a free pass and a blow. By then, 1999, abortion was still controversial in Ireland but it was accepted that women traveled to the UK and there were information centers dotted around Dublin City Center. The one I went to was in a basement. The other girls were around my age, mid-twenties. We sat, eyes down, in the yellow waiting room that smelled of damp. The staff were matter-of-fact, no sympathy, no judgment. They set me up with a clinic in Birmingham and I paid for flights with my meager savings.
Two weeks after I said goodbye to the nineteen-year-old, I met a new guy. We quickly fell in love and he came with me to the UK. There were anti-choice protesters outside the clinic holding placards of aborted fetuses and shouting, “Abortion is murder.” With its pebbled drive and rose bushes, the clinic looked like a quaint schoolhouse. The ward looked like a dorm, a huge room with six single beds and a large, unused fireplace. Again, three of the other women were Irish, like me. One had travelled alone from Belfast, leaving her toddler with her sister. No one knew where she was. With her white hair and rosy cheeks, one of nurses looked like a nun. “He really loves you,” she said of my new boyfriend. I smiled. We’d met before I knew I was pregnant but he stuck by me—he was my silver lining, my future. When we could finally have sex again he tied a red ribbon to a pair of my panties and made a show of cutting it. It was silly but symbolic for us: the start of our life together. Nothing would come between us. Six months later he disappeared.
When I found out he’d gotten another girl pregnant and had gone to live with her, I was suicidal. I’d met her at a party, months earlier and instantly disliked her flirtatious air. Later, I found out the baby wasn’t his and I hated that girl for years. She stole my boyfriend! My happiness! My future! Her baby lived; mine didn’t. But she went to great lengths for her child, including trying to create some sort of a faux-family. My relationship was far from ideal—he’d been cheating on me for months—she knew that and took a chance: women who are alone and pregnant have to be strong to save themselves and their babies. We’re not all that strong. I wasn’t.
After that, I cut off communicating with my body, ignoring basic needs like sleep and healthy food. Work bored me. But I had no idea how to find something I loved. Worse, I didn’t feel I deserved anything good. Nothing shook my constant sense of dread and shame. I upped my silence and my drinking. The next time I got pregnant, two years later, I was raped. Not the violent way. The Stanford way: drunk and unconscious, in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong man. “What? Again?” my doctor said. This time she wasn’t sympathetic. To me, her shock was justified. I let her think the pregnancy was the result of consensual sex, as I was too broken to defend myself or press charges. I agonized over the decision. I spent hours alone, searching for a sign. I told my father: “The choice is yours,” he said—advice too vague to be helpful. I went for counseling with a saintly woman who said there was no right or wrong. I almost kept the baby.
“Mummy, how did you meet daddy?” was the possible future question that drove me back to the UK. I couldn’t bear the thought of that man in my life, for the rest of my life. He was eager to “do the right thing.” He paid for everything and even came with me, this time to a sterile clinic in Manchester. If he hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it. That’s when the surgeon ejected me from her surgery.
“Get her out of here. I’m not running a torture chamber,” the doctor shouted in response to the scream I let out when I lay down on the operating table. I didn’t mean to scream. I had walked willingly into surgery, but I didn’t want to be there. I was twenty-eight.
There was a small garden at the back of the clinic where I went to think. I phoned a friend. “Do what’s best for you,” she said. More vague advice—I had no idea what was best for me. I was so ashamed. Failure. I felt dirty. Slut. I needed a kind voice to connect me with my reality. Was this the last of my “needle and thread” babies? Was it a dream? A nightmare? I felt like I’d been sold a lie. There was no husband or caring partner, no safe home or solid income. Just me, pregnant and alone, in an abortion clinic with my rapist.
“Don’t worry, next time you’ll find a real relationship and can have a real baby,” a nurse said to me, her voice full of kindness. She hugged me, gave me hope. Thinking it was the right thing to do, she brought him to me. He, too, gave me a hug, but it shook me to the core. He disgusted me. I wanted him out of my life. I had the abortion. The first thing I felt when I woke up was immense relief. It was over. Ten minutes later, grief kicked in. I got dressed, walked out of the clinic, and into a bar where I ordered a bottle of wine. The year was 2001.
Later that year, I joined a socialist group campaigning for abortion rights in the run-up to the 2002 Referendum in Ireland, which, amongst other things, proposed that both the mother and the unborn had an equal right to life. The group fought over political affiliations, which infuriated me. Back then I was too raw to understand the personal is political. I left Ireland shortly after that. I chose Marbella, south of Spain; a place where drinking and escaping from bad choices is par for the course. I doused my sins in sangria and covered my shame with a year-round tan. I never found that real relationship. I never got pregnant again. The people of Ireland voted “no” in the 2002 Referendum and the proposal was not passed into law.
“You should have had the baby,” my mother said years after my third abortion. Her words crushed me, but the passing of time has now enabled me to understand the facts. I was alone and scared. I didn’t want to burden or disappoint my family. I was an addict in denial and a victim of rape. To be in that situation is bad enough—add an unplanned pregnancy to the mix and it’s torture. Under those circumstances, I didn’t want to be a mother. Who would?
Normally, when someone dies, the clan gathers, food is brought, sympathy is offered. Normally, death bonds people. Because it’s cloaked in secrecy, abortion separates, worse, it alienates. Grief is not meant to be a solitary experience. When grief is experienced alone, it’s traumatizing. Despite the sadness, I never doubted that ending my pregnancies was best for everyone involved. I’d be lying if I told you I never thought about my unborn children and the life we might have had together. But those thoughts don’t torment me. It wasn’t the abortions that traumatized me; it was the secrecy, shame, inability to grieve, and the alienation.
Today, I no longer drink. I eat healthy and am a regular gym-goer. Finally, I’m ready but may never be a mother—I have to live with that. I also have to live with knowing I’m the kind of woman people brand as guilty of having “bad” abortions, the kind who uses abortion as a form of contraception. But I no longer listen to voices that don’t serve my wellbeing. Those names I chanted to myself were words I’d heard whispered behind closed doors; the hallmark of stigma passed from generation to generation. Today, up to twelve women a day travel from Ireland to the UK for an abortion. Not one of them will receive aftercare. They will return home, get on with their lives and act like nothing happened. On September 24, 2016, twenty-five thousand people marched the streets of Dublin calling for a repeal to the Eighth Amendment. When Enda Kenny, Ireland’s current prime minister, was asked for his response to the march, he said, “no comment.” In October, a citizen’s assembly was set up by the government to discuss the Eighth Amendment, but its lengthy deliberation process means it’s unlikely there’ll be a referendum before 2018.
I was born a woman but I wasn’t born a baby-maker as my aunt predicted. My “needle and thread” babies were little more than an old wives tale, from a time when the judgments of others kept women shackled to family life. Taking a different path introduced me to new role models who debunk the idea that a woman’s value is determined by her ability to procreate. It filled me with compassion for women who find themselves in similar situations to mine. It also showed me that the only judgment that really shapes my life is my own.
Rumpus original art by Luna Adler.