I was seventeen when I found out, during a visit to the nurse to get a prescription for birth control pills, that I was pregnant.
I didn’t want a baby right then, because I was seventeen. What I wanted was to go to university and spend a year abroad and have lovers and chaos and loneliness and be responsible for no one but myself for a while.
But I’d been raised in a punitively strict religious environment, and some deep-down solid part of me truly believed that I would be a murderer if I chose not to have my baby. I knew rationally that this was not true but the kernel of belief still existed.
Also, I had not anticipated being overtaken by an impulse I can’t explain. The moment the stick turned blue I felt suddenly and fiercely protective of the little life inside me. Academically I knew that to have a baby in my teens was not a good idea. On an animal level though, it felt like the absolute best idea. I haven’t felt a pull quite like that before or since. I knew I had a choice, but I also knew that personally, I had no choice.
I threw myself hard and immediately into being the best mother I could possibly be. No alcohol. Whole grains and vegetables. Swimming and walking and afternoon naps. I breastfed my baby until she was a toddler and she shared my bed for a year. I have never regretted a moment of the life I built in those years with my sparky, beautiful, spiky little sidekick.
My little sidekick is in her twenties now, and she’s responsible for no one but herself. She went to university, she flew high, and now she is living a life of lovers and chaos and lie-ins and, I’m sure, occasional loneliness — as though my secret youthful dream had been overlaid on her real life like a transparent slide on a 90s school projector. It is with the strangest mix of pride and nostalgia and envy and wonder that I watch her life happening.
I love her so much and at the same time I can never not remember that once, there was another wide-open path that I didn’t take; and on that path, she wouldn’t be here.
Last Friday night, I watched Saint Frances. I adored it. It’s a perfect hot mess of a film. Its 34-year-old aimless protagonist, Bridget, dislikes children but she becomes a nanny anyway, for something to do. She doesn’t want a boyfriend but somehow she acquires one without really noticing.
She drifts between passions like an adolescent; she is passive, she lets life happen to her, and then suddenly she’s pregnant and casually getting half of the abortion fee via Venmo from the not-boyfriend. We see every tortured second of the pill-induced termination and nothing about the process is glamorized at all. Although she does not weigh up any other choices, the option Bridget chooses is not portrayed as easy.
As I watched it, I was reminded of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, another — very different — indie film that I watched during the summer. That film handles abortion, not as a sub-plot, but front and centre as its main theme.
It deals with the difficulties experienced by a teenager who is a minor and needs to travel secretly out of state to obtain an abortion without telling her parents. It is a super-tense watch, as she and her supportive cousin spend lonely nights in empty train stations, steps or minutes away from potential disasters all the time. My heart was in my mouth the whole time.
Both films show the reality of abortion but from very different perspectives and far-apart life stages. Both films made me think deeply and really to interrogate the deep-down notions I held inside, of choice and of bravery and of my own experience.
Both films (directed by Kelly O’Sullivan and Eliza Hittman respectively) made me wonder how I would have reacted to the news of my own teenage pregnancy if I had been born twenty years later and if any films like these two had existed then; if conversations, even, such as those portrayed in both films had ever been shown anywhere. If I had heard other stories. If my worldview had been a bit wider.
I believe that if I had watched films in my youth like these, like ones that are being made now, my life would have turned out differently. I don’t think I would have become a teenage parent.
Knowing how strongly I felt when I discovered my pregnancy, I still don’t think I would have terminated the pregnancy. But I do think that I would have been less laissez-faire about birth control in the first place. Knowing the reality of what was involved and the facts about how things could go I believe I would have checked my privilege, sought out the Pill far sooner, and as such, the choice I was faced with might not have been one I ever needed to make.
I feel slightly breathless when I think about this. It sends my mind along spirals I can’t seem to get to the bottom of. I can never and will never regret the existence of my eldest daughter. At the same time, I can recognise and even live comfortably with the fact that her existence was once, albeit briefly, such a precarious thing.
And that is because (although in a different life, with different influences, it might not have arisen at all), when it did, the choice was always mine to make.
The point about choice, I think, strikes right to the heart of what makes the pro-choice/pro-life debate such a delicately structured and emotive one. It hinges so often on such minuscule nuances of circumstance and emotion and it is so very, very personal. It becomes very hard to not judge, reflexively, those who made the opposite choice to our own, and yet there is never a more important time not to make that judgment.
This is exactly why the opportunity for both decisions needs to be kept wide-open for every woman. It’s why the pro-choice movement is so very vital and why I am vehemently behind it. And I believe that it’s also why the arts matter so very much, and why the intersection between feminism and the arts is utterly key.
The timing of the films I watched recently — and the irony of my impression, after watching them, that because such stories are being told there is somehow less shame and more choice — is not lost on me. Abortion was illegal in part of the UK (Northern Ireland) until as recently as last year and I know that “heartbeat bills” have swept across America in recent months, severely curtailing women’s choices and setting back our progress. And yet. And yet.
While the wider world and the political landscape seem determined to push back our reproductive freedom, women’s creative voices are still being heard. We are still telling our stories. In films like the two I mention here; in songs like Emmy the Great’s We Almost Had a Baby; in books like Terri White’s blisteringly raw Coming Undone. On blogs and on websites like Medium.
The louder we speak, the more likely it is that our words will filter through to the people who need to hear them. To the seventeen-year-old girl who wonders whether to go and get the pill yet. To the one that wonders whether or not to have her baby.
To the one who, thanks to the stories she has heard and their almost imperceptible influence, never has to consciously consider any such choices at all.