My baby is 6 weeks old today. There are many things I’m still not used to. The abrupt lurch into wakefulness some time between 2am and 3am. The cloggy tired feeling and cascading exhaustion at random moments of the day. The need to remind myself to eat and drink. The tradeoff between sleep, showering, doing dishes, and precious precious time to just be.
There are things that still feel like miracles every time. The softness of his skin. The deep peace of cuddling him close in those few seconds before he drifts into sleep. The sound of him swallowing my milk with utter content, after so much difficulty getting established with breastfeeding. The way he changes slightly day to day, the feeling that we’re still discovering one another.
There are memories that I can feel fading, as my internal narrative updates itself, adjusts to the reality that he’s here now, I’m a mum.
Vomiting in the birthing pool, and not caring. Realising that I’d been in labour for 30 hours and it still wasn’t time to push. The eerie feeling of scissors cutting into numbed flesh, watching my husband try not to faint as the midwife performed an episiotomy. Being stitched up while my baby was whisked away to NICU to have oxygen pumped into his tiny fluid-filled lungs. That first night, alone, struggling to get out of the hospital bed without disturbing the catheter, so I could pick him up and feed him.
And further back, things I know to be true about the pregnancy but don’t still feel. Those early weeks when I could barely drag myself out of bed. The time I threw up in the dirty washing basket because I didn’t quite make it to the toilet. The emotional turmoil; the time I dropped a plate and burst into hysterical tears. The feeling of being encumbered, limited, vulnerable. The pain in my hip and discomfort sleeping in the final two months. The frustration at the constant policing of pregnancy (step away from the cheese!).
In the 8th week of pregnancy, roughly 42 days after an egg is fertilised, the placenta is established and the embryo becomes a foetus. The foetus will be the size of a blueberry – I remember that from the pregnancy update app. “How’s the blueberry?!” a friend excitedly emailed.
A third of all abortions in New Zealand occur by the end of the 8th week.
Last week I had to take my beautiful, healthy baby into the hospital for a scan (he’s fine). The “peaceful vigil” out front was muted. 40 days for life, a pro-life movement that seeks to end abortion. They smiled at me, and although of course everyone smiles at babies, I felt self-conscious. Yes, I have a baby. That means I’ve just completed the transformational process of pregnancy and childbirth. That doesn’t make me sympathetic to your cause.
I wanted this baby, he was loved before he was born, and for him I was willing to go through the process of pregnancy and labour. But forcing someone to continue with a pregnancy they don’t want is just brutal. The mental health grounds in our abortion law is not being used as a loophole: being made to stay pregnant against your will would be deeply traumatic even for the most robust person.
Oh and by the way, those terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice”, they’re not helping. Because the debate is about access – not whether abortion is morally fraught or not, not whether it ends life, not whether it is a difficult choice; but how it is controlled. If you want to further limit legal access to safe abortion you’re not pro anything, you’re anti-access. However, you could be pro-access and still think abortion is morally wrong. I know a lot of vegetarians who refrain from eating meat for ethical reasons, but somehow manage to respect the rights of others to hold different views. Living in a liberal democracy means that it’s not enough to think you’re right, you also have to convince other people to agree with you. And if you can’t, then tough – you don’t get to just make them do what you want anyway.
Human life is of course a wondrous thing, and even unplanned pregnancy can bring great joy. You betcha I said the shehecheyanu to myself when I saw those two pink lines. But growing a baby is also hard work. It’s not as though you just continue on with ordinary life and wait for the newborn bundle to appear. Many days during pregnancy will be a struggle, and childbirth is a fairly major undertaking. The “right to life” movement not only harms women who’ve had abortions or might wish to access abortion one day, it also feeds into a cultural minimisation of the physical and emotional work involved in creating new people. This minimisation is a significant barrier to real gender equality. When women don’t get enough credit for doing the very thing that ensures the survival of the species, it’s pretty clear who’s running the show. It becomes easy to measure us against a male yardstick and find we fall short. Women, passive givers of life; men, active shapers of the world. Women with children: soft, fragile. Women without: strong, unfeminine. Take up long distance running, people look at you like you’re tough. Get pregnant, people look at you like you’re delicate. Have a baby, people look at you like you’ve gone soft. “Do you sometimes feel like a cow, feeding him?” No. I’m a fucking lioness. Hear me roar.