24th December 1991, midnight mass at 21:00 hrs.
I sat and stared at the altar, at the priest holding up the sacrament, and I trembled. I felt it. I was sure that I felt it. My period had started! It was due today, and I’d made frequent trips to the toilet to check if it had started but until now, this moment in church on Christmas Eve, it had kept me in suspense. I closed my eyes and breathed out.
After communion, when the others wanted to leave mass early, I followed. I was eager to get home and to make sure that I was bleeding. I rejoiced in the pain to come. The frosty night was sharp through my thin coat, but I had my scarf pulled over my nose, and his warm hand was holding mine, and that was all. With our heads down against the cold wind, we returned to my parents’ house quickly; I didn’t say a word the whole way, except to call goodbye to our friends as we all went separate ways. I stretched a smile, called out Happy Christmas and reminded myself that I love Christmas. Once in the door I ran up the stairs, skipping the creaky step, wearing my coat. My younger siblings were already asleep, their dreams smiled from plump pillows and freshly washed hair. Holding my breath I sat on the toilet and wiped. Nothing. There was nothing. I was still pregnant. I was still with child. I’d only had sex once, and I was fifteen. And I was pregnant.
My mouth went dry, and lead filled my limbs. Of course, I was pregnant and going to mass on Christmas Eve wasn’t going to change anything. My hands went cold, so cold that I wondered if this was what death felt like, and my face was numb. Whole face dental numb. Dribbling soup and tea numb. I hadn’t realised that I wanted, so much, to be proven wrong, to have God call out- hey! I heard ya! I can sort this all out.
I came back down the stairs slowly, skipping the creaky step, drank coffee slowly, to warm up, and blamed my mood on having gotten too cold on the way home. We watched television, well at least I think we did and then he went home. Leaving me pregnant, alone in my single bed with my sister breathing gently in the bed across the room. I tried to sleep.
6th January 1992, Henry Street, Dublin.
The sales were going strong, and we had another few days off school. A group of us had gotten the train to spend our Christmas money in the sales, on clothes, Doc. Martens, and maybe some music. I was holding my money tightly and wondering how much a pregnancy kit would cost? Would I have enough? Should I buy one here, in Dublin, where no one knew me and no one could talk about me? I’d heard the talk before about girls, or young women, who had gotten pregnant outside of marriage, and it wasn’t nice. I’d heard talk of the men who had had great nights out and one night stands, and what I’d heard wasn’t nice. But it was not the same not nice, it was just different. One conversation was filled with disgust, head shaking, tutting and finger pointing. The other was filled with bravos, back slapping and triumph. I knew what lay ahead of me, and that it would be worse: for I was the quiet one and I was only fifteen. It wouldn’t matter how I’d gotten pregnant, or how it’d happened, or who the father was because I’d be tarred with the same brush as all the other unmarried mothers. I must be provocative, promiscuous, sluttish. Easy. I must be unruly, have no sense, and, they would speculate if I knew who the father was?
I must be all of these things.
I would be punished by becoming famous for my sexual experience, destined to be the sole conversation for the entire population of this town, and the next one, and the village beyond that. My family would be criticised. My parents looked down on, pitied. I would be free for all sorts of non-solicited advice on what I should do with the child that grew inside me. Adoption, abortion, adoption, abortion, adoption adoption adoption.
I’d only had sex once. Not only was that a sin, I’d enjoyed it too. Women weren’t supposed to enjoy sex. I must be a hussy. It’s no wonder I got pregnant.
The bustling crowds of the streets and the markets were easier to navigate than my thoughts. I went home empty handed.
12th January 1992, babysitting at 21:00 hrs.
I bought a test, a pack of two, last Friday, in the chemist across the road. I lied and said it was for my aunt. The woman just nodded and handed me the package and I raced home. I pored over the instructions. I went over them again. I urinated and followed the instructions, followed every dot, every cross. I waited the hours until the result could be read – I really was pregnant now that it was confirmed. I didn’t breathe much during those hours. I sat, with my back against the radiator, my feet against my bed and held myself tight.
Then on Monday my aunt called in. My parents were at work, so we were practically alone, as alone as one can be in a house full of siblings and their Christmas toys. She asked me straight out, and I said yes. She got me to take the second test and promised to talk to my parents. I went babysitting as I usually did on a Monday night. It was a good stint, they were business people with two darling girls, whom I adored. And they were kind and generous. Mam called in just after ten, upset and holding back her tears. Later that night Dad arrived home from work to the news. He must’ve been upset. They could’ve screamed at me. Instead I was hugged and kissed and held as reality sank in.
The first hospital appointment had me terrified. I was absolutely in love with him, and he me. We were a team, and we were going to do this together. But there was a terror that he’d be prosecuted because I was underage, but then so was he. We were supporting each other, and our parents were trying their best. It wasn’t an easy year. Again came the advice, only this time there was only one option given: adoption adoption adoption. Because what did I think was going to happen now? Of course! He’d leave me. That’s what they do, they all said. Where will you be in five years? Left holding the baby, in a dingy bedsit desperate for someone to pluck me from obscurity and cleanse me my sins, to take on another man’s child… that’s a big ask of any man. They said.
I didn’t go out much after word got out. By going out I mean, leaving the house. It wasn’t worth the stares and the gaping mouths. It was a long, hot summer. Heated in more ways than one. Talk was cheap and it flowed like beer in a free bar.
Advice was dispensed from every oracle. Like I said, talk was cheap. Everyone had a solution. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone thought that they knew me, knew what I was like. Talk is so very cheap, and talk escalates and before you know it, there’s the biggest game of chinese whispers going on that the world has ever seen. I’d only had sex once. I didn’t go out much that summer.
September 1992, The Coombe Maternity Hospital, Dublin.
The long summer inside had given me plenty of time to read, so by the time I was admitted to hospital I was able to tell the medical students a thing or two. I thought that being forewarned was being forearmed. Labour felt as if I was a cow in calf, forceps, shouting, crying and bellowing and my mother fought to have him by my side while I laboured. It would have destroyed me if I’d had to be without him, and I needed him to see this, to understand what this was, what it meant, to not leave me. Never to leave me.
My baby was delivered. I was unconscious and I didn’t see her for three days despite my wish to breastfeed her. He kicked up a row once he realised that I had been left alone with only a blurred Polaroid to cradle. I let the realisation that I was a statistic sink in, and relished the empty ward in which I was placed. Once I had her in my arms nothing else mattered. Those few days, cocooned away from the Talkers, were bliss, while he was dragged away to wet the baby’s head.
The gifts and well wishes were unexpected. I arrived home and a flurry of well-wishers called. It lifted my spirits and within eight weeks I was back in school, back studying and this time I held my head high on the walk to school. Talk soon subsided. Me and him together. Family. Family. Family is a magical thing, and it’s also indefinable. To me, we were family: me, him and her. But by law we most certainly were not. Strange that. Marriage was the only way to clear that little misunderstanding up. But we didn’t know that at the time. To me, marriage was a public commitment that I was going to be with, to love, and to share my whole life with another person that I found so amazing that I just couldn’t live without. I wanted to show the world that we were a team, a force to be reckoned with, that we had each other’s backs. That we were interesting enough to each other to want to spend a lifetime together learning, sharing, talking, loving, dancing, singing, holding hands, disagreeing, making up. That we enjoyed each other’s company so much that we couldn’t bear to part.
We married in 1996, the same year that the last Magdalene Laundry closed in Ireland. I wasn’t aware. I’d never even heard of the laundries – wasn’t I lucky? I also wasn’t aware that only 6 years previously it had become a crime for a man to rape his wife. Before 1990 he could have sex with her whenever he wanted, and there would be no support for her decision to say no. Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I have been. Born in the 1970s, growing up in the 1980s and a mother in the 1990s – yet somehow these decades saved me from the past lives of other women. Having always seen myself as an independent entity, despite being a couple and deeply in love, when I discovered how recently the laws had changed regarding women and marriage I was shocked, upset. How close had I been to being ruled because of my gender? If I had been presented with the same set of rules I think I’d have remained unmarried despite the love. Why would I enter into a situation that held me hostage, one which made me, and him, unwilling advocates of a form of Stockholm syndrome?
For a long time women have been made to feel that how their body works, how the natural process of being a woman, is a hindrance. What is unnatural are the many attempts to subdue and reform women, to control and mould women. Women are women. We menstruate, we cry. Our weight fluctuates, our figures change shape over our lifetimes. We love, we hate, we care, we think. We are capable of doing pretty much anything. We don’t need to be changed. We need to be accommodated.
We are natural.
And we are stigmatised for being natural. For being human beings. It doesn’t make sense to stigmatise when the onus is on us all to accept the wider diversity of life that inhabits this planet. Open minds and clear thoughts are needed to even begin to attempt to understand the amazing and varied forms of life that surrounds us all. Humans have the power to advance themselves through exploration and love. It’s a powerful ability which is abused and mistrusted. But once it begins, it makes life easier. When you just love, the living really begins, don’t you think? Which statistic are you? The one which discriminates and points fingers making life that much harder for the statistic that you are looking at? Or the one that supports another human when life is not so easy for them?