Friday, November 16, 2012

A Dark Place: Unplanned Pregnancy, Unexpected Danger

When I found out I was pregnant, I cried for what felt like weeks. My husband and I both wanted a baby so badly, but we didn't have enough money to afford it, and our future was so uncertain. My husband isn't an American citizen, and we were still waiting to find out what would happen with his permanent residence application. I had a job, but he had not been granted a work authorization permit yet, and we didn't know if he would be, or when. I had applied for food stamps previously, but because my husband was not a citizen, he was not counted as a member of my family, and my $30 over the limit salary was rejected as too much money to qualify. I didn't qualify for any of the aid programs available except MedicAid either, but health insurance doesn't put a roof over one's head.

At first my mom was supportive and told me that she might be able to help with childcare, and that money should not be the deciding factor in whether or not a couple keeps their baby. But the next time we spoke she had changed her mind, and offered no more advice except to talk about how expensive babies are, and to tell me that she had morning sickness during her entire pregnancy, as if that should somehow dissuade me from having my baby.

The prevailing attitude among pro-lifers seems to be that women who choose to get an abortion do so nonchalantly, preferring not to disrupt their lives of alleged wanton unprotected sex with multiple partners, alcohol and drugs. The day that I went to Planned Parenthood, where the staff treated me with such care and courtesy, I sat with three other women in the private room where you wait to be called to your ultrasound. There was not one smiling face, not one word spoken. We all sat, the television in the corner flashing images of carefree people who weren't struggling with the decision to keep their own child, all of us tense and quiet. We shot careful glances at each other, surely comparing ourselves, trying to gauge what "sort" of women we all were. We were none of us alike, and yet all of us had this silent thing in common. We weren't sure if we would keep our pregnancies.

The doctor and the sonographer were both very kind. By Texas law, they were required to turn the screen toward my face and play a heartbeat if there was one. But they told me I could look away, and that if I didn't want to hear the heartbeat, I wouldn't have to, they would let me wear headphones that played ocean sounds while they met their legal obligations. That law is so ridiculous, the staff and I agreed. Its makers seem to think that I didn't have any emotional connection to my pregnancy whatsoever, that it would take seeing a blob on a screen for me to realize the magnitude of what was going on inside my body. Cold, callous idiots.

It turned out that there was no heartbeat yet, no fetal column, just a sac implanted in the wrong place. I had a rare cervical ectopic pregnancy. I had to go to the emergency room, and I was checked into the hospital that same day. I stayed for a week, receiving multiple doses of methotrexate, a form of chemotherapy that dissolves the tissue, which my body would then absorb. But because the cervix is so vascular, there is a risk of hemorrhaging, which could lead to an emergency hysterectomy or even death. It was a terrifying, harrowing experience. I thank all the powers that be, and modern medicine too, that I survived with my body intact. Others are not so lucky.

After the terror of that experience had begun to subside, my husband's sister in Iceland had her baby, a healthy, beautiful little boy. It was only after we talked to them on video chat and I saw her smiling face, and her husband's and mother's, that I was able to process the loss of my pregnancy, and allowed myself to cry and grieve it. You see, I had felt that I didn't deserve to feel sad over losing a pregnancy I almost terminated because I couldn't afford it financially.

I am a feminist, and I always have been. I have always been pro-choice. I have always wanted to be a mother. I have always felt that pregnancy and childbirth are beautiful, miraculous things, and I still do. But when I was pregnant, and it was unexpected, and I went to too many people for advice and heard too many conflicting opinions, and when my own parents offered no support, just told me to make my own decision and then barely spoke to me except in loud, overly casual and upbeat tones, not acknowledging the sorrow in my or my husband's eyes, making cruel jokes about my potentially becoming a welfare case... I felt dirty and ashamed. I suddenly understood all the horror stories I'd heard from other women, stories that I hadn't understood until now. How could someone feel dirty and ashamed of being pregnant? Sex is nothing to be ashamed of, and pregnancy certainly isn't. How is it possible to be married and employed and still not to be able to afford a baby? Aren't there programs for people like that? I found out all of these things are possible when it happened to me.

My own parents didn't comfort me after that initial conversation. My mother, a Scandinavian who was a single mother when I was born, then ended up marrying my father (a federal government employee) and being a stay-at-home mom for going on thirty years now, is against providing help for people who are in the situation I was. She was even against helping her own daughter. "Hey, you got MedicAid, didn't you?" Yes, and I will be eternally thankful for the MedicAid I received. We are still waiting to see what we will have to pay from the hospital stay, what will and won't be covered. But all the MedicAid in the world didn't change the fact that I wouldn't have had enough money to keep my own baby, had the pregnancy been viable.

My husband's sister and her fiance are both in school in Iceland. She gets a year of financial support from the government for maternity leave (my employer provided twelve weeks), and her husband gets ten months. When I tell my parents I think my husband and I may go back to Europe so that if we ever get pregnant again and everything is safe and healthy, we could actually manage to keep the baby. My mom says that since Obama was reelected we'll end up getting help here, since he believes in "entitlement". She says it as a barb, we have a challenging relationship. But I tell her that people who earn less than $65,000 per year love their kids just as much as anyone, and do deserve to be able to keep their children if they want to. She says that she never said that people who don't earn much don't love their children, but she never puts two and two together. She just doesn't want to pay more taxes, that's fine, that's her opinion and she has a right to it. But I get the distinct feeling that she is able to conveniently lump me, her own daughter, into a group of lazy ne'er-do-wells, who she must feel could earn enough to keep their kids if they really wanted to, or if they hadn't made whatever decisions they did in the past that got them to where they were. In other words, if they had done everything "right" the first time, they wouldn't be where they are now and would be fine. So it's their own fault and that's that.

My whole view of America and capitalism changed the day I saw those two lines on the pregnancy test. What should have been one of the happiest days of my life was terrifying and sorrowful. I shouldn't have had to picture my little baby's face and know that I would not be able to see it in real life, would never hold my already intensely loved child because I had no way to pay to keep it healthy, fed, housed, clothed, educated. In other countries, a full-time student counts as a full-time employed person who deserves help to be able to raise their baby in the first year and then return back to school to finish their degree. Here, we would never have been able to spend our baby's first year with it, because we both would have had to work full-time to keep our apartment and pay for childcare. You work your ass off to be able to pay someone else to raise your child. My husband would not have been able to go to college without sending us into a lifetime of crippling debt. I would have had twelve weeks with my baby and then had to hand it off to a day care center. Why do we have to choose between life and work?

My pregnancy wasn't a normal, healthy one. It was a dangerous one that would have killed me or rendered me infertile if it hadn't been for an appointment with Planned Parenthood that I made before my employer's health insurance went into effect. I am thankful every day to be alive and to one day be able to possibly get pregnant again, maybe next time it will be all right.

No one should ever be too rich for welfare but too poor to live a "normal" life. No one should have to be made to feel lazy, dirty, or ashamed for not being in the "perfect" situation to raise a family. No one should have their own parents call them welfare cases, or blame them somehow for the fact that their salary isn't what it would have been thirty years ago.

People who haven't been there don't understand. One of my friends was on drugs and homeless when she found out she was pregnant. She qualified for and receives government assistance, lives with her mom while she is finishing her degree. She is clean and sober and I couldn't be more proud of her. But she would not listen to me when I told her that she really does have more support than I did, in fact she said she was almost offended that I would even compare myself to her at all. She had a place to live once she found out she was pregnant, she had financial help from her mom and the government, and she had free childcare (the child's paternal grandparents) while she went to school. She started out homeless, destitute and addicted, and because of wonderful programs that she qualified for as a result, she got all the help she needed. I have an apartment, a job and a spouse, but I couldn't get the help I needed to make it work.

People make you feel like you have to justify the most painful decision you've ever had to make. They'll make you justify it through your wracking sobs and tell you you're wrong. They don't want to see you as pained or suffering in that moment, they want to see you as spoiled, lazy and selfish. The woman who can't keep her own baby feels more alone than anyone could imagine. A kind word goes further than anyone could imagine.

I am an educated, employed woman who was raised in the middle class. I could not afford to keep my pregnancy if it had not been a life-threatening one that needed to be terminated in order to allow me to live. The people I loved looked at me as lazy and selfish when I needed them the most. No one should have to go through that. We need to change our society from one of competition to one of cooperation and compassion, and we need to do it now.