HEALTH WARNING: I warned you I was planning something a bit different, and it won't be to everyone's taste. If you have strong views or particular sensitivities on reproductive matters you might want to head somewhere else for today. I'll be back on the nonsense tomorrow, I promise.
In our flat in Newman Street in the middle of London. I was twenty six, I'd only been off the Pill for about two months, but no period, so I thought it was worth a shot. My hands were shaking so much I screwed the first one up and had to use a second. I peed in a cup to make sure I didn't screw it up again. Negative. Anticlimax. I had about five or six more negatives in the next 8 months. By then, my hands didn't shake anymore. I could pee on a stick with my eyes closed.
Still twenty six. My first day on secondment to a pharmaceutical company in the arse end of nowhere. I barely even knew where the loos were, but blundered my way there with a test bought on the way in at Waterloo Station, hidden in my handbag. I was definitely feeling a bit strange, though I had long since stopped trusting my own judgment. I had an intense desire for pretzels though.
It was positive right away, a bright, definitive blue line. I couldn't stop staring. I kept opening my handbag and staring in, in case the line would disappear, or in case it was an optical illusion. My new colleagues must have thought I was bizarrely cheerful, in those early weeks - I felt like one of the Readybrek kids, glowing nuclear orange with happiness. I'm not normally like that at all (you may have noticed). I didn't tell the CFO for 2 days. Not because I was at all conflicted, but because I wanted to keep it just for me for a while. I took out the test and stared at it a LOT and kept it in my knicker drawer like a relic until we moved house four years later.
At work. Aged twenty eight. Two pink crosses, this time. Blasé, I had downgraded to the cheaper tests. I had been feeling headachy, but not much else. I had had a negative the week before, so didn't really believe it. I can't even remember where I bought this one, it was such a long shot. Maybe on Holborn? I called the CFO straight away, this time. We'd been trying for six months.
"Yeah! Brilliant, isn't it?"
That one joined the knicker drawer reliquary too.
Not so long after that
Just turned thirty, which I reckon, on balance, was the worst year of my life, to date. In the basement of a crappy bar in the 17th arrondissement. In stupid, officious Paris you can't just pick a test off the shelf, you have to ask the pharmacist. Went about five miles looking for a pharmacy I'd never have to go near again, with a pharmacist that didn't scare me silly. Ended up near Lashes' nursery. Fingers (8 months) was with Charline, a girl who was supposed to mind him for a few hours a week while I interviewed for jobs. Ordered a coffee, went off to pee, came back with the test in my handbag (it was one of the slow ones) to drink my coffee and watch. Two lines.
Paris was full of mistakes. We shouldn't have been there in the first place (we moved six months after mum died, three months after Fingers was born, the Space Cadette was still living with us). We shouldn't have been in that area (kids didn't wear Bonpoint, I looked like post-natal shit in the chic-est, most BCBG neighbourhood imaginable, the neighbours complained about us, the concierge thought we were trailer trash), I sure as hell shouldn't have got pregnant. I really hadn't wanted to believe this. Sure, I'd been feeling sick over Christmas, but who doesn't? And then, when in dragged on and on into January, this pervasive, continual nauseau, doubt began to set in. I can't remember who first suggested it. The CFO, perhaps?
But I was so conditioned to look at that positive as, well, positive. Told Violet straight away. Took about a week to tell the CFO, nervously, sick to my stomach, as if sharing it with him would finally make it real. Spent days barely coping with boys, constantly, debilitatingly nauseous (to think that with Fingers I had been so freaked out by the lack of nausea I had pleaded with the obstetrician to get an early scan, convinced the pregnancy wasn't viable). Evenings spent mute, staring at each other, trying to work out what we thought, what the other thought, and what to do. Neither of us able to articulate. Half horrified, but still, despite ourselves, half excited.
We went to the doctor, all four of us (no babysitter). Went through the motions for a une interruption volontaire de grossesse , booked in for a dating scan, the CFO started ringing round clinics. It's not easy to get une IVG in Paris. Like everything in Paris, it's oversubscribed, busy, crazy, the law of who shouts the loudest wins out. The CFO finally found a date in a far flung clinic, that seemed like an outlandishly long time away, oh, and the clinic insisted on general anasthetic (which I was, am still, insanely phobic of). We didn't particularly feel we had committed to it. We were "keeping our options open", or at least I was. I went (alone) for a scan with a technician who didn't seem to have read, or didn't care, or perhaps even did care, that this was a grossesse non-desirée, who turned the screen towards me, showed me the blood vessels, the umbilical cord, the heart, beating. Came out, reeling, thinking there was no way I could go through with it, not after that.
Went to the hospital and got lectured by the doctor, like a feckless teenagers. We deserved it. We had been stupid - I had thought that breastfeeding, virtually never having sex and sub-optimal fertility would be sufficient protection. It had taken plenty of planning to have our children. I just couldn't conceive of getting pregnant accidently, after all that. Saw the anaesthetist, who told me I ought to lose some weight (I must have been an outrageous 55 kilos, 120 lbs - ah, Paris!). Right up through the shower the night before, ritually, harshly scrubbing with the prescribed special anti infection soap (ah, France), cutting my nails, planning the metro route (the CFO had to stay with the kids, we were completely alone in Paris), I wasn't thinking I'd really go through with it. How could I? I'd desperately desired my two boys. Desperately. Had felt nothing but delight, joy, at their conception. Did not regret having them for a second. Why should this be different?
Yet suddenly, that last night, a wave of self-knowledge came crashing through my defences. There was no damn way I could have this baby. Just, no way. We were barely coping, barely speaking, barely surviving. Racked with grief, and isolation. Due to move back to London less than a week later. Even without the mess of circumstance we were tangled in, I finally saw with a little clarity, that I was emotionally incapable of caring for another child. I barely had the slightest idea who I was anymore.
I don't think I cried. I just felt crushingly sad, and stupid. I took the cervix softener, and the antibiotics (ah, France!). No way back from this. Slept a few hours, and sent off for the hospital in the grey dawn, Etoile to Chatelet, and then out to the suburbs. Sat in a small room in a gown and paper shower cap and special socks staring fixedly at the ceiling, not allowing myself to think at all. Just staring at the ceiling and willing time to pass. When they finally came and put the needle in my hand and wheeled me down to the basement I couldn't stop shaking. In fact, the general anasthetic turned out to be the most benign, gentle experience imaginable. I was treated with nothing but kindness and compassion, for the first time in nearly a year in Paris.
After all that thinking, agonising, reasoning ourselves into knots, an abortion takes a matter of seconds. I was in theatre for no more than a couple of minutes. When I was wheeled back to my room, the CFO had arrived, with a thermos of tea, just as he had for me the morning after Lashes was born. The symbolism didn't strike me, though the kindness of the gesture did. We were home within a matter of hours, hiding the plaster on my hand from Charline, who had been looking after the boys. I didn't know for certain what Seventh Day Adventists think about abortion, but I doubted they were whole-heartedly in favour. I spent the day with the fuzzy, deadened sensation of being an invalid, without feeling deserving of invalid status.
And two years after that
Thirty two. I was lying on the sofa in my father's house, recovering from abdominal surgery. It had been way more painful than I had imagined it might be, three days in hospital, morphine, unable to move unaided for nearly a week, sick to my stomach with anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, painkillers. I had put in a nano-appearance at the CFO's Christmas party, trying my hardest to stand up with my giant nylon and velcro corset to hold me in, wincing in a particularly festive fashion. Twenty minutes later I couldn't bear it any more and called a taxi. On the way back, nausea swept over me in an insane wave, and back at my father's I developed a singleminded obsession with making a tuna melt - that, and only that, would stave off the sickness (I never eat cheese. I hate cheese).
Hobbling around the kitchen, I fixed myself a makeshift version and sank back to the sofa. A sick realisation turned my body cold, right to the tips of my fingertips and this time, I just knew. For certain. A slow, agonising limping trip to Boots at Notting Hill Gate and back the next day confirmed it. There was no reason - I was on the Pill, no accidents to my knowledge, and to this day I have no idea how or why.
The CFO came with me to the family planning clinic full of teenagers, who referred me to another clinic on the Chaussée de Wavre, one of the poorest areas of Brussels. There were people in the waiting room with cans of beer at 8 in the morning (not in itself exceptional in Brussels, admittedly) and a number of the clients were quite disturbed. The infrastructure was rudimentary and run down, though the staff were lovely. For some kind of Calvinist reasons, I didn't think of going somewhere "better", even though this reasoning, with hindsight, is ridiculous. It would have made more sense to go somewhere and pay more for it than to take a "cheap" slot from someone who needed it more. I wasn't thinking straight. Again.
Belgium is different. I had to see a psychiatrist, not that she questioned my motives particularly. For my part, I was trying to keep myself on autopilot. I had been through the wringer emotionally and physically, the last time. Since then I had spent months off work and in therapy (not, I should say, directly related in any way to that first abortion), lost ten kilos, and I was on anti-depressants. My mental health was just as shaky as it had been back then. The "excuse" section of my brain told itself about the major surgery, and the morphine and all the other drugs and their unknowable effects. But in reality I didn't even feel I could allow myself to think about this pregnancy. It had to just be over. I couldn't even allow myself the luxury of considering it. It had to not be real for me.
I saw a warm woman in her 50s, who called me tu and gave me a date a week later, a sleeping pill and a scan (no ultrasound theatricals this time). This time, it would be a procedure under local, in the clinic.
Despite the fact that this is only 2 years ago, my memory of the preliminaries is fuzzy. I took something that made the whole process definitive the night before, again, I am fairly sure, I didn't use the sleeping pill she gave me, and slept fairly well. Autopilot is a magical thing. The CFO took me in early the next morning in the car and we sat in the gloomy waiting room with the winos, reading five year old magazines, silently.
In Belgium, you get an accompagnatrice who is a non-medical person, a woman who is just there to hold your hand, to be there, and comfort. It seemed very enlightened to me. The CFO was there too, but I must say, having her there on the other side to hold my hand was a huge comfort. Imagine if you didn't have anyone with you? How good would it be to have someone whose only role is to support you? I haven't thought of it in the last two years, but now that I do, I wonder whether I could, or should, volunteer. It's not seriously painful, but it is very unpleasant. The injections in the cervix that stung like hell. The sensation. The noise. I remember that there was a wooden seagull mobile above my head and staring at it to make sure I didn't look down. And the compassion, and kindness, again of the doctor and the accompagnatrice. And how pale, and pinched, the CFO looked.
It felt longer this time, being conscious throughout. They think, here, that it helps you come to terms with the abortion better if you're fully present throughout. They are probably right. There was less of the surreal binary 'pregnant' : 'not pregnant' of the Paris experience. Next door there was a bed to lie down on for as long as you needed. There were two beds in the room, but thankfully we were the only ones in there. Twenty minutes later we were out, and I was walking down the wintry Chaussée de Wavre, shaky but ok.
No regrets, for the decisions I made. For me, for then, they were unequivocally the right ones. I regret being idiotic enough to get pregnant at all (at least in Paris). And I'm radicalised - I'd fight like a banshee for a woman's right to screw up like me and be able to get a termination. There's nothing like personal experience to politicise, is there?
And no, I'm not pregnant now. Thank God. My knicker drawer has nothing but greying knickers in it. And I don't want to go down any of these roads again, ever.
I don't really know if I should press publish, but I'm going to do it anyway.
There was something else I forgot to say and it is this. People fought to give me this right and I am so grateful. Thank you to those women. Thank you Simone Veil. Thank you David Steel. Thank you, truly, to anyone who marched, or researched, or wrote or protested or litigated for our - for my - reproductive rights. I will never take these achievements for granted.