Choosing Not to Keep the Baby

By Lisa Belkin (Motherlode Blog)

June 16, 2009 / parenting blogs New York Times

When asked for advice, Motherlode readers come through, and last week more than 700 of you poured out your thoughts to Emmie, a young woman unexpectedly pregnant as she is about to start a grueling and prestigious Master’s degree program.

I heard from her yesterday. I will let her explain in her own words what she decided and why. Then I ask you to please return later today to brainstorm ideas on how to transform the surge of compassion that rose up here toward Emmie into real action that can help the many young women who find themselves in her shoes.

Emmie sent me a number of emails laying out her thoughts, and asked me to combine them into one. She wrote:

For my first trip out and about since learning I was pregnant, I went to meet with the director of an adoption agency. He was so supportive and sweet that I walked away choked up but not in tears — it was the first day I didn’t cry. Even though the adoption agency can pay my medical costs and set me up with adoptive parents for maternity shopping, grocery shopping, birthing classes and all kinds of programs, it didn’t feel like enough. I told the director how scared and lonely I’ve been and he just said, “I know. I can tell. We’ll take this one step at a time.” So many of the comments urged me to consider adoption but I already feel so attached to the little zygote inside of me (my friend named it Ziggy) that I don’t think I could carry a baby to term just to give it away. The mere thought of handing my child to someone else, as altruistic as it is, breaks me.

That shifted my thoughts to keeping the baby. My parents have also been reading through the comments and they’ve gained a new insight too. Sure, a baby would be wonderful to have at the Thanksgiving table, but what about the rest of the year? Even though they would love a grandchild, I think they’re starting to understand how hard this will be for me. I talked to my mom yesterday and, even though she isn’t a very tender person, she said something that really stuck with me. I could tell she was really upset when she said, “Honey, this isn’t what I imagined for you. Being pregnant is such a wonderful experience and I wanted you to be surrounded by family and friends. Not like this.” I don’t think my mom has ever really told me what kind of life she’s envisioned for me, she’s always let me wander along. Of all the conversations I’ve had lately, that statement really hit me hard.

A lot of your readers asked if I could take time off from the graduate program. They do not allow for any time off. There’s no deferral, classes are only offered once in the two years, and there aren’t any incompletes. I have been talking to students who are already there, who have had children, who are married and are quite a bit older, and who said it is really hard. I’m looking at 20 hours in class and 20 hours of papers and field research out of the classroom. Students with part-time jobs found it nearly impossible to keep up with the work, and a baby is not a part-time job. They also warned me that professors aren’t just tough, they can be especially harsh to the pregnant women in the program. By the time the baby would be due, there would be papers, projects, research. I can’t miss a single class without risking the whole program, that’s just the way it’s designed. It matters if you show up. We get to work with government programs, the Gates Foundation, and local charitable organizations — this is finally the “real, hands on” experience I’ve been looking for. If I’m not there to turn in a policy paper or a memo, someone else’s child might not get their mosquito net or child support check. What I do matters, not just in my own small world, but in the big picture.

So many readers stressed that it takes a village, and that I would need friends to rally around, but one of the other things I learned lately is that the opposite happens. Already, the few female friends that pledged support have evaporated. My phone is oddly silent and I’m not surprised. It’s hard to be pregnant but, in some ways, I think it’s especially hard to be friends with someone who is pregnant. I know my friends have their own lives and aspirations. They are trying to juggle their newfound responsibilities while lending support but also trying to maintain their independence. There’s a limit to how much you can expect people to chip in and, quite frankly, I don’t think it’s fair to be so needy right now. We’re all vulnerable and we’re all scared and the last thing that my village of college graduates should be raising is a baby. The people I thought I could rely on are absent and it’s heartbreaking.

Readers also brought up options and resources like food stamps, WIC, subsidized child care at the university, maternity leave, etc. All of these resources are wonderful but I could not have applied for any of them. I’m stuck in the middle — too financially stable to qualify for aid, grants, or scholarships, but still too poor to successfully raise a child and go to school. Something had to give when it became clear that nothing was coming my way — not from the university, my family, my friends, or the father.

One good thing that came out of this is that the father of this child stepped up to the plate —– not financially, maybe, but emotionally. I wasn’t expecting him to because, after knowing each other for 12 years, I thought I had him figured out. But he has surprised me. Even though he agrees that terminating the pregnancy is the best option for both of us (he’s broke and I’m going to school), he’s trying desperately to do the right thing. He is scared out of his mind but still managed to offer me a ride to the doctor. Telling him that “everything is going to be all right” made me more confident that abortion is the best option. I firmly believe that there’s nothing to regret here and we didn’t do anything wrong. Birth control fails. People get scared. They underestimate themselves and each other. Everything will be okay. After all of this, I am glad to have him to talk to because I know someone who feels exactly the way I do: angry, frightened, selfish, and desperate to grow up. We may not keep in touch after this ordeal but, at least for now, we’re trying to be stronger and wiser than we are.

Another good thing is that I now really know how important this graduate program is to me. I don’t want to be eight months pregnant and doing field research, I don’t want the strict professors to treat me any more harshly than the other students. I love school and I’m a great student so that’s what I’m going to focus on while I still have the energy to make it look easy.

A few days ago, when I was talking to my mom on the phone, I finally broke down. I said, “It’s just like how everyone said high school would be awesome and it was awful and then college would be great and I hated it and now everyone is telling me that being a mom will suck at first but then it will be wonderful. What if it’s not? I want to do something I enjoy for a change, something for me!” As selfish and childish as it was, it was the truth. I was tired of working so hard to make everything come together under pressure. I finally had my chance, after 3 miserable years at a college my parents adored, to do something all about me and my dreams. I know the world has rules and (this program’s) rules are especially tough, but those were the rules I wanted to play by now. I guess those rules don’t allow for a baby at 22.

Once I came to the decision to terminate the pregnancy, so much of the guilt and sadness I’d been feeling melted away. I felt happy for the first time since finding out and I feel like my family is supportive of my decision. I’m focusing on the child I’ll have in a few years from now with someone I feel safe with and supported by. The life of that child will be infinitely better than this one and, sometimes, I wonder if such a miserable, lonely woman could even have a healthy child. There’s more to being a good birth mother than avoiding alcohol and eating right and I just don’t know if I have it. I’m a responsible girl but maybe that means knowing when you’ve put too much on yourself and it won’t work out.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve given up. I didn’t want to go down without a fight, I wanted to be a tough mother who braved the world for her child. But maybe that’s the truly selfish decision, to expect my baby to understand why there’s no father and no money and no time to spend with mom. How could I raise a confident child under those circumstances? I know it’s been done but I want to do better — that’s the future I envision for myself.

I owe a lot of that to your readers. They asked questions and pointed out arguments I never considered. They were honest, sometimes harsh, but always considerate. The one thing I realized, when I pulled all the comments together, was that a baby is too precious and wonderful to not plan for — I owe the children I have a better head start.

If I get my degree then maybe the path it will take me on will lead me to work on women’s issues. Maybe one day I’ll make a million dollars and start a scholarship program for pregnant graduate students. I can’t believe that nothing good can come of this, I know I’ll do something right one of these days.

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