*Over the past two years I have thought about writing an open, no-holds barred post on my experiences with pregnancy and motherhood as an African-American woman from a lower-income, urban background. A post that I read from a sista on Facebook last week finally gave me the courage to do so. With ‘Not Born to Breed’ I hope to make it plain and show my readers both the joy and pain that come with motherhood as I and my foremothers have felt it*
The cast-iron skillet sizzles after she drops the slice of bologna in it. I watched Grandma at the stove, marveling at the way the bologna popped up, like the belly of a woman with child. The taste of fried bologna was decidedly less marvelous than the view of it being prepared. I hated it actually.
In time I came to detest other staples of our diet. There was the peanut butter that filled Grandma’s cabinet courtesy of Uncle Sam, with stark black and white labels that stood in sharp contrast to what was purchased at grocery stores. And I can’t leave out the packs of Top Ramen, consumed so often that I cannot stand them today. But I knew better than to complain or protest, and eventually I understood. Food stamps came in on the first of the month only and must be stretched accordingly. By middle school I knew my existence was different from that of my classmates. I recognized the disparities and learned of their roots. It wasn’t Grandma’s fault. There were forces at play, forces beyond the control of my rural Southern forbears and their urban progeny decades later.
I grew up in the hood and loved my family but there was a voice in me, forceful and steady. I don’t want THIS. I don’t want my future to mirror my present. I didn’t want a life like this for myself and my children. I clearly saw the legacy of Jim Crow but saw another legacy as well: that of children who were unplanned and unwanted. In my family children came early and often, regardless of the parents ability to provide for them. The Lord will make a way, we said. And make a way the Lord did(with extensive help from social services). But I didn’t want that way. I knew I could not control the structures of my nation but there was one thing I could control: my womb.
In adolescence things changed even more. I watched as my cousins and peers became pregnant. I loved them just as I loved Grandma, Mama and my aunts… but I didn’t want their lives. I didn’t want babies while I was still a kid myself. Watching and silently observing I learned. Though a virgin I became well-acquainted with birth control.When I made the decision to become sexually active in my early twenties I made it a point to be meticulous in my birth control. I had a plan: no children until I finished undergrad, was married, and was twenty-eight years of age or older. I took pride in my plan, in the fact that I took charge of my health and body. But as the saying goes: pride goeth before a fall. My fall came eleven years ago, with my discovery that I was pregnant. The antibiotics I’d taken a month before counteracted the effects of my hormonal birth control. I found out ten days before my 23rd birthday. Having an abortion? Unthinkable. Grandma and the church said it was murder and a sin. Though I knew I was already sinning in the eyes of the church by ‘fornicating’ I was terrified of adding ‘murder’-which is how my faith viewed abortion at any stage- to my rap sheet of sins I’d have to face an angry God with. Grandma also said that if you think you’re grown enough for sex you’re grown enough for a baby. So to my mind that’s all there was to it. It was Grandma’s voice that guided me and solidified my resolve.
I did what I was supposed to do, what my faith and family said I must. But in all they admonished and told me there was much they left out. No one tells you of the loneliness and tears, of the stigma of carrying the child of a man who does not want to be involved. I still remember how the tears scalded my face as I walked to catch the #2 bus on 23rd & Union for my ultrasound on 10/20/2003. It was my Mama’s birthday so there’s no way I could forget. There I was, four months pregnant, walking in the rain alone. By the time I arrived at Swedish Medical Center my jeans were soaked to my thighs. I patiently laid on the table for two hours, hoping to discover the gender of the child I was carrying. However my little one’s umbilical cord remained between their legs the entire time, so I didn’t find out. At the end I was further upset when I was told I couldn’t get pictures of the ultrasound because I didn’t ask for any at the beginning of the procedure. “But this is my first baby; how was I supposed to know that you have to ASK? Why WOULDN’T anyone want an ultrasound picture?”, I protested. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to get a picture, and because the baby and I were both in perfect health my insurance would not pay for another ultrasound.
My religious background stressed the importance of doing the right thing in the face of an unplanned pregnancy. How DARE you make an innocent baby SUFFER, the religious pro-lifers say. How DARE you KILL an innocent child because you are too weak and cowardly to face the results of your sin, they say. What they don’t say is how badly they will judge and shame you even if you heed their sanctimonious advice. They don’t tell you of how they will STILL heap shame and guilt on you-in the name of God and righteousness of course- for “doing the right thing”. Prior to getting pregnant I thought there was some universal rule of decency that meant you didn’t say mean things to pregnant women and make them cry. Even at my Grandma’s funeral during the last trimester of my pregnancy people who’d known me since I was a child felt the need to accost me and tell me of their disappointment in me. At the time I swallowed my pain but I still grit my teeth when I hear pro-life rhetoric today. I know all too well of the hypocrisy and lack of compassion shown to unwed mothers-particularly if said mothers are young Black women.
The irony is that none of it was necessary. I already had plenty of my own shame eating me alive. The religious ideas I was raised with made it inevitable. The ‘saints’ around me didn’t need to say a word; I was already consumed with guilt, drowning in notions of sin, sex and punishment erecting a mental prison that I would not escape from for years. Every callous word from the father of my child, all the scorn and disapproval, all the emptiness I felt each time I attended my prenatal appointments solo-I told myself that I deserved it. I was everything they said I was: a sinner, a failure and a whore.
The pain and shame I carried with my pregnancy, however, abated temporarily with the arrival of my child. Born three weeks after my Grandma’s passing, I connected the new life that emerged from me to the one who just left by giving her part of her great-Grandma’s name. Those early months were decidedly smoother than my pregnancy, mostly due to the fact that my child’s father was in the picture again. “I could never walk away from my child”, Ali said as he gently rocked our two-month old daughter in his arms,”my family and my culture would never tolerate such behavior from me.” I had qualms about trusting him and taking him at his word. The alienation of my pregnancy was not something that had been erased from my mind yet. But Ali was here for the time being, doing everything that he should and more as a father. By the time our daughter was three months old we’d be back together. “We do not have ‘baby mamas'” in my culture”, he said as we discussed our future. It wasn’t a statement made in arrogance or to throw any shade at my culture; it was simply fact. So we began life as a family.We intended to eventually formalize our commitment in his native country of Tanzania with both the customs of his ethnic group and a Western-style wedding. In June 2004 I knew that day was still years away. In the interim, however, there was one thing I was adamant about: there would be no more babies.
I peeped game growing up and I knew how easily it happened. Sistas went from being young, intelligent, and childless and having the world at their feet to stressed and defeated. Within five years of having the first child they wouldn’t be the same. Babies number two and three quickly followed number one. All those hopes and dreams would disappear under the burden of trying to raise a family with little resources and no father around, bodies torn down from the stress of bearing children with little time in between. No no no; I wasn’t about that life. Resolute in my belief that one unplanned pregnancy in life was one too many, I made an appointment at Planned Parenthood and obtained an IUD. Even as a new young mom from an environment that expected me to have kids I refused to accept the notion that I was born to breed.