An article in this weekend’s Globe and Mail awoke some powerful emotions in me. In “Motherhood gets a raw deal from feminists,” Camille Paglia argues for a massive adjustment adjustment of our tyrannically rigid system of higher education:
“Universities must must adapt to women students who choose to have children early. Once admitted, students of either sex should have the option of part-time study or lengthy leaves of absence. This humane flexibility would also enrich the campus environment. Married students responsible for children would revolutionize the current academic discourse about gender, which is too often arrogantly divorced from practical reality.”
I suddenly recalled an open letter I wrote to the University of Toronto back in 2009, shortly after giving birth to my first son and surviving the worst year of my life. Paglia’s words echoed my own, crying for a readjustment of our system to accommodate those of us who don’t fit the stereotypical ‘university student’ mold. I never ended up sending it. It felt too raw, too recent, too painful. Here it is now, though rereading it is still painful for the memories it awakens.
To the University of Toronto:
When I saw an exhibit at U of T for the pro-life association, I told the organizer that exactly a year ago I was making that very choice between continuing a pregnancy and having an abortion. I can now say that I am a success story – someone whose baby has become the greatest joy and blessing of my life. My six-month-old son makes me smile every second I think about him.
But I felt angry as I looked at that exhibit – so simplistic, so black and white, so removed from the reality that girls like myself must face when we become pregnant. I really wonder how many of those pro-lifers have been in my shoes; very few, I suspect. Now my own view on abortion has changed dramatically.
I will never condemn anyone for having an abortion because it is impossible to know the emotional struggle a woman is battling. No one can ever make that decision for a woman; it must come from within herself. Instead of fighting over whether it’s right or wrong, people should start focusing on changing a system that is unfriendly and even cruel to pregnant girls. We need greater support than ever, and these are the things that have to change if anyone wants a decrease in abortion rate:
Childcare: We need better and cheaper child care options for student moms. The backlog of waitlists and sky-high prices (~$1300/month for a child under 18 months) is appalling. If I knew I didn’t have to worry about finding childcare in order to continue my studies, my decision would have been easier. Instead, I chose to keep my baby while knowing I might have to sacrifice school altogether for a number of years. Fortunately, my mom agreed to come one day a week, driving 3 hours each way, to watch my baby while I went to class.
Living arrangements: For someone like me, who values independence and lives hours away from family, the prospect of moving back home is terrifying, but sometimes it’s the only option. Few people are interested in subletting rooms from a pregnant mother-to-be, let alone a single mom with an infant. There should be a housing network to connect these young women, who are still ambitious and independent despite being pregnant. We don’t want shady welfare housing – just a place that is still healthy, beautiful, and conducive to living as independent young mothers.
Finances: I don’t qualify for OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) as a part-time student. I was told not to worry about money, to talk to Awards & Admissions. I have not yet seen a cent, and it’s been months. Fortunately my parents could pay my tuition. I’ve applied to several bursaries and grants, but the red tape is never-ending. I can survive off of EI (because I had a two-year permanent part-time job – again, just luck) and child support. I am eligible for funding only if I’m a full-time student, which would give me enough to live and study, but still the question of who would take care of my infant is not addressed. Obviously, the question of me wanting to be with my child seems to be disregarded as impossible. There is no one saying, “You can do this, and this is how.”
Emotional support ends after pro-life counseling. So a young girl decides to keep her baby. She’s inundated with information about the weekly developments of her fetus, but what about taking charge of her uncontrollable emotions after making that choice? There’s no sense of relief after deciding — just raw terror. It’s too painful to join a group of women in their 30s who are overjoyed with their bellies. (That’s why I dropped out of prenatal yoga; I couldn’t take the happiness.) Attending undergraduate classes with a growing belly is tough. There should be a group for pregnant students, or even a broader Toronto group of young women with unexpected pregnancies – who are normal, middle-class girls NOT on welfare or living in a ghetto or under 19 years of age. I could have joined the single moms’ group through the Family Care Office, but it didn’t fit my needs. There was nothing else for me. I fit in nowhere.
As for counselling for our shattered relationship, thankfully my boyfriend’s benefits covered the $200/hour fee. After the first session, I did hear that the psychologist had a sliding scale and would have been willing to lower the price for me, an indebted student, but I did not know that beforehand, and I’m sure many other girls would be reluctant to call and ask.
Adoption needs to seem less forbidding and confusing. I sent out one email to inquire and got a negative response, telling me to contact another agency. That was enough of a turn-off from an already painful process not to bother again. Maybe holding openhouses, places for comfortable dialogue between mothers considering it as a possibility – NOT as a decision – and prospective parents. There needs to be more dialogue.
Girls need legal counsel. I felt pressure from my boyfriend and his family that could barely be counteracted with support from my own. The added stress of receiving hate-mail, of getting ultimatums from my boyfriend’s mother, of having his father plead with me to give it up for adoption is overwhelming. I now live with a small, ever-present fear that my son’s grandmother might seek vengeance. I sometimes think I need a security system for my home. I managed to get one hour of legal counselling over the phone, but that’s only because I’m a student. The lawyer was helpful, but cut our conversation short while prompting many more questions. I had no one to ask when the occasional questions came to mind regarding rights and claims to the child.
Birth. This was the only area where I had total support, but only because I had a midwife, who managed to bypass the impossible wait list because she’s my aunt and felt sorry for me. I didn’t know I had to contact anyone, had no idea getting a midwife is so competitive, didn’t even know when I should call a doctor because there was no one to tell me. But once I was accepted into the clinic, I felt embraced, my doubts were understood and supported. Questions about adoption came up even in later months, only because I continued to cry whenever I saw a picture of a newborn. The midwife respected my grief, understood the lack of joy, and respected it. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am to have had that care from beginning to end. Obviously her psychological support could only go so far, but by taking such good care of me physically, it did grant much peace of mind. I felt fearless in labour because of her care.