All because of an absurdly simplistic pro-life exhibit at my university

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.

What kept me going…

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.

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15 thoughts on “All because of an absurdly simplistic pro-life exhibit at my university

    1. Thanks, Deborah. Sometimes it’s tough to stir up past, so it means a lot to hear positive feedback.

  1. Motherhood do not fit in the academic and business world – this is what they want us to believe but obviously nature has a different opinion. For Greek standards, I am not normal that I am studying while married and being a mom. I do believe women can accomplish everything with the right social support.

    1. Absolutely. Women are determined, and will do what they need to do regardless of that support, but it sure makes it tough at times. If only that system would change…

  2. My parents would sympathize – they had me and my sister in the 2nd and 4th years of their undergrad studies. Engineering was hard enough without kids, I can’t even imagine how they did it!

  3. I have had students, and fellow grad students, who are parents and even when planned, partner has non-student job, etc, children do not “fit” the university mold. This is a problem. Even though these students are super hard working, there are not the appropriate supports to balance out the intense inequalities between students with children, and those without them. I will now be on the look-out for pregnant students/with kids/who come talk to me to see how/if I can confront the university bureaucracy. and maybe write my own angry letters that I might never send.

    1. Yes, ‘inequalities’ is a good way of saying it — I never thought of it in that way. Having a TA/prof who is aware of those discrepancies would be a huge help to many students, I’m sure. It seems that’s there more of a move in the direction of reforming education, which is good. With family student housing and more mature students, hopefully the system will move in that direction. Parent students have so much to offer a school, a maturity of perspective that naive 18-year-olds simply don’t get. Mostly my heart just goes out to the girls who don’t have supportive families like mine, because that really messes things up.

  4. This actually really opened my eyes to the needs of pregnant and parenting students. I recently stumbled upon this website: PregnantonCampus.org, which looks promising. You’re right that women who find themselves in unplanned pregnancies need a network of support for the needs you mentioned in your letter. Perhaps if we change enough students’ minds about abortion, they’ll be more willing to fight for improved accommodations for parenting students at their university.

  5. Love this …..
    … I had a crisis pregnancy when I was 19…. Found out I was pregnant two weeks after I broke up with my boyfriend ( “because he was a stupid idiot and entirely beneath me.”)
    Moved to Colorado found an open adoption agency and planned to place my child with parents I found through them.
    I took a couple classes at university of Colorado and got to know some students on campus..,, when other women heard my story it was like flood gates opened for them.
    Most had a story to share about their crisis pregnancy .., all ended in abortion.
    Sometimes we would go out for coffee or huddle in my car with the heat on and cry together …, both of us crying for the same reasons I guess….. Sharing and comforting.
    Souls I have never seen again.
    Long and the short is… I kept my daughter but didnt decide that until a week after she was born (long story)
    Flew home with my baby to the estranged idiot boyfriend not knowing what to expect…
    18 months later we were married ….lol

    There is so much more to the story…
    my story….
    Brave beautiful souls I met during my pregnancy … So many more over the years..
    So much heartbreak from their abortions… All to a different degree. Women in mourning with NO ONE to listen.
    …. Whether some of those women found peace, I’ll never know…. Some that I know now are still haunted by it… Two women in fact got pregnant only once and never again… No matter hiw hard they tried (when everything was perfect, finally had the money and the right man) they are both in their 50’s now. One friend found peace by finally being able to forgive and love herself again… The other is horribly tortured by her 30 year old abortion.
    Something you said in your original post that touched me very deeply… Something that I have heard again and again from abortion survivors was… “I felt like I had no choice”
    …. Some women will have an abortion and never look back, that’s fine, but what about the women that fall somewhere in the middle?

    Thank you for addressing these issues.
    This post is brilliant…. Thank you for writing it…. And thank you for creating this forum so that I can remember cherish the beautiful but sad memories of women I haven’t thought about in years….

    Ps. My husband and I will celebrate 20 years of marriage in October (and 4 kids)
    Lmao! Life is a crazy ride 🙂

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