Abortion tales: Women’s work
Courtesy: Rana Rafik

As told to Ghadeer Ahmed

A child, then another. Two abortions and two births. A uterine tumor, postpartum depression and an individual entity’s struggle to gain its independence from two others that have been completely dependent on it ever since they came to exist. I’m a mother. A mother is my job. This is what I do, what I don’t like to do. This is what I am. My reality is that I’m a mother of two children, the eldest of whom is two and a half years old. I have experienced four abortions: Two were a success, and the other two failed.

On the other side is a man who holds a deep conviction that he is entitled to reject my choice to have an abortion, because “why did he get married if he didn’t want children?” There is one heart awaiting the news of pregnancy in silence. This tedious silence may be broken if I repeat what I told him before we got married. “I don’t want children,” I had said, and he nodded yes. Men receive pregnancy news with joy, because it doesn’t cost them anything. How lovely it must be to bring a person into the world without being physically and emotionally maimed, without having permanent stretch marks and childbirth scars to remind you that you’re a woman, should you ever forget.

They deceive us, my dear. They tell us that our wombs give life in order to dupe us into neglecting our bodies, the bodies that are torn by those lives as they exit them. They start telling us about motherhood when we are still suckling life out of our mothers’ breasts. Much like a production line, one womb passes this duty on to the next, and each breast is connected to its successor. Between the first of them and the last are women who didn’t want to be part of this game. A production cycle that has never stopped and will never stop. Millions of reproducing wombs, and others that are operated on and fertilized to reproduce. Why not? What else are women known for, my pretty, if not for their ability to reproduce? It’s a job that is paid for with love, love in exchange for love. This is the ultimate form of deception. You put your emotions to use with no end in sight. You are consumed for the sake of motherhood, until nothing is left of you. You are drained, both physically and emotionally, with great conviction that motherhood is the highest purpose in life, that life that has just torn you apart.

My beloved daughter, I write to you not knowing if I possess the courage to allow you to read what I wrote. It’s quite taxing to not be able to express what I truly feel, except on paper. Everything around me tells me that I should stomp on my feelings to survive. And it’s not easy to form a distinction between my emotions and my body. They say that motherhood is a blessing, and no one bothers with what we go through. Motherhood is grueling. And every night, I wonder which is worse, to abort a fertilized egg or bring to life an unwanted child.

I found out that I was pregnant at the end of my second year of marriage to your father. What I had been successfully preventing through carefully observing my ovulation had happened. Your father received the news with joy, forgetting that nod of his. I searched for an abortion-inducing drug online. When I started to bleed, we went together to the doctor’s, where I pretended to be surprised and sad, while feeling a little bit joyful and victorious on the inside. The doctor couldn’t tell what I had done, and Mahmoud would never find out. Then, I had my first abortion.

Men don’t forgive this because they think they are entitled to reproduce, even if having children is not really on their mind. It should be a shared decision, after all, but I believe that my body is my own, even if I’m married.

Less than six months later, I was pregnant again. This time, I failed to get my hands on abortion-inducing drugs. Your father wanted to reproduce, so I had to take medication for months to prevent miscarriage, even though I didn’t want to. My doctor had found no embryo in the gestational sac. I was pregnant with nothing. Yet, he kept filling prescriptions for drugs that prevent miscarriage. Although he was aware that I had an endometrial tumor that was made larger by the pregnancy hormones.

Another doctor recommended that the tumor be removed immediately after scraping the uterus to remove the gestational sac. Then was my second abortion. But it seems fate wanted me pregnant again before I had surgery to remove the tumor. That was you.

My friends make fun of me for getting pregnant so often. They call me “grandma.” It’s funny that we only ever mention our grandmothers in reference to food and the supposed simplicity in which they lived their lives. We always disregard their capacity. Was reproduction the sole mission of our grandmothers? How many tales of abortion did our grandmothers live through that were never told to us as the stories of our parents’ births were? Why were their recipes for birth control never passed on to us, as if they were mere wombs whose only use was to breed aunts and uncles? Our bodies that are exclusively associated with reproduction bear witness to stories that never found their way to us about women who maybe didn’t want a ninth child.

I started bleeding again, just like in the earlier two pregnancies. My body was worn out from the recurrent abortions. The doctor didn’t give me anything to prevent miscarriage or to induce abortion. I let you stay in my womb, as if I were accepting a fate I was no longer able to change. But I still didn’t want children. That hadn’t changed.

For me, motherhood is a nightmare. I tried everything to evade it. And here it was: a reality out of which there is no exit, safe or unsafe.

When you leave our wombs, your lives begin, and you end ours. Things that are upside down can be seen the right side up, if one stands on one’s head.

During the first two or three years of the child’s life, your life is all about feeding and changing. When you sleep and when you wake is decided by someone else. I’m tense and irritable most of the time. My relationship with my husband is not what it used to be.

For nine months, I thought only about this nightmare. I lost weight and became anemic, as I ate only what I needed to remain alive and nothing more. Why did I get married? I wish I could live with a man I love without having to extend that love to others.

When I first saw you, I felt nothing. No palpitation, no cold finger. I was resentful. I refused to breastfeed you. Why should I? I didn’t plan for you to exist in the first place. Why should I bear the consequences?

If you can survive without my breasts, why should I breastfeed you? Could we have gone our separate ways once you were no longer in my womb? They say that abortion is murder. Here you are, alive, and I don’t want you. I don’t have hate in my heart for you, my pretty. I’m only trying to share what I feel about this dark side of a complex relationship between two bodies, one of which is built from the other.

I wasn’t aware of it, when you fed through my placenta during the pregnancy, but then I became required to feed you knowingly and willfully. I was required to carry your body that was so soft and unformed that your father was too scared to hold you for two full months. I was required to let you latch onto my bosom, but even my nipples refused to comply. Your grandmother and I thought to expose them to the cold breeze for a few minutes before I breastfeed. It became easier after a few days. I had to squeeze my nipple with my index and middle fingers before the milk would start to seep out. I had to hold it so you could continue to breathe. I had to look at you as you breastfed and to embrace you and burp you after. I spent hours watching you as you drained the milk softly yet painfully from me. It hurts me to try to dedicate my emotions to you, to get used to a feeling because it’s expected of me. That was my duty, that was the standard, Hana. Women give birth to children and care for them. Giving birth and providing care are mandatory for women.

Your grandmother used to help me from time to time, after I gave birth after your birth. This is what women do. Your father left my side just hours after you were born and went back to work. And there I was at home, busy with my work: motherhood.

Each of us does their work, in their field, fulfilling their role. Can you make sense out of this, Hana? Your father has a salaried job. He’s an employee. But the emotions I dedicate to you don’t make me a working mother, nor do they merit a salary, apart from love. Love, Hana, is what they believe women are naturally capable of giving. They guilt me and millions of other women into dedicating our emotions to you.

I felt guilty for not giving you all the love that I have. This is specifically why I wished you would never be born. This guilt made me constantly unsatisfied with what I do, because what I do is less than what is expected of me as a woman and a mother.

Your father used to claim that he was incapable of holding you. “I don’t know how to hold her,” he said, as if I had a manual imprinted on my genes. Your father was confident that I could take care of you because I’m a woman, that this was my job simply by virtue of my being a woman.

“She has been through this, and she knows what to do,” he told me one day, gesturing to my mother. “This is women’s work.”

Indeed, your grandmother taught me how to hold you, how to change you and how to overcome my feelings of revulsion and disgust, which had cause me to vomit so many times. She taught me how to stay alert at all times, so I could care for you. All my senses were dedicated to you, and your screams continued. My nerves were all over the place, and sometimes she could calm me down.

I don’t know how people say that giving birth 10 times would be better than having one abortion. By what logic? Do they have any idea how strenuous and punishing labor is? It’s excruciating. Pregnancy is exhausting — you’re nauseated; your belly feels heavy; but it’s nothing compared to the pain of childbirth and what comes after.

What your grandmother did with me was passed on to her by her mother. We inherit motherhood because we practice it, not because it’s in our nature, as you will be told later on. It’s a craft where you employ your body, mind and emotions. We acquire the skills of motherhood. We’re not born mothers. And when I say motherhood, I mean caring for children, being one with them, and living all those tales of sacrifice, dedicating and denying oneself for them. Even in language, terms like “mother tongue” and “motherland” are used to indicate being one and the same as one’s origin. But the origin as its own entity is erased, becoming just an origin of something else. And I don’t wish to be erased.

One day, after your grandmother went back home, I confronted your father.

“Here, try,” I said to him. “Sometimes, I can’t take it anymore. I can’t even lift the baby to change her.” That was the first time he ever tried. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept for two days. I couldn’t even lift her. I was so shaky that I was scared I might drop her.

Several months later, my little one, I was pregnant for the fourth time. That was your sister. If your father knew, he wouldn’t have allowed me to abort. So I kept the news between myself and a home pregnancy test that I burned before he came home from work. This type of secret is burdensome, and part of the burden is that, despite your best efforts, time reveals it bit by bit. I still had some abortion-inducing pills left from my second abortion. They were prescribed to me by the doctor himself — I took them. A week later, I was bleeding. Your father was worried. We went to the doctor who told us that I was pregnant. He also told us that the bleeding hadn’t affected the fetus. As usual, I pretended to be surprised. But this time, I came out and asked him to either terminate the pregnancy or tie my tubes. He refused.

Do you see how doctors decide what’s best for us women? I was denied an abortion because the doctor and the law didn’t find my reasons sufficient. To determine for myself and say that I was incapable of providing care isn’t sufficient, because the doctor – like your father and like others – believes that childbirth and providing care are mandatory for every woman. Even when I asked to have my tubes tied, the doctor saw my decision as emotional and impulsive. He decided to give me a chance to experience motherhood once more even though I didn’t want to. And I couldn’t insist because I was physically drained. He forced a chance upon me that I didn’t ask for. He used his profession to insert himself into my relationship with my body. This control over our bodies is practiced in the name of medicine and of society and its values.

If I’m to blame for not being comfortable with contraceptives, how do I make up for it without bringing punishment onto myself or onto you or onto your sister, if I give birth despite my wishes?

Doctors in Egypt only perform tubectomies in secrecy. Like abortion, it is considered a crime. But actually tubectomies are neither criminalized by the law nor – I think – religiously prohibited.

Think about it. Which of these should be considered wrong in the eyes of religion: to prevent something I simply don’t want or to bring into the world an unwanted child?

In the blink of an eye, my body is no longer taken into consideration — I’m only a womb. How do I – and other women – explain how our bodies defy us during pregnancy and childbirth, to be estranged from my body, to not recognize it or belong to it, to be yet another reproduction machine, to give birth to a child I don’t want and to not be able to express how emotionally detached I am from it except in a letter that I doubt I’d be able to share with anyone?

I went through with the pregnancy, and your sister was born. I serve as a mother and I give you all I can. Your father helps me with house chores from time to time, but they’re still my responsibility.

It’s emotionally exhausting to be trapped at home for a week at a time. I try to go out, but, with two young children, it’s limited. It’s very stressful. It left me unhappy. I don’t feel anything good anymore.  And when I try to make myself happy, it’s only for fleeting moments.

Whether you read this years later or I lack the courage to leave it to you, we are two women, one of whom caused the other to exist. The latter shouldn’t be grateful for this causality. The former shouldn’t make her life revolve around it. I have my life, and you have your life. They will cross, but neither will override the other. You are here, and I am here. We were brought together by a chance, one that I hope is fortunate.

Ghadeer Ahmed 

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