It was the spring of 1998. I was seventeen years old and I had been with my boyfriend for 5 months. We’d been using condoms only, but for some reason that spring I decided that it was probably time for me to go on the Pill. Ironically, I had been scared of doing this sooner because I worried that it would make me put on weight.
Here’s a thing, by the way. You know what often makes you put on quite a lot of weight? HAVING A BABY. Ahem.
Anyway. Back to 1998. Lunch time, on a normal school Monday, with white skies and blustery winds and not a lot to think about. I walked to the tiny family planning clinic which sat on a tiny cobbled street in the tiny town in which I went to a tiny, self-important, “good” school.
I filled in forms and read leaflets with a nurse who was friendly and approachable. After going through the options, I decided I would go on the combined pill. The nurse ticked boxes on her big 90s boxy computer screen: click, click, click. “When was your last period?” she asked, matter-of-fact.
I thought about it. “Last month some time,” I told her, confidently. “A month ago, or so. I’ll be due again any day.”
“Great. That works well. You can take your first pill on the first day of your period. Before I get you the prescription, though, I have to ask you to take a pregnancy test.”
I wasn’t at all worried about this formality. I did not suspect that I was pregnant. My boyfriend and I used condoms, didn’t we? Everyone knows condoms stop you getting pregnant. That’s literally what they’re for. I gave the nurse a urine sample and she dipped the stick.
“Hmm.” I so clearly remember the way she held the stick up to the light, and squinted at it. “I kind of see a line here. Well, I think I do. I’m not happy to say outright that this is a negative test. I’d like you to come back again on Friday, and bring an early morning urine sample with you. Can you do that?”
I don’t like to think that I’m a stupid person, but I was still not worried. She had not actually said it was positive, had she? By Friday, I’d probably have my period. This is what I told myself as I packed all the leaflets and forms into my school bag and went back to my lessons.
On the Friday, the blue line appeared clear as a ballpoint pen on the stick within seconds. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but it’s a positive test,” my still-friendly nurse said to me, smiling now in a sad way. “But this doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a baby. You know that, don’t you? It’s a ball of cells, and it’s a ball of cells we can deal with very easily. Two packets of pills, two days apart. All gone. You don’t need to think about this again after that.”
I’ve wondered many times whether I would have made the decision I did about my pregnancy if that nurse had used different language. If she had not been so quick to assume my feelings on the matter and to provide her own instant solution.
Why did she do that? Was it because I was a pupil at the selective grammar school, clearly being groomed and prepared for a good university, a good career, a life away from that tiny town? Was it because I’d gone in for the Pill in the first place, so clearly she knew that motherhood wasn’t on my mind?
It stops me in my tracks now, the sliding-doors fact that my eldest daughter’s entire life hung on such a thin thread that day. I am completely pro-choice. I could very easily have made a very different decision. In hindsight, with adult wisdom, this feels like a much bigger deal than it did at the time.
Whatever the reason for her approach, I felt an immediate flare of defiance. It was defiance combined with arrogance, and it was loudly offset in my mind by the strict religious doctrine I’d been deeply immersed in through my childhood. “Actually,” I told the nurse, “I’m going to keep my baby.” The possessive pronoun suddenly felt very important.
I kept my word. I kept my baby and I did everything “right”. No alcohol. No more partying. I went swimming in the mornings and took long walks in the afternoons. I ate vegetables and fibre. I read all the books and magazines I could find about being a good mother. I stayed on at school, limping from classroom to classroom as my stomach grew and the whispers and laughs got louder. In the winter, I had a beautiful baby girl.
I have three children. When I had the younger two, even though I was in my twenties, I was a married homeowner with a car, a mortgage and a defined role in society. No one judged me. But at seventeen, with no income or qualifications and a face that looked about thirteen years old, my teenage experience of motherhood was worlds away from the one that came later.
This, then, is what I know about teenage pregnancy:
- No one is happy for you. I knew it wasn’t good news, being pregnant at 17. It wasn’t part of anyone’s life plan for me and we’ve all seen the “Teen Pregnancy” scourge-on-society headlines. Still, I’d made the decision to become a mother, and there was a healthy human baby on the way who would be very loved. It would have been life-changing if just one person had given me any facial expression other than “wince of disappointment, followed by head-tilt of pity”.
- Your friends will drift away. They couldn’t help it and it was inevitable. They had parties to go to and all of summer to enjoy. I didn’t blame them, but I have never been lonelier than I was that summer. It was a season of festivals, Ibiza trips and floaty dresses for my friends but I had no money, I had to wear old jogging pants and T-shirts that belonged to my boyfriend, and everyone I knew found me a bit embarrassing.
- The most unexpected people will be so kind. My French teacher gave me a bag of exquisite baby clothes. My cousin gave me a pram and a cot, which was helpful because I have no idea what I would have done without those things.
- You will never be an adult without responsibilities. This is huge. I learn the infinite depths and reality of this fact all the time, even now, 22 years later. I came of age as a pregnant person and I have never known an adult life without someone in it whose life was more important to me than my own. I never will. This is not a bad thing, but it’s mind-blowing.
- It will define your life. Even if, like me, you ‘beat the odds’ and pass all the exams and have a successful career and don’t fit the stereotypical teen drop-out mould. It will define your life even more then, in fact, because you will never be in step with your friends. Not ever. They’re out partying while you’re home breastfeeding; later, you’re waving your children off to university and paying for driving lessons while they’re learning to change nappies.
You know what else no one told me, though? No one told me about the love I’d feel. The primal glory of it, the protective instinct that swept everything else out of the way. The fact that with someone else to think about, most of the problems that used to mean something became entirely irrelevant.
I was astonished by the way my daughter and I made an instant team, a force to be reckoned with. The way the gossip and the glances meant absolutely nothing and my baby girl meant everything. The way that I grew up overnight and learned to be less selfish (well, a bit less selfish. I’m still working on it).
I want to be extremely clear here that I’m absolutely not advocating teen pregnancy. I would not want my daughters to become mothers as young as I did, and I have told them that, as sensitively as I can. I live daily with the knowledge that I did miss out on some huge things, life experiences that I can never now have, because I made the motherhood choice so early.
But I’d make the same choice I made in that family planning clinic again. I would make it a hundred, a thousand times over. The life I chose, in the end, has given me so much more than it took from me.