Fifteen years ago, a friend sent me an email with these lines from Isaiah 54: “you will forget the shame of your youth…For your Maker is your husband.”
I am sending this to all of my friends who are single moms, she wrote. What do you think of it?
Her email made me angry with God. I was weary, struggling to build my life again, to get an education, and to fit in with the childless young adults or the married mothers at the church we were attending. And my family was still broken. My children needed a father and I needed to be loved and while God’s promises to Israel were profound in their cosmic stature, they seemed impossibly removed from the mundane difficulties of loneliness and poverty and shame that came with single-parenting.
I never wanted to be a mother, much less a single one. My own mother had nurtured me in a sense of shame, which for several years I misinterpreted as a strength, at the thought of resembling or aspiring to anything traditionally feminine. Both my parents, who never could agree on much, treated “girl things” as either uninteresting, or worse, shallow and devious, a message that was reinforced by the infamous “girl politics” at school and the general ethos of lower working-class prairie culture, where a girl could earn respect with her fists if she wasn’t as quick with her tongue.
My own mother had nurtured me in a sense of shame, which for several years i misinterpreted as a strength, at the thought of resembling or aspiring to anything traditionally feminine.
Ripening sexuality offered another kind of power, alluring but conflicted by its own disgraces. Beauty was admired but could also invite vicious attacks. Boys attended to girls whose looks, dress, and confidence suggested sexual availability, but used and mocked those who made too good on that promise. Movies and magazines encouraged emulation of impossible female perfection, contributing to a nagging sense of one’s unique and innate inadequacy. Sex education presumed promiscuity while wagging its finger at those of us who followed the advice. And always there lurked the spectre of the teenage pregnancy, girls swollen from their mistakes and facing certain diminishment of their prospects as successful persons. Banished from the carnival of a secular nineties adolescence, they disappeared into parents’ basements and dropped out or left for schools that could accommodate their “circumstances.” The general consensus, congruent with the greater cultural sense that female empowerment was something to be pursued outside of the home, was that their decision to keep the baby was an admirable but tragic one.
The word abortion wasn’t shouted so loudly then. It was uttered when necessary, low like the names of the swollen girls, but understood to be the least desirable of the better options: condoms, birth control, the morning-after pill. Girls who failed to keep themselves out of trouble by these methods could reclaim their lives if it was allowed by their parents and if they could make up their minds before the window of choosing was shuttered. No one discussed what would happen afterward if you chose an abortion. It wasn’t something you advertised.
I was twenty, flirting with a severe and worsening drug and alcohol habit, glorying in a romance that was yet to darken into abuse, and enrolled in my first year of university when the predictable finally happened. Returning to school was an attempt, after nearly a decade of partying and broken relationships, to get my life moving in a forward direction. Along with a distain for feminine women (by which I meant women who regularly wore high heels, fought one another with words, and wanted nothing more interesting than to marry and raise children), I had entered adulthood with a deep respect for “the educated,” and school seemed like the best way to lift myself out of the past and beyond the stifling opportunities otherwise available to women.
Pregnancy threatened to ruin everything.
When I told my parents, they were supportive, promising to provide as best they could or to pay for an abortion or even drive me to a different province where I would have more time to make up my mind. My boyfriend promised to marry me if I kepy the baby and to leave me if I didn’t. But everyone was clear – the final decision was mine.
The choice, as I understood it, was between my life and the life of the baby that I couldn’t yet even feel inside of me. I remember lying on my back testing my belly with my fingers, trying to feel this alien thing I knew was inside of me and straining to persuade myself of what I had been assured: this is not yet a baby. Abortion is not murder. You can stop this from happening to you. You can do what you want to do.
I didn’t understand it then, but to choose whether to abort turns on a certain question of freedom: am I free to serve myself, to choose what I want without committing myself to some greater reality that transcends my personal desires? Or is my freedom a kind of consent, a decision to partner with the reality of either life or death, and to give myself, who I will become, over to its consequences?
Laying there, with my fingers pressed against my skin, a voice chimed in my heart, calm and clear as anything I have ever heard out loud: it is a human being and if you kill it, you will not be forgiven.
I knew with certainty this was God and that He was telling me the truth. The words were gentle but they cut deep to the heart of what it means to be and act in the universe. They terrified me. And I knew, however reluctantly, that I must lay down my own life to honour the life inside of me.
Am I free to serve myself, to choose what I want without committing myself to some greater reality that transcends my personal desires? Or is my freedom a kind of consent, a decision to partner with the reality of either life or death, and to give myself, who I will become, over to its consequences?
For a long time afterwards, things were as bad as everyone had promised. I learned I was carrying twins, I had to drop out of school, and I couldn’t work. When the nurse tried to hand me my son after the delivery, I refused to look at him for fear that what I was feeling would somehow imprint on him. The emotional abuse, which began before the twins were born, escalated in the weeks and months afterwards, and shattered my confidence as a mother and as a person. I was alone with the babies most of the time, rarely eating or sleeping, unable to produce enough milk, unequipped to deal with my daughter’s colic and constant crying. I thought about killing them, and then about killing myself. My parents supported us financially and sometimes emotionally, but as the months dragged on, I couldn’t see any possibility of hope or joy in the life I had chosen for us. I genuinely wondered if we would survive.
And yet, even in those early days, God was using motherhood to nurture changes in me I never knew I needed. A local church offered parenting classes for new mothers that included coffee, adult conversation, and a blessed hour of free childcare. The classes taught me about relational and personal boundaries and the purpose of parental discipline. I began to attend to the inner lives of my children and later, recognize the abuse and ask their father to leave, which he did.
Beating addiction requires that you care about something more than you care about getting high. When the twins were about two years old, I had a nightmare too horrid to describe. I saw the evil my choices were letting into their lives and woke up so shaken I determined to quit everything completely; soon after we began attending the church regularly and meeting with a spiritual mentor.
I learned that I didn’t do real intimacy very well. But I would need to learn if I was going to be a good mother to my children. I began with training myself, standing over their cribs at night while they were sleeping and saying “I love you” out loud until, one day, I could finally say it without embarrassment. We say it easily now, to one another and all the time. It is a simple, profound joy.
My daughter was a beautiful little girl, rough and tumble like me but also elegant, musical, and sensitive. One afternoon I was watching her twirl in a little pink dress in front of the mirror and realized that femininity isn’t imposed on girls but a gift given to us by God that she needed me to respect and nurture in her. As we grew together, I learned to see and respect it in the women who became my friends and, eventually, in myself.
My son taught me there are limits to what I can do on my own as a woman. I am more masculine than many, but I saw in him a need for a hero and a friend only a man, a father, could provide. For both of them I had to learn to surrender my fears and needs for protection to our heavenly Father. However fierce the motherly instincts I had discovered were, I just couldn’t be everything they needed on my own.
I was angry when I received that email from my friend, but I had come too far with God, with who he was shaping me to be, to turn back. I flung that anger at God in prayer and surrendered, with great difficulty, all the newly-awakened hopes and desires for a whole and holy family and life. Three months later, I met the man I would marry.
There is a lot more I could share, about marriage and more children, about graduate school and accepting a faculty position at a tiny, unassuming Bible college that has none of the flash of the big universities but is a Christ-centred, servant-hearted, and fulfilling place I have learned to love. About losing a child.
None of these things were a guarantee when I chose not to abort my babies, and that choice certainly has not preserved me from suffering. But none of it would have been possible if I had clung to my hopes for a life I thought I could build on my own. Everything good in my life now, my family, career, my comfort in grief, and the most difficult, transformative, fulfilling experience I have ever known, to become and be mother, is a consequence of my decision to partner with life over death.
I no longer believe I would have been outside of God’s forgiveness if I had made a different decision. But I have learned enough about myself to know I would almost certainly have been outside my own. And that would have been death for me, and for the life God has formed for me.
Choosing motherhood is not a zero-sum game, where if the baby wins, the mother loses everything or at least the best of what she could have had. Choosing motherhood is to embrace the call to give yourself away, to participate in the greatest love there is, and in so doing receive yourself back again, fully, wonderfully, in all the plans that God has made.
Written by Leanne Bellamy
Leanne is an instructor of Communication and Christian Literature at Horizon College and Seminary.