Unpacking the ‘Oops’ of young motherhood

Conception

Megan: Those magenta lines broke my world in two. Suddenly, my life was no longer mine.

Sibongile: My partner and I bet two hundred bucks that I was with child.

Megan: You didn’t! Where were you?

Sibongile: We rushed to a nearby mall and in a cubicle the size of a secret, like you Megan, those two lines split my world into two.

Megan: A week prior to finding out I had announced I would never have children. Books would be my babies.

Sibongile: My partner embraced me as I spilt over. What was your lover’s initial reaction to the news?

Megan: Panic sent him to a Seven Eleven for a second test, while a part of me broke off and drifted to another place. I found out on a Friday — the same day I was born — because I was wearing two different shoes, and just knew.

Sibongile: I had always wanted a child. Although I was not ready, I was relieved that I was not infertile.

Megan: I felt it a death to be pregnant at the “wrong” time. Six weeks along, a chrysalis in the moon. The doctor cried, “You have no options, you keep baby.” Might you have terminated?

Sibongile: If I were to fall pregnant now, I would consider termination. It is mentally, physically, spiritually and financially strenuous to raise a child.

Megan: And when you’re not prepared … I was in Thailand and a nurse slipped me the number of an illegal abortionist, whose name rhymed with Moon. When he called I swelled with relief but then the question taunted me: Will you, won’t you? It was risking death or bringing new life into this world but neither seemed an option.

Sibongile: We were drunk on alcohol and hip-hop when my son made his way home to us. I had just graduated from drama school and had placed all my faith in a different kind of sacrifice. I find that women are not given full autonomy of their bodies. Once you are with child, you become two people. I became two people. A young creative who had to quit smoking and alcohol and watching late-night plays while crashing on your friend’s couch hoping that by attending these plays, someone will spot you and give you a job, and a newborn mother who needed nurturing. It must have not been an easy decision for you?

Megan: A newborn mother — I like that. You’re so raw in that state, as if your skin has been peeled back. I was aching and bloody and scared. True violation was not choosing if and when this would happen. It being thrust upon me, and the choice not seeming real. Losing reproductive agency tormented me, a wound I still wear. But before I spread the news, I decided to continue with it. My partner returned to South Africa and, although I had friends, I was alone for my first trimester. I just wanted my mommy.

Sibongile: That must have been a very traumatic experience — one that plagues many a woman, to be with child and alone.

Megan: Traumatic but oddly freeing, as if I’d walked off the map. Despite those early days of being chained to the inescapable smells of Bangkok —fried chicken, shit and smog — I felt as if I was doing things my way. Then I had a scare at 10 weeks, and soon after packed my life into a suitcase and left for Johannesburg. Crying all the way, holding my little, little belly.

Sibongile: Mine was anything but little. I started showing in the last few days of the third month. I sent my mother an SMS. The words could not come out of my mouth.

Megan: As if the truth was heavy?

Sibongile: Yes, too heavy to watch my mother wear the face of disappointment in my name. Too heavy to affirm my new reality.

(Newborn mother: When she was with child Sibongile Fisher’s lifestyle changed and she needed nurturing)

(Multitude of motherhoods: As a young parent Megan Ross is attempting to occupy the multiple identities of mother, writer and woman)

Mothering

Megan: A mother’s face can hold oceans. Pregnancy opened my eyes to my mother. I saw that she was her own person before my birth, and that seeing brought a knowing …

Sibongile: … an understanding that motherhood erases our identity by forging a new one. When you become a mother, you lose visibility as a woman.

Megan: Which happened instantly. My physical form changed and with it others’ perception of me. I saw motherhood as crushing my dreams, and my anguish hurt my mother.

Sibongile: This is how girls reconcile with their mothers. Our mothers have had to keep the wounds of motherhood a secret, so when we fall pregnant, they grieve with us. For the little girls and women we once were, and for the women they once were.

Megan: We are echoes of our mothers who too swallowed their pain. How little has changed? We’re shamed for being honest about this business of birth and babies. A long road …

Sibongile: But we can hold each other as young mothers and create safe spaces to dispel the silencing and policing of our journeys.

Megan: Holding, yes! Mothers need mothering.

Sibongile: I thought my mother would be angry but instead she smiled and said she knew, that she was just waiting on me to tell her.

Megan: How beautiful, to grant you space.

Sibongile: I think she was relieved that I am fertile and did not choose to terminate my pregnancy. I am from a culture that buries barren wombs under the tongues of disgusted faces. She is from a religion that spits on the face of any woman who chooses themselves over “God’s will”.

Sacrifice

Megan: I think my mother understood wanting to choose [for] myself.She herself wished she’d travelled more.

Sibongile: Society is afraid of women who are empowered to make decisions that are good for them in spite of worldviews. From a young age we are taught the language of sacrifice …

Megan: … in which we are now fluent. Sinful to consider we are equal to the unborn. My parents were supportive but I sensed the disappointment of family; of friends. And your father?

Sibongile: My relationship with my father was a wreck and it did not get better until after my son was born. We are at a better place now. How was it like returning to Gonubie [in East London]?

Megan: Broke my heart.

Sibongile: Was it the culture shock? I remember you touched on it briefly while we were in Durban.

Megan: I had felt limitless in Bangkok, where I knew many single mothers. Being unmarried and pregnant was not disgraceful; in fact, I had felt so celebrated. My identity remained unchanged and I thought I would still make it as a writer — yet at home.

Sibongile: The story was folding into a sad ending.

Megan: I was a cautionary tale, shame and stigma engulfing me on my first breath in this town. The constant: Will you marry him? As if my child wasn’t meaningful unless I had a husband. To this day I have family who did not congratulate me. And yet when their children were born …

Sibongile: … you did not delegitimise their existence.

Megan: Our babies aren’t illegitimate, Sbo. I rage against marriage being a prerequisite for motherhood. I don’t want to be a wife. And at home with my mother — we didn’t orbit each other. We collided. I was enraged.

Sibongile: It must have left a crater inside of you.

Megan: I worried my baby would know a reduced me where once there was sex and riotous laughter and verve. My belly swelled and with it my misery. Gestation became drawn-out days in a house of broken glass; that waiting …

Sibongile: Like being in the sun throughout the day and trying not to get burnt. Waiting is waking up at five to stand in a queue at a clinic that opens at eight only to be helped at 11.

Megan: Eleven! I was unemployed. I saw a gynae for a few months but then the money ran out. Those clinic days  …

Sibongile: … are hell. I was a facilitator but the money was not enough to extend beyond the mouth. No one wanted to hire a pregnant performer save one director. Jefferson Tshabalala. He was the only person who didn’t treat my pregnancy as a disability and gave me the only three jobs that I did that year. But here we are, writing ourselves into visibility.

Megan: I had to write myself out of the mess I was in. To redefine my own narrative. Adrienne Rich said: “The woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected”, which is perhaps why during pregnancy I felt people pressing their own meanings on to my changing body. As if our new forms and birthing and breastfeeding is not ours to define.

Sibongile: “To redefine my own narrative.” I like that.

Rebirth

Megan: All we can do is write our own motherhood; the myth is broken. Be honest for mothers to come. Conception through birth, it’s all shrouded — I mean, throughout schooling we read war poets. Why the hell do we not read the poetry of birth?

Sibongile: History only records women as warriors in sections of “affirmative action”. Oh and what a violent experience it is to give birth.

Megan: Nature and hospitals bring equal violence, and a bullshit silencing that says “as long as the baby is healthy”. I’m tired of how mothers aren’t allowed to veer from the script in body or mind.

Sibongile: I am tired of almost everything this world is built on.

Megan: Built on bodies. I’d gone the homebirth route thinking it empowering, until I needed an emergency C-section anyway. I felt like such a failure — and the pain. I became a corpse, with none of that joy that I felt such guilt over. But each time I looked at my son I felt my pelvis where it had split.

Sibongile: My experience at the state hospital in our township is an energised and dehumanising tale of a near-death experience. It is a sensational cover story that you would find in a daily paper. I want to tell it but that is an entire conversation on its own.

Megan: One we must embrace. I am sorry for your pain. Why is birth something we can’t discuss?

Sibongile: Because no one discussed it when we were pregnant, no one prepared us for the truth.

Megan: Right? In this vein I gave my son a name of stone that felt so heavy I had to change it. Now his second name, it carries the ghosts of those first six weeks.

Sibongile: A child’s path is woven by their name.

Megan: And our lives are woven on theirs. After delivery, the slightest thing triggered my flashbacks. I relived birthing pains in Spar, the bank. I didn’t know birth could do that to one. Naturally, a male friend told me that only soldiers get PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder].

Sibongile: With no question, our society validates a man’s struggle whereas women, for our pain to be considered real, we have to struggle within an approved context. I am a leaking well on days when I remember myself before I had my son. My son is my source of peace but I am 70% water and 30% Rescue Drops because of him.

Megan: I owe you, Rescue! For me it took nine months to succumb to my unplanned pregnancy and birth trauma. Then I went on medication.

Sibongile: I can count the number of times I have had a good night’s rest on one hand. It is the writing and the loving and patient heart beating in my lover’s chest that keeps me surviving.

Megan: A good man. Forgetting is my way of surviving, but it’s remembering my hurt with mothers like you that brings true healing. I tried to identify with those Instagram motherhoods but fell spectacularly short. How to be so constantly in love with your child and motherhood?

Sibongile: A virtual reality is never completely true. The more I speak to young mothers the more “oops” we seem to uncover. A journey is more than a thread of edited images. And we know this, we just need to affirm it. A mother is not obliged to love their child all the time.

Megan: We need to see a multitude of motherhoods. Perhaps being true to how we mother, and by inhabiting the multiple identities that we have discussed before — mother, writer and woman — is a means of creating these.

Sibongile: It is like what you mentioned earlier: “To redefine your own narrative.” Every mother should experience this.

Megan: And the truth is how little we were prepared for the emotional and financial cost of the unquestioned presumption that as mothers we are the main caregiver and must forsake other selfhoods.

Sibongile: When we were in Durban, we were with male writers who had children. In conversation, I realised that they did not have to make arrangements for their absence, whereas we had to.

Megan: A mother’s role is all-consuming, whereas a father has room to breathe outside of parenting. Patriarchy won’t allow us that space.

Sibongile: We make do with what we have. I have never known financial freedom, so the added financial strain made me push harder. I had to. It was the constraints on the freedom of movement …

Megan: … moving with a new person in tow. Maybe postpartum depression is a natural reaction to not being able to express how isolating and boring staying at home can be.

Sibongile: Losing the ability to go where I wanted, when I wanted is what pulled me into a pit …

Megan: … broke me. And feeling guilty for carving out time for writing and self-care.

Sibongile: Let alone time for reading.

Megan: Reading!

Sibongile: We are both raising sons and this is what worries me. How will they reimagine manhood outside of patriarchy when the world around us won’t change?

Megan: We raise men who understand how much the system hurts them as well as women. What can we do but keep talking and making space with our words?

Unlearning

Sibongile: Visibility and validation is important, but we don’t all sing the same song and we know the rules of the playground can make any child forget what their mother taught them.

Megan: True. And demanding space in which to be ourselves seems almost revolutionary. For me that means writing time.

Sibongile: That time away from your son to write is crucial. It is the thing that keeps your relationship with him healthy.

Megan: We should mother in the ways that feel most natural to us. I want to release the idea of that nuclear family and staying put for 20 years.

Sibongile: “To redefine your own narrative.” These words for me sum up the revolution against erasure …

Megan: … and fashioning our own concepts of home. What names we’ll answer to, what demands we’ll ignore.

Sibongile: The story of the young mother who kept herself throughout motherhood.

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