I got the pregnancy test on a whim. I couldn’t be pregnant, I told myself. We used a condom. But I hadn’t paid enough attention to sex education in high school to know if we had used it correctly – why, as a young Muslim girl who wore hijab and was a mosque leader, would I? I wasn’t going to have sex until I was married.
I had a plan already. My first time would be with a gentle Muslim prince who would rescue me from my abusive father and my co-dependent mother. He would understand and cherish me and carry me away on his white horse. It would be perfect.
I didn’t know.
So I’d left the condom to him. I’d left most of our relationship to him, bowing to his temper tantrums and emotional manipulation – except the sex.
I wanted to wait until marriage.
When he broke up with me, though, after I’d moved across the country to be with him after college, I caved. He said he’d had enough of waiting; he couldn’t be with me unless we were physically together. I believed him, too naive to know that my father’s example had taught me that I had to obey a man’s whims. No one had ever told me what my father did was toxic, that how my mother enabled it was toxic, only that I should be a good, obedient daughter and, if I really wanted a man to love me, I had to do what he asked.
So I had three, painful, awkward sexual encounters. And then, after several weeks of not hearing from him, I stood in my bathroom and stared at the positive test. Everything went numb.
I called him, he didn’t answer.
I drove to see him, three hours away, and he left me sitting on the front steps crying and begging him to open the door. Robotically, I booked a doctor’s appointment. The female doctor looked at me, handed me three separate pamphlets with three separate choices, patted my shoulder and said, “You can do it on your own if you want. A lot of us do.”
I was hysterical. I was 22, fresh out of college.
I knew my family would ostracize me if they found out I’d had sex, much less a possible baby. My body was thicker, swollen; I felt nauseous and tired all the time. I had no idea what to do, no idea who to call, no idea how to even get on the blue prayer rug that I’d sought so often for comfort and ask God for help and forgiveness.
All I could think was: How did I get here?
I wanted to keep it, but at 22 it felt impossible. On my salary? Ostracized from my family and community? My ex-boyfriend wouldn’t even answer my calls. I knew I could not depend on him to help me.
When I sat in the waiting room at Planned Parenthood, when the doctor did an uncomfortable vaginal ultrasound and showed me the small white oval that was my pregnancy, when I carefully took the white pills they gave me, and when I began bleeding and cramping, I felt dazed. An abortion wasn’t something a girl like me would ever have.
How shameful. How sinful. How did I get here?
I remember lying about it at work, lying about it to friends, being so weak from the cramps and blood loss that I couldn’t even get up the steps to my apartment. I sat there in tears, clutching Saltines and Sprite to help with nausea, and the man next door stopped to ask me if I was all right. I couldn’t even accept that pity, consumed with self-hatred, shock, and grief.
Part of me, the part that had been so excited about having a baby one day with the prince I had thought was coming, died.
For ten years, I refused to trust anyone, remembering that moment I stumbled out of the clinic alone and treated anyone who tried to be close to me with a feral rage. I convinced myself I did not want children or an intimate relationship, watched from afar as my ex-boyfriend had three more children, married, divorced.
And I hated him. Hated him for manipulating me into sex. Hated my parents for never noticing, for not having a healthy marriage, for leaving a 22-year-old with no knowledge of relationships except how to be a victim. Hated my extended family.
You knew about the abuse, I wanted to scream, why didn’t you do anything? Why did you let me think it was normal?
I hated the girls who had children by accident, the women who had three or four. I hated the parents that had children but neglected them. I was a teacher, I saw it every day.
I hated the Muslim community for not having any answer except that in a perfect world, fathers were good to their daughters. Hated everyone for never noticing that I was different than before— smiling less, moving over thirty times, never showing up for weddings or community events, breaking ties, distant, restless, and anguished.
Most of all, I hated myself.
I still do, sometimes. I know that my ex would have been a terrible father. I know that it was the right decision to make at that time, that I was trying, in my own way, to be a mother to the child that I never had, to protect it from the abuse I had suffered my whole life. And yet I still hate myself for the decision. Hate, with deep intensity, the pain that floods me every time I see a baby.
I am very good at maintaining an emotional front. No one, not even my later partners, noticed, how I spent the last decade wrestling with my grief. Everyone handles it differently and I am still adamantly pro-choice, I still feel my decision was the correct one, and yet my heart hurts.
I don’t need the judgment of others when I judge myself so harshly, so I hide under layers of perfectionism, success, and outward calm. No one thinks to look deeper. I’m a Pakistani Muslim woman, after all. I’m good at pretending everything is fine.
For many years, it was a wound I could not touch, I could not name. All I could do was exist in a permanent state of bargaining: if I just worked hard enough, if I was ethically and morally sound enough, if I was a good enough Muslim, if I just punished myself enough, then that little oval, that lump of blood and flesh that did not yet have a heartbeat, would have been worth losing.
If I could just be enough, then that ghost of a child-who-could-have-been that haunts me would be proud of me, the woman that could have been its mother.
And when I started to crack – when, finally, holding myself together became too much, I went to therapy and realized who I had become.
Choosing not to have a child produced, in me, an unshakeable set of morals and ethics. It produced a painfully empathetic need to help children suffer less – a need that led me to the Ph.D. I am completing now. It produced in me the impetus to seek help, to go to therapy, to be better than the cycle of violence and abuse that is my past. And it produced in me the need to forgive, to heal, to move forward. Somehow, that child that never was has produced in me the acute, sharp need to be a good mother in the way that all of us are mothers – to nurture, to protect, to heal, and to love.
I would never say it was a good thing. I wish it had not happened and I wish I had known better. But it has shaped me, for better or worse, and it has made me remember that there are things we should voice to protect our younger sisters, things we must discuss to stand in solidarity with our older ones.
There are burdens we should not, with our sisterhood around us, carry alone.