I went from being a virgin at 19 to being a mother by 21. I entered adulthood so fast that my head spun.
When I fell pregnant I had only known my boyfriend for nineteen weeks. He had moved in next door and he was devastatingly handsome, and I was desperate to get over an ex. I was using the tried and tested method of getting over someone by getting UNDER someone else. The relationship was meant to be a distraction from heartbreak but it ended up being a detour that changed the entire trajectory of my life.
I knew almost immediately that I was pregnant. There had been an incident two weeks earlier where we had hung out the whole day at his house and we used up both condoms he had. The third time there was no condom used. Just the vague intention of pulling out. Two weeks later I woke up to the smell of frying onions and I felt nauseous. The sick feeling was bizarre. I love the smell of frying onions, and before this it had only made me salivate. This time though my mouth was filling up with warm salty saliva and I needed to throw up. I went to the bathroom and I kneeled over the toilet bowl and I threw up the previous night’s supper. (Vomit always has bits of carrots, regardless of what you have eaten.) I then KNEW that I was pregnant.
I said a silent prayer to an unseen God to take away the pregnancy. I reminded God of my situation. Of how I could not afford a child. I was twenty and I was in law school and I hardly knew the guy, and plus this would break my mother’s heart. I negotiated with God in that bathroom. I promised to stop sinning entirely if only he would make me NOT pregnant. He declined my offer. He opted for more sins from me.
I kept the news of my pregnancy to myself. I did not even tell the father. I wanted to find out things about him first. Things I did not know. So the lots of times we were together I took a real interest in knowing him beyond his pretty face. I asked about his schooling, if he had a favourite teacher. I found out the names of his siblings (Daniel, Maria and Martin). I enquired about his likes, his strengths, his weaknesses. He mentioned that I was getting serious. I know that he preferred the care-free girl of weeks past but she was long gone. In her place was a young woman who had to deal with imminent motherhood.
My older sister had just had a baby. But her case was entirely different. She was in love with the father and they had been dating since she was seventeen. I tried to think if I was in love with the future father of my child, but all I felt was attraction. I thought him handsome. He was decorative, good to look at, but beyond that there was no intellectual connection. We liked different things. He was studying electrical engineering and liked working with his hands. I was complete rubbish at working with my hands – I liked words better. I loved books the way other people liked puppies. All my favourite people in the world could be found between the covers of books. I realised we had very little in common.
The knowledge of the pregnancy frightened me. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a flat panic. I loved children. I could imagine a house full of children in the future, but I was twenty, and this did not feel like the future. It felt like the insistent present.
A few weeks later he and I were kissing against the warmth of my garage wall. I was trying to stretch out my youth for as long as possible. Then he started to reach for the zip of my pants. I took his hand away and all the disappointment in myself overwhelmed me. I blurted out that I was pregnant. He did not believe me. He asked how I knew, he asked about tests. I told him that I knew, without tests. The panic in his eyes reflected mine.
I told him that I could not keep the child. He nodded in agreement. I went home to cry and through my tears I made the decision to have the child. I had always been pro-choice but the idea of an abortion seemed so permanent, like death. I reasoned that I could give a life to a child. That I had been loved so much by my mother that I could replicate the nurture and I did.
I became a stunning mother. I was devoted and involved and doting. Later we got married and had three more children.
There was a price to young motherhood though. The price was self-sacrifice. Sometimes I wonder about the young girl who was lost when my son was conceived. I wonder if she would have completed her law degree. I wonder what kind of spouse she would have chosen for herself. I wonder about the places she would have gone. The woman she would have become.
Do not get me wrong, I love my children, I really do. But I also wonder about the young woman who chose responsibility, and I ask myself how being carefree would have looked on her. Lately I allow myself to be wonder about the road not taken. To my daughters I will always preach the devotion to the self before dedication to a child.
I know that I would not have married my husband were it not for the fact that we were expecting a child. I did not know him well enough and when I got to know him there were things about him that were not on my list for a permanent spouse. We had grown up in the same township and moved to the same suburb as young adults but our shared geography did not translate in shared interests. Even when we started living together as a couple our sharing of a bed and a life did not result in commonalities. We were very different.
He had grown up in a huge extended family where, in addition to his nuclear family he lived with aunts and cousins and grandparents. His day to day life had been filled with constant humanity. Even when we got married he always sought the company of others. He had plenty of friends and acquaintances, people he had grown up with, had gone to school with, had lived next door to. All these people still featured in his life. I remember in our earliest days being impressed that he still had friends from his primary school days. I felt that his attachment to people spoke of his humanity. I was awed by his warmth.
I had been brought up differently. My mother had moved from the Eastern Cape to Johannesburg after her divorce from my father. This meant that my nearest relatives were eight hundred kilometres away. My mother ran a small household of four. It was her at the helm with her three daughters, very close in age. As a child I was afforded privacy. I could spend extended amounts of time in my own company. I was a devoted reader. I had intense feelings for the characters I discovered between the pages of novels. My book characters transfused me with their feelings. My moods would be determined by what my protagonists were going through. I would feel determined or dejected or delirious depending entirely on what was going on in a book. As a child I preferred the company of books rather than people. I loved how I was always privy to the thoughts of people in books. I knew their stories. I understood what drove them, what gave them joy and what frightened them. The people inside books were always easier to read than real people. I had an emotional laziness that prevented me from getting to know people in real life. Getting to know an actual human always took too long and I did not like the inconsistencies. In real life two people could view the same person as either a hero or a villain and be both right.
The books I read as a child were always very clear about who was hero and who was not. I liked the clarity. Real life was murkier. I did not like that. I entered my twenties having the juvenile perception that people were one dimensional. That there was always a choice whether to cast oneself as either an antagonist or a protagonist. I was blissfully unaware of the grey area we all inhabited where we were human and fallible. Where the choice to be a hero or a villain was made and remade daily and depended on circumstances outside morality.
My husband and I had three more children within our marriage and he did not take well to fatherhood. He was lukewarm about it. I remember going through my pregnancies and being fascinated about the lives growing inside me. I remember wanting to read every pregnancy magazine I could lay my hands on. With my first child a kind neighbour had gifted me with a pre-loved copy of “What to expect when you are expecting” I loved the book and by the time I had my fourth and final child the book was worn and read religiously as if it was a holy script. I took mothering seriously. For me, my children were real from the moment of conception. I tried to tell my husband about the development of his children in utero, he tried and failed to feign an interest.
I was hopeful and knew that he would be just as devoted once the children made an entry into the world. I was very wrong. He was extremely awkward around new-borns he held the babies as if they were packages about to detonate. This was initially amusing to me but when the babies grew bigger and sturdier with bright eyes and gummy smiles he still held no interest in them. I grew sad for his inability to enjoy what I had gifted him with. I grew sad and then resentful. My parents had gotten divorced when I was four. I had not known what it was like to have a father. I needed my children to experience what I lacked. In my head I imagined that he would display a Bill Cosby style of parenting (we all know how that turned out) I wanted him to be affectionate, wise, humorous and stern. He only managed to be a source of financial help.
As a husband he was affectionate and interested and devoted. I had a sense that he liked me outside of the fact that I was his wife. That he would have sought my company even if I had been a man. He was often jealous of the time and attention I gave to my children. At first his juvenile behaviour was adorable but I quickly grew resentful. I needed him to love my children, his children. I would punish or reward him depending on the interactions he had with the children. Often I would have to punish him by denying him attention and sex because he would not match the affection my innocent children blessed him with. After having my fourth child I had to admit to myself that I had had children with a man who was indifferent to children. Our marriage ended two years ago. He had begged me to not leave him but my mind was made up. I wanted out of our marriage. He had become controlling and violent. He was a lukewarm parent not given to spontaneous bouts of affection for his kids. I resented his coldness towards my children. I grew to hate him. In order for me to escape the prison of hate I had to call myself to the side and whisper this truth about my life.
I had a child out of wedlock. I then married the father and had three more kids by him. He did not ask for any of the kids. There was never a time where he sat me down as his wife and asked that I make him heirs. I just sort of gifted him with children. I wanted them. The first one was as a result of me not using contraceptives and not insisting on condoms. The subsequent three children were ALL on me. Sure he looked after them when we were married. He drove them to school. Bought them electronics and clothes and the like. But this “parenting” on his behalf was always at my advocacy. I asked that he buy them toys and clothes and take them out. There were never any spontaneous bouts of parenting. He would not go to the shops and come back with cute little dresses for his daughters because he could NOT resist the cuteness.
He was not an awful father. He liked my kids fine and when they were babies he would take on monthly expenses like milk and nappies. But none of it was spontaneous. This is why when we separated he stopped all financial and emotional support of the kids. As heartbroken as I am for my kids I have to admit to myself that he was thrust into the role of father by me. All he ever asked was that I marry him
The rest I gave him, unprovoked. This truth is unpalatable.