‘As I woke up each morning, my pregnancy screamed at me’
Women's writing for Women's Day: Having become pregnant despite having an IUD, my sobbing mantra in counselling sessions was: I don’t want to be pregnant and have a baby, and I don’t want to have an abortion
Claire Woods, her partner, Peter, and their baby girl, Alexandra, outside their Dublin home. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
“Already a loving partner, Alexandra has brought out even more of my boyfriend’s caring nature,” says Claire Woods of Peter after the birth of their daughter. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Claire Woods, her partner, Peter, and their baby girl, Alexandra. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Last June I discovered I was pregnant. This unwanted news was a shock. The previous December I had been fitted with an IUD, a contraceptive I understood to be more effective than the pill. I was in a long-term relationship. I thought the IUD was the perfect twentysomething woman’s method of protection against unwanted pregnancy. I would not have to worry about missing a pill. I would not have to worry about anything.
Since graduating from Trinity College Dublin, I had become progressively lonelier and unfulfilled at work. So I put my late period down to stress, combined with the IUD making my cycle less regular.
I went to Spain for a holiday with my boyfriend. As the holiday ended I convinced myself that the nausea, dizziness and anxiety I was feeling was in anticipation of my return to “real” adult life. Three days after arriving home, I was less sure. By that stage I had been nearly eight weeks without a period. I had vomited one morning on holiday. Afterwards I laughed, saying to my boyfriend, “Getting sick in the morning? Hope I’m not pregnant!” He laughed too. I had an IUD. I was protected.
Without telling my boyfriend, I decided to do a pregnancy test after work to eradicate the tiny doubt festering at the back of my mind. I would tell my boyfriend later. ‘’Guess what I did earlier? A pregnancy test, ha-ha. Just because I still felt nauseous and, you know, with my period being late . . . I know, silly, right?’’
Buying a pregnancy test was daunting. I bought a bottle of Johnson’s baby shampoo, along with my test. To make it look like I already had a baby at home. To pretend I was a responsible, mature woman buying a test to find out if a sibling for the baby was on the way. I decided to get an Indian for dinner and eat it at home watching Game of Thrones. I would go to the restaurant bathroom and do the test while waiting for my food. In the queue, a toddler smiled and giggled at me from her mother’s arms.
I peed on the stick. The flow came out too strong and some urine got on the screen. The instructions warned that this could render the test invalid. Two minutes passed. I looked at the test. Did a double line mean positive? It did. I looked back at the test.
No. Just no. I had peed on the screen. It was an invalid test, thank God. However, I would have to do a second, given this test was faulty. If only I had a penis I would have been able to pee with accuracy. I laughed out loud at this. If I had a penis, I would not be in an Indian restaurant toilet, holding an own-brand pregnancy test, waiting for a No 35 (chicken tikka masala) and a No 53 (Peshwari naan).
Test No 2
Luckily there was a small pharmacy beside my house where I got another test. Back home, I took long gulps of water. Then into the bathroom. I waited. I read the instructions. A cross this time would symbolise a positive test. The seconds stretched on. I glanced down.
There was a cross.
That meant it was positive. A positive test? Two positive tests? No, surely the first one was faulty. It was only one positive test. But, one valid positive test was one valid positive test too many. No. No, I couldn’t be. It must be a false positive. I refused to believe it was possible.
Frantic internet searches on my phone for “false positive pregnancy test.” Words jumped out at me. Words like “rare” and “unlikely”.
I ignored them. I scanned for reasons. Ovarian cancer. Pituitary disorders. The more I read, the more I convinced myself, that I could have ovarian cancer. This seemed a much better alternative than pregnancy. Cancer was treatable, right? Treatable in Ireland by medical professionals, and nothing to be ashamed of, no difficult decisions involved. How surreal, I remember thinking, that I was standing in my bathroom wishing I had cancer.
I went out to meet my boyfriend and to buy another test. As we crossed the road I blurted it out: “I did a test and . . . ”
“You’re pregnant?” he said.
“Yes. No,” I corrected myself. “I think it’s a false positive. I think I have cancer.”
I explained my theory. Now that I was with him, I felt sure I couldn’t be pregnant. Apart from nausea I didn’t feel ill, so the cancer must be at the earlier stages and I would be fine once treated. I couldn’t be pregnant, I told my boyfriend, I have an IUD.
Back to the clinic
He convinced me not to buy another test. We decided I would go back to the clinic where the IUD had been fitted and get a blood test done. We went together. The doctor explained blood tests took time and were expensive. A simple urine test in her office today would make everything clear. I did the test. A couple of minutes later I heard her say: “Yeah, Claire, you’re definitely pregnant.”
I broke the awful silence by bursting into noisy sobs.
“I’ll leave you two alone for a minute,” the doctor said walking towards the door.
“Go to her,” she whispered to my boyfriend, nodding her head in my direction. My boyfriend, stunned by the news, was glued to his chair. I couldn’t stop the tears and shakes as he held me tight against him.
The doctor came back in to talk logistics. Counselling classes were provided free of charge in the clinic. One was arranged for the next day.
How could this be happening? I had an IUD. The doctor explained I had been very unlucky. It could have fallen out or it could still be there. If it was still there then there was a one in two chance that the pregnancy was ectopic. I could discuss options with the counsellor tomorrow.
I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that my medical condition and my medical options had to be discussed with a counsellor, and not with a medical professional right here, right now. The word “abortion” hung unspoken in the air.
My boyfriend and I went to a cafe to talk. What were my options? Our options? I had always been pro-choice. If a woman found herself pregnant, and did not want to be, I felt she should be allowed to have an abortion. She should have that choice.
And yet I was on the fence regarding what I would do personally. I believed in choice but I did not know if termination was a choice I could make. My private thoughts on the matter tended to focus on the philosophical and emotional. When thinking about whether I could have an abortion, I always circled back to the question of when a “life” began. Religion and science did not give me reasons to swing either way. But this was the point I focused on in hypothetical conversations, in a nonpregnant state. I was always aware that people who said they would “never” do this or would “definitely” do that were being obtuse in their thinking. No one knows for sure what they would do in a situation until they are in it. And now I was facing this situation. The abortion fence I had been sitting on before had been a theoretical one. Now, I had to make a decision. Which side of the fence was I going to land?
In the hospital, a nurse came in to give us the result of my fourth pregnancy test. “Yes, you are pregnant,” she said with a delighted smile. I was too emotionally drained to react either way. My face didn’t change. My boyfriend gave her an incredulous look.
In contrast, the doctor who I saw next seemed aware that this was not a wanted pregnancy. She knew she was checking for an ectopic pregnancy and trying to locate the IUD. She called my name. As we both stood up, she snapped that my boyfriend should wait in the room. After ordering me up on the examination table, she began the scan. I glanced at the screen. I could see the unmistakable roundness of a head and a shape that looked like a body underneath. The distinctive roundness of the head shook me. That was inside me. It was biologically half of me. I stared at it and tried my hardest not to well up in front of this cold doctor.
“It’s not ectopic,” she said. There was no warmth in her voice. “So you want the IUD taken out, yes? You are aware there’s a chance that this can cause a miscarriage?”
I nodded. She left the room. It wasn’t ectopic. I closed my eyes lest the tears begin. It wasn’t ectopic. I prayed that the removal of the IUD would also take out this unwanted . . . thing . . . foetus . . . whatever. That it would take the decision out of my hands.
As she examined me, I braced myself for the pain of removal. But it didn’t come. She performed another scan to look for the IUD. This time I did not look at the screen. “It’s not there,” she said. It was arranged that a higher-resolution scan would be performed the next day. I left the room, even more unhappy than before. Not ectopic? Where was the IUD? How could I not have felt it come out? Can I sue if it’s not there? My boyfriend, with his law degree, didn’t think so. We left the hospital frustrated, angry and miserable.
“I’m sorry, I can’t give you proper information about what you can do.” This was the doctor at the second scan, where it was confirmed the IUD had probably fallen out without my realising. I had gone alone to this appointment.
“Do you know how to get to England? You know how to access that information?” This doctor, this human being, clearly wanted to help me. How ridiculous it was that he had to speak in code. How backwards that he couldn’t give me the medical options in his professional capacity. That he couldn’t even refer me to someone who could. I nodded, thanking him.
“How old is the foetus?” I asked. Whatever choice I made, I would need to know how far along I was.
“Oh,” he said turning back to the now-empty screen, “I didn’t even check for that.” He had automatically assumed I would get an abortion. He didn’t want to tell me information about the foetus that could cause me further distress.
“I would estimate it’s eight weeks. It’s a totally healthy and normal pregnancy,” he said. This upset me. Seeing my face change, he added: “Given your age, how far along you are, and its position in the womb I would say there’s a 2-3 per cent chance of a miscarriage. So don’t make decisions banking on that.”
I appreciated his candour. He was giving me as much information as he was legally allowed to help me make my choice.
The words “totally normal and healthy” haunted me as I stepped out of the office and into the June sunshine, and again I burst into tears. I was eight weeks into a normal, healthy pregnancy. A month ago I had turned 23.
Not ready for a baby
Keeping the baby was not an option. I was just out of college. I hadn’t settled in the working world. I had been with my boyfriend less than 18 months. We did not live together. He had also just turned 23.
I did not know if I wanted to tie myself to him for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be a single mum. I lived payslip to payslip. I had no savings. I lived in a tiny, single-bedroom with two flatmates. I wanted my freedom as a young adult. I did not want to make choices based around a tiny human baby. I was not ready for a baby. I did not want to commit lifelong devotion to anything, never mind a person, at my young age.
Adoption? The idea was heartbreaking. My dad, Jim Woods, had been a classic victim of Irish adoption. His birth certificate was falsified. He still doesn’t have any clue who his birth parents were. (We think his birthdate is June 1st, 1961, and we know he was born in St Rita’s Nursing Home, Sandford Road, in Ranelagh, Dublin. If anybody has any information about him please email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
A tearful confession to my mum, and two more counselling sessions later, I still could not decide. My sobbing mantra in counselling sessions was: “I don’t want to be pregnant and have a baby. I don’t want to have an abortion.” The shock of the news took a long time to absorb. I was especially good at compartmentalising, which for studying, or going out when I should be studying, had been very useful. But I was using this skill to avoid focusing on my pregnancy. This was difficult given that my nausea was constantly with me. I discovered that morning sickness was a wildly inaccurate term. I got sick most mornings without fail but was liable to get sick at any time. Anything could set me off. The constant nausea made it difficult forget about the pregnancy.
As the weeks passed, I made and unmade my decision. Waking up each morning, my pregnancy screamed at me for attention. The morning sickness intensified and a routine began. I would run to the bathroom, and retch repeatedly. Each time I vomited, tears also hit the toilet bowl. My boyfriend would follow with a hairband and a glass. He would tie up my hair and, as I switched between vomiting and crying, he would fill up the glass with water. More often than not I would vomit up the water. But this was better than the foul-tasting bile. I would cry. He would hug me on the tiled floor. This new morning routine for the month of June was a gross and violent reminder of my situation.
Twice I rang up and booked an appointment in Manchester. The first time I did not book flights. The second time I did. Waking up at 4am at the start of July, we knew we had to leave the house at 5am for the airport. In bed we discussed me having the abortion. Did I think I could go through with it? I honestly didn’t know. I felt numb. I didn’t feel that I would be able to feel any emotion strongly again. I still didn’t know if it was a life or not. This unknown “factor” was what tortured my tired mind. I didn’t know what was the right thing to do. I felt so emotionally drained and weary and lethargic and sapped of all energy. Why not just go over and just follow the instructions of the doctors and nurses? At least then I wouldn’t have to think.
“I don’t think you should go,” my boyfriend said. “I don’t think you should sleepwalk into this. I think when this is behind you, you’ll dwell on the guilt. You’re always too hard on yourself and this is a very big stick to beat yourself with.”
I knew he was right. And I hated myself for it. I hated that this was who I was. That I was not able to go over to England. That I was not brave enough or hadn’t enough confidence in myself to do something purely on the “because I don’t want it” argument. I really did not think of it as a “life” right now, but I knew that my having an abortion was stopping it from ever having a life. From becoming alive.
The grey area in between played on my mind. I resented myself for not being able to see the foetus as an extension of me, as something that needed me to survive, and so if I didn’t want it I could remove it. I wished I could see it like that, the way my boyfriend did. I hated the fact that, although the foetus was only 50 per cent me, I was the one calling 100 per cent of the shots. I wished my boyfriend was the one who was pregnant. I wished I could let him make the decision, knowing that he would go to England. I hated that by not going over, I was forcing him to continue on this unwanted journey with me. A journey he wouldn’t choose himself. I hated the guilt of impacting on his life this way.
In the end we did not go to England. I continued with the pregnancy. I know it’s not the end of the world but, as of writing this, at 29 weeks, I’m still dreadfully upset. Some days I berate myself for not going over to have an abortion. I know that this is a fool’s game. The decision at the time felt like the right one. I felt that I could cope with being sad over adoption, over the guilt of preventing a life from happening. Now that the sadness is upon me, it sometimes feels too heavy to bear on my heart.
I try hard to block out my feelings of regret, my feelings of sadness. I feel isolated. Not wanting people to know I was pregnant and placing a baby for adoption, I left work at the end of August. I told very few friends. Those who check in with me regularly are not the ones I would have expected to have been there for me. They have been a huge source of comfort, and nonjudgmental. I judge myself harshly enough, so to have friends who just listen and prop me up is huge.
Until mid-October, I was fully committed to adoption. Increasingly, though, it was making me feel incredibly sad. After a discussion one more morning last month, we both admitted to feeling that we should maybe keep it. This was a huge turnaround for both of us. Previously, adoption had been my source of sadness; now it is keeping the child. There was so much I wanted to achieve before I had children – extensive travel, living abroad, a fulfilling career, and the general freedom of having no responsibilities and no one to answer to. If I keep and raise a child, that doesn’t seem realistic any more. It feels as if all I had hoped for, for myself, will be gone. Instead of focusing my energies on developing myself and becoming a real adult, I will have to focus my life around feeding, changing, cleaning and caring for a baby. I will be responsible for another life for 18 years.
I marched last September at the pro-choice rally. I became emotional when one speaker referenced the support she wanted us to give to the 10 women (on average) who travel to England or elsewhere each day for abortions. I think of them now, getting up when it is still dark, feeling how I felt back then: sad, confused, torn, guilty, numb. Until you are in the situation, it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decision or know how they feel. I made my own decision. It was the decision that felt right for me. I am telling my story now because I believe as a society we should trust women to do what is right for them when – as so many have and so many will – they become pregnant and they don’t want to be.
It’s early December now and I am in a better place. Having such huge love and support from both sets of parents, extended family and friends has helped my boyfriend and I to decide to keep the baby. We are under no illusions about the challenges, but our loved ones are offering us real, practical assistance when the baby arrives, which will make the life adjustment easier. Time will tell what the future will hold for me. I take it one day at a time.
I gave birth to a little girl on a Thursday at 9.33pm in Holles Street, after a gruelling 25-hour labour. We have named her Alexandra Honoria Emily Woods. Alexandra, we liked. Honoria, after my beloved grandmother. And Emily, after a friend who stepped up for me when I needed her most.
I hope that the name can remind me to inspire Alexandra to become as kind, understanding and empathetic as Emily.
We decided to be very egalitarian and modern with the surname. As we both think double-barrelled surnames can be a bit pretentious – thank you, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly – we said that if it was a boy, it would be my boyfriend’s surname. As the baby was a girl, she’s Woods.
It’s an understatement to say my parenthood experience so far has been illuminating: Already a loving partner, Alexandra has brought out even more of my boyfriend’s caring nature and shone light on a completely new side of him. It has also given me an even deeper appreciation of my own and my boyfriend’s parents. Our baby continues to radiate new light through all our lives. Giving birth to Alexandra Woods has made me even more fiercely pro-choice. If in the future she were to experience a crisis pregnancy, and she made the choice to have an abortion, I would want her to have the procedure safely in Ireland.
Afterwards, I would want to be able to wrap my own daughter up tightly in a blanket, give her a warm drink and comfort her in my arms in the country of her birth.
Claire Woods talks to Kathy Sheridan on The Women's Podcast which will be on Irishtimes.com from Sunday evening.