Just a Choice: LaToya Watkins on Motherhood

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These days, I don’t like leaving the house. I prefer to work from home, shop from home, and visit with family and friends from home. I’m not an agoraphobe—I run every morning, visit my favorite cookie shop twice a week, and go to grocery stores and farmer’s markets during low traffic times. Nonetheless, I’m beginning to recognize my social limitations. My heart becomes a violent storm inside of my chest, I fidget, and sometimes I can’t control my breathing when I think about being in peopled spaces. I don’t know exactly when it started, but I have grown into someone else. Some days I wonder what happened to me, why I am this way.

I think this is what happened: I became a mother. Not in the “I just want to stay at home with my kids” sense—more like the “I’ve given birth to these black babies and now I have to keep them alive” sense. I feared that my children wouldn’t quite understand that no matter what they knew themselves to be, “America” might see them as what she always has. Danger. To me, motherhood has always felt like a burden. I once thought of myself as a reluctant mother, no—a resistant mother. I’ve never worn motherhood like a second skin, always had to work hard at it and have help and relief from it. And though I love my children fiercely, I don’t think I ever really grew into being their mother.

My babies are all young adults now. My son, the oldest, is the sweetest of them. He’s beginning to understand that as a young black man, it is unlikely that he’ll experience the freedom of his white counterparts. My daughters don’t quite get it yet. They don’t understand that here, life means to break them. I used to think my fears for them were the same ones my mother had for me. When I was a little girl, she constantly checked in to make sure I was safe in this world. She didn’t want me to fall behind in school. She told me to say “no” to drugs, to eat my vegetables, to stay away from boys. That these were the things I needed to do to stay alive, to grow old. And as I did grow older, she grew more protective, suspicious even, of the choices I was making. When she learned I was pregnant at 17, she told me that one of her biggest fears had been realized. 

I didn’t tell my mother, then the wife of a deacon, that I’d already visited an abortion clinic. That I didn’t have enough money or time away from her strict gaze to go through with my choice. The day she realized that she hadn’t bought me tampons or pads in over three months, I stood there and watched her unravel. And I waited for her to tell me what to do. Eventually, she asked, “So I guess you want to have an abortion?” When I nodded yes, she told me flat-out that she wouldn’t allow it. And I didn’t argue or fight her on it. I was 17. She was God and politics and everything I knew about the world. 

This year, I published a novel set in an imagined town inspired by the place where my family is from. In the opening scene of Perish, 16-year-old Helen Jean, with the help of her cousin Ernestine, attempts to end an unwanted pregnancy by drinking turpentine. When the procedure fails, Ernestine advises Helen Jean to return later to try a different abortive method. Believing that she has heard the voice of God, Helen Jean declines and resolves to marry a man she doesn’t love and give birth to a child that she knows she can’t love. I imagine that if the story had been set in the 1990s, when I was a pregnant teenager, instead of the 1950s, there would have been other options, healthier options, for women in Helen Jean’s predicament. 

I also imagine that Helen Jean and other women from her community might’ve still ended up coming to her cousin for assistance. Just because abortion was legal did not necessarily mean that Black women had access to it. For one, Congress restricted the use of federal dollars from covering the abortion costs and services for poor women. And in addition to cost restrictions, someone in Helen Jean’s condition might have had limited access to healthcare, lack of choices for birth control, inadequate sexual education, and a strong concern about the social implications of abortion—and premarital sex, and contraception—within her community.

When I became pregnant in the 1990s, the legal right to choose wasn’t the issue for me. Once my family found out, I didn’t have any other choice than to go through with that pregnancy. In my family, in the community we come from, the shame of abortion is more burdensome than the shame of giving birth to a child without adequate access to the resources needed to provide for it. What I knew about myself is that I wasn’t ready to be a mother. That I didn’t have the skills or the energy or the patience for such an undertaking. But none of that mattered—it was too late for me to make my own choice. 

Nonetheless, I spent hours at a time in the bathroom beating bruises onto my own stomach trying to expel what I thought marked the end of my life. I ingested things that could’ve killed me. I climbed to the roof of our single-story home and jumped off. I was desperate in ways that my mother didn’t understand, that my family wouldn’t understand. So I tried in secret to miscarry my ruin. But in the end, I took on the burden of loving someone else more than myself and became a young mother. My daughter was born strong and healthy. She grew fast and wore my face, but none of these things made our bond instant. It took me a few months to realize I loved her, took me that long to really look at her—to see her as something other than the end of me. The guilt of all those feelings before that moment—before I really saw her—is something I still carry. 

When my daughter was seven months old, my mother called me at the part-time job I’d started working after my high school graduation. “She stopped breathing,” she said. She went on to explain that she had managed to resuscitate her and that I should come to  the hospital. Those next eight hours are a blur all these years later, but my daughter didn’t survive that night. We left that place without her. What I do remember from that night is that no one believed us. No one believed that she had stopped breathing, that something wasn’t right, that something was ending for one of us.

I’ll never be able to explain how I managed grief as a mother when I hadn’t wanted to be one and knew I shouldn’t have been one, or how I didn’t know what grief was because where I’m from we don’t talk about grief or how to grieve, or how I spent the next few years chasing gods and begging them to give her back to me, or how I decided to become a mother again and again to make up for the guilt and the unpacked grief and how the fact that I never did still feels like that first loss all over again. And these are the things that I feared for the daughters I birthed after that first one: that something bigger than them would steal their choices and that there would be too much pain because of that. I wanted them to be young and to be free and to be alive. I wanted them to have pleasure and to live there until they were old enough, strong enough to carry pain. And I wanted them to know that the choice would always be theirs. 

When my 19-year-old daughter, my baby girl, came home from college two springs ago, needing to talk to me, something inside me knew exactly what she had to say. As I listened to her trudge through her over-practiced speech, I closed my eyes and saw myself at 17. I was scared and alone and desperate. I needed to be asked what I wanted. I needed to be given a choice. To be supported in whatever it was I chose to do. If things had happened that way, I might be free from some of these things I carry. When I opened my eyes, my baby was looking at me, looking to me. 

“You hear me, Mom? I’m pregnant.”

I swallowed hard and thought about my own bruised belly, about my shame, about my dead baby, and about all the grief and guilt that has turned to anxiety and fear. I thought about how I’m dragging it all behind me and I knew I didn’t want that for my daughter.

 I nodded my head and told my baby I heard her.

“Mama’s here, baby,” I told her. And then I put my arms around her and said something like, I’m here. We can talk through your options, but this is your choice. Whatever you decide, I’m here. The question is: What do you want to do?

And I held my breath and trusted that she knew.