By your mid-thirties, the pressure is on to start a family, but what if you fall pregnant and you’re still not ready for motherhood? Faye Colver shares her story...
Sitting in the waiting room, I pretended not to stare at the teenager sitting next to me. She was texting her friends and laughing loudly. I flicked back through my magazine when she elbowed me right in the ribs. “Are you having an abortion?” she asked. “Is it your first one? Are you nervous? Do you have a boyfriend? Is something wrong? How old are you?”
The answers, in no particular order, were as follows: I was in my mid-30s, and dating a man I liked – really, really liked, actually. I’d never had an abortion before, and nothing was wrong with my health. But I was nervous. I was nervous that everyone was looking at me sitting there, with my rogue grey hairs and fine frown lines, thinking I was too old for this; that I should know better. As the nurse approached me, I suddenly found myself apologising for taking up her time. I knew being 35 didn’t mean I had to raise an unwanted baby any more than the teenager sitting to my left. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’d made a mistake; I’d fallen pregnant despite not trying to, and at my age, I was an unlikely visitor to the clinic.
Until you’re faced with one of those Sliding Doors moments – that is, when your future is staring down the barrel of two, life-definingly different pathways (one with a child, one without) – it’s hard to imagine that you’d ever instinctively know what to do without at least considering the alternative option. But the truth is, at 35, and with a pregnancy test in hand, I instantly knew I wanted an abortion.
Biologically speaking, it’s not that surprising. We become more decisive as we grow older. The portion of our brain [called the ventral striatum] which makes impulsive decisions declines, and we start using our prefrontal cortex instead – which is where more rational thinking is controlled. Still, society gives women a different message: the older you get, the more you’re supposed to struggle with the choice to terminate a pregnancy. And I didn’t.
I’d grown up in Scunthorpe with Irish relatives – in fact, a lot of my family still live in a country where terminating your pregnancy is illegal unless your life is at risk. In Ireland, Catholicism trumps the right to choose, and I’d hear stories of people who had to order the abortive drug misoprostol on the internet, before driving hundreds of miles to collect the unmarked package from a PO Box. My family weren’t strictly religious, but I always felt like getting pregnant before I was in a stable relationship would be the biggest mistake I could make. As a result, I didn’t have sex until I was 18 years old, and I was meticulous about contraception. It wasn’t a big deal. Nobody else my age wanted kids yet either. My friends and I would sit in the pub and talk about what we’d do if we were faced with ‘the thin blue line’, and the consensus was always the same: there was no way we’d be able to raise a child alone. Sure, some people did it. But we were young and we were allowed to be selfish.
That’s the word which is associated with deliberately child-free women: ‘selfish’. But immaturity is a trait that’s quickly forgiven. When my friend revealed in her 20s that she’d had three abortions in quick succession, our friendship circle never questioned whether she’d made the right decision. It seemed to be treated as a rite of passage – along with taking the morning after pill or catching an STD. Reckless maybe, but worse things have happened. Meanwhile, I continued to picture myself meeting somebody, travelling the world with them and climbing the career ladder together. Only then – energy and money spent and saved in quick succession – would we finally settle down and start a family.
James* agreed with me. We started dating aged 29 and quickly began pouring our income into meals and nights out, and holidays across the globe. Occasionally, we’d talk about having children, but I was keen to wait – as visitor services manager for a large stately home in Lincolnshire, I wasn’t ready to take 12 months off on maternity leave. Eventually, three years into our relationship, we agreed that we’d start trying ‘after Christmas’. Seven days after that conversation, he broke up with me.
Tears and heartache aside, I felt like I’d had a near miss. I figured that even if I’d ended up getting pregnant a year before, James would still have left me eventually. I wanted children, but only if I could have them as part of a team. The idea of having no-one to share the challenge with filled me with fear. But with age seemed to come carelessness. After a few years of being single, I was diagnosed with fibroid problems, and had to swap my pill – the same week that I slept with Ciaran* for the first time, after dating for a month. Maybe the fact I’d never had a pregnancy scare before had gradually allayed my cautious streak, or maybe I’d just internalised the idea that by 35, my fertility was supposed to be going off the boil. Either way, I didn’t think for a second that anything would go wrong. And yet, within six weeks, I was sitting on the toilet, staring at a small line that seemed to be getting bluer and bluer by the second.
It wasn’t a total surprise: I’d been feeling ill for a month. One glass of wine suddenly sent me to the bathroom to throw up; I’d developed an unnervingly sensitive sense of smell; my body ached. To be honest, when I saw the result, I was mostly just relieved that I finally knew what was going on.
But even though I knew having a termination was the right thing for me, I still felt ashamed. At my first appointment later that week (just after the kind, understanding doctor oh-so-casually checked my age for the third time), I heard myself turning my boyfriend into my ‘fiancé’. “He agrees it’s not the right time,” I told her, desperate to justify my decision and sound more settled and responsible. I’d read a statistic somewhere once which maintained that 70% of women who have abortions are in relationships, and as the lie slipped off my tongue it dawned on me – that stat probably wasn’t accurate. I couldn't be the first woman to fake a fiancé.
The truth was, I hadn’t even told my boyfriend yet. I planned to let him know that evening. I felt briefly – horribly– powerful. It wasn’t only my fate I held in my hands, after all. The conversation with Ciaran* lasted about three minutes. Maybe five. I told him I was pregnant, that I’d got pregnant the first time we’d slept together, and that I’d already booked the appointment to stop being pregnant. Nervously, we joked that meeting each other’s parents with a baby scan photo would have probably broken the ice. Then, keen to change the subject, we went to the cinema. There was no mention of doing things differently. I wondered whether that was because he understood the situation, or if it was just because he was a man, and wasn’t constantly told he had a ticking clock hovering over his genitalia.
It was harder with other women. During the procedure the following week, I shunned pain relief so that I could drive myself home – I didn’t want to ask anyone to pick me up. Nearly 30,000 women over the age of 35 had abortions in England and Wales last year, but from the way people reacted to my decision, it may as well have just been me. One of my best friends is a single mum, and telling her what I’d done sounded like I was saying I didn’t want to end up like her. After all, I earned £32,000 and I already owned a two-bedroom house. I could have coped. I just didn’t want to. Another friend couldn’t believe I wasn’t going through some kind of emotional breakdown. “But are you sure you’re OK?” she kept asking. “How are you coping, really? Are you worried it might be your last chance?” I didn’t know how to explain that I would be more worried if I was still pregnant. Even if this was my last chance, that was a risk I was willing to take.
Meanwhile, one of my friends had just found out she was unable to have children. We were the same age, but she was dealing with this massive, awful revelation. I couldn’t go near her, and started cancelling plans. Saying I’d thrown away the opportunity to do something she desperately wanted felt insensitive. The sensible, logical side of me said what’s right for one person doesn’t have to be right for another. Having an abortion at 15 or 25 or 35 or 45 should be that woman’s decision, and nobody else has the right to judge what she chooses to do. But I couldn’t bear to risk my friend feeling that I was belittling her experiences. I still haven’t found the words to tell her.
The loneliness of abortion at 35 has stunned me. I’m not the only person in my social circle who hasn’t had kids yet, but I don’t know anyone I can talk to about my experience without it turning into a big deal. I want to tell somebody about the ridiculousness of the termination process – how the girl in the next bed had really annoyed me, and how I’d kept up the fiancé pretence the whole time. Humour has always been my way of dealing with difficult situations and, as I saw it, my termination was like a bad date: you never want to go through it again but there’s nothing wrong with finding some black humour there, either. The more we’re silent about these subjects, the more shame we feel about them.
I’m not naïve. I know I don’t want to start a family with someone I’ve only just met but I also know that this might have been my last chance to experience motherhood. But if that’s the case, I know I’ll be OK. There’s so much I’ve done with my life already, and so much I still want to achieve. This year, I learned how to make choices that are right for me. And I’m only 35.
Photography: Gemma Day