The first time I learned I was pregnant, I was 19. I drank whiskey and cried in the woods at college parties and yelled at my boyfriend. We had only been dating for a few months. We were irresponsible kids using unreliable methods. My boyfriend called his father, who sent us $300, and a few weeks later we were at Planned Parenthood in Phoenix, terminating the pregnancy. It was 1999.
We got serious about contraception after that, using a diaphragm with spermicidal jelly.
Still, six weeks later, spending the summer together in southern Maine, I feared I was pregnant again. When I saw two lines on the pregnancy test, I fell to the floor, a black-and-white-checkered tile in the tiny bathroom of our tiny apartment. I hollered for my boyfriend. When he saw the test, he fell to the ground too. We said nothing. There was nothing to say. We both knew we would have this baby.
We quickly bailed on our summer in Maine and went back to Arizona to rent a house and begin the work of becoming parents.
Antonia was born at home in Prescott, Arizona, on Feb. 3, 2000, after a 12-hour labor, with the help of the local midwives. Our parents had tried to talk us out of a home birth, but I had read “Spiritual Midwifery” and felt connected to a sacred feminine process. After Antonia arrived, the midwives ordered pizza, cleaned up, started a load of laundry and eventually left us to become a family.
For two days, her dad and I took turns staying awake for 24-hour shifts. I don’t know where we got this notion that someone always must be awake. My boyfriend was on the phone with his dad one evening, explaining how exhausted we both were from this routine, when his dad said: “If the baby is asleep, for God’s sake, both of you can sleep!” We were young, foolishly confident and literally clueless.
For the next year, we pieced together a life: classes, work-study jobs, babysitting help from friends and financial help from our parents. As the surprise first grandchild on both sides of the family, Antonia had no shortage of adoration and attention. Giggly and chubby-cheeked, she smiled easily and often. I carried her around in a sling and we co-slept. We were buoyed by love and our youth. She was a miracle.
Four years and five months ago, when she was 18, my daughter Antonia died. It was two weeks after she had graduated high school. A relentless fever and a headache had brought us to the ER three times before she was finally admitted. Over a couple of days, when asked to rate her pain on a scale of one to 10, Antonia said 15. A horrid medical accident and failed treatment of meningitis led to encephalitis and her death. She was my whole beloved world; my past, present and future.
The death of a child is an endless desert of vacancy, deprivation and agony. I was annihilated. I starved myself, cut myself and drank massive amounts of vodka. But nothing worked. There were no more miracles. There was no good reason to live.
Two years into this hell, I checked myself into a residential treatment program for trauma. At intake, a nurse asked, “When was the last time you self-harmed?” “The last time I self-harmed was today.” Up until this moment, I had not been honest about what I was doing.
Once, at the beach, a friend saw the scabbed scratch marks on my forearm and I said another friend’s dog had done it. No one doubted me. They said, “Ouch!” And I said, “I know! Crazy!” Telling on myself brought a full halt to the chaos that had become automatic.
Once back from my therapy program, I hooked up with a guy 10 years younger than me. He was newly sober and severely depressed, but I thought we’d help each other heal; build a life together out of our respective misery and trauma. His mother died: check. My daughter died: check. Both starved for touch after a year of the pandemic, we’d make out for hours, have sex, watch a movie and sleep. When we’d wake up, of course nothing had been healed.
It was the dead of winter on the gray coast of Maine. Icy, brown, slushy sidewalks and pandemic isolation had rendered me disturbed and hopeless. Antonia was never coming back.
And then I learned I was pregnant. Even though I’d taken Plan B, even though I’d thought I was too old to get pregnant, or too malnourished, or too broken. It felt like some cruel joke.
To say the man whose sperm had fertilized this egg was not Daddy material is an understatement. He’d often bolt, go dark for days and eventually confessed he was using again. I had a schizophrenic, drug-addicted father myself, whose psychotic behavior was littered throughout my childhood. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep with this guy again, and certainly wasn’t going to raise a child with him.
Many people presume that a pregnancy after the death of a child is a “miracle,” regardless of the circumstances, but everything about this pregnancy felt wrong. I had been down the demoralizing road of food stamps and piling up credit card debt raising Antonia. As a single woman working in the field of social services, I could never work enough to afford full-time day care.
Besides which, I was failing to take care of myself; how would I ever take care of an infant in my traumatized, grief-stricken state? I wanted my daughter back, and this baby was not my daughter.
I owe a lot to a friend who reminded me, when I felt stuck, that I had a choice.
At seven weeks, I opted for an at-home, medically induced abortion through Planned Parenthood. I had told my mother, a nurse, by then, and drove to her house for the procedure. The night was long and the pain was worse than labor. At one point, I was writhing in my mom’s bed and then vomiting, just as Antonia’s head pain had caused her to vomit those last few days in the hospital. It felt like I was tapping into her immense pain, her writhing and vomiting, all the things I could not save her from, which dropped me right into my PTSD. The pain was haunting and I cried and cried, wanting my dead daughter, riding out the feverish peaks of the waves of pain. I took pain meds; I threw up; I passed more blood. By 5 a.m., I finally fell asleep.
The cessation of pain can bring on a bizarre euphoria. I woke up almost giddy. My leaky ship was no longer sinking. My coffee had just the right amount of cream. Compared to what I’d endured since Antonia’s death, a medically-induced miscarriage, even a painful and triggering one, was small fries.
I’d been paralyzed the weeks leading up to my decision, steeped in the patriarchal message that it’s a woman’s duty to bear a child, even at the expense of her own well-being. It took hours on the phone with my friend before it dawned on me that I had a choice, that I could choose myself. Doing so resurrected something deep, like the salvation of self.
It took another year to start eating again and to stop using alcohol and men as fuel. But in choosing to prioritize my own healing ― choosing to say, no, I actually can’t; I lack the mental health and financial stability to ensure a positive, viable outcome for this pregnancy ― I took the first step in saving my own life.
Now, two years since I chose to terminate that pregnancy, I’ve sworn off men, vodka and the other habits that I used to distract myself from my pain. I will always be a mother without her daughter, but I am learning to continue to choose myself. And while I still slip up at times, I keep trying. I think Antonia would approve.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.