Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: A Mother Reflects on Whether and When to Have Children
GROWING UP CATHOLIC, I had no clue about the guilt that came with it — until I reached adulthood. I attended Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School in Houston, Texas, from kindergarten to sixth grade. My father and all his siblings were graduates of the school, which was part of parish that my immediate family attended. If my mother was running late from work to pick me up from school, I would have to go next door to the convent and wait there with the nuns. I absolutely dreaded it.
We were very devout Catholics. I learned at an early age of the Ten Commandments and many stories of the Bible. That was the beginning of Catholic guilt. All these things would form how I would operate in the world. Every move I made, I thought about whether I was sinning in a way that would send me straight to hell or purgatory. My parents never really talked about sex or its consequences, so everything I learned was from friends and the outside world. Sex before marriage is a cardinal sin in the Catholic church, and if I did it I would go to hell. I was basically scared to death of having sex as a young person. I didn’t want to spend eternity burning in a place like that. I’d pictured what that looked like and decided against it. I told myself I would hold out until I was married, but life had other plans. I would eventually learn it was damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Catholic guilt would still shame and condemn me.
The First Time I Had an Abortion
In my second year of college, I met a boy that I was really enamored with. I didn’t know how to approach him without being nervous, so I started laughing at his jokes in psychology class, and somehow we became friends. Being friends led us straight to the motel room where we had sex for the first time. I always felt that sex was all men wanted from me, and I was very shy. He eventually convinced me that we should “do it.” And we did.
Shortly after, I felt extreme anxiety because we did not use protection. I never should’ve been having sex outside of marriage in the first place. I instantly felt like I was pregnant — like I was being punished for my sin. I started being really hard on myself. It’s like I knew God was watching me and would be displeased by my actions. A month later, I missed my period. As a struggling college student, I spent my last $20 on a pair of pregnancy tests. The bathroom felt like a confessional. The walls started closing in on me, and I felt the weight of my sins on my shoulders as I agonized for two minutes, waiting for the test to confirm what I already knew: I was pregnant.
"The bathroom felt like a confessional. The walls started closing in on me, and I felt the weight of my sins on my shoulders as I agonized for two minutes, waiting for the test to confirm what I already knew: I was pregnant."
I reached out to the guy to let him know I was pregnant, and he decided to share that he had a girlfriend he was supposed to marry after college. Both of their parents were church leaders. He didn’t want to lose his girlfriend or upset his pastor father. I felt like a fool. I really liked him. I knew I didn’t want to be pregnant and was not ready to be a parent. So we talked about getting an abortion. He offered to pay for it.
I had a surgical abortion. I thought surely I was going to burn in the pits of hell then. The guilt and shame I felt was unbearable. I needed to go to confession.
I entered the confessional, which was very dark and smelled of old library books. My heart was beating so fast as I fell on my knees in a prayer position and waited for the priest. The priest slid open the door covering the mesh screen so we couldn’t see each other clearly. He looked straight ahead. I said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been a long time since my last confession. These are my sins.” I started going down a laundry list of things I did. Most importantly, I told him I had sex out of wedlock, and I had an abortion. The priest responded, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He gave me some prayers to say, and all my sins were forgiven. I felt a great deal of relief and vowed to never have sex again.
"I had a surgical abortion. I thought surely I was going to burn in the pits of hell then. The guilt and shame I felt was unbearable. I needed to go to confession."
The Time I Didn’t Have an Abortion
Four years later, I was having fun and enjoying my life as a childless young adult. I was still not big on having sex outside of marriage, but I was growing tired of being considered a prude. I met a guy who claimed to be from a good family and was also Catholic. We decided to become intimate. It wasn’t a great experience, and I referred to it as a wasted sin. We went our separate ways.
Thirty days later, I missed my period. I was so afraid that I could be pregnant again. I went to Walgreens to buy a pregnancy test, and it felt like everything was moving in slow motion. I was so anxious my ears were ringing. I could feel that pesky Catholic guilt in the pit of my stomach. Filled with dread, I took the long route home. Finally, I entered my bathroom, took out the test, and peed on the stick. While I waited, I sat on the toilet thinking about how I’d gotten myself in that situation once again. The test confirmed a positive pregnancy. I started sobbing uncontrollably.
I had to call the Catholic guy and let him know I was pregnant. I immediately wanted an abortion, but that wasn’t what he wanted. He said that if he was indeed the father, we could get married and be a family. I barely knew him and was not ready to become a wife, let alone a parent. Because of his Catholic faith, he refused to help pay for an abortion. My parents also refused to help me pay for it. They convinced me that I could become a parent even though it was against my better judgment. I agreed. At the time, I didn’t know what I was signing up for: It would eventually feel like the hell I was afraid of spending eternity in.
At 12 weeks, I had my first ultrasound where I could actually see that there was indeed a baby growing inside me. Up to that point, I had been in serious denial. I had a good friend whose mom was super Christian, and she told me that Satan could attack the fetus. She said that babies born in sin could come out “wrong,” as she put it, or “evil.” So from that point on I prayed every day and went to church every Sunday. I also wrote letters to God regularly asking him to let my baby be born happy, healthy, and free of evil. I was so scared of giving birth to an evil baby. The Catholic guilt and shame of becoming a single parent made it hard for me to bond with my baby during pregnancy. I tried my best to be happy for her sake.
When the day came for me to deliver my baby, my seemingly healthy pregnancy turned into a nightmare labor. I labored for 12 hours, but she would not come out. I was terrified of having to deliver by cesarean section. I was refusing the procedure when a white nurse put both her hands on my face, brought it close to hers, and said that my baby and I would both die if I didn’t go through with the C-section immediately. “How could this be happening?” I thought to myself. This had to be the result of having a baby out of wedlock — a cardinal sin in the Catholic faith. My faith was supposed to guide me and support me, not make me feel that my sins made my labor go awry.
I delivered a healthy baby girl via C-section on December 1, 2000, at 8:30 p.m. She was whisked away to the NICU because she swallowed amniotic fluid when she was pulled out. This impacted my ability to bond with my baby, and I was desperate to see her to determine if she harbored any signs of evil. Finally, I was wheeled down to see her. I remember when we locked eyes. She smiled at me, and I was relieved that she might have been born happy. At that moment, I felt that all the praying and letters to God might have worked.
Moving Beyond Guilt
As we navigated our new lives together, the first few years co-parenting with what I refer to as my “sperm donor” were horrible. During my pregnancy, I had cut off communication with him because he turned into a mean-spirited and verbally abusive person. How could I possibly parent with him? I was served with custody papers and spent a ridiculous and unnecessary amount of time in and out of court. It was a mistake choosing to parent with this person. I often wished I’d had an abortion. He and his family made motherhood very dark for me in the beginning. As Catholics, they denied me the ability to choose abortion and then did not help with the baby.
In the early years of my daughter’s life, we remained practicing Catholics. I found myself trying to stick to the same traditions and sent her to Catholic school. She was also baptized in the Catholic church, where I was forced to choose different godparents because they had to be Catholic. I grew so tired of the rules and rituals of the Catholic church that we quit going abruptly, and I took my daughter out of Catholic school in second grade. I refused to have her grow up dealing with Catholic guilt. Now, she’s 21 years old and my favorite person. I’m not sure if the prayers had anything to do with this or if I got lucky, but I feel wholeheartedly taking her out of Catholic school and leaving the Catholic church saved her from dealing with the guilt as I did and still do.
We are no longer practicing Catholics, and I think the guilt that comes with the religion is bullshit. I talk to God pretty regularly. However, the guilt is still there looming at times. As time went on, I would continue to have more abortions. I never let the Catholic guilt shame me into continuing pregnancies I really didn’t want. I grew to understand God gives us free will and the autonomy to make the decisions that are best for us. Knowing this could help all who experience Catholic guilt move past it just as I did.
"I would continue to have more abortions. I never let the Catholic guilt shame me into continuing pregnancies I really didn’t want. I grew to understand God gives us free will and the autonomy to make the decisions that are best for us."Click to Tweet
Openly sharing my abortion story changed my life immensely. I am so grateful for the storytelling organization We Testify for giving me a platform to find freedom in my truth. It was there that I was given space to sort out my internalized stigma around abortion and faith. Everyone deserves to find the same power in community.
My hope is that Catholic parents become more open with their children about their guilt. As a parent, I’ve learned that there is so much power in truth and transparency. I want my daughter to see me as human rather than some superhero. She knows about my abortions, and I believe that sharing them with my daughter strengthened our relationship and established trust.