Abortion in the suburbs, a memoir


They will never go away. Once again male politicians, insulated from reality by wealth and power, are exerting their right to ruin the lives of women. The Tony Abbotts, the Ron Boswells, and their friends do not have to deal with the kind of stark choice that every day confronts ordinary women – in every country, in every culture. They cannot imagine that the inevitable consequence of a denied early abortion is a late term abortion. Their sense of their own importance is such that they cannot begin to understand the kind of desperate self-loathing that would bring a woman to destroy her body in order to end the alien life inside it. The latest resurrections of the abortion debate, with their pompous affirmation of the ‘family values’ of the 1950s, inevitably take me back to that day in 1955 when my childhood ended.

The year that I was six my mother had a Nervous Breakdown. I remember walking down the hill to our house to see an ambulance. The ambulance was a dull yellow, and Mum was walking calmly towards it. She wore a clear yellow chenille dressing gown, a lighter tone than the ambulance, and I remember them contrasting with the hot pink that Mum had insisted on using when Dad painted the garage. She only half acknowledged me as she was helped into the ambulance and taken away.

She did not return for what seemed like weeks, but was more likely days. We had an emergency housekeeper while Mum was away, and another one to help her when she came back. The first housekeeper was kind. She gave my sister and me port wine jelly and ice cream, and our father slept on the back verandah while she slept in their bed. The housekeeper, who came after Mum returned from the hospital, was cross (especially to my father). She encouraged Mum to lock us out of the house, to give herself a rest.

It was all very puzzling. I still played at my friend Anne’s house across the road, but people didn’t come to our house any more, and Mum never visited the neighbours. Mum refused to ever see my Granny, her mother, again. At the very end of the year Granny came upon us in the hairdresser’s shop at Hurstville to give me a Christmas book, and Mum pointedly turned her back on her. We had little to do with other relatives on her side of the family for many years, and Dad had a tricky relationship with his very Baptist family anyhow, so we became socially isolated.
For many years afterwards Mum would go to see a psychiatrist at Sydney hospital once a week. She was given largactil, which meant that she slept through most of the rest of my schooldays. She would not join the Mothers Club or any other school activity. The psychiatrist also prescribed religion, of the Presbyterian kind. Mum became an Anglican. I left home as soon as I decently could.

In her old age Mum came to live with me and my four children, and told the real story.

It wasn’t a nervous breakdown. My mother, in desperation, had self-induced a late term abortion. This was not planned. She had not wanted it to be late term. First she had tried not to be pregnant at all. There were two daughters, who were both finally off at school. Her husband, my father, was a fragile relic of both the siege of Tobruk and malaria in New Guinea. Most of the handiwork around the house, and all the gardening, fell to her.
She had contrived several times to miscarry, by doing all the things that pregnant women were told not to do. She lifted heavy loads of washing. She took hot baths. For some years this had worked. But this pregnancy would not be shifted. Her body refused to reject the intruder. I have a very distinct memory of Mum fainting, and then crying. Nothing would console her. Dad was more worried than usual.

All around me people were talking about babies. Visiting adults would look down at me indulgently and ask if I would like a brother. When once I told Mum I wouldn’t mind a baby boy, she simply said ‘no’.

She told her doctor that she could not go on. She could not have this child. But in the fibro suburbs of the 1950s, women were expected to endure. She had no contacts, had no idea of where to go, and certainly had no money to pay for an abortionist. From her father, who had been a medical orderly in the navy during World War I, Mum had books on first aid and a reasonable working knowledge of anatomy. She sterilised whatever tool she used, and when she knew she was safe, she called the doctor. She was over seven months pregnant.

Because she was honest, Mum was condemned by the doctor, her relatives, the neighbours. My father was simply non-comprehending at what was seen as an attack on his manhood. Granny could not cope with the truth and told her neighbours that Mum had a breakdown and that as a result the baby was adopted. Even in her drug induced state Mum never could handle hypocrisy.

In her old age, Mum told me that aborting the baby was the hardest and best act she ever did. She had considered suicide, but she could not trust either Dad or her relatives to properly care for us. The consequences of her act was that her uterus was ruptured. She was a gynaecological basket case, but there were no more pregnancies. Her daughters had a future. When it became available Mum became an early user of the pill. She quietly celebrated the reform of abortion laws and the growth of a society that gave real choices to her daughters and granddaughters.

Mum died at the end of 2003. In those last years she knew life had gone well. She had seen the end of a time when women were either decorative background or breeding machines. She relished the choices that women of my generation could make, which in my case had included the choice to have four children in a career that gave both equal pay and proper child care. Her only regrets were that she had been denied life for so long. And now they want to take it all away from our daughters. The push is on as politicians and preachers gnaw away at the right to decide. Not over my mother’s dead body.

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