daughters

paul-gauguin-the-siestaGauguin, The Siesta

I tell them they can love whoever they want. I tell them they don’t have to love, that their lives can be rich and full as they are to themselves, without needing to be attached or partnered or taken. I tell them they are beautiful, just the way they are. And they dance up the hallway singing last Friday night, we were kissing in the bar and they stop at the mirror and they preen.

The eldest asked when she could buy her first lipstick. But you’re beautiful without it, I protested. My lips are pale, she said. I didn’t ask who she wanted them to look bright for. The middle one asked me if I wear lipstick to work and I said yes, sometimes. I put it on when I get there, I said. I can’t be bothered stopping before that. Mostly I just can’t be bothered.

The mirror tells me what I am. A woman who has passed the forty mark, who has little time for appearances, who pays attention to the bare essentials: clean hair, wide smile, clothes assembled with a nod to form and interest. I can see the evidence of the years, the line between my eyebrows, the mole on my chin. Underneath the clothes there is more evidence. The silver lines at the top of my thighs. The soft round of crumpled belly, a gift from my daughters.

I wouldn’t trade these markers for anything, not for all the youth in the world. I think back to the days when I stood in front of the mirror and doubted, and I feel tired. You couldn’t take me back there, I would never go. The mirror is now nothing more than a tool, no longer the reflection of my worst critic, no longer fodder for all those taunting voices; not good enough, not pretty enough, not tall enough, not skinny enough.

He is the morning parent. He slices the cheese for her lunch. He wraps it in tin foil so that it doesn’t make the crackers go soft. He cuts the apple into wedges and then puts the whole fruit back together with a rubber band because she won’t eat it brown. Then he masterminds the logistics; music practice, lunchboxes, raincoats, getting out the door. He is also the nurse of the family. The one most deft at cutting medical tape. He is more inclined to take a sick child to the doctor. He worries.

I realised, not so long ago, that if I didn’t show my daughters how to live, what good was I? That if I didn’t live, my whole actual real life, that I was failing them. And so I get up first in the morning and head down the path to the car in the murky grey light of not-quite-morning. I often work in the weekend as well. Some times in a quiet corner of the library, and other times at home in my study with the door ajar, and then they know the music has to be quiet and there’s no yelling in the hallway.

They brush their teeth when I’m in the shower and I do not hide. They like to touch my belly and they know it’s soft because I held each of them inside me for weeks and weeks, long enough for them to grow entire. They hardly notice the scar that runs down my spine, or the messy one above my hip, faded purple. I’ve told them they’re from an operation, but they don’t care. They haven’t noticed how crooked I am, how one shoulder always droops slightly. They think I’m beautiful.

My daughters know that if I hadn’t married their dad I’d have eventually fallen in love with a woman.  Sexuality is something we’ve talked about with them since they were old enough to understand. They knew when I thought of myself as bisexual, and I told them the truth when I realised I was lesbian. We’ve always explained that most people grow up to love someone of the opposite sex but that some find they love someone of the same sex and that’s no big deal. We’ve made sure they know they are free to make up their own minds about who they love and they like this knowledge. I can see it on their faces, that it’s one more thing that makes them strong.

My daughters like to stand in front of the mirror, especially the eldest one. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue and hold back words about wasting time. But then I see how her eyes light up as she meets her own gaze, how her face softens and her chin lifts as she appraises herself from all angles. I think I understand now – I hope I understand – how important this is. That this is something she needs to figure out. That the voice she needs to hear in her head is her own.  She wants to answer the nagging question am I beautiful? with a resounding yes.

 

seven, ten

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I had a dream the other night. I was in the passenger seat of a large bus, and my daughter Greer was driving. We were trying to get to the bus stop where she was going to take another bus to school. But she was having trouble stopping. She turned down the wrong road. Went left when I was trying to tell her to go right. I was worried she was going to miss the bus and it was frustrating to watch. Yet she was doing a pretty good job of driving, for a kid.

I’ve dreamt a lot of buses in the last year. Buses, cars, boats. My dreams have been punctuated with transport imagery. I’ve dreamt conversations in cars, long journeys through changing scenery. I’ve travelled alone, I’ve travelled with companions, I’ve had my companions change within the same dream. One minute I’m travelling with my sister, and then all of a sudden I’m not.  The cars are always going somewhere, the buses are always huge. Sometimes I’m trying to get large numbers of students all on one bus. Sometimes I’m in the dark.

Abigail, my youngest, turned seven yesterday. Wow. It is a little number and she is a little person and yet seven is a whole lifetime. I remember being seven and how long ago babyhood seemed to me even then, how it felt like I’d been alive for an age. I was no longer in my infancy, no longer completely dependent. I was dreaming and planning and reading and imagining and escaping; writing little poems in the exercise book my teacher gave me especially for words. Poems about pigs and daffodils and books.

How will she shine, this newly seven year old girl of mine? What will light her up? What will she do that makes her heart sing, that makes her shiver on the inside? It’s too early to tell. Like any parent, we want her to enjoy being herself, to grow into herself, to become comfortable in her own skin. We nudge her in certain directions, provide opportunities, take note of her interests, but in the end only she can possibly know. Who she is. Where she wants to go. What paths she wants to take.

I don’t always write about my daughters here. I’m aware of the obvious; not everyone has children. I don’t presume that all who read here identify with or are interested in parenting stories. And yet I see mothering and fathering in the broadest possible sense, as roles we can all embody at different times, if we choose to. I love what French feminist philosopher Irigaray wrote about mothering; that we are always mothers once we are women.  And perhaps that same sense of universal father-ness is available to men too. But more than that, I believe the best way to understand ourselves is to reflect on our family of origin. Our first family.  When I write about my children I’m connecting with the child I was.

Greer, the middle sister, is about to turn ten. She’s a feisty, fiery young woman, and every day she gets a little more sure of herself. That dream I had of her driving a bus, a ridiculous vehicle for a child to be driving, seems to remind me of what I know instinctually about her life. That she is in the driver’s seat. That her life belongs to her. I’m close beside her, watching every move, but I’m not driving. No matter how challenging the road gets, the bus is hers. And as much as I take my responsibilities as a parent seriously, other than in an obvious emergency it’s vital that I don’t take the wheel.

When I was her age, I didn’t know what it felt like to be in the driver’s seat of my life. I didn’t have that kind of control or agency. There are reasons for this, and I’ve reflected on all of them over the last few years as I’ve become aware of the ways in which that lack has played out in my adult life. I’ve witnessed chilling depths of powerlessness within myself, and in the moment I saw the worst of it I had two choices; either collapse in on myself or change. So I changed, slowly,  almost everything about the way I live. I’ve seen, with frightening clarity, what my life would have looked like if I didn’t step into my own driver’s seat.

I had a pretty ordinary childhood. You probably experienced some of the things I did. Maybe we watched TV at the same time after school, maybe we were both brought up on the DPB. Maybe you lived on a street lined with familiar state houses too, with a rusty car on the grass verge five houses down. Maybe you packed your bag to go and see your dad like I did. God knows there were and are great hordes of us who did that. It’s nothing so unusual.

But for all the reasons, for whatever reason, for all the whys and wherefores and ways I was and wasn’t and would never be, I grew up broken. So when I dream that my daughter is in the driver’s seat of her own bus and I’m right there, and even though I can see how much she has to lose if she gets it wrong my hand doesn’t reach out even once to grab the steering wheel, I’m a happy woman. Every day I get to start again.

 

this

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I can’t tell you this without telling you a story. So here’s the story:  for almost as long as I can remember, I was given the message that being gay was not okay. The message came through loud and clear.

There was a man at church who used to be gay and was now happily married, thanks to an ex-gay support group. This was important information for me to know. My school friends’ suspect behaviour was eagerly identified. One wore aftershave as perfume; this was not approved. I sat at a dinner table for more than an hour listening to a group of church women gossip about one of the women’s gay sons. The tone of the conversation was superficially of concern but the stories his mother regaled us with were merely fodder for our curiosity.  We’ll pray for him, the women said, as I sat frozen. Any time the word homosexual was mentioned in church, or in books I read, I stiffened. Someone once, without asking my permission, decided that I needed the gay prayed away.

Somehow I made up my mind that if I hadn’t been brought up Christian, I would have been gay. I said it occasionally, in quiet tones, in private conversations with friends. I even said it once as a joke, and laughed. I don’t think anyone heard me.

And who would have heard me anyway? I was all about boys. Truthfully, anyone who knew me back in those dark old days could tell you that. I was desperate for love. And in a church community which idolised marriage, and having grown up without a Dad close at hand, I was yearning for love in the masculine form. I was also desperate to get on with my life, convinced that marriage was the ticket to success and approval.

But I never managed to procure a long-term boyfriend. My heart was always with my girlfriends. Boys were foreign, they spoke a completely different language, and as much as I appeared keen to learn it, in reality I was a lacklustre student.

I met Pat at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Plenty of my friends had got married already, I was one of the “spinsters,” or so I thought. He was sitting at a table in a café next to a friend of mine; I noticed him straight away. He made me laugh, was interested in things I was interested in. He rang me that same night and asked me out. We fell in love and were married eight months later.

I had no idea how much I needed to fight. I had no idea how much I needed to be put into a position where I had to fight for my life. It’s a truism to say that marriage takes work. But there are some marriages which, owing to the baggage the partners bring into the relationship and the unconscious lacks which spur their initial attraction, are hard work from the get-go. There is no shame for me in saying we had one of those. Most come to an end, or become one groundhog day of misery after another. The lucky few go to battle and come out the other side. The victory is sweet. The wounds are spoils of war.

The battle was my saving grace. Everything I failed to learn in childhood I learnt then. For the first time in my life I had to open my mouth and speak the truth. I learnt, over many grey and weary years, to put my needs into words, and then to go after them. I dragged myself out of the murky depths of compliance and passivity kicking and screaming. For the very first time in my life, I got angry.

Anger is a vital emotion. We can’t act without it. That I grew up with a profound inability to feel anger was a great abuse. It left me bereft of the fuel my introverted and compliant self needed to be able to speak up for myself.  I was incapable of agency or autonomy, completely unable to arrange the elements of my life in such a way as to benefit myself. I had what every abuse victim has in common; a complete and total lack of self-love.

I will spend the rest of my life living out the lessons I learnt in that battle. What I’ve said here barely scrapes the surface. But the most important lesson I learnt of all was to own my own mind. The battle forced me to discover, incrementally, what it meant to think for myself.

After that the world began to look different. Broader, wider, more sparkling. I systematically went through every belief I’d collected over the years, starting from the very beginning. What did I think? It was a thrilling process. And it’s probably obvious to you that my old ideas about being gay were some of the first to get the toss. All of sudden, being gay was actually ok. The ground shifted.

I’m bisexual, and I’ve known it for a while. I wish, like I’ve never wished for anything in my life, that I got to come out at a younger age. To explore what it means to follow my own natural attractions, uninhibited by dogma or social coercion. That’s not to say I have any regrets about the path my life has taken. There were lessons I had to learn, and this was the way I learnt them. And I have a family. A dear husband who loves me, and three daughters who are growing up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.

But I know what it’s like to love a woman, and I carry the memory of that love with me still. It is a sweet memory, and rich its own way. It leads me towards paths I have not yet taken. Paths that move me deeper into self-awareness, deeper into myself. I was sad for a while, wondering if I had missed out on something precious and irreplaceable. And then I realised, like I was Odysseus landing on home shores after a lifetime of journeying, that the woman I needed to love most was myself.

the day after the ball

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I had a dream the other night which made me wonder, on waking, how I would live my life if I knew my time here was limited. I got up and looked out the back door and saw that the water on the harbour was shimmering silver blue in the early morning light. I tried to take a photo of it but the camera couldn’t do it justice. It caught the dewy leaves on the kauri tree at the bottom of the garden, and the warm depth of the golden early light, but it couldn’t catch the water. Depending on which setting I tried, the water was either just a pale hint of something grey in the background of the photo, or else it faded into nothing at all. I realised right then, standing outside in my pyjamas, that I had a choice. I could either live my life in the foreground, in the shallows, in the safe places, like the view the camera could see. Or I could stretch out and live my whole life, the one that reached out far beyond the space that was right in front of me.

There’s a humility that comes with desperation for the truth. It’s  a brokenness that’s not really broken at all. It comes to us when we take a very raw, very honest appraisal of our life and the circumstances surrounding it, and no matter how complicated it seems or how vulnerable that makes us, it’s actually entirely sane.  It’s a view like looking down at our life from a very high place and seeing the breadth and the depth of it, and realising that there is so much more to life than our temporary hurts or doubts or needs. Realising that our lives are about so much more than our comfort, or our perceived safety, or our being understood. Our real lives are about this burning sense we have somewhere within us of what it means to be us, and the responsibility we all have as uniquely created beings not to squander this incredible thing that it is to be ourselves.

I’ll tell you this. I know without a doubt that we are all created. I also know that we all belong to each other, all of us. I believe that our creator can be known as God, but that not all of our ideas about God are helpful or true.  I believe that God (adjusted understanding) is available to all of us, regardless of where we are or what we believe. And I think that Jesus Christ was the best representation we have of that unknowable and yet knowable God. I don’t say that to marginalise any faith that does not approach Jesus in the same way I do, only to state what I believe to be true, and which I bear witness to in my own life.

I think Jung was the first to use the expression “Christ-consciousness” in regards to an intuitive understanding about the uniqueness of Christ that exists in the world and is not restricted by boundaries of faith or religion, nor found only in the company of those who would call themselves “Christians.” This Christ-consciousness is an intuitive response to Jesus that would be witnessed to, I believe, by millions of people. Whether we think of him as prophet, universal teacher, good person, or the incarnation of God, a huge number of us agree on one thing; he was not an ordinary person, and there is much we can learn from his life.

I was brought up to be a Christian. This meant a whole lot of things, including that I understood on an intellectual level that Jesus Christ was my example of how to be human. This in itself is a powerful thing. We have the legacy of many men and women the world over who gave us much because they followed the example of Jesus. Some of them were Christians, Mother Teresa being one of many, and others were not, like Gandhi. For many of these people, their Christ-consciousness deepened and became more than just intellectual. Their knowings about Jesus shifted to the area we might call the heart, or the spirit. They came to understand, mysterious as it is, that Jesus can be “known” in the present tense.

My understanding of Christ deepened from the intellectual to the spiritual gradually, as I grew up surrounded by the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. The Jesus who took pity on the old woman bent over by crookedness in her spine; the Jesus who called children to him and showered affection on them; the Jesus who healed the leper and set him free from life as a perpetual outcast, was the Jesus I came to know and love. And not love in a rosy sort of Disney kind of way, like I might have said  “I love chocolate,” but a love that came from somewhere so deep I could barely recognise its source. A love that welled up out of a genuine, almost inexpressible gratitude for what I knew I had been given. For in all of those stories I saw myself. I was crooked and I had been made straight. I was diseased, and I was made whole, I was rejected, and in Jesus I knew I was found.

I went to the sixth form ball with a guy that worked at the same supermarket as I did. It was the Thursday night shift, 5-9pm. I was a checkout operator and he was a packer, and if he was assigned to pack at my checkout he would tease me and make jokes all night. I’d spend the whole shift laughing, and my till was always out. We didn’t see each other outside of  work, but when it came to finding a partner for the ball I didn’t have many options, and truth be told, I liked him. My mother sewed me a blue wool crepe shift dress.  I wore it with my hair in a sort of beehive, looking like a re-incarnation of her in the sixties. I mostly had a good time, and my supermarket friend and I kind of made out in the back of the taxi on the way home. We had a running joke about living up north somewhere and having babies, but really we were the most unlikely and unsuitable couple. We could have been plain old friends, I suppose, if that had occurred to me. But I was far too insecure to figure that one out for a long time.

The day after the ball was a Sunday, and on that Sunday evening, in a black tub filled with warm water on the stage of the school hall my church met in, I was baptised. There’s a photo of me in my wide tortoise-shell glasses and my uneven, ringleted fringe, with a smile beaming from my face just as I was about to be dipped under. I remember it clearly. “It was the happiest day of my life,” I said to someone a few days later. “I feel like I’ve been smiling all week.” At sixteen I was insecure and confused about a whole lot of things, but I wasn’t insecure about Jesus. Jesus was the most real, most dependable thing I knew, and getting baptised was a natural thing for me to do. It was purely symbolic, and in a sense, completely immaterial to the daily goings on of my teenaged life, but it meant the world to me. I was making an inner truth known externally. And as theologian Paul Tillich has expressed, I was participating in a symbol which pointed to something beyond itself, which, in the moment I sank under those tepid waters, drove the infinite towards the finite, and the finite towards the infinite.

There was no brainwashing involved. No coercion of any sort. Not from the church, nor it’s leaders, nor from my mother. Not explicitly or implicitly. In that moment, wet and grinning from ear to ear, with an other-worldly shine in my eyes, I was my own woman. I was doing something entirely for myself. And that, you might understand, was a miracle.

I’ve changed a lot since that day more than twenty years ago, and my understandings about God have shifted and re-arranged themselves countless times over. But when it comes down to it, the essence of what I believed then is the essence of what I believe now. God is, and God is available to be known, and Jesus is one of our surest pathways towards that knowing.

The view out over the harbour early that morning last week was beautiful. The grass was wet with dew, as were the leaves on the hedge in front of the house. Beyond it, slightly hazy in the barely risen sun, was the water like a strip of pale silvery-blue glass.  I stood at the back door looking out at that exquisite water which I could see with my own eyes,  but which I couldn’t record or reproduce, or even explain in a way that would do it justice, and I thought about my life, my real life, the one I’ve been writing about finding. I’ve had a nagging sense for a long time that my real life was “out there” somewhere, waiting for me, glinting with possibility and yet so far away, so illusory and hard to define. I’ve tried to capture it through others, I’ve wanted other people to tell me what it was and how to get it. I’ve used other people like the lens of a camera, trying to see myself through their eyes.

But they can’t see what I see. They can’t see how far into the distance the horizon stretches, nor how hopeful or blue the water is. They can’t see the almost imperceptible line where the harbour meets the shore on the other side, and they can’t see the buildings in the city beyond, square windows of light through to the other side of the world.

I don’t want to stay in the foreground of my life.  I can see that water so shiny and blue it makes my heart ache, and I can’t imagine living my whole life without venturing out into it. I’m writing these words today because I realised, standing outside that morning, that I’ve been living half my life. I’ve been living the life that other people could see, the life that other people approved of. I’ve spent thirty-eight years defining myself by comparison. It’s time to put down the camera, and open up my eyes.

new

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We drove over to the other side of the harbour on New Year’s Day, to spend the day with my sister and her family. This was the view from the side of the road on our way home at dinner time, the sun heading down towards the sea, the wild grass beginning to pink. I never get tired of this drive, the way the narrow roads curve up along the ridge of the Awhitu Peninsula. One side looks back towards the city, and the other, over undulating hills and hidden valleys, towards the ocean.

It’s sad the hills are barren, in one sense. And yet there’s something sensual about their naked curves. I want to run my hands over them, smooth them out and bunch them up again, like a child with playdough. If you look carefully you get a glance at a small lake in the flat land between the hills, a glinting sheet of glass in the sun, a second later it’s gone. Earlier, at the beginning of the road, there’s a small old wooden church that commands a view not unlike the one you see above. It’s an unused church, religiously speaking, and yet it is iconic and beloved. A church with a view.

I like the days around New Year’s.  They command a view. A view back to the year that has gone, and a view forward into our dreams. Oh how we wonder how the next year of days will turn. What surprises, what successes, what dreams come true, what longings, what pain will surface in the next three hundred and sixty five days? The days will go fast, we know that for sure. They will tumble away behind us and we won’t be able to do anything about it. Except let them go.

I let 2012 go on Monday night, at midnight, when the crackle of unseen fireworks burst into the quiet night. I didn’t even try to hold on. 2012 was a complicated year, the hardest I’ve lived; emotionally, relationally and spiritually. I wouldn’t wish that year on myself again. And yet I couldn’t have got to 2013 without it. In fact, I couldn’t have got to the rest of my life without it. 2012 was the doorway to my life.

Catholic writer Richard Rohr talks about doorways and transitions as “liminal space”, a space that is “thin” in the Celtic sense, closer to the unseen realm. The term “liminal space” is not new, but its more deeper, spiritual sense has been best articulated by Rohr. The term comes from the latin limen meaning threshold and in this article “On the Edge of the Inside” Rohr notes that the tradition of having guardians and spirits of “doors, bridges, exits and entrance ways” can be noted across cultures and throughout history. He points out that “the ancients knew that you need guidance, patronage, and protection as you move from one place or state to another.”

The concept of liminal space has resonated with me since I first heard it, and I’ve come to understand it as a space or time of transition, often where things feel difficult, where life is not unfolding in a predictable or easily understood manner, and where perhaps it feels as if there is pressure on all sides, not unlike the pressure a newborn experiences as she is propelled through the birth canal. I said to a friend once that being pregnant is the ultimate liminal space, because it is nine months of transition, nine months of waiting for a new life to arrive, nine months of preparing to be transformed into the mother of the new life, with no escape route.  In a way, pregnancy is double liminal space. The gestation and the giving birth to new life is one form, and the gestation of the mother herself, as she waits to be born, as she waits to be transformed into motherhood, is the other. She is both the carrier of life and the growing life herself.

I thought about this over Christmas. I had a card with a reproduction of “The Visitation” by James B Janknegt as part of our nativity scene, thanks to World Vision’s Advent in Art series. The painting shows Mary and her cousin Elizabeth  greeting each other, and the babies leaping in their wombs in recognition of each other. The picture is like  an animated version of an ultrasound, but with a slight difference: the babies are depicted as their adult selves, Jesus with a crown, and John falling to his knees in worship, the present and the future rolled into one.

If I was pregnant in 2012, it was a rough pregnancy. The symptoms surprised, and the growth didn’t happen in an orderly, expected fashion. What’s more, it was a funny sort of pregnancy, not one that was plainly seen by the bulging of a belly. It was all on the inside. And if I was pregnant, I gave birth to myself, which means I had that double liminal space thing going on. I was pregnant with myself. I grew heavy, weary, sick of the challenges and the complications, tired of the continual necessity for introspection and self-revelation. It was hard work. The growing was hard work too. And it’s not very pleasant to be forced under enormous pressure through a narrow canal, as if your life depended on it. But I’m out.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to find my life. I’ve tried, and failed, at plenty of things other than the two things I know I was born for;  my family, and my words. Even once I finally figured out that all I really wanted to do was write, I still did things the hard way. Always searching, always striving for the key that would unlock my “perfect” writing life. I was convinced that if I could just get the help I needed, or just wake up at five every morning, or just do the research I thought would answer all my doubts, that I’d be away, laughing. If I’d been right, I would have written several novels by now. In fact if you’d told me, at twenty-two, that I’d be approaching forty with no novels to show for it, I’d have been aghast. I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

I took the dog for a walk through our bush this afternoon. I found myself throwing a few words up at God, as I often do when I walk. I apologised for being useless at everything from being disciplined with food, to being disciplined with my art. It wasn’t overly dramatic or anything, just what naturally came out as I let the words rise. As soon as I’d said it, I looked up. There in the trees above me was a tui, one of my favourite birds. These beauties have a gorgeous green glint in their dark feathers, a beautiful white bell at their throats, and a trill of a call that is haunting. I smile when I see a tui in our bush, because it feels like such a luxury to have them so close, to be their neighbours. And as I looked up at this tui, I reallised. The tui doesn’t have to do anything to be beautiful. The tui just is. The tui is beautiful because he is tui.

Can I believe that about myself? Can I believe that I am beautiful, that my life has meaning, just because I am? And that the words I’m longing to write will come, not by some forced effort of will, but by the simple act of being. I am beautiful because I am. I will write because I am Idoya. The question came to me then, what would my name look like as a verb? What would it mean to Idoya. What would my life look like if it was filled with the simple act of Idoya-ing.

What would your name look like as a verb? What would it mean to Patrick, or to Hilary, to Joy, to Daniel, to Esme, to Carey, to Glen or to Allie? What does Melanie-ing look like? Or Heidi-ing? It sounds silly, I know, but it makes sense. What would a life devoted to the art of Jayraj-ing look like? Anita-ing? Leonie-ing? A life full of being Amy? What if your whole life’s work and purpose and joy was summed up in your name, in the essence of you. Could it really be that simple?

I think it is that simple, and yet, as 2012 has taught me, it’s not simple at all. To live a life devoted to the art of being you, you have to first know who you are. To be yourself, you have to know yourself. You might have to be born, as yourself. Stranger still, you might even need to give birth to yourself. And there’s that double liminal space.

Liminal space is sacred. It’s a time and space that requires things of us that ordinary life doesn’t. It’s lonely on the edge, and transitions can be confusing. There are pressures, complications, challenges to be met, sacrifices to be made, internal depths to scour. We need all the help we can get, other-worldly and otherwise. And yet it is a gift. In the way of mountain ranges and peninsulas, tunnels, valleys and canyons, it commands a view. The view might not come at the beginning, and sometimes you might wonder if the view’s going to come at all, and yet it comes. And there are angels and hidden lakes and small churches, and other pilgrims – bellies bursting with life like yours –  just when you need them.

who wants a baby?

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It was International Women’s Day this month, but did any one really pay any attention? We don’t think we need it any more, most of us. A whole generation of women has grown up either taking feminism for granted or dismissing it altogether. Plenty of educated, certainly liberated women, would refuse the label feminist.

This is mostly a kind of “been there done that” attitude, but it’s also owed to the fact that feminism now makes many women squeamish. Feminism is deemed fanatical. We prefer our liberation to come a la “sex in the city” rather than in keeping with the stereotypical image of a seventies feminist – hairy underarms and bra-less.

This betrays a western privilege. Liberation is not even on the menu for most women in third world countries. Feminism never arrived in India. In India fifty thousand female fetuses are aborted every month, and many newborn girls are left to die at birth; they are simply thrown away. This adds up to a toll of about one million girls missing in India every year. There are whole towns with barely any women in them. Everyone wants a son.

When we signed up for a new sponsored child a year ago we were encouraged to choose a girl. The employee who talked us through the process was deviating from the official script when she told us “choose a girl, the families neglect the girls first.” And this was with a huge array of children to choose from, from countries in Asia, Africa and South America. Feminism? Not there.

India is an extreme case, and its “gendercide” is unmatched, but we are outraged because it is such a senseless devaluation of women, more than the loss of life in general. We hardly blink at abortion statistics in New Zealand, where 16,630 abortions were carried out in 2010. In the United Kingdom in the same year there were 106,109 legal abortions. It’s harder to get exact statistics in the US, where reporting of abortions is not mandatory, but there are always well over a million abortions every year. There appears to be a slight downwards trend in abortion statistics worldwide, but this may be owing to the unknown quantity that chemical abortions have become. These statistics only invoke outrage and grief among the Christian right, to everyone else they are simply numbers.

Abortion is a feminist issue. You ask any woman for whom a pregnancy would threaten her own life. Historically, in the days before c-sections and antibiotics, pregnant women would settle their affairs as their time to give birth grew near. These women would prepare for the very real likelihood of death in the process of childbirth. For women, death and birth have always been inextricably linked. Even now, with maternal death a rarity in the western world, only women can understand the horror that childbirth often is. And only new mothers know that awful feeling of loss a newborn can bring – life as they know it has completely disappeared.

Abortion is not a modern phenomenon. History is littered with accounts of infanticide and ritual child sacrifice. We have been killing our babies for as long as we’ve been making them. That’s why the pill really did cause a revolution. The idea that sex could be enjoyed without the shadowy threat of death was brand new.

A paper was recently published in the Journal of Medical Ethics entitled “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” The authors’ basic tenet is that newborns are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life.” They believe that parents should be able to have their babies killed post-birth, especially if the baby turns out to be disabled, but even if it’s not. The authors give several scenarios where it might be desirous for a baby to be killed after it has been born.

This idea is horrific and unthinkable to most people. Even those who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at abortion would balk at at the killing of a newborn. The paper states that “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.” In other words, a new born is not an “actual person” but a “potential person.”

What many pro-life activists will miss is that all you have to do is turn this premise on its head and you have a compelling argument against abortionIf killing a child at birth is unthinkable, then to kill a child at eight weeks’ gestation is equally so.  Ethicist and Theologian Dr Matthew Flannagan   responded; “once we realise that this conclusion is really shocking… maybe we [will] stop… ignoring this whole issue and actually start having a proper rational discussion.”

Is a “proper rational discussion” on abortion possible?  I’m beginning to doubt it, and here’s why. We’re all too busy pointing the finger. We’re too busy defending our own position. We hardly give a thought to what it would be like to walk in the other person’s shoes. Not the pregnant teenager’s, nor the month old fetus’. And no one wants to admit that this problem belongs to all of us.

Author Heather King has published an e-book called “Poor Baby: A child of the sixties looks back on abortion” and in a post about the book she puts it this way:

“…one reason violence is so abhorrent to me is because of the abortions I had… I’ve been violent… That is a wound, a sorrow, a guilt, a shame  I have carried around for over twenty years, in a sense; will always carry. And because of it, I see so clearly how all violence is connected; how fear – the fear that there won’t be enough to go around, the fear that we are not loved, the fear that we lack the capacity to love – is the same fear that underlies all violence, all cruelty, all war.”

There are plenty of people, pro-life and otherwise, who would swear they’d never have an abortion. Yet who hasn’t at some time preferred not to get pregnant, or preferred not to get some one else pregnant? How many millions of men and women have made the choice to not begin a life at all, by taking that ever so practical pill, or by having a quick vasectomy, or an efficient tubal ligation at the same time as their third c-section? Those millions of women who have fronted up for an abortion didn’t want a baby either. They just weren’t quite educated enough, or quite rich enough, or quite sensible enough to do something about it before hand. Every one else just  got on with aborting the possibility of a baby.

You might think I’m getting carried away here. But this issue is much more complex than anyone on wants to admit. Millions of dollars get put into fertility treatment. Women who perhaps thought they could have it all, later found that they couldn’t. When they realised they wanted a baby more than anything, that baby eluded them. Millions of babies aborted worldwide, while millions of women are desperately, incurably, barren. An old fashioned word, perhaps, but poignant.

I’m barren. I had that efficient yet violent tubal ligation after my third c-section. It was the thing I thought I was supposed to do. And three is such a big family, why would I want more? I can tell you I’ve broken my own heart. I’ve spent a year praying for a miracle pregnancy. But my self-inflicted infertility is not reversing itself. I’ll take any baby, right now, from anywhere, and I’m not kidding you.

My second daughter, all five and a half years of her, tells me all the time that she wants “to be a mama” one day. I’m as for her liberation and independence as any modern mother would be, but there’s something so sweet about her sincere wish that it just melts me. I’m one of those women who thought her life was over when she became a mother. And yet, as I’ve ploughed through eight years and three babies I’ve found that I’ve got my life back countless times over. Mothering has become the most fulfilling and enriching thing I’ve ever done.

I’m so aware that one day I’ll have the grim responsibility of explaining to my girls what an abortion is.  I’ll have to tell them that some people don’t want their babies, and in words I’ve heard with my own ears, want to “make them go away.” To tell them that a fetus is not a person yet won’t wash with them. They ask me often about “when I was a baby in your tummy.” That period of time, for them, is just as real as yesterday.

There’s no slick conclusion here, no pat answer. The ardent pro-lifers who sent death threats to the authors of the paper on post-birth abortion are as much a contradiction as the woman who has an abortion and then later finds she requires fertility treatment. We want them, we want them not.