When I tried to find out Wikipedia’s definition of a “mother”, all it told me was that women “can be considered mothers by virtue of having given birth, by raising their child(ren), supplying their ovum for fertilisation, or some combination thereof”. This explanation is entirely useless however, when you’re trying to answer the ultimate question of “what would make me a good mother?”
A mother could also be a “female parent of a child”. If that’s the case, then I have been a mother. I think.
It’s strange, saying that out loud. I wouldn’t classify myself as a mother. I don’t know how to be one. Would I be able to imitate the maternal capabilities that my own mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, my great-great-grandmothers displayed? In the short seven weeks in which I could’ve technically been a mother, did I emulate their maternity? I don’t think so.
That’s not the point though is it? You’re not supposed to be like the mothers who came before you. It is entirely up to you to discover what type of mother you are.
“You do it when you’re ready,” my mother told me, after I expressed my awe at her having a child at twenty-eight. I was only a few years away from twenty-eight; I felt that I wouldn’t be ready then to bring a child into te ao Mārama.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, “but I’m just saying, twenty-eight feels so young to have kids these days.”
“I don’t know, Khaya,” she said, as she sighed over the phone. “I had my life together then. I had a job, a stable partner, and a good house. I was just ready then.”
“I get it.”
“You don’t have to be ready at twenty-eight.”
I wasn’t seeking reassurance about the right age to have children, but that point seemed to sail over my mother’s head. I was trying to tell her that I couldn’t understand how she felt ready. I was taught that I’d know once I had my shit together. As my life has slowly sown itself together with the right stitches, that knowing has become murkier; it’s the one thread that can’t seem to stitch itself neatly into my life tapestry.
I got pregnant with you when I was eighteen.
I found out about you when I was five weeks. I met someone during my first week in Dunedin. The night I think it happened felt surreal, and magical, and untouchable. I had just moved halfway across the world to chase my dreams. I thought I was going to be a clinical psychologist—it was all I’d ever wanted.
I was on a high the night I think you happened. Not drunk. Not stoned. Not pinging. Just high. I think it was because it was the first time I understood what true agency meant. Here I was, illuminated under an orange streetlight, standing chest to chest with a boy I thought was going to be fun for a little while. Not two seconds before, I stood cigarette to cigarette with another girl who’d used mine to light her own. And then he was standing in front of me, kissing me.
I don’t even remember what street it was, e tama. All I knew was that my life seemed to be going in the right direction—somehow.
And then I went back to his room. And then I went back to my room the next afternoon, like it never happened. And then my period didn’t come on the first day of March like it was supposed to. Like it always did, every twenty-eight days, without fail.
My periods have never been the same since then. They’re unpredictable now. I can’t count on it every twenty-eight days anymore. I’ve cycled through the mini pill, the combined pill, condoms, and a copper IUD since you. All have contributed to the irregularities in my cycle, naturally, but I think you were the catalyst to that change. Because at the time, you were the biggest, most unpredictable change in my life.
Abortion isn’t a new concept to me, and it wasn’t back then either. I grew up with an incredibly liberal mother, who let me read books about puberty when I was eight years old. She answered my questions about periods and sex and virginity with clinical precision, giving me appropriate information for my age, and making sure the information I received was accurate. There were no restrictions on movies and TV series that included sex scenes, no fast-forwarding through awkward intimate scenes. When I turned thirteen, her first words of advice to me were “have lots of sex”. There’s only so much you learn about sex and pregnancy through clinical information.
There’s different whakaaro about how Māori treated abortion. Some sources say we avoided it at all costs, believing that it created “evil spirits” who would intentionally harm future mokopuna in our extended families as revenge for not having a human experience. Other sources say we practiced abortion about as regularly as any other human culture did, with an understanding that if the spirit was not meant to have a human experience, then it wasn’t meant to be. The kōrero was that the aborted foetus would instead become a spiritual guardian to the whānau.
There are Māori people who believe that abortion is not to be considered no matter the circumstances; others who believe it is within our rights of rangatiratanga to choose abortion.
I don’t know how to feel when I think about the conflicting stories from Māori communities. I suppose my first answer would be shame, because I didn’t have any of the cultural knowledge of my tūpuna, and I never knew if this was something we did. It was that thing again—not knowing, whatever that meant, that made me so unsure about being a mum.
I wish I had wāhine Māori around me while I was considering abortion. Now, I want to know the whakapapa of my choice. I want to know what happened to wāhine Māori in the past who chose abortion. I suppose by writing this essay, I’m hoping that other wāhine Māori will know that one of us did choose this, with intent and with one hundred percent reassurance that it was the right choice. I’m hoping that by writing this, there is now sure evidence of that whakapapa. When I tried to find it, all I could find were second-hand stories in academic articles, written by people I’d never heard of, who had no connection to Māori people at all.
When I found out I was pregnant with you, tāku tama, I was sitting in a nurse’s office at a student health clinic. My best friend at the time, who had started dating your father, was sitting behind me in a white plastic chair. She forced me to go when I confessed to her that my period was fifteen days late.
I watched the nurse put a clean dropper in the sample of urine I’d given her, and I watched her squeeze a drop onto the test. The two red lines came up, sharp and clear—you came up, sharp and clear—and I felt my world spin very far off its axis.
That’s what feels strange to me. My world was rapidly transforming inside me, quite literally, but I didn’t feel fear, or shock, or horror. There was a stillness to the storm in my stomach; a relief, knowing that you were there. It was not a satisfying knowing, but the turmoil that had taken over my head came to a standstill the moment I saw those two lines.
The nurse pulled a circular chart from her desk behind her. “Okay, so you’re pregnant,” she confirmed. I watched her as she fiddled with the chart, and I noticed that you would’ve been born in November, although she didn’t tell me that.
She left the room to get me a range of pamphlets that told me all about the choices ahead of me. As soon as she left, my best friend reached out to touch my shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I nodded, then sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Do you need me to come sit next to you?”
“No. I’ll be all right.”
That was the truth, tāku tama. I was genuinely okay in that moment. I was actually realising that I was pregnant the day my dad and my stepmum—your koro and kui—got married. You were there that wonderful, beautiful, sunny day, secretly blessing us with your presence. And I was hoping they hadn’t picked up on it.
After that moment, I tried very hard not to bond with you, tāku tama. I kept telling myself that we would only be together for a few more weeks, so there was no point. But I found myself talking to you in quiet moments, telling you about my day, asking questions about you, keeping you in my thoughts as I walked to uni with the knowledge that I was also carrying you there, too.
It was during those little sessions that I felt, if I had carried you to full-term, you would’ve been my son. I wonder, often, if women have an innate feeling that they know what sex their child will be. To me, you were always my son.
Three years after you left us, your koro messaged me. I hadn’t told him about my abortion. I still haven’t. In that message, he asked me if I was hapū, because your kui had a dream about a baby from our side of the whānau. A baby boy.
I remember reeling from that message. I replied casually: no, I wasn’t hapū. No chance of it happening, relax, Dad, you’re not going to be a koro anytime soon. He jokingly replied that it would’ve given him a heart attack.
When I went home that summer, curiosity got the best of me, and I asked my stepmum if she ever found out who the pēpi belonged to. Cryptically, she said, “Yes, I think I know who it was.” She didn’t elaborate. I thought then, as I do now, that she was telling me she knew it was you, tāku tama, because no one in my whānau had any baby boys that year.
It gave me a sense of relief that you were still there with me, even though I couldn’t bring you into te ao Mārama. You somehow found a way to let me know you were there, every step of the way. In a year where I felt like I was losing control of everything, you quietly reassured me that everything was going to be okay, because you were still there.
Now that I’m older and more attuned to my spiritual side, I think I believe in the kōrero that you have become our little guardian. I spent a long time rebuilding my sense of self, my life, after I aborted you. A part of that journey meant that I had to move on by referring to you casually; when I tell certain friends in conversation that I’ve had an abortion, I don’t go into these details. I don’t tell them that I think you were going to be a boy. I don’t tell them about the dream your kui had. I don’t tell them about the affection I still feel for you, and the fleeting motherhood I feel partially connected to through you.
I knew it was the right choice to have that abortion. I wasn’t ready to be your mother. I think you understand that, too. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be protecting us now.
I often worry about other young hapū wāhine Māori who have similar choices ahead of them. I think about it all the time.
It was demoralising realising that I was a statistic. A number. A tick in the box of “Māori teen who accidentally got pregnant”. When I think back on my experience, I try to sugar-coat what happened to me. I think, ‘Well, it wasn’t that bad,’ and then I remember sitting in a nurse’s office while she made the call to the hospital, telling the staff there, “No, it’s just this one this week.” An off-hand comment, sure, but one that has stuck with me ever since I heard it.
I think about the fact that a counsellor told me to elaborate, in as much detail as possible, why I couldn’t have a child. I understand why; she was restricted by what used to be the laws back then, and needed me to explain so we both knew we weren’t breaking the law. It was demoralising watching her tick the box, “mentally unfit to be a mother”.
It’s a constant cycle of thoughts; an ebb and flow of worries that make me doubt my abilities to consider any future motherhood, fleeting or not. While I know without a doubt that my capabilities mean more than the statistics in a Pākehā health system, the knowledge I gained from that experience has shaped my thoughts, ribbing my anxiety until I fall into deep, philosophical conversations with friends about whether it’s worth having children at all in the future.
What I wrestle with the most is that it wasn’t the staff’s fault. I recognised their willingness to treat me with kindness, and gentleness. I didn’t speak to a single male doctor or nurse throughout the whole experience. I was never outwardly judged. Yet a tiny, insecure piece of my eighteen-year-old self still lives within me, analysing the experience repeatedly, wondering why I felt judged and out of place when I was having my abortion.
As I grow more comfortable in my Māori identity, I realise that it might be because I’m missing that integral piece of knowledge that I’m looking for; the one where someone, somewhere, tells me that I didn’t need their personal approval. I needed my people.
I wonder about those young wāhine Māori who might feel the same way, seven years after my own abortion, and I wonder who’s taking care of them so that they are steeped in their own culture.
Well, tāku tama, I think we’re reaching the end of your letter.
I had a dream the other night that reminded me of you. I dreamt that I was four months pregnant. I didn’t know who the father was—but that wasn’t important. The strange part was that I was ecstatic to be carrying again. I was so happy about it that, as I woke up, remnants of that happiness remained in my chest, light and airy.
That was not how I felt while I was pregnant with you, at all, so it was strange to experience pregnancy in a dream where I was happy about it.
I’ve feared pregnancy ever since you. I’ve avoided it at any and all costs. I’ve taken several pregnancy tests now, with the fervent hope that I’m not pregnant. Thankfully, every test I’ve taken since you has returned a negative. I haven’t needed to take one in a long time now.
That pregnancy dream from the other night felt different. There was no fear, only aroha. I wish I could’ve felt the same about you.
In that same dream, I was pregnant with a tamaahine. I think she may be a future daughter. Your sister. Something about the dream felt more like a vision than it did a symbol. I think that might’ve been you visiting me once again, telling me not to fear her when she comes, that you’ve taken care of her on your side so she won’t be as alone as you were.
I don’t know when I’ll be ready to be the māmā my tamaahine needs. Perhaps I’ll have that knowledge once I know when she’s about to cross over to te ao Mārama. Something has shifted since that dream, though, and I wonder if you’ve always known that that shift has been coming. It’s not readiness; it’s acceptance.
I don’t want to be pregnant right now. But instead of fearing for my future as a mother, I’m now accepting it won’t be the rude awakening that it was the first time around. I feel at peace with the possibility that, one day, my tamaahine will be here with a mother who is less unsure of herself and her place in the world, and how she will navigate it with her tamariki.
Tāku tama, mō tāku hē that I couldn’t be the māmā that you needed. At the same time, aroha nui for letting me be the rangatahi I had to be to come to this part of my life. I know that if I had you, we wouldn’t have benefitted from this knowledge that I hold now. What my life would’ve looked like if you’d been born, I can’t say. All I know is that you would’ve turned seven years old this November—most likely a Scorpio. You would’ve been the staunch little Scorpio baby with the eccentric, crazy Sagittarius mum. In another universe, that’s who we are; a team of two, plus everyone else in the hapū supporting us. What a strange thing to think about.
But, for now, rest easy in Te Pō, where you watch over us all peacefully. It’s nice having you here.
Nkhaya Paulsen-More (Ngāti Maru (Hauraki), Ngāruahine, Ngāti Pūkenga) is a Māori-South-African writer who hails from Tāmaki Makaurau and Cape Town. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Massey University, and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. Her kaupapa focuses on personal essays and short stories.