When I was 15 I got my girlfriend pregnant.
We lived across the road from one another and started dating in the fall of grade nine. She (J) was my first real girlfriend.
I had a couple of crushes in grade five and six, including one that escalated to me leaving an anonymous note on the girl of my desire’s bike. Oddly she did not respond to my note. I discovered that love notes are less effective when they aren’t signed and have no return address.
J and I were young and had not had much in the way of sex-ed. We knew the basic mechanics of sex and theoretically how fertility worked. What we did not understand well was that conception actually could happen and it could happen to us. We used protection more often than not. As you might be aware condoms don’t work as well when you don’t use them. I was generally in charge of buying condoms and was always embarrassed to buy them. Of course I bought other stuff at the same time to make it seem like I was just picking them up while I happened to be in the drug store for a Kit Kat bar or something else equally important. I am sure that this tactic fooled the cashiers every time.
We weren’t aware of any free sources for condoms in our city at the time and I’m not sure that there were any, not like there are now. If we had been aware of free condoms we certainly would have made use of them and I wouldn’t have avoided them due to embarrassment. Here in Ottawa you can actually get them delivered to your house by Ottawa Public Health.
The sex-ed we received in school was generally limited to the biology and I only really remember the guys and girls being taught separately. I remember our teacher drawing or pointing to parts of the female reproductive system on an overhead projector. I think we also watched some films, presumably animations of sperm and eggs. I did not process until many years later that a woman’s uterus exists in her abdomen along with a bunch of other organs. All the sex-ed images I had ever seen showed the uterus and associated bits and pieces existing in the abdomen in isolation. In my mind it took up all the space in there. I was in my twenties when I learned that it was as big as my fist and that it is snuggled in with other abdominal organs.
I remember the first time I heard about sex-ed. It was in the hall in elementary school as a boy was being marched down the hall to the principal’s office for laughing during sex-ed class. I learned then that sex-ed was serious business and there was nothing funny about it.
J and I had one pregnancy scare, which turned out to be a false alarm. We survived that near miss and that experience likely added to our feeling of invulnerability. Then in the fall of grade ten she told me her period was late and thought she might be pregnant. We hopped on the city bus (we were too young to drive) and headed across town to the public health unit for a pregnancy test. Sure enough she was pregnant. I’m sure that neither of us fully realized what that meant for our lives and our futures.
On the way home we made our first decision. J didn’t want to have an abortion so that meant we had to choose from parenting or adoption. We discovered after the first ultrasound that she wasn’t just pregnant – she was pregnant with twins. Somehow that made everything more challenging.
We decided that adoption was the best choice for us. We made that decision without any information about how that worked. J’s parents contacted children’s aid and we worked with a social worker who helped us through the process. We picked the parents for the twins from a shortlist of potential parents who matched criteria that we provided. This was to be a closed adoption so we did not know the identities of the parents we chose.
J spent a semester off school hiding in her house. We had a cover story and tried – unsuccessfully – to hide her pregnancy from our fellow students at school. It was a challenging time for us and our families.
In June of grade ten the twins were born prematurely. They were so tiny. They were in incubators with IV lines into their scalps for many days. I visited them and J at the hospital every day after school for about ten days. Once J had recovered and was able to be discharged from the hospital we signed the papers and left them at the hospital. I was 16 and J was 15. So while I became a father at 16, I did not become their dad. That job went to another man and I had to wait for another 15 years for my turn.
That was 23 years ago. I have more to tell about this story and will share that next week. Today I am telling you this story because J and I are not the only ones to go through this kind of experience with an unintended pregnancy. I am telling you because In Ottawa there is a fantastic organization out there doing important work to help educate young people about sexual and reproductive health. They are helping people get the information that we didn’t have and encouraging them to laugh while they are learning.
Planned Parenthood Ottawa (PPO) has been around in Ottawa for fifty years. Originally it was established to push for the legalization of contraception in Canada. Since that time they have evolved to focus on sexual health education and provide support for women and families facing unintended pregnancies. I wish we had a PPO-like organization in the city where I grew up.
Full disclosure – I was a volunteer community sexual health educator with PPO for ten years, I served on the board and most recently as Interim Executive Director. I have a lot of time for this organization. They are under-resourced and they do great work in the community. They help kids like I was at 15. They help parents learn how to talk with their kids about sex and sexual health. They empower people of all ages by helping them access the information they need about how their own bodies work.
I originally wrote this post in advance of a fundraising event for PPO that featured the then Leader of the Official Opposition Tom Mulcair and our now Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau as well as the Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson and Liz Renzetti from the Globe and Mail. I also spoke and share the next stage in my story which you can read here.