by Jessica Grene
Niamh’s arms were around me, her body a small ball curved into mine, like she used to be as a baby. She sobbed so that her whole body juddered, and I felt how slight she was, the fragile width of her rib cage.
My baby. Only fourteen. It was unreal. I still sang her a song at bedtime sometimes. She turned the sound down when a film was too scary and sang in the silence. She still had her teddy somewhere in her room.
My forty-third birthday, and my teenage daughter burst into tears and told me she was pregnant.
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t even think who? or when? Just no. This can’t be.
Are you sure?
The sobs reached a crescendo. She spluttered and hiccoughed. I wanted to wipe her face, but I checked myself. It was the gesture of a parent to a small child. No longer appropriate.
‘Niamh. Have you taken a test?’
A sob bisected her response.
‘No-oh. But I know I am.’
A surge of relief. The child was confused, naïve. Standards of sex education in schools were dreadful, it was well known, and then they picked up all kinds of nonsense on the internet.
‘If you haven’t taken a test, then you don’t know. And look, Niamh, you can’t get pregnant unless you’ve had sex, love.’
Despite her distress, Niamh rallied her teenage sarcasm.
‘Jesus, Mam. You think I don’t know that?’
And a wave of nausea. I’d always been determined to be open and direct with my daughter about sex. Not the ‘just don’t do it and don’t talk about it’ approach of my own Catholic upbringing. I’d imagined that in a couple of years, Niamh would discuss it with me, tell me when she felt ready, and introduce the boyfriend to me. This imaginary boyfriend would be respectful and presentable and always, always, use a condom. I thought I was broadminded.
Niamh started to cry again.
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean, you don’t know?’
Horrors sprang to mind. The darkness that had scared me when I first knew I was having a girl. Brutality. Violation.
‘Oh, God. Niamh. Were you raped?’
‘No. No, I mean I don’t know which one it was.’
A party that I hadn’t known about, at the house of a friend who always seemed sensible. Lurid. Sordid. Senseless.
The shock of it. To know that the child I thought I knew, her sweet-seeming friends, that her world was so alien to me.
The next day, Niamh took a pregnancy test. It was negative. But the revelation couldn’t be unmade. My child’s childhood was over. Her peers did these things. Their world was unfathomable to me.
My hair had a new streak of grey after that birthday.