Tue | Jan 22, 2019

Michael Abrahams | Before you judge, try to understand

Published:Monday | April 23, 2018 | 12:05 AM

I recall my first meeting with Ann-Marie*, a 27-year-old woman from the inner city who visited me for an ultrasound examination. She was pregnant at the time and unsure of the date of her last period and wished to verify how far her pregnancy had gone. During the examination we had a conversation, as I usually do with the wonderful women who grace me with their presence and trust me to take care of them.

During our discourse, she revealed to me that she had four children for four different men, and was now carrying a fifth, for yet another man. The man who impregnated her had been murdered, and another man had befriended her and commenced a relationship with her in her gravid state. After delivering this child, she planned to conceive for the man she is with now and give him a child too. So, she is on a pathway to have six children for six different men.

It does sound appalling. This is the type of behaviour that contributes to the disintegration of our society. When she left my office, she dominated my thoughts for the remainder of the day, a mélange of emotions swirling in my mind. I was angry that this type of mindset is not uncommon in my country. I was concerned for her offspring because I know that  children who grow up like this often lack guidance and are at risk of being involved in criminal activity. I was perplexed that someone would repeatedly do something that would complicate their life and those of their children.

A few months later I had an opportunity to engage her once again. She returned to my office, this time accompanying her cousin, who was also pregnant. She felt comfortable with the way I treated her and recommended me to her cousin. While I was performing the scan on her relative, I asked her to tell me about her childhood; and there is where I found my answers.

Her father was absent from her life, and her mother not only resented him, but resented her as well. She looked like her father and her mother would remind her of this and constantly tell her that she despised her. She would tell her that she wished that she had died while in her uterus or during childbirth.

A family member told her that her mother had once tried to kill her, when she was an infant, by pushing her off a bed. She would also be beaten mercilessly by her mother. The physical and emotional abuse was unbearable. Then came the sexual abuse. She told me that she was molested by one of her mother’s boyfriends. When she complained about it, her mother dismissed her and told her that she was lying. In her late teens, Ann-Marie* decided that she had had enough of life, and decided that it was time to make an exit. She attempted to take her life by overdosing on sedatives and ended up in hospital.

I listened intently to her story. At the end I hugged her and told her that I am glad that she is still alive. This woman’s life had been devoid of love, compassion, affection, empathy, justice and guidance. During her childhood, she was not exposed to loving touches or warm embraces. The physical contact that she experienced was mainly being aggressively struck or inappropriately fondled. The absence of a father, or other strong male figure in her life, combined with the abusive environment, created a huge void, which she has tried to fill with a succession of men. I understood that, but was flabbergasted that she kept doing this repeatedly, and getting pregnant for them. When I asked why, she told me that every time she is with someone, she thinks and hopes that he will stay.

After one or two failed relationships, you would think that she would have learnt her lesson. Many of us would. However, in attempting to understand her warped thinking, I am reminded of something I was told by an older and much wiser man several years ago, “People do the best they know how, in the situations they are in, with the resources they are given.” This is a simple, yet profound statement that has remained in my psyche. If someone has limited resources, and is placed in certain situations, their responses will leave a lot to be desired.

Ann-Marie’s* socialization and life experiences have set her up for her unwise choices. When a child is abused, neglected and exposed to significant dysfunction, it has a profound effect on how he or she thinks and behaves. She, not surprisingly, suffers from depression as well, a condition that also makes one vulnerable to making decisions that are not in one’s best interest.

It is very easy to judge and condemn people like Ann-Marie*. Her behavior and lifestyle are not to be endorsed and encouraged, but what we should invest our energy in, rather than judgement, is trying to understand the causes for destructive behaviour. Fragmented families, combined with poverty and poor education, provide unstable and abusive environments for our youth, who grow up into broken adults who perpetuate the cycle of dysfunction. Once we understand this, we must reach out and try our best to do what we can to help prevent the traumatization of our children.

*Name changed to maintain anonymity

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet.

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