Anything for My Children: A Reflection on Being an HIV-Positive Mom
"What about my baby?"
That was the first thing 19-year-old Lisa Thompson thought when she received her HIV diagnosis. She had found out she was pregnant three weeks prior in a clinic appointment, the same appointment during which she had blood drawn because she feared she had also contracted HIV (from the baby's father). The pregnancy test results were immediate, but she was forced to wait several weeks for this call. Pregnant and HIV positive. She now had answers to the two burning questions that had consumed her. Yet, now she had even more questions: Would she even live to have the baby? Would the baby be really sick?
This was the spring of 1994 in New York City. The winter had proven especially brutal for Lisa, as she watched her boyfriend -- more than a decade her senior -- become debilitated by a severe mysterious illness. Lisa was by his side for countless hospital stays until his death in April. It was at his funeral where she first heard whispers of "AIDS" being a factor in his death. This naturally became cause for concern as she recalled their sexual relationship and the possible pregnancy that loomed.
Lisa ended up living on my sister's pullout couch, even sleeping there with her newborn son for several months. She recalls her breasts being engorged with milk and the pain of knowing that she couldn't nurse him because of the virus.
"I was so weak and had terrible fever and chills," she said. "I was so thankful that he was born HIV negative, but I was trying to figure out how to take care of him when I couldn't even take care of myself."
Lisa was struggling to support herself and her son when offered a job working for an organization that addressed HIV and other issues. She recalls months of bringing her young son with her to work and gaining the confidence to share her personal story with others. This led to a move to Washington, D.C., to manage the National Association of People Living With HIV and AIDS (NAPWA)'s Youth Speakers Bureau. Lisa threw herself into her work with her small son by her side.
"He was a toddler handing out condoms, and he would tell people, 'Mommy said be safe.' He didn't understand what it all meant. I remember really disclosing to him when he was about four. He did not understand what HIV was or the ramifications of being positive at that point. At that time, I was still concerned about how long I would be around for him. He knew that Mommy was sick and that Mommy was still strong and working. He was helping me help other women and people. That's all he knew, and he was happy to be helping."
Lisa openly shared her story on some of the '90s most popular talk shows, such as Jenny Jones and Richard Bey. She was also featured in Essence and Jet magazines. "At that time you only heard about HIV if people were talking about gay men or people using drugs. No one was talking about women like me. I wanted people to hear from a young woman; I wanted other girls to see me. I just wanted to help somebody."
As years passed, Lisa began a serious relationship and was excitedly expecting her second child: a girl. Like her older brother, Lisa's daughter was born HIV negative. Even with this pregnancy, Lisa's doctors seemed to have a lot of uncertainty. "I was fortunate to have medical staff that listened to me. So many medications and things were still so new. It was like we were all learning together, and I just knew I wanted as little risk as possible."
Lisa adapted naturally to being a mother of two. She recalls how sweet her children were together and how protective she felt of them. And it was on a seemingly normal day that things shifted in Lisa's life once more.
It was a mundane task -- a quick run to the grocery for milk, bread, and eggs. Lisa entered the store with her three-month old daughter on her hip and her six-year-old son by her side. "I remember picking up a hand basket -- because we only needed a few things -- and looking at my daughter's face and her sweet smile when we were walking through the store. I think I was singing the ABCs to her; we would sing that and our numbers when we were doing things like that."
As they neared the dairy department, Lisa noticed a young man walking towards her. She thought nothing of it at first. And then she noticed his facial expression change.
"I will never forget the look on his face; there was so much disdain. I wondered if he was going to hit me. And he got close and said, 'The disgusting bitch with AIDS,' and he hocked spit towards me. I recall the spray against my skin and seeing it land near my feet. I was frozen in shock. A security guard intervened, and I don't know what else would have happened if he hadn't."
Lisa gave her statement to the officer. She had never seen this man before. She assumed he was just another shopper -- someone who lived in her community. She felt so vulnerable and afraid. She looked at her children and decided that she would do anything to fiercely protect them. Lisa stopped her work in HIV advocacy after that assault. She no longer spoke in public or gave interviews. Her family relocated from Washington, D.C., to suburban Maryland. She continued in the medical field, but not in anything directly related to HIV/AIDS.
Today, 24 years since her HIV diagnosis, and nearly 20 years after the incident that attempted to silence her, Lisa is sharing her story once again. "Things have changed, and now I have four healthy children who are not living with HIV. I still hear people talking about the terrible discrimination they face because of their HIV. I can't stand to be silent any longer. I did what I felt I needed to do to protect my family, and now, I can speak again."
Her message to other mothers is one of hope and resilience. "Be good to yourself and reflect that in the love you share with your children. Find medical care that works for you, and live your best life. Being a great mom has nothing to do with your status. It's about doing what's best for you and your family."
Lisa Thompson resides in Maryland with her family.
Dafina Ward is a non-profit professional, consultant, and attorney whose work addresses stigmatized health conditions in Southern communities. She is a 2017 Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Role Reboot, and The Lily.