Franziska had to overcome many hurdles before she could become a self-confident HIV-positive mother of healthy twins – HIV ignorance in maternity services being one of them.

Anyone who meets Franziska knows that this self-confident woman with dreadlocks is unlikely to ever beat about the bush. Her slightly mischievous, winning laugh radiates a carefree assurance. But she has come a long way: from a struggling 16-year-old out of her depth, having to cope with an HIV diagnosis, to a confident mother of twins who makes no secret of her infection - and who always proves defiant when others put obstacles in her path.

"I had to learn to live without my hard outer shell."

Flashback: for more than ten years Franziska hardly told anyone of her diagnosis. "I told myself: it's no one's business and it's not the important thing." She never wanted to join a self-help group, and self-help manuals also made her recoil. "At the back they put all the patients' provisions and care services and whatever horrible diseases you can get," Franziska remembers. "I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I just shut the thing up again straight away."

Instead, the young Hamburg woman threw herself into her life. She studied geoecology, worked in research and for environmental groups, advised companies on sustainability. She studied and worked in Nepal, Spain and Morocco. And she did a lot of sport - especially martial arts.

"I defined myself really intensely by my physical performance," she says. "It was unbelievably important to me to feel strong." But then, during a fight, she injured her knee so badly that she was left walking on crutches for over a year. Slowed down by that, she was forced to start thinking about herself. "I had to learn to live without my hard outer shell. That was a really tough process," she says.

For a long time, Franziska didn't want to take any HIV medication either. "I was scared of it, because I didn't want to feel sick." But she regularly had her check-ups, even when she was travelling.

"I was scared of it, because I didn't want to feel sick."

The turning point came during her three years living and working in Barcelona. The Catalonian health care system doesn't allow you to choose your doctor, and her doctor told her, in a friendly tone but in no uncertain terms, that she would have to begin HIV therapy if she wanted her medical treatment to continue.

With a truck-load of questions about HIV therapy and this foreign health care system, Franziska went to an HIV self-help advice centre for the first time, and experienced a warmth that she never encountered before. Suddenly everything was a lot easier. "It's so relieving to exchange thoughts with someone and get the information you need to lose your fear."

Since Franziska moved back to Germany three years ago, she has been active in AIDS help work, and is now managing director of AIDS-Hilfe in the German state of Baden-Württemberg - an extraordinary career for someone who didn't have any interest in self-help before. "If you've been able to accept help once, and you've used it to climb out of a hole, it's a very motivating feeling," Franziska explains. "That's where I get my self-confidence and my courage from."

Franziska set great store by having a "normal birth experience"

She certainly needed both of these qualities when she decided to become a mother. Nowadays, that isn't a problem for HIV positive women - even including a natural birth - because HIV medication prevents the virus from being passed on to the child. But this fact has not filtered through to many medical centres, and women are often forced into unnecessary preventative measures, such as premature caesareans (see infobox).

Franziska set great store by having what she calls a "normal birth experience". After an "off-putting preliminary discussion" in a clinic nearby, she decided on a centre in Frankfurt that had a lot of experience with HIV - even though it was 150 kilometres from Karlsruhe, where she lived with her husband. Two weeks before her due date, the expectant mother moved into a hostel in Frankfurt. "I wanted to be near the clinic. I didn't want my winter children to enter the world in the icy rain on a motorway, but in a beautiful delivery room with friendly doctors." The plan worked out.

So now Franziska's life is divided between the two one-year-old twins and her new managing director job. And she copes with all the struggles that go with it very coolly.

"I deal with the everyday problems pretty calmly, because I know that it could be a lot worse. Maybe that really does make me a better mother," she says, grinning.


Frauke Oppenberg

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