I am writing (and will post) this knowing that it is likely the most vulnerable I’ll ever make myself in the blogosphere. I am not doing so because it’s comfortable but, rather, because I believe that in telling stories we bring things to light that, should they remain hidden in darkness, cannot help anyone. Untold stories grow stale and shrunken and old, sometimes festering with anger and resentment because we feel shame and regret and other times because we suspect a society that lacks compassion or a capacity for anything other than black-and-white thinking (or simply doesn’t want to understand) will judge us harshly. Perhaps we have already been judged before we hid our stories, which is why we tucked them away in the first place.
The first time I met someone who’d openly admitted to having an abortion, I was 20 years old, pregnant for the first time, and separated from my first husband. She was an older girl (woman?) I’d met on campus who had condescendingly corrected my mispronunciation of “Jung” over a late breakfast at Nookies Too on Halsted. Campus rumor had it that she’d worked as a runway model (she was very tall, though I didn’t find her face particularly attractive), and her personality was just off-putting enough that you wanted to be her friend, just to prove that you’d overcome the long path of brambles and sticklers on the way to her confidences. By accident (and acquaintance) I’d made my way into her inner circle—hence, the breakfast table, and the chiding for my ignorance of Jung (never to be repeated in the 25 years hence)—and I suppose she developed a reluctant tolerance of me.
Then fast-forward to an art fair in Wicker Park sometime in late 1993. She was about six months’ pregnant. I’d just finished my first trimester, having lost my apartment in the city, given my cats (Kira and Oppenheimer) up to a no-kill shelter in the suburbs, and moved in with my grandparents in the suburbs, who promised to help me raise the baby. My estranged husband had all but abandoned me, saying things like, “I’ll be a famous physicist, and you’ll be a welfare mother, people spitting on you in the gutter.” I was working part-time doing inventory in a cheese factory warehouse in Melrose Park (I’d have to wear winter clothes and my fingers would freeze almost every day, it was so cold) and still making jewelry (a skill I learned for Dead parking lots and sci-fi conventions). The jewelry part is how I ended up sharing a table with this girl/woman at the art fair, back when Wicker Park was still stepping over needles and seeing long lines of prostitutes waiting under the Blue Line at Damen for the johns rolling in from the suburbs, seeing just how much a date would cost.
I didn’t initiate the conversation. She told me she was having the baby this time because otherwise it would be her 4th abortion. She was afraid if she had another one, it would ruin her chances for having children ever again. I didn’t say much, just listened to her talk about how she thought it would all play out: pretty much attachment parenting a good 10-15 years before anyone thought to put a branded name on the practice. Home birth. A community of people to help raise her daughter (she already knew). Plans to otherwise have her life stay the same: political activism, quirky living off-the-grid. Rainbow Gatherings, Dead tour, nothing too mainstream. Her parents had been hippies, from what I gather, so I’m guessing it wasn’t too far from her own upbringing. As I listened, I wondered what choices I would make, whether I was ready. (I also was occasionally sidetracked: Four abortions? Who has four abortions?)
I didn’t ever see her again after that art fair. I looked her up and befriended her on Facebook last year, saw pictures of her grown daughter, put together some of the pieces of her life over the past two decades. She lives in the suburbs, works in politics. It doesn’t seem as though there have been any Rainbow Gatherings (or similar events) recently, but she seems happy, I’d guess happier than I am on the average day. In some ways, our lives seem switched; my life today is what I imagined what hers would have been 25 years in the future. Or not even switched, really, since I never saw anything for myself that far in advance. I never had an idea for what I’d be like at 30, 35, 40. Which maybe was (and still is) part of the problem, living in the moment all the time and not worrying too much about what would happen tomorrow.
Nine or 10 years ago, when they went on sale, I bought a “I Had an Abortion” t-shirt. I wore it out only once, to a lunch gathering with a group of women that called themselves the Chicago Hip Mamas, alternative mothers who prided themselves on redefining what a lot of things looked like: being a wife, motherhood, sexuality, you name it. But I found out that one subject wasn’t open for discussion (much less debate). I left that afternoon regretful that I’d worn the t-shirt, as I’d had to defend both my purchase of it and my decision to wear it. I’d been accused of being proud of what I’d done (not true), forcing other people to think about an issue they felt uncomfortable with before getting their permission (which was sort of the point, but okay), and treating a serious issue as though it were a frivolous one (I was not). My intention—and the intention of the makers of the t-shirt—was to make visible what is largely invisible: that (depending on which statistics you want to believe) anywhere between 25% and 40% of women will have at least one abortion in their lifetime, but stories of their experiences are largely absent in the media, unless they are narratives coming from the anti-choice movement (presenting abortion as a horrible or traumatic experience from which one never recovers) or, less often, from the pro-choice side (presenting abortion as a medical procedure relatively easy to bounce back from with little to no emotional consequences).
What is largely absent in our cultural consciousness are stories that fall somewhere in the middle: women who have had a rough time but don’t regret what they’ve done; women who regret what they’ve done but still acknowledge that they would do the same thing again; women who believe they did something morally wrong but feel it was a necessary evil; and people who feel they did something for which they need forgiveness (and take steps to do so) but still believe abortion rights should not be curtailed.
In other words, what is absent is a realistic, unbiased, thorough exploration of women’s experiences of abortion that is separate from any ideological motives surrounding the political issue. Because it is a political issue that is intractable. There is no compromise available, and everyone should stop believing there is; one side believes abortion is murder, another side believes it is not (which is why I won’t join in berating politicians opposed to abortion in cases of incest or rape—they are consistent with their values, and we shouldn’t hold them up as heartless but instead as ones who exemplify the anti-choice position. The ones who believe race and incest exemptions are okay are the ones pandering to the lowest common denominator).
More than a decade ago, I was the cofounder of a conference at UIC that examined these issues. I was one of three women who shared my experience on a panel, in the hope that it would spur conversations. In the audience was a woman who had been active in abortion activism for more than 40 years. She rose to speak during the comments portion of the panel. “We’ve been trying to make this conversation happen for 40 years,” she said. “The problem is that women are scared. And when the opposition has acid, and bombs, and guns… it gives them reason to be.”
I’ve hinted at it, so it should be no surprise. I’ve had an abortion. I’ve actually had more than one, more than two, more than three. I won’t tell you the number. I know that if you are a certain person you felt me to be less of a person after I said I had one, even less after two, even less after three.
Would it matter if I said that at least one was to save my life? Would it matter if I told you that every unplanned pregnancy I had was due to a failure of birth control? Or that after every unplanned pregnancy I chose a form of birth control with a higher success rate, all the way up to an IUD, at which point I still got pregnant? Would it matter if I told you that I got pregnant with my younger son three months after my second-to-last abortion, two months after 9/11, and he is the result of three forms of birth control failing? Would it matter to tell you that although he is one of the absolute best things that has happened to me, the lifelong relationship I am stuck in with his father is also one of the worst things in my life? Do you now feel that I deserve to have had him stolen from me?
My last abortion was five months before I got sober. Since then, the only time I’ve had sex has been after I had a tubal ligation or with men who had undergone a vasectomy. Even then, every time my perimenopausal body had a wonky cycle, I feared pregnancy. I figured if anyone could get pregnant, with a tubal ligation, sleeping with someone who’d had a vasectomy, it would probably be me. And I’d still be the one to blame for being irresponsible.
The first time since 1993 that I ever felt safe from an unwanted pregnancy was after I had a hysterectomy. That’s a long time not to trust my body to work in the way it’s supposed to, not to trust my body to cooperate with all of the modern medicine that’s supposed to prevent it from working the way it wants to. Was I supposed to be a mother all those times over? Maybe. But if I doubt my mothering skills now, I don’t doubt that I wouldn’t have been a very good one had I been forced into those other sorts of mothering.
Do I regret any of it? Yes. Some of it. Do I think I made the right decisions? Yes. And no. Am I sad about the past? Of course. Do I think about what might have been? Occasionally. I could have had a 22-year-old daughter or son right now, something that crosses my mind when I meet someone that age.
I occasionally work as a clinic escort in Queens, accompanying women safely to the door of an abortion clinic while anti-choice protesters hold graphic signs and shout horrible things at them. Many of the women are there for cervical cancer screenings, mammograms, and birth control. Only a percentage show up to have abortions, but every woman who walks past is a suspect in a murder investigation, according to the men (yes, they are mostly men) holding the signs. I’ve never been particularly afraid of my safety, not because I feel invincible but because that isn’t what I’m focused on. What I care about is the woman whose hand I’m holding, whose shoulders I have my arm around. She is usually shaking a bit, and she looks like she’s trying not to cry. She probably looks a lot like I did every time I walked into a clinic, though I like to think I was braver.
When I hear of clinics being shot up, like today’s incident in Colorado, I can’t help but think that there are more effective things to be done other than shooting people to prove a point (or scare them into believing the same way you do). Numerous studies have shown that universal child care (with generous subsidies), national mandated paid maternity (and paternity) leave, access to birth control, effective and comprehensive sex education in schools from an early age (on age-appropriate levels, of course), women’s preventative health care services, Head Start programs, universal Pre-K, well-child programs, and WIC (among many other programs that help single mothers and families living in poverty) both reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortion rates among populations who would most likely choose to continue with their pregnancies if they believed they would have a better support system/more access to social services upon delivery.
I also think of the time I was leaving a clinic in Chicago after having an abortion. I felt broken and devastated, and I could feel my breasts getting heavy, my milk a half-day from coming in, my body thinking I’d given birth, when all I’d done was given up a life. One of the protesters walked up to me as I tried to hail a cab on Elston Avenue, and even though I wanted to tell him to leave me alone, there was something kind in his face. I was too tired to push him away as he leaned into me as I tucked myself into a cab. I remember the softness of his voice when he told me that I hadn’t made a mistake, only a choice Jesus would understand, because he was forgiving that way. All I had to do was ask.
I wondered on the way home, as I do now, what made him different from the other men, the ones with the signs, or whether he was even real. Maybe I’d just imagined he was there, the sort of protester I wanted to exist as I left a clinic where I’d done something I said I’d never do again.
More than a decade ago, for that conference, I wrote something about what it’s like to have an abortion, for it to be painful but then for it to become something else. I later shared it in a writing workshop, where I was accused by a fellow writer (whose experience had sharply diverged from my own) of saying my experience was universal. I am not. I share stories not because I believe I have the final word but because I want others to be brave enough to share theirs, too. It’s just that, most of the time, the stakes aren’t as high as when we’re talking about abortion. Below, I share part of what I wrote, which remains as true then as it did now. And I still hope more women share what they’ve been through. Because otherwise the people dominating the conversation will have guns and acid and bombs; our stories can be stronger than any of those things, if only we have the courage to tell them.
(From January 2005)
What they don’t tell you is that afterward, there is a lot of bleeding, with clots. They don’t tell you your breasts will begin to produce milk and become painfully hard and leak, because your body thinks you’ve had a baby, only a bit too early. No one tells you you’ll hunger for that baby, you’ll scream at ghosts and beg to make your choice go away. You’ll grab your belly and claw at bed sheets, wishing things could have been different. You lie to yourself, say you could have handled being a single mother with no support, a second child doesn’t take that much more effort, you didn’t know it would be like this, you would have done something, anything, if only you could take it all back and not have this pain and not be sitting on a toilet at three in the morning, crying and sobbing as half-dollar-sized globs of blood descend from your empty uterus through a war-ravaged vagina to make a sickening plopping sound into the bottom of the toilet.
But they also don’t tell you the screaming will stop, regret will turn to relief, the bleeding will go away, your milk will dry up, you will (soon enough) be able to look at babies without crying, the pain becomes part of who you are and dissipates. One day you will wake up and realize you did the only, the best, you could and, damnit!, you’re going to embrace that and be that “I’ve had an abortion and I lived through it and I’d do it again if I were in the same situation” kind of woman.
They don’t tell you that, one day, you will take the strong part of the core of your being—the part that made you want to be more than just a struggling, overworked single mom wondering how to pay the electric bill—and you will love and nurture that strength and thank the gods and goddesses you had the chance to make that choice. They don’t tell you that one day you will have another child—or two—when you’re ready, and it will be as pure joy as you have felt pure pain, and you will know that life is good.
The pro-lifers take my experience and hold it up as proof that every time a woman has an abortion—as a billboard on the Eisenhower said last year—something inside of her dies. Pro-choicers I’ve talked with have said my sadness and grief and difficulty existed because I wasn’t strong enough to begin with, that I took things too seriously, I was too steeped in patriarchy to realize how liberating the experience was.
Both accounts, though, paint an ideological picture so far removed from reality that they’re bullshit. Yes, the abortion was painful, and complex, and I regretted it and then I didn’t, and it was terrifying and relieving and I hated myself until I loved myself again and all kinds of things. But, in those terms, the abortion wasn’t much different than childbirth, or ending relationships, or buying a new car, or even going back to graduate school when I was way older than most everyone else. Life is scary, and unpredictable, and sometimes you feel righteous and other times you feel lost and scared. It’s unfair to say that abortion isn’t like the other 99.9% of your life, where you’re a complex person who doesn’t fit into a mold and can’t be stereotyped, catalogued, indexed, or forced into a statistical (or feminist) analysis.
What needs to happen is for women to share their stories, especially those of us who are mothers but once—or more—made other choices. I’ve had abortions because of unplanned pregnancies, but I’ve also had miscarriages and children because of them as well. No matter what we choose, if the pregnancy is a surprise we all go through that process … only with different outcomes, perhaps. It isn’t fair—or feminist—to talk about childbirth, and midwifery, and embracing our bodies and being in charge of them without also telling stories about what actually happens in abortion clinics, the places where men and women who stay pregnant aren’t allowed or welcome, places no one else wants to be. By telling my story I hope there will be one less woman who screams at ghosts while bleeding onto her bedsheets, sobbing and dying inside because she feels so alone. Because she is not, or at least she doesn’t have to be.