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He was born on New Year’s Day, the year 2000. I got pregnant with him when I was 19, a month before I graduated from college. I was a brain; that was my identity. I was headed to Yale Divinity School, where I would study for a master’s in religion and literature. Those were my interests: religion, literature, study. I had not thought about having children or being a wife. I hadn’t thought I wouldn’t do those things, but if I thought about them, they existed in the vague haze of my distant future.
I wasn’t really dating his father. His father was only the second person I’d had sex with, and I had a crush on his good friend. The friend wasn’t interested in me romantically, but the three of us hung out together. I would be winsome and flirt with the friend, and we all had a nice time. Sometimes I would read to them. Isak Dinesen: “Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard.” The friend would go back to his dorm on the campus of the small Christian university we attended, and my son’s father would linger at my apartment. I was a little younger than the two of them but two years ahead in school, so I lived off campus. My son’s father is kind, gentle, handsome, friendly, warm and funny. We kept having sex, and we kept praying for the strength to stop having sex. I kept saying I didn’t want to be with him. He kept trying to accept that.
When we had sex, we couldn’t use condoms, because having them around would have been admitting an intent to sin or an expectation of fallibility. For the same reasons, I couldn’t take birth-control pills or use any other form of contraception. To prepare to sin would be worse than to break in a moment of irresistible desire. To acknowledge a pattern of repeatedly breaking, of in fact never failing to break, would have meant acknowledging our powerlessness, admitting we could never act righteously. Our faith trapped us: We needed to believe we could be good more than we needed to protect ourselves. As long as I didn’t take the birth-control pill, I could believe I wouldn’t sin again. His father always pulled out, which works until it doesn’t.
I remember the moment I learned of the pregnancy so clearly — as if it has always been happening and will continue to be happening until the end of my life, as if it rang a heavy bell and the deafening note reverberates still. I took the pregnancy test in a restroom in the Biblical Studies Building. I had received my bachelor’s degree in English the week before but had stayed in town to guest-teach the literature unit of a monthlong course on women’s spirituality, led by one of my professors. At the break, after talking to the students about a poem by Marge Piercy —
In nightmares she suddenly recalls
a class she signed up for
but forgot to attend.
Now it is too late.
— I took the test. The two pink lines appeared. I felt a line sear its way through the middle of my body. I felt a physical splitting.
Now it is time for finals:
losers will be shot.
I was wearing a delicate pink sweater, a long dark green silk skirt and pretty sandals. I remember realizing I had never been up against such a true moment of inevitability, of mandatory decision-making, before. I had never understood incontrovertible. In this way, it was my first encounter with the meaning of death.
I went back to class. I was teaching from an anthology called “Cries of the Spirit.” I pointed out a line in the preface in which the editor describes attending the lecture of a teacher she respected deeply, relating that “throughout his presentation, he quoted from his teachers, from books, from the founders of Western thought — everyone from Aristotle to Auden — and not once did he mention a woman’s name or recall the words of a woman.”
Next, Mary Oliver:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble …
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was doing, what I had done, what I would do. I had only recently, within those past few months, for the first time, come near the idea that the words of a woman could matter. I had only begun to see that they hadn’t, my whole life.
… as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
No one in my family had done such a thing as going to Yale. I couldn’t fully imagine it, though I had visited, had sat in the courtyard of its vaunted library, had somehow found myself eating canapés in a room with other people who were as excited as I was to read and learn. My father was the first person in his family to go to college, and his father mocked him for it. My father went to college anyway. So maybe that is what going to Yale would have been for me.
When I was accepted, my mother told me, while taking clothes out of the washing machine — this was before I got pregnant — that she and my father wouldn’t be able to help me financially for graduate school. I hadn’t asked, or expected them to, but honestly I also hadn’t thought about how I would pay for it, because I was 19. Because there was no conversation about what it would be like for me there, about what vision I had for my life, only this pre-emptive refusal of support I hadn’t requested, I assumed my mother didn’t want me to go to Yale. They had already let me leave home two years early for college, which was all my idea, and I think she thought that had been a huge mistake. I don’t think she would have said she didn’t want me to go to Yale, but I think it was as unimaginable to her as it was to me. It was intimidating. I might go away and get ideas. I might get the idea that I was better than the people I came from or that I could turn my back on Christianity.
The week after I found out I was pregnant, my son’s father and I had the options conversation in his truck, on the ride back from his relative’s wedding. The couple had been planning their wedding for over a year and did not have sex before their wedding night. She promised to love, cherish and obey. Obey! My son’s father and I talked about only one of the three putative options, meaning I said that I would never be able to do it: adoption. I couldn’t imagine growing a baby inside my body, giving birth to it and then handing it over to someone else. That is not supposed to be a comprehensive description of what I now think adoption is; it is a description of what I felt when I was 19. Even if I could have considered adoption, I thought my parents would take the baby from me before they would let it be adopted by anyone else, and I didn’t want that to happen.
I didn’t consider abortion. I couldn’t. That last semester of college, I had taken a communications seminar, and for my semester-long project I chose the doctrinal proscription of abortion. At the time, the Church of Christ college I went to required daily chapel attendance and disallowed mixed bathing, which meant men and women in the same swimming pool at the same time. I had to take Bible classes to graduate, but that was fine because I wanted to be a Christian. I was. I believed what I said when I called abortion a holocaust, because I believed that the Bible said incontrovertibly that God forbade abortion, and I believed that the Bible was a true message from a real God who should be obeyed. Before I spoke to the class, I handed out little laminated wallet cards I’d made that showed a mangled fetus on one side and the go-to verse on the other: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. … My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
I couldn’t consider abortion or adoption, but the weird thing is I also couldn’t consider having a baby. I never decided; I never chose.
The presentation was videotaped, but when I watched it later, I discovered there was no sound. I saw myself standing before the class, gesturing and moving my mouth, but I couldn’t hear anything I was saying. I was also pregnant with my son when I gave this talk, but I didn’t know it yet — one of many moments in my life when I’ve wondered who’s writing this story. If there is a God ordaining all our days, my note here is Pretty heavy-handed, God.
I believed that abortion was wrong, so I never let it be a possibility. And no, I don’t know why I was able to have premarital sex, though I believed it was wrong, and yet I couldn’t believe abortion was wrong and do it anyway; such are the vagaries of human action. I also believed I should be punished for having premarital sex, so I felt I deserved to lose control over my life.
Because I was legally an adult and even a college graduate, you could make the argument that I hadn’t really lost control of my life, that I could have made whatever decision I wanted to make. That I could have decided how to feel about whatever decision I made. You could make the Buddhist argument that no one can ever lose control because control is an illusion. But I didn’t have any of those ways to understand the situation back then.
I couldn’t consider abortion or adoption, but the weird thing is I also couldn’t consider having a baby. I never decided; I never chose. Somewhere in there it became more likely that I was having a baby, but that didn’t make it any more real to me.
It’s hard to believe how long I persisted in a kind of denial about the pregnancy, because I felt so much shame about it. My son’s father and I went to a restaurant with my parents and some adult cousins when I was seven months along, and I tried to hide my belly, to sit and stand so my cousins wouldn’t see it. On top of the shame, I felt a persistent, stressful sadness, a constant awareness that this is not how you want to feel about your pregnancy. The sadness was not only for me or only for my baby. The sadness was exactly for both of us. I didn’t want to be sad about being pregnant, and I didn’t want him to be growing inside a sad person, because it wasn’t his fault.
So I didn’t go to Yale. Weakened by that incomprehensible incontrovertibility, by round-the-clock morning sickness, by paralyzing fear, I conceded to intense pressure from my parents to marry. Everyone assumed I was having a baby. The decision to be made was whether or not I would get married, and there was only one right choice. I was told that several of my relatives married under these same circumstances.
When I visited Yale, I looked at the housing for grad students. I was enchanted by the idea of an old fireplace in my living quarters and imagined reading books by a fire I built while it snowed outside. Instead I got married in Texas on a hot day in July, two months after I found out I was pregnant, to someone I loved but didn’t want to marry. I remember being driven to the ceremony and not wanting to get out of the car, though I didn’t say that to anyone. I was nauseated and dissociated. I wore a sheer sleeveless white gown, the fabric nearly weightless, but I felt as if I were wearing a hundred-pound vest. I sat in the back of the car with my son inside me and had a moment of deep grief that I couldn’t let the others see, because I knew so clearly this wasn’t how I should feel on my wedding day. I felt as if I were carrying my son for them, for everyone else. He would come to belong to me too, later, but I did not feel the attachment a person can feel with a longed-for, wanted pregnancy. I was afraid, and I was estranged from myself, and I felt an unbearable load of guilt for being the mother my son had to have. He didn’t get to choose, either.
One of the best feelings I have ever felt in my life was when, after I finally pushed my son out of my body, someone put a warmed heavy blanket on top of me. It had been so hard to have a baby, and it had hurt so much. I could sense the baby to my left, but I was too drained to move or speak or even turn my head. I fell asleep almost immediately after the blanket was placed on top of me, and I felt what I can only describe as a moment of immense, complete, unforeseen pleasure, because I realized I was physically maxed out, could do absolutely nothing more no matter what was asked of me, and this resulted in a relief I have only otherwise experienced under the effects of clinically administered ketamine. This particular relief arises from being able to momentarily let go of guilt and effort because you understand you are incapacitated and therefore off the hook. But before I passed out, I noticed that the cloud of my consciousness had pulled apart, had become two clouds, and that one had drifted over to float above my son, permanently.
Eighteen years later, during an intermission at a play in Los Angeles, I mention my son to friends of a man I am dating. I am sitting with his friends, a man and a woman, because the man I’m seeing is acting in the play, and the three of us have his comp tickets; I haven’t met them before. They remark, as people often do, that I don’t look old enough to have a grown child. I am frank about the circumstances: I say sardonic things like shotgun wedding, child bride, religious family. The woman rushes to say, But you must love your son so much, as people often do. I have found myself in this play many times before, though I never say my lines. I’m being prompted to say, I wouldn’t have it any other way, or, I can’t imagine life without him. Instead I say, He’s amazing, which is true. But what I want to say is, Yes, I do love him so much that I wish he could have been born to someone who was ready and excited to be a mother.
It’s not that I would have it any other way. And I can’t imagine life without him because the counterfactual does not exist. The great gift my son gave me, that I have tried to give back to both of my children, was not the privilege of being his mother — a role I have never submitted to the way I would have wanted to, the way he deserved, if we’re talking woulds — but an exit from the pat.
But it’s not accurate to say my son gave me this, when what I mean is: Facing an unplanned pregnancy when I was 19 led to a grappling with identity that forced me to choose between acknowledging complexity, failure and systemic injustice or living inauthentically, turned away from truth. A paradox here is that much of what informed my parents’ conviction that I should not have an abortion — though we never even talked about it — was rooted in religion, and yet having a baby when I did, the way I did, led directly to my departure from religion, and far more swiftly than anything else could have.
I knew it wasn’t right that I had never been shown a path to sexual pleasure apart from shame, even if it would be years before I could articulate that. I knew I should have had more choices. My personhood was erased and overwritten with MOTHER before I even knew who I was. But it’s not poetic to say that dealing with the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy gave me some perspective. Or at least it’s not nearly as poetic as it is to say to your children, You gave me my life, or to say about them, They made me who I am. It’s a mistake to hang this on the children, even to feel gratitude toward them. They have no agency, no design in mind; they aren’t responsible for our experience of them. They have nothing to do with it.
As my children have grown up and I have pursued my ambitions over the first two decades of the 21st century, I have noticed that I am often on a generational hinge — my children’s friends’ parents are at least 10 years older than I am, and my vocational peers and friends my age are just now having their first children, 20 years after I had mine. Existing as an anomaly in each group has made me interesting to each group; I am “so young,” and my kids are “so old.” People my age remember what they were doing when they were 19. They remember what they did all throughout their 20s and 30s, before they had kids, and they can’t imagine having had kids at any time before they did. It would have changed everything.
Well, it did change everything. I don’t think I was a very good mom when my kids were young. Everyone who knows me and my kids insists that they are so cool, that they are lovely and healthy, that we have an admirable relationship, that I am a good mom. I know almost all parents, especially mothers, are prone to thinking they’re not doing a good-enough job. I know that parenting is hard, even when you wait and plan and are as ready as you can be. And I know all parents fail their kids in one way or another. These are common truths. But please let me state my own truth anyway: I wasn’t available the way I would have wanted to be. I wasn’t loving the way I would have wanted to be. I was shut down and withdrawn and in pain and exhausted. I tried to hold it away from them. I didn’t let it out on them as anger or criticism. But I know what it means to be present, what that feels like. I know what it means to be available and invested and magical, and that’s not how I was with them, my only children, during their only childhood. To tell me, But they’re fine, you’re fine — yes, I know that is true. But it also sounds like a way of saying: It’s no problem that you had to have a child when you didn’t want to. You’re the only one who’s making it a problem. It’s all fine.
Whatever emotional and psychological health my kids have now, as young adults, we owe to the distribution of their parenting across four households.
It is all fine. My kids’ father is an exceptional parent. He gave up his life for them; he submitted to our new circumstances in a way I didn’t. After graduating from college, he got the first job he could, as a public-school teacher of students diagnosed as experiencing “emotional disturbances,” a catchall for not only kids with psychological disorders but also those who just keep misbehaving in a regular classroom. He has had some version of that job for 20 years, providing an invaluable framework of continuity and stability as our kids grew up, with a work schedule that matched a schoolchild’s. He is a nurturing father, firm and patient. He worries about them more than I do. When he’s not with them, he misses them more than I do. When we divorced, after crashing together and making two kids in two years and then almost immediately falling apart, he grieved and struggled but stayed focused on our little ones and continued to be kind to me. He was supportive of my ambitions and trusted me when someone else might have tried to be controlling, would have been jealous or fearful of my taking steps that fell outside the bounds of stereotypical behavior for mothers. The kids have only heard us speak highly of each other, even though we’ve been divorced for as long as they can remember. It’s all fine because they have only experienced their parents as friendly and respectful toward each other.
It’s all fine. My parents came through. I don’t know how much of that was because they knew they had pushed me to do something I wasn’t ready to do, so they felt they owed it to me, and how much of it was more organic, everyday grandparenting. But it doesn’t matter: They cherished my son and then my daughter. They were and are devoted to them. The most important part happened when the kids were babies and I was self-destructing. There was always a very safe and loving place for my kids to be, with people who were so happy to play with those two toddlers all day. As the kids grew up, my parents took them on long summer vacations, attended all their school events, went to all their games, watched all their plays and performances, were there for every birthday, held us up in so many ways.
It’s all fine. Their dad’s mom also helped raise them, was always overjoyed to see them. She had a stroke in her early 40s and was partly paralyzed on her right side but still lived alone and fully, driving a car, going to church, continuing to work, doing almost everything she wanted to, just not very fast. If we had been older parents, I don’t think we would have left the kids with her. I think we would have been more cautious, more afraid. But she kept our son by herself for the first time when he was only 13 months, and it meant so much to her. He wasn’t walking yet, and she just stayed in her living room with him, holding him and cooing over him and reading to him and letting him pull apart every single thing in her house. Hoisting him one-armed into a highchair to feed him. Putting him in his portable crib and singing to him while he fell asleep. Not doing anything but being with him.
Whatever emotional and psychological health my kids have now, as young adults, we owe to the distribution of their parenting across these four households. Without even one of these pieces, I don’t think my children would be fine.
But it all seems so tenuous to me, even now. I had no idea how hard it would be for me to be a mother. I felt as though I had to choose myself at my son’s expense, over and over, if I wanted to exist as more than his mother. Perhaps that is an ordinary situation most mothers would recognize, but I was so immature and unformed that I experienced that acute fear of self-abnegation as if it were the entire meaning of motherhood itself. It felt as if that was the choice my family made for me, and the choice they made for my son. That he would have to have a mother who was severely depressed throughout the first 10 years of his life, partly because she felt so much anguish about what she couldn’t give him, when he was so blameless and beautiful. Why did they want that for us?
It’s unfair to say they chose that, because maybe they didn’t see that coming. They would say that’s not what they wanted, of course that’s not what they wanted. They just wanted the baby, and they hoped I would be all right once I met the baby. My baby. Surely I would fall in love with my baby and understand. They wanted the baby because they wanted the feelings, feelings of hope and excitement about life. They wanted the baby because they imagined being flooded by effortless feelings of love.
They wanted those feelings, but I didn’t. I wasn’t able to drop what I wanted and want those feelings instead. I wanted to go to grad school, so I could have feelings of accomplishment and contribution and confidence and curiosity. I wanted to grow up, so I could know myself better before I thought about having children, so I could have feelings of groundedness and intention about creating a family. If I was going to have children, I wanted it to be because I wanted to, with someone I decided to have children with, who also wanted to have children with me, so I could have feelings of intimacy and connection.
I also know that so much of what I consider the value I bring to others, through my writing, my work, my friendships, even and especially my parenting — whatever empathy I can offer, any wisdom I may have gained, any useful openness — traces back to this tremendous wound of my son’s origins, the wound of my birth as a parent. But do I have to admit that it was best for me that I didn’t get to choose to be a parent, because I love my son? Do I have to claim it as good that I lost my autonomy? Do you know how much I wish I could go back and feel the other feelings, be flooded with love and hope and excitement when I held my son for the first time, instead of crushed by fear, instead of feeling like a child entrusted with a baby? A child who was old enough to know that no one should be handing her a baby.
I would love to go back and feel those feelings, for myself; if I had a baby now, I’d be ready for those feelings, ready to let joy and devotion wash me away. But mostly I wish I could go back and feel those feelings for my son’s sake. Because that’s the only way anyone deserves to be received in this life.
It’s all fine is a story other people need to be true, and it is partly true, but it’s also not fine, in so many ways. My relationship with my parents is stunted because I’ve never recovered from this. I’m still struggling to develop and hold on to a sense of self-worth. And yes, my kids are loved and healthy and all right in many ways, as young adults. But when I see them struggle now, in whatever ways they’re not fine, I wonder if at least some of what they’re processing and living out is the legacy of this broken beginning.
Because I had children when I was so young, for a long time I’ve been a person my female friends have come to when they were trying to decide whether or not to have kids. I’ve been fielding the question more frequently these past few years, as more of my friends approach 40 and the decision becomes more urgent. I try to be judicious, neutral, careful with my answer — I say things like No one can answer that question for you and I have no idea what it’s like to not have kids, so I can’t really say. Another play, the wrong lines again. I’m supposed to say, Of course you should have kids; you’ll be missing out on life’s most important, joyful experiences if you don’t. Again I’m supposed to say, I can’t imagine life without my kids.
My careful answer is so legalistic, so unromantic, when the reality is that most people don’t regret having kids. Some people do, and it’s taboo to talk about that, so it’s probably at least a little more common than we would assume. But I feel something like an obligation to hedge — even if I can’t imagine life without my kids, even if they have made me who I am, the other narrative is so overpromoted, especially to women, that I feel a duty to throw a pebble on the other side of the scale. Maybe that instinct is perverse, but I think of it as asking for a world in which a woman who doesn’t have children is worth as much as a woman who does.
It’s not as if we can know what would have happened if I hadn’t had a baby when I did. Maybe my future would have imploded for some other reason. It’s not as if the world needed me to go to Yale, to get a master’s degree, to go on and become an academic. I probably had no more business going to graduate school at 19 than I did becoming a mother. And it would seem my heart was small if I’d argue that my career, that a teenager’s idealistic dream of a book and a fireplace, could have ever been worth more to me than my son.
But I have been doing the best parenting of my life over the past few years, as my children have been finishing high school and entering college. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have also, during those same years, finally begun to feel creatively and professionally fulfilled and successful. And if work is only an impoverished shorthand for self-realization, perhaps more important is that I am finally feeling as if I can focus on repairing myself — psychologically, emotionally, spiritually — because the kids are grown.
But why is it all set up like that? The message is so mixed. When I was a girl, the message was: It doesn’t matter that you’re female! You can be something other than a wife and mother. Go for it! But when biology and culture hijacked my prospects for something else, it turned out the message was: Actually, the most important thing you can be is a mother, and make sure you’re a good one.
I did eventually make my way back to a master’s degree, from a different university, but it’s no exaggeration to say it took 15 years to dig myself out, after having children so young. And it has taken me 20 years to begin to understand what happened, to be able to synthesize it, to grapple with the tragedy of the split that occurred, to realize that the reason it’s so painful is because everyone lost. Forget the nonexistence of the counterfactual because it actually does exist, at least as a concept: In that other life, I would have accepted the loss of control and turned myself fully toward my children. In real life, I turned toward them only halfway, so I could keep watch on what I’d lost, and what I still wanted. But that meant my children lost, too.
My son is a fantastic human. He’s vibrant, kind, funny, creative and so thoughtful. He makes an effort. His heart is in the right place. He has his dad’s ineffable magic, and he’s a very, very good friend. I admire him deeply, and there is no one I feel more tenderness toward. My bond with my daughter is no less strong, no less special, but I caused her to be created; the tenderness I feel toward my son is explicitly related to the knowledge that he was an earthquake in my life, and I’m glad he’s here.
I love my son, and I am not at peace with the sacrifice I was required to make. I look at him at 20, the age I was when he was born, and I love him so much I would never think of telling him he must have children now. There is no universe in which I could ever love someone I don’t know yet more than I love him; there is no universe in which I would ever pressure him to take on the responsibility of loving a child at this point in his life. It wouldn’t matter that we would all probably be fine in the end if he did become a parent now, or that if he didn’t, I would miss out on knowing a person who would probably be as wonderful as he is. When I had to have a baby before I was ready to, it felt as if my family was saying to me: Your time’s up. On to the next. Be the vessel, open your body and give us something more valuable than you. No one asked if I was ready to be a mother or a wife. No one asked if I was ready to disappear.
I know I should have thought of that before I — what? Before I didn’t use birth control? That’s not the right question; it goes further back than that. It’s not even a linear chain of events. It’s a complicated web of forces and consequences that no one person could be responsible for. I should have thought of that before I grew up in a state that preaches abstinence, instead of teaching any sex ed? Before I grew up in a family that didn’t teach me anything about sex either or make absolutely sure I understood that I too, as a human female, could become pregnant? Before I didn’t choose the culture I was raised in? Before I didn’t choose the patriarchal religion that warped my mind so much that I still, in my 40s, often feel a gaping void where a self should be? I should have known that if I didn’t use birth control, I would probably get pregnant? As if people are rational.
They aren’t, which is why they get swept up in the romance of the baby. Yes, it can be easy to love a child, if you’re ready, and you want to, and you have a lot of help and resources. And yes, some people are so good at loving a child even when they’re not ready and they didn’t mean to get pregnant and they don’t have much support. But to imagine that the innocence of the baby is enough, on its own, to always and completely turn an unready person into a different person who can overcome all challenging circumstances is taking a mighty risk with two people’s entire lives.
While I was pregnant with my son, the elders at my son’s father’s church wanted us to come down to the front of the sanctuary one Sunday morning after the service and confess that we had sinned by having premarital sex. Because I was not a member of that congregation, my son’s father asked if he could do it by himself. The elders said I needed to be part of it, even though that denomination does not typically allow women to speak to an assembly of both men and women (unless they need to be shamed). They said that if we refused to do this, the ladies of the church might not be willing to throw us a baby shower. I felt so angry and humiliated and diminished. When my daughter was about a year old, I realized I couldn’t bear for her to grow up there, in that community, believing she was inherently inferior to boys. As soon as I had that awakening, I was struck by the equally untenable possibility of allowing my son to grow up thinking girls were inherently inferior. I understood how damaging it would be for both of them, and I left religion immediately and without looking back, after trying my whole life to hold my faith at the center of my being in the world.
Around that time, I got a job as a secretary in the women’s-studies program at the local university. I just needed a job, but I picked women’s studies because I had a nascent interest in the subject, or at least I wasn’t afraid of it. Because of that job, I ended up helping create an abortion fund, with which I was intensely involved in some capacity for the next 10 years. And I am still writing and speaking about abortion whenever and however I can.
Being so directly involved in reproductive rights and justice activism as my kids were growing up has given me many natural opportunities to talk to them about abortion, though for the most part I have let them bring it up and have answered whatever questions they asked honestly, without trying to influence them too heavily. But I have been less sure when it comes to the general subject of my involvement in abortion rights activism — I mean I have been less willing to wade in there. I have been afraid to say to my son, Have you wondered why I do this work?
I don’t want to answer questions no one’s asking, but my fear has always been that it hangs between us, this idea that working for access to abortion is so important to me because it’s exactly what I didn’t have when I got pregnant with him — my fear is that it seems in some way as though I’m trying to make sure that anyone who faces the situation I did can choose a different outcome. Can choose for their child to not exist.
But it’s not about the yes/no of a child’s existence; it’s about what kind of life the child will have, and what kind of life the family will have together. I do this work because, in light of who my children are, and how deeply I love them, I understand and celebrate the importance of wanting to give your children the best parent they could possibly have. When I help someone get an abortion, or even help someone think about abortion in a new way, I’m going back, choosing an alternate future and affirming the worth of that concept itself: It does make a difference to wait, to grow, to mature, to decide.
I had two abortions after my children were born, and I don’t regret those abortions or think about who those people would have been. I also realize that if I had continued those pregnancies, I would have loved those people. But my life would have been harder and I would have lost more of myself, because people don’t have unlimited resilience. If I imagine the counterfactual, I can say I have strong and loving relationships with both of my children now in large part because I didn’t have those other children.
Of course I’ve agonized about publishing this essay, because I don’t want to hurt my son. But I wrote it because I want to get at the falsity of that very correlation: It was traumatic for me to become a mother when I did, and I want to be able to acknowledge that openly, without that acknowledgment’s operating as some kind of hex on my son’s life. Our reductive and linear frameworks around abortion, and our very understanding of what it is, force a zero-sum choice between the idea that it’s hard to become a parent if you don’t want to and the idea that a child is an absolute good. We insist that if a child is an absolute good, then becoming a parent must also be, by retroactive inference, always and only an absolute good. I want to report from the other side of a decision many people make and say: Yes, it can be true that you will love the child if you don’t have the abortion. It’s also true that whatever you thought would be so hard about having that child, whatever made you consider not having a child at that point in your life, may be exactly as hard as you thought it would be. As undesirable, as challenging, as painful as you feared.
It has been so hard to decide to say these things, but I have to stand up for my 19-year-old self. I didn’t abort the pregnancy I didn’t plan, but I did have to abort the life I imagined for myself. It cost me a lot, to carry an unintended pregnancy to term, to have the baby, to live the different life. All I’ve been able to do is try to make sure I paid more of the cost than my son did, but he deserved better than that.
There’s a spectacular poem in “Cries of the Spirit” that I’m sure I was scared of when I was 19. If I read it in my preparation for that class, I would have turned the page quickly. It’s Gwendolyn Brooks’s most beautiful, most unflinching, most truth-telling “the mother”:
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
If I could go back to my young self, be with her in that bathroom stall in the Biblical Studies Building, it’s not as though I would tell her to have an abortion. I would never give my son back, for anything, but I would certainly give him a different mother. The young woman standing there was not ready to be a parent, and didn’t want to be a parent. There’s not much I could offer her. I wouldn’t give her the harsh version — I’m sorry, did you think you would get to live the life you wanted to, whatever life you imagined? That’s not what life is — but what could I say to her instead?
Yes, your son is coming, and having a baby now will break your life. The breaking of your life will also give your life back to you, in many ways, but you won’t really understand that for 20 years. You won’t get the guidance and support you need right now, but when your kids are this age that you are, facing the beginning of adulthood, they will trust you and listen to you, so maybe they will never have to feel this pain. This is your life, and these are the words of a woman.
Merritt Tierce is a writer from Texas and the author of the novel “Love Me Back.” She wrote for the last two seasons of “Orange Is the New Black,” and received a 2019 Whiting Award in fiction.