I was 31 the last time I got pregnant. And after a lifetime of certainty that I did not want to be a mother, I felt an unexpected thing, cutting through the panic and the nausea: happiness.
Every morning since an intuitive nudge sent me to fetch a pregnancy test from the drugstore, my breasts oddly sore and my stomach in a low-level but constant state of turbulence, I would wake up with the thought: “I can do this. I want to do this.”
By the time I fell asleep at night, I was sure there was no possible way I could do this, this being raising a child on my own.
And it would have to be on my own. The man involved, despite saying he was excited and “down for this”, he was also hiding a romantic partner behind his back. When you’re free spirited and wealthy enough to have multiple homes, it turns out you can hide a wife in one of them or move her around like some gaslighting shell game and your other girlfriends – multiple – will be none the wiser. So he wasn’t going to be much help.
I was, and remain to this day, in a state of emotional and physical estrangement from my family, because of dynamics too complicated to share here. And as I had recently gotten rid of all of my belongings to move to another continent, my social circle was mostly acquaintances. There was no guarantee I would even be allowed to stay where I had moved. I had not yet secured my long-term visa, and immigration departments are often suspicious, if not downright hostile hostile to pregnant women, even if there is no birthright citizenship policy in place.
It was just going to be me and this boy. I was sure he was a boy: he had been appearing in my dreams. He had extraordinarily long legs, like a hare. He had my blue eyes. There was something romantic about the situation, just me and this kid against the world and against all of the odds. I had to travel a lot for work, but I thought I could just strap him onto my body and take him with me. I started fantasizing about our life together. It would be unpredictable, sure, but exciting. I couldn’t provide him the idyllic white picket fence, but I could show him the world.
But then I stopped thinking about what this life would be like for me and started to think about what this life would be like for him. I read about attachment theory and how having only one sometimes emotionally erratic caretaker in early life could lead to issues later on. I read about the importance of stability in early childhood. I remembered that while I didn’t mind going hungry every once in a while when there are gaps between payments for my freelance work, it would be unacceptable for a child to lack food. I considered my inability to find stable work.
Then there was my anxiety disorder and my bouts of suicidal ideation. If I had been able to be a pillar of strength in a swirl of chaos for the sake of my son, maybe I could have pulled it off. But as I assessed my son’s future, there was more deprivation than abundance.
It was the child, my child, I was trying to protect by ushering it out of this world
I decided to terminate. It was the child, my child, I was trying to protect by ushering it out of this world. His was likely to be a life of hardship, and that was even in a best case scenario – if there had been complications during the pregnancy or birth, if my economic situation worsened, if there was an accident or illness, if, if, if … I cared too much about this child to bring him into a situation where not just only flourishing was unlikely, but the odds of survival were a bit off.
As I shared my story with friends, they came back with stories of their own. A friend with two sons had found herself pregnant almost immediately after she stopped breastfeeding her second child. Her husband had recently returned to school to finish a degree, and money was scarce. They lived in a city with a catastrophic schooling system, so they had decided to home school. Another child would bind them to the home for a longer time.
She needed to explain why she could not mother another child. I understood she wasn’t trying to fend off my judgment of them. She was dealing with the judgment she was dumping on herself. The same judgment I heaped on my own self for being unable to continue my pregnancy: I’m a failure for not making more money. I’m a whiny complainer for being unable to not have depression and anxiety. I’m a terror, I’m worthless, I can’t even do this one thing that I am biologically programmed – and seemingly eager, as I got pregnant while on the pill – to do.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about declining birth rates, the lowest in more than 30 years, across all race and class divides. We’re told millennial women “choosing” not to have children will be bad for the economy, it will be bad for the aging baby boomer population, it will be bad for the real estate market. According to Forbes, it’s bad for older women desperate for grandchildren. But are people actually deciding to delay families, or are they finding themselves in unstable situations where the addition of a child seems unworkable? The reasons given when op-ed writers bother to ask millennials – too much debt, not enough financial security, a romantic market that is as rocky as the job market – point more to the latter.
All of those reasons sounded familiar as I remembered from my time spent as a counselor for a fund that helped people in need pay for an abortion. The conversation started with money, why they couldn’t afford both a $650 procedure – the starting price for an abortion in most states – and rent that month. Or food for their children. Or gas for their car to get to their jobs. But they wanted to talk, needed to talk, about why they couldn’t be mothers right now.
There was never enough money, never enough time. One of my colleagues took a call from a woman whose husband had just died. She wanted, so much, to have his child, but she lived in a remote, rural area and her pregnancy was very high risk. If something happened, both of them could have died. The anguish in her voice, my colleague said, haunted her, as the woman talked about finding herself stuck between two impossible choices.
They weren’t all ambivalent. Most were certain they did not want to give birth right now. Some treated the situation as an inconvenience at most. But many of the people I talked to who were ambivalent blamed themselves. For not making more money, for not planning better, for not being married by now, for living in a violent relationship, for not finding enough time or money somehow to go in for an IUD or Depo-Provera instead of trusting the condom or their partner to pull out in time. Many of them expressed the ambivalence I would experience more than a decade later. They loved this little being. They loved it so much they could not bring it into the life they were currently living.
They weren’t the only ones blaming them. Many, when they did find the funds to go through the procedure, would face protesters at the clinic, yelling at them for being bad mothers, for being selfish, for going against the will of God. But what these pregnant people, these protesters, and even me myself in my darkest moments after the termination, would miss is that ambivalent abortions are not brought about by the failure of an individual.
They are brought about by the failure of society.
Every pregnancy is a crisis. Like all crises, they are best managed as a team and not on your own
Every pregnancy is a crisis. Like all crises, they are best managed as a team and not on your own. From the moment of conception, a pregnant person’s body is no longer the same, no matter what romantic fantasy we tell about the miracle of it all. Pregnancy changes skeletons. It diverts nutrients and other biological resources from host to guest. It changes the pregnant person’s blood, filling it with foreign fetal DNA. Pregnancy can cause hypertension, fluctuations in hormones controlled by the thyroid, it can cause teeth to fall out, it can bring on diabetes.
Meanwhile, adequate healthcare is becoming more and more difficult to access in the US. Even if you are lucky enough to have full-time work with benefits, employer-sponsored health insurance programs are increasingly unaffordable. Even if you do have health insurance with comprehensive maternity coverage, a complicated birth – or a stray out-of-network on-call doctor – can lead to surprise hospital bills.And then you have preventable postpartum deaths: 700 to 900 women die every year, while 65,000 women nearly die – with low-income, black and rural people the most vulnerable.
If everyone makes it into the world safely, things that used to be taken for granted are now scarce resources one might fight and compete for. Vitally important systems like decent childcare, education and healthcare has disappeared, leaving parents to choose between inadequate choices or sacrificing untold amounts of money, time and energy to compete the limited amount of something better.
In almost every area of life, people are undermined and exploited, then made to feel that their inability to thrive is somehow their fault. It’s not unreasonable for someone living under such conditions to decide they simply can’t provide for a new life.
When resources both internal and external are scarce, as Ginette Paris writes in The Psychology of Abortion, abortion “is an expression of maternal responsibility and not a failure of maternal love”.
When I think about what would have helped my friends be able to continue their pregnancies, I don’t think, “Well, if only they had been better people or been more caring.” I think, if only my friend with two children we lived in a city with a thriving educational system, good subsidized healthcare, and a university system that didn’t toss us into student loan debt.
I can even be generous with myself now and recontextualise my abortion: would things have been different if I had access to quality mental health services, a stable immigration status, cheap childcare? I believe so.
Part of the way I managed my grief after the termination was to tell myself it wasn’t too late. I was still young, I could still have a child. One day, when circumstances were better. One day, when I had enough not only for myself but to share with others. One day, when scarcity had become abundance and I found myself able to provide a life, a good life, for someone else.
That was 10 years ago. That day has still not come.