“Any pregnancies?” The ultrasound tech asked with her blue-scrubbed back to me. She’d had her back to me for five minutes, asking me benign health questions from her computer before my benign ultrasound checking on a benign ovarian cyst.
“How many live births?”
She turned to face me for the first time, her glasses catching the glare of the ultrasound screen. I couldn’t see her eyes and I didn’t even try to find them.
“Mhm,” I lied through my lips. On one hand, it was easy, how quickly the sound left my head. On the other, my mouth was closed the whole time. I hadn’t said a word.
For weeks after, I obsessed over this interaction. With every mundane task — cleaning out the fridge, putting on my socks, making the bed — I went back into that ultrasound room, nude from the waist down, laying on the papered table, remembering the trajectory of the exchange. How did it end that way? How it began so formally with a question, literally, from a form she had to fill out on the computer. And then the closed question: “Miscarriage?” Was it an assumption, or a hope? The turn of her body. My avoidance of it and the swift, easy lie I told.
She told me what she wanted to hear:
And I responded. Yes, ma’am, I will give you miscarriage. It is abortion, two of them. But I will give you is miscarriage because that’s what you probably want and sometimes it is easier to give people the story they desire.
These days, having one abortion is basically acceptable. Perhaps it was a mistake, perhaps you were really hurt. You get one good reason for having one abortion. But having two takes a different kind of person. The narrative shifts wildly and exponentially.
I vividly remember getting my first period. It happened in May, the day before my twelfth birthday. I was in the downstairs half-bath, peeing. The sun was flooding in through the venetian blinds. I wiped. There was a little bit of brown blood. There it was. They weren’t lying. It really was going to happen to me and it did. Now I was a different kind of girl.
Up to this point, I’d gotten breasts (sort of) and that was it. My mom had given me a copy of the American Girl anthology, The Care and Keeping of You, guidebook to puberty which included cartoon girls with u-shaped smiles standing topless in mirrors, each of them at one of five stages of breast development. It showed, full frontal, how to insert a tampon. It told me that just because my waistline was disappearing in puberty, not to worry. It doesn’t mean you’re getting fat. I read it cover to cover multiple times, obsessed with how I compared to the drawings and thrilled everything that was happening to me was not only predictable, but able to be rendered in a cartoon. Knowing I wasn’t much more than a colored-in shape had a blissful, almost sedative quality. The book showed me what kind of person I was going to become, physically, and that because of this transformation, other people would know something about me, too.
As a person who has done both, I can say that having a second abortion is kind of like going through puberty. The narrative about you changes. There are certain things about you which become true if people ever knew them. You are the kind of person who either wears pads or tampons, underwire or sports bras. Shaving your legs is a statement of purpose. Though I can’t remember lying to anyone about what was going on with my body, I can imagine wanting to protect myself from another kid’s idea of the girl who wears bras, has her period, chooses pads over tampons, but doesn’t shave her legs. Who is she? Maybe you didn’t want it, puberty. Or the abortion. But here you are, going through it. Changing.
When I was twenty-five, six years before the ultrasound lie and five years before my second abortion, I started spotting. I was so relieved to have started my period. My boobs had been hurting for a week and I was tired and it was just time to get this show on the road, like it had every month of my life for the past fourteen years. But then, I spotted for an entire week, brown blooded underwear piling up in my laundry basket, a pile of denial.
I remembered that night with my newish boyfriend, Josh, in my childhood bedroom in my parent’s Michigan summer house, the twin bed and cherry printed sheets. The terrible overhead can light. The being quiet because my parents were in the same house. The palpable tension created by secrecy which was both sexy and completely unsexy. Finally, my breathy, confident request he not pull out. Us tiptoeing to the bathroom, then back into the room to sleep in our own individual cherry-printed twin beds. The deep marrow-level misunderstanding of the mechanics of conception.
I knew. I knew even before buying the test. Then I took it in my basement apartment bathroom in D.C., Josh waiting on the queen bed, for the result I already knew. The more I thought about it, the more I saw the narrative clearly: shockingly unprotected sex about a month ago. My breasts, unwelcome water balloons. The persistent brown blood, trying to tell me something. The knowing didn’t stop me from blubbering fat tears on the phone to my best friend, Haley, asking her, what am I going to do, her saying we will get through this, I am here for you, which she meant. Her also meaning oh fuck.
I knew I was pregnant, and I knew I was going to get an abortion. When I finally sat on the bed and told Josh, holding on to the white stick in my hand, he said, I support you either way. And through the tears which hadn’t stopped, almost yelling, I said, “Of course I’m getting an abortion! I can’t have a BABY!”
When I say I knew I was going to have an abortion, I mean the thought of becoming a parent didn’t linger at all. A car pulls out in front of you, you slam on the breaks. You touch your hand to a hot pan, you pull it away. You get pregnant by accident at twenty-five while you’re newly dating a man long distance whileliving in a basement in a city you’ve never liked just because all of your best friends, your favorite women, still live there and you’d like a little more time to figure out your dreams, to become some sort of woman, some sort of woman at all, you get an abortion. These brief intersections of fear and decisiveness are how we survive sometimes.
I was terrified of the procedure because I was terrified of everything. I was terrified of being sedated, of all drugs, practically. I never liked feeling out of control, altered, like my body wasn’t my own and especially now, now that I’d been inhabited. I didn’t want to give it up to a drug, too. I was terrified of the pain of abortion and of the deep, corporeal changes of pregnancy, too. More than anything, though, I was terrified of being a mother because I knew the kind of mother I would be. I would be consumed by it, the intensity of daily decision-making and being good, doing the right thing. I, intellectually, took parenting very seriously and didn’t yet have the skills to manage my highly sensitive and anxiety prone tendencies. I knew the pulp that would remain of my selfhood after handing it over to another life so completely would be pathetic. She was not someone I wanted to be. She certainly was not someone I wanted to become on accident at twenty-five.
I never had any qualms, morally, about having an abortion. I grew up in the Bible Belt, but in a liberal bubble my parents and, ironically, church provided for me. I didn’t learn that people thought being gay was a sin until I was twelve when our Lutheran church congregation split up over language on a new brochure stating we accepted people “black and white, young and old, gay and straight…” It was the gay part that got people all worked up.
There are two kinds of Lutherans: Missouri Synod, the conservative sect, and ELCA, the more liberal group. My parents both defected from their original faiths, my dad a Missouri Synod Lutheran from Chicago, my mom a Southern Baptist from Georgia, and had raised us in an ELCA Lutheran church in South Central Kentucky. But even within the church there were the older congregants conservative) and the young/younger old congregants (liberal) and that’s where the split happened. I can’t begin to pretend I understand church politics and bureaucracy but all I know is when I was around ten, Pastor Ken, who looked like a mustache-less Ned Flanders, was sent to a new church in another state and Pastor Heather, a short, fat, cherub-faced woman with spiky bleach-blonde hair, arrived and told everyone we’d be openly accepting gay and trans people. After that, half the congregation left and we went from having services in our own building to holding them, all twenty-five of us, in the public theater with the set of Dracula shoved into a well-lit corner.
My mother tried to shield me from the Pandora’s box of bigotry she knew our Southern community was teeming with because she had grown up in an even hotter vat of it in the segregated South. She didn’t know any Black people, as a child, who didn’t work for her family ironing or picking pecans from their trees. In high school, her school was integrated the same year her parents were putting on minstrel shows at church. Despite or because of this, she emerged an open-hearted, compassionate, anti-racist progressive who moved to Wisconsin with her first husband and then found herself, twenty years later, back in the South with her second husband and three children, trying to protect us from the ignorance and hate she knew intimately, all because he’d accepted a job offer there.
“Don’t tell your friends about the gay people at church thing.” My mom practically pleaded.
Of course, I did and all I remember is my best friend laughing at me through the portable phone saying, “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” Like, “what fucking planet are you from, loser?” And me thinking, “Wait, what fucking planet am I on?”
I rejected all that rhetoric, and throughout my school career, I found myself in various principal’s offices dozens of times, complaining about what I saw as the crushing ignorance of my teachers’ and peers’ opinions. After the hanging chad debacle of the 2000 presidential election, my seventh grade Social Studies teacher had a picture of a crying baby with a ring around it that said “The Official Seal of the Democratic Party” thumbtacked outside her door. My parents were Democrats and I guessed I was too. Even though I didn’t know I was living in a Red State, I knew I was a minority, so I pranced in my Jordache jeans to the principal’s office and made my complaints known. In tenth grade, a substitute teacher and 80 percent of the students argued the merits of displaying the Confederate Flag. In eleventh grade, a classmate of mine proclaimed the 2004 tsunami was an act of God because it had hit people who had not accepted Christ. The same year, my principal didn’t allow my best friend’s sister, who was elected to homecoming court, to wear a suit instead of a dress to the occasion. I wasn’t a rabble rouser, generally, but my commitment to justice was turned all the way up and my tolerance for people being wrong and hateful was low, so Ifound myself marching to the principal’s office often. . Of course, this was the same community that believed abortion was a sin, and the person receiving one, a sinner. So, no, I wasn’t going to feel morally bankrupt for having an abortion because feeling bad, even a whiff of angst, was a surrender to a narrative I had abandoned six years earlier when I left Kentucky for good.
After I stopped crying, Josh and I drove to get a pastry and a coffee. I parked and looked up, noticing I had pulled into a space for “Expectant Mothers or Customers with Children.” I smiled a thick ironic smile and found another spot. He went back to Pennsylvania the next day.
I was debilitatingly sick for the next week. I puked here and there, but mostly felt like I could at any moment, every moment. I felt hollow. My best friend brought me food once, but I couldn’t eat. Instead, I just slept and when I was awake, I binge-watched The Sopranos on my laptop in bed. It sustained me, these other lives. When I wasn’t sleeping or viewing, I was present with the weight of carrying about forty pounds of angst around with me, dreading what medical horrors awaited me.
Josh offered to drive up to accompany me if I needed him. I said no because I didn’t. He sent a money order for $500. One week later, with my two best friends, I arrived at Planned Parenthood in downtown D.C. With the help of two gentle neon vested escorts, I whizzed past bad-breathed Christian faces who asked me, almost lovingly, “Why are you killing your baby?”
In the waiting room, there was the young woman wearing DC skate shoes, shaking them nervously next to me. She had chosen yellow smiley face pajama pants as her “comfortable attire.” I didn’t know if the man she was with was her father or her boyfriend.
In the second waiting room, where you go after your ultrasound, was an Ethiopian woman who offered me a stick of DoubleMint gum. I gave her my ear as she spoke about Sweden, where she lived before. Abortion in Sweden, happiness in Sweden. “America. Everyone is unhappy.” She smiled at me when I left.
There was the young girl who chose to put baby powder lotion on her feet. Her mother had seven abortions, she said into her phone. For the past week, I had become a prisoner to my sense of smell. I had to switch seats.
All of them here taking control, taking command. Someone had to.
I chose not to have an IV. I wanted my body to be there. I wanted to be there.
I chose the lowest dose of all the medications. I wanted to be in control. I wanted to feel my body there.
I felt nothing. I felt the same.
I threw up for the last time.
I felt better.
A nurse offered me graham crackers or saltines. Ginger ale or water? Which one sounds better to you?
I refused valium, I refused ibuprofen. This is my body, the one I want to continue to inhabit, to be at the helm of, the one I want to feel. I accepted crackers and ginger ale. This is my body. This is my life.
In that moment, I want my mother more than anything. The nurse is a mother, the way she holds my hand, rubs the inside of my arm the way mine once held my feet, her thumb making little ripples in my skin. Does she love me, too? I do not want to be a mother now, so I do something. The procedure is a blip. Blowing out a candle. Whoooo. The doctor talks about her book club in Georgetown. I can feel her velvet couch on the backs of my calves, mahogany on my fingertips, crisp white china to kiss. Long, buttery opinions about Dostoevsky float off my tongue. This is why I am here. I want that. I don’t want to simply daydream.
The nurse let go of my white-knuckled hand as I sat up.
A week later, I told my mom while I was driving to Pennsylvania to visit my boyfriend. She thought I’d just had a stomach bug. I told her with as much brevity as I could muster that I’d had an abortion. I let it sit in the air because I had no idea what to do with this information. I had no idea what she was going to do with this information, the woman I’ve loved the most in my life, who has scarcely acknowledged the existence of sex, the existence of bodies, the existence of her own body, most of all.
It didn’t sit long.
“You know, I had one.”
She told me about the 1970s and a trip from Georgia to New York where it was legal. A secret. And then in this phone call, in this car ride, it opened a deep well of acceptance for me. She offered a respect for my body, one she once carried in her own, and then held for many years after. And now, this had built a bridge between us, this many miles and years away from her own.
My first abortion was a swift and easy choice. The second one was not. When I found out I was pregnant again, I wasn’t opposed to the idea of becoming a mother, actually. I was thirty-one, getting married to my fiancé in three months, owned a house, had a job. Even though none of my close friends had children or were even talking about the prospect, it felt like something which could happen. And because we were in our thirties, getting married, with a home, stable income and advanced degrees, I considered how we’d theoretically keep the pregnancy. Why not accept the offering of motherhood like wine at the altar?
When I first told Josh I was pregnant, I couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity. Here we were again, together: on the cusp of parenthood. He is in the bed, I am on the bathroom a few steps away, holding a white pregnancy test that says “pregnant” in a font I know the makers agonized over, ensuring it communicated nothing but fact. But this time it is a bathroom and a bedroom that we own just outside Pittsburgh. Here we are.
I have been given the opportunity to glide seamlessly onto the stage into Act Two: Motherhood, where the audience was expecting me. No one would feel disappointment or pity for my presence there. Many would clap, in fact. And I could convincingly play the role of Unplanned but Graceful Mother, my deep ambivalence about it understandable, even romantic, given its surprise. I’d rub the hem of my skirt between my fingertips, my knees kissing each other. “Oh, me? Again? I’ll give it a whirl, I guess.” It is the part where women are given the most freedom to be complicated, when they’re holding the short stick they’ve drawn and take it with a smile and a single, translucent tear.
Very quickly, I was weeping, remembering the wedding and the months of planning we still had to do and how I’d felt during the last pregnancy: like a soulless, nauseous puke skeleton.
“This is a really bad time,” Josh said, as we sat facing each other on the bed. He was looking straight into my eyes, but his gaze was slowly drifting past me, somewhere else.
“I know.” It was true. I shivered with a bolt of anxiety.
He added, “The gallbladder thing, Oktoberfest, the wedding. You’re going to Maine.”
Yes, all true. Fuck. Maine, a girls’ trip I’d had planned for two months. He was facing possible gallbladder surgery and, in a month, a huge yearly party at his tattoo shop where dozens of tattooers from all over the world come to work in the middle of our small town’s Oktoberfest celebration. The wedding. He also could have kept going: “…the faucet is still leaking, I’ve been really constipated lately, I have yet to repair my relationship with my family, your pancakes always suck, we’ve never been to New Zealand…” And I would have nodded and said, “You’re right, this is impossible.” What I did do was walk the twenty steps back to the bathroom where I had taken the pregnancy test, sat on the toilet, and wept even harder into my two small palms, a cinematic crying style I have never repeated before or since which felt like the only way to hold myself at the time.
Abortion no longer scared me. Being a woman who had two of them did. Being a woman who had fewer excuses not to parent this time did. I was, now, a different kind of woman: careless, flippant, irresponsible, indecisive, immature, incapable of hardship, of taking what you get and not getting upset. Worst of all: selfish. I was more concerned about a wedding than a baby. I was choosing a wedding over a life. I was teetering dangerously on the edge of that mucky eternal pond of regret.
So, I thought about it.
I cancelled the girls’ trip to Maine I was leaving for in two days, partially because of not having decided what to do and needing Ativan to fly. I had asked the pharmacist if it was safe for pregnancy and her response of “probably” was not reassuring. And another part of me cancelled because I couldn’t imagine having a good time eating ice cream cones at the beach on the cusp of being what felt to me like a woman with no internal compass who used abortion like birth control or someone’s mother. I loved my friends, Joani and Haley, probably more than myself, and couldn’t imagine bogarting their trip with my drama. Just one day earlier I had called the same pharmacy to make sure the same Ativan would still work after I accidentally left it in the August heat in my car while I picked flowers at a farm with some friends for two hours. If I couldn’t fly unmedicated, what business did I have being someone’s mother? Was I just a baby with an Ativan pacifier myself?
There was also the problem of writing. I hadn’t done it yet, not really, not in the way it deserved to be done. I had kept my foot on its back for years, afraid of how it might consume me or what it might reveal to me. I’d let it up for air every once in a while, write a little poetry zine or submit an essay and then I’d stomp it back down to get deeply into yoga for three and a half months or get a Master’s degree. If I said, “I am a writer,” then I’d have to accept that I might not be good at it and kill the absolute perfection that was my own potentiality. The year before, I’d decided I was tired of this secret, neglectful love affair. I would write for real this time. I’d let it breathe. And I had. I took classes and workshops and boot camps, inhaled other peoples’ perfect sentences, planned to attend a writing conference in a few weeks, and I’d had my eye on a year-long essay collection class which began two months after the wedding. If I kept the pregnancy and was accepted into the class, I’d give birth three months into it. I likely wouldn’t be able to complete it. Back down under my heavy gripping toes the writing would go.
Perhaps, I considered, the worst, most selfish woman was not the one who got an abortion to avoid the morning sickness which would potentially ruin her wedding, but the one who got an abortion to write a book she had not even begun writing. All these thoughts bubbling up reminded me a woman’s inborn potential is not enough in this world. To simply be or to simply want to be is not enough. The quality and timbre of who, or even more importantly, what she wants to be is on trial and if not a mother, well, it better be good. When I was twenty-five, unmarried, living in a basement, I was fresh and full of utility still and I had “used” it “well” in the years after: I traveled to Iceland and Finland, I got a master’s degree, bought a house, had two meaningful jobs, adopted two cats, got engaged. Okay, so now what do you got? You are trading one potential life for another? Make it count.
Over the next week, the nausea began to slip over me, to taunt me. I ate nothing but bedside nibbles of toast. It muffled my personality, my movement. The quality of all the lights and smells in my house, I took them personally. The wedding, the writing, the better parts of myself saw me whittling away and said, you’re kidding right? I knew I could not continue.
Two weeks later, after having vomited all morning, I threw up bile on the way to the clinic in Pittsburgh. The plastic bag I was puking in ended up having a hole in it and driving through a tunnel, bright green rivers formed in the grooves of Josh’s rubber floor mat, splattering on my orange linen culottes and my powder blue Crocs.
The young, tan security guard who was dressed like a college kid asked us how we were as he waved a metal detector wand over us. Holding on to Josh’s arm, melting, I told him I’d been better. He told me every day we wake up is a blessing, and buzzed us through.
We waited for a while in a small waiting room. Josh read a book. I leaned on him, obsessing about why the only other couple there looked like they were on their honeymoon, golden and giggly, kissing under the fluorescence. I thought it must be their first time. I am so goddamn sick, I thought.
There are many steps to getting an abortion once you arrive. There is a urine pregnancy test, a finger prick blood test, payment, and a second waiting room where a friend of another patient told me she liked my pants because they reminded her of jail pants and I said “thanks, I threw up on them on the way here.” Then a mandatory counseling session where they have to ask you if you want to see a series of photos showing fetuses at different stages of development, to which I responded, “No, that’s bullshit, that’s insane”, and the counselor agreed with me. There’s a form your partner has to fill out if you want them to be in the room, on which they ask what the partner thinks about abortion, on which Josh wrote “as a man, it’s not my place to have an opinion,” as I took a picture of his answer with my phone. There’s a trip to the bathroom to put a pad in your underwear, then an ultrasound only Josh could see, where I mouthed, “Who does it look like,” and he smiled and I laughed, something I actually had not done in a week. It’s the same room where I met the doctor, a small Indian woman with a shaved head, the most compassionate person I’d ever met, whose eyes cradled mine, who gave me a pill for nausea, when immediately after letting it dissolve from chalk under my tongue, I, nude from the waist down, but wearing my Crocs slides, asked her if I could have a moment alone, and once she left, squatted and puked into a trash can between a pair of stirrups. It’s the roomwhere she came back and I told her “this is who I am now” and she said Jesus, in a concerned way. It’s the room where I had a completely unmedicated abortion that felt like someone punching me in the uterus over and over again while I held Josh’s eyes and white-knuckled his hands and the doctor told me you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe, twenty seconds you’re safe, where Josh told me I would be able to eat soon, where I wept big little whimpers of relief when it was over, the only sound in the room, them all letting me weep, them all understanding why. Finally, there was the recovery room with a hot water bottle and crackers, where I felt like myself again and hoped the two other young women in there with me did, too.
A week before, when I called my mom and told her I was pregnant, she said “Oohhhh” like a woman waiting to see what’s inside her last Christmas gift, pretty sure it’s exactly what she asked for. I cut her off and said “Well,” and she responded with a shorter, heavier, “Oh.” I told her everything, about the timing and the sickness. I probably cried, afraid she was disappointed at still not getting a grandchild from me, afraid I was somehow taking something from her. But she took it all and held it and surprised me again. She told me she wanted me to live the life I wanted, she had no expectations for me, she supported me.
She said, “You remember, I had one.”
I said, “I remember.”
She said, “I had another one.”
She told me that when I was a baby, just a few months old, she got pregnant again and had an abortion. Her second abortion. She couldn’t imagine having four children and my dad agreed. Josh and I joked, wondering how high her number of abortions might get if I kept getting them. How much would she tell me?
“I think that’s my last secret.” I heard her smile in my ear.
The woman I’d known and loved my whole life. She was a woman who’d had two abortions. The whole time, she was.
Editor’s note: This essay was written and accepted before the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022, thus it does not address that case.