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How — and Why — I Told My Teenage Daughter About My Abortion

From the Archives: In this column from 2004, the author revisits the most difficult conversation she ever had with her daughter.


mother daughter abortion talk

Author’s note, June 29th, 2022: When I heard that the U.S. Supreme Court had overruled Roe v. Wade last week, I was swamped with emotion — sorrow, fear, righteous anger. Most of all, though, I felt unbearably tired — as though I’d been fighting the fight for reproductive rights my entire life. That’s probably because I have. Back in 2004, I wrote this column on the discussions I was having with my then-teenage daughter Marcy about sex and love and abortion. Today, Marcy’s the mother of two daughters of her own. I wonder what sorts of conversations she’ll have with them about abortion one day. — S.H.

“Ephram has got Madison pregnant.”

I’ve just hauled the laundry basket into the living room to do some sorting when my daughter Marcy gives me the news. She’s watching Everwood, one of the teen TV dramas she tunes in to on a regular basis.

“Which one’s Madison?” I ask. All these smooth-skinned, hard-bellied actresses look alike to me.

“The babysitter.”

“What’s she going to do?”

“Ephram’s dad offered to pay all her expenses if she got out of Everwood and didn’t tell Ephram about the baby.”

“Did she take him up on it?”

“Don’t know yet.”

“Just once,” I say, “I wish one of these girls who get pregnant on TV would wind up having an abortion. But no. It’s always got to be, ‘We’re all behind you, honey. We’ll help you out just so long as you do the right thing.’ Why is the right thing always the same thing?”

Marcy is rolling her eyes. She’s heard this speech before. “Why do you always assume it won’t work out if she doesn’t have an abortion?” she counters.

“Because they’re — what? Sixteen? Eighteen? That’s too young to have a baby. It’s too young to even have any idea what having a baby is like.”

“But if they’re really in love — ”

“Oh, please. Remember when you went out with Ernest?” I snap. “Remember how embarrassed you are by that now? You don’t know what love is when you’re in high school. It’s stupid, just stupid, to trust your feelings about anybody at that age.”

My vehemence ticks my daughter off. “So it’s better to just kill the baby,” she sneers.

“It’s not a baby. It’s a fetus.”

She looks at me, levelly. “I can’t believe you. You’re the most moral person I know, and you’re talking about murdering a baby.”

I take a deep breath. The TV blares in the background. Marcy’s eyes haven’t left my face. This isn’t the first time we’ve had this discussion. It always ends the same way: with her waiting and me breathing.

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” I say.

The kids my husband and I have raised are good Democrats. They’ve heard enough around the dinner table to be able to argue against tax cuts for the wealthy, the war in Iraq, privatizing Social Security, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Abortion stymies Marcy, though. When a teacher assigned her to argue the “pro” side in a debate last year, she complained tearfully: “There’s nothing pro to say!” She’s gaga for babies; she smiles whenever she sees them, coos over them, aches to hold them. For most of human history, she’d be, at 15, already a mother one or two times over. Her baby-love is instinctual. Evolution works against me in this.

Still, I’ve done my best to explain to her why the issue of abortion is so important. “It’s all about choice,” I’ve said. “I’d never, ever force anyone to have an abortion. But President Bush and his gang are dying to force you not to have one. That’s the difference right there.” I’ve pointed out how the rich white men who run this country wish to hell we were still stuck back in 1950 and don’t want women to be educated or intelligent or empowered in any way. Look at the ones they idolize, I’ve said: dewy-eyed Nancy Reagan. Prim Laura Bush. Then look at who they vilify: Hillary Clinton. Teresa Heinz Kerry. Women with careers, not just jobs. Women willing to stand toe-to-toe with men. Women who are figures in the world absent their husbands’ sheen.

I’ve argued that outlawing abortion would be forcing women to don a biological burqa, dooming them to give birth to unloved, unwanted babies, the offspring of rape and incest and, yes, just lousy planning, even if it costs them their health or their lives.

I haven’t made much headway.

Maybe that’s because my arguments always falter against bedrock. “What is the difference, then, between a fetus and a baby?” Marcy demands.

I look at her, levelly. “I’m not sure there is a difference. But that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t have the right to decide that for themselves.”

“Jared has got Rebecca pregnant,’’ says Marcy.

It’s not TV this time; it’s real life: kids she knows, kids her age. I catch my breath. “What are they going to do?”

She shrugs. “They’re happy about it. Well, sort of. She’s already had a baby shower. Their families are supporting them.”

What a waste, I think, picturing smart, hard-working Rebecca and handsome Jared. (Those aren’t their real names.)

“I know what you think they should do,” Marcy grouses. “I know what you always think they should do.”

“It’s the end to so many dreams,” I try to explain.

“Or the beginning! They could stay together. They could wind up being happy together.”

How brutal should I be? “Are they going to get married?” I ask.

Marcy’s puzzled. “I don’t think so. Why would they?”

It’s my turn to be ticked off. “Because they have a kid, maybe? So their baby has a father and a mother? The girl’s parents used to make him marry her, you know. That’s what’s wrong with society nowadays. Nobody is ashamed of anything anymore. There isn’t any shame.”

“What do you want?” my daughter asks, her voice clear, like a bell. “For Jared and Rebecca’s parents to be ashamed of them instead of happy for them? How would that help now? What good would it do?”

“It could help keep other lunkheads from getting it on — or maybe convince them to put on a condom!”

She glances at me sidelong. “Shame never did anybody any good,” she says emphatically.

I breathe.

She waits.

I can remember a time when I knew right and wrong as surely as Marcy does. Smoking was wrong. Drinking was wrong. And sex was very, very wrong. These things were forbidden because if you partook, your parents might find out about it, and if they did, they’d … what? It didn’t matter what they’d do. What mattered was that they’d know. The prospect of discovery was deterrent enough; we would have died of shame.

But I grew up in interesting times, and even as that iron curtain of parental disapproval hung, stiff and unmoving, a breeze was beginning to buffet it. The wind ruffled our granny gowns and long hair and bell-bottoms, and there was an answer blowing in it, an answer to war and loneliness and fear and pain, and the answer was … love. If we could all just make enough love, we would change the world.

It’s a beautiful notion, making love not war, and the women of my generation took to it readily, naturally, because now sex wasn’t just something that felt good. It was political, the act of love — an act of rebellion, a means of defying authority, a way of saying No! We won’t be bound by your mores, your judgments. In that thin, sweet slice of time between the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the advent of AIDS, we rutted like rams, boffed like bunnies, tupped like tigers, caught up in the wind that had swelled to a tornado, that blew us helter-skelter from one partner to the next.

Free love ruled. But free love cost us.

I have done my best to explain to Marcy why the issue of abortion is so important. I’ve never told her, though, why it’s so important to me.

“The Rebecca-Jared thing has gotten … complicated,” Marcy announces, looking troubled as she wanders into the kitchen. It’s only a few months now until the delivery date.

“How so?” I ask, stirring chicken curry at the stove.

“Well … there’s this other girl who’s pregnant. I don’t think you know her. And supposedly there are, like, four different guys who could be the father. She doesn’t know which it is. So they have to take paternity tests.”

“And?”

“Jared’s one of the guys.”

In her voice, I hear the first crack in the happily-ever-after scenario she has generously, good-heartedly, constructed for Rebecca and Jared. The baby-shower goodies, the apartment they’ll share, the families standing behind them — the love-will-conquer-all wallpaper suddenly doesn’t seem to fit, to cover all the flaws. Her distress obviates any inclination on my part to crow. What I find myself thinking about instead is a moment 30 years ago when I saw that same crack in the wall. I was locked in my parents’ bedroom, dialing the phone, following the directions I’d been given at the Planned Parenthood clinic: “You can call for the results in three days.”

I already knew. I had just gotten home for the summer after my sophomore year of college, and I could sense that my body had turned on me, that the boffing bunny was kaput. I gave my name to the calm, polite woman who answered the phone, and she delivered the news: “You’re pregnant.” In the three days of waiting, I’d imagined myself at that moment crying, going into hysterics, maybe even hanging myself. When it came, I was dry-eyed.

“You have a number of choices,” the polite woman said.

“How much is an abortion?” I asked.

Two hundred dollars, she told me. I didn’t have $200. I didn’t have $20. It didn’t matter. I’d find it, somehow. “I’d like to schedule an abortion,” I said.

I borrowed the money from a friend. A year later, I’d be the lender, for a different friend. Still another friend drove me into the city on the morning of my appointment. We were a network — bright, caught-in-the-act college girls looking out for each other, a grim conspiracy of silence, sworn in our sisterhood to keep this secret from our parents: We were not who they had hoped we’d be.

My friend found a parking spot near the clinic. There weren’t any pro-life pickets; no one was shoving photos of fetuses in my face. But she still held my hand. Inside, there were forms to fill out — disclaimers, warnings. I was 19. I’d never been to an ob-gyn. I’d never lain back on the table and put my feet into stirrups. I did now.

“You may feel some pressure,” the nurse said as the doctor came toward me. What I felt wasn’t pressure; it was pain. The speculum was cold and hard; the vacuum seemed to be sucking my insides out. Was sucking my insides out. I was six weeks pregnant. The fetus was the size of a garbanzo bean.

There was a mimeographed sheet of instructions: Tylenol for the pain, warm compresses. I read it while I lay in the recovery room, sipping orange juice. Call immediately if you experience intensive bleeding, sharp pains, dizziness, fainting. Nothing about pangs of conscience.

There didn’t have to be. We girls — women — friends — didn’t need that. We did what we did, most of us — and there are millions and millions of us, 45 million since Roe v. Wade; I long to tell Marcy that, relatives of hers, friends of mine, teachers she has, coaches, actresses, athletes, doctors, lawyers — without much hesitation, and without much guilt. I think so, anyway. We haven’t gone back and compared notes, my friends and I; those appointments at the clinic just get glossed over, aren’t brought up at reunions or in visits with old roommates. No other choice. Whatever we might have been destroying, we knew we were salvaging our lives.

I was salvaging Marcy’s life, too. No — not her life. Just the possibility of it; no more than that. I was preserving a wisp, the frail hope that somewhere down the road there’d be a man I’d fall in love with, and we’d marry (white dress, white cake), and buy a little house, and in due time — in due time — have a baby, a perfect little baby to call our own. My parents’ dream for me. Happily ever after.

That’s the way it worked out, as it happens.

But how do I tell my daughter I owe all this to the baby — the fetus, dammit — I had vacuumed away?

No wonder we get to that point in the abortion discussion where she waits and I breathe.

My widowed father recently moved from the house where I grew up into an adult living community. The process entailed a lot of letting go, on everyone’s part. Pop and my siblings and I had to decide what of the past we wanted to keep and what to jettison. Golf clubs, punch bowls, yearbooks — his moving into the future required us to reassess the past. How much should one carry through life from place to place? How much do you press on the next generation? What we keep for ourselves defines us. So does what we give away.

One weekend night, Marcy and I go for our first visit to the new place. It’s nicer, roomier, than we expect. Marcy loves it because everything — carpet, appliances, paint — is spanking new. The dining room table, with its familiar lace tablecloth, is in an utterly unfamiliar setting. I cook dinner with timeworn pots and heirloom utensils taken from strange cabinets and drawers. Pop tells stories we’ve heard before. We laugh at them again. I realize with relief that nothing much has changed. I had been afraid that love might somehow get left behind in the old place — that it might not follow Pop here. And I think about how scared I was, 30 years ago, that love would get left behind if he knew what I’d done.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” I always tell my daughter. “Nobody’s perfect.” Still, typical first child, she does her damnedest to be. I try to imagine how I would feel if she came to me and told me she was pregnant. I know how she thinks I would feel: the same way I’m afraid she’ll feel if she finds out what I did when I was 19. Repulsed. Disgusted. I can’t bear the idea that her love for me might not hold up if I make that confession — that the ties between us might be irreparably frayed.

Then I imagine how I would feel if she didn’t come to me.

As she and I drive away from Pop’s, where we’ve been discussing the Bush-Kerry debates, I mention how heartened I am by Kerry’s strong pro-choice stance, and how vital it is that he win the election if we hope to preserve women’s rights. Marcy looks at me from the passenger seat.

She waits.

I breathe.

I think: George Bush will win because I always stop here. Because, by my silence, I’ve let the “abstinence-works” and “condoms-don’t-prevent-AIDS” and “good-girls-don’t” lies live on. Enough. Enough.

“When I was a sophomore in college, I had an abortion,” I say, shakily. There’s no response from the seat beside me, nothing at all, so I rush on into the silence, trying to head off my fear: “I was stupid. My boyfriend and I weren’t using birth control. I didn’t think it could happen to me. But it did.”

There is a pause, in which I imagine her fumbling to take all this in: Mom. Sex. Boyfriend. College. So much to work through before she even gets to the point I’m trying to make. Finally, she speaks up, breathless: “Wow. I didn’t think people really did that — got pregnant and got abortions. I mean, you hear about it. The statistics. But I never thought that anyone I knew … ”

“I know. That’s why I’m telling you this. Are you … shocked?”

“Well — yeah. I didn’t think that you … you know. Had sex.”

“Let me emphasize. I was 19. I hadn’t been having sex for long.”

She says something touching and amazing: “I don’t want for you to think that I think you’re dirty or anything, because I don’t.”

What I say (blushing in the dark, in the car) is: “Good.” Then I keep going: “I got a pregnancy test at Planned Parenthood after I missed my period. They told me to call for the results in three days. But I already knew. And I knew I couldn’t have the baby. I didn’t want the baby. So a friend took me into the city, and I got an abortion.”

“What about adoption?” she asks.

“I … ” She, my child, should appreciate this. “I didn’t feel I would be able to give the baby up. I would have wondered for the rest of my life where it was, what it was doing. Whether it was okay.” Something becomes crystalline in my mind: “I’ve never once wondered that about the fetus. So maybe that’s the difference between it and a baby.”

She’s quiet for a while. Then she asks: “Did you ever feel guilty?”

“Not ever. Not for a moment.’’ Then I reconsider. “Well. After your father and I were married and I had a miscarriage, I thought that maybe God was punishing me.”

She says, “But you would have felt that anyway.”

I say, “What?”

And she says: “Even if you hadn’t had the abortion, you would have felt the miscarriage was a punishment from God.”

I think: This child is wise.

Then she says, “What did you think Pop would do if you told him you were pregnant?”

What I say is: “That’s the thing. It didn’t matter what he’d do. What mattered was that he’d know. I couldn’t bear that shame.”

She says: “Well. I guess I won’t be afraid to tell you.”

What I feel at that moment is electrical, biblical, as though I have gone up into the mountain in fear and trembling and emerged blessed.

Originally published as “It Could Happen to You” in the December 2004 issue of Philadelphia magazine.