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How To Talk (And Not Talk) About Abortion With Your Mother


Step 1: Get dessert and an Old Fashioned. 

My mother and I came for the salted caramel budino. That, and I like that the restaurant uses one big ice cube for their Old Fashioned. It’s the type of place that requires an Open Table reservation two months in advance. My mother and I entered the narrow space on a whim, with the knowledge that we’d likely turn around and go to a less popular, less packed restaurant with no salted caramel budino and no good ice, but there they were: two vacant bar stools. It was one of those gifts from the universe, like having just enough milk or just enough toilet paper or just enough gas or just enough of really anything.

As we waited for our dessert – layers of Oreo cookies, caramel pudding, crème fraiche whipped cream, and sea salt served in a trendy mason jar – my mother said she had something to tell me. Shoulders back and glint in her eye, she looked like a child moments away from blurting out a big secret. 

And here it was: My mother, who had recently begun working at a prominent city hospital, had officially signed the paperwork exempting her from assisting on abortion procedures. She was so proud of her decision. I sat staring into my Old Fashioned.

In theory, I support my mother’s right to religious freedom and her right to refuse participating in any activity opposing her religious beliefs. In theory, I believe no nurse should assist in abortion operations if they are morally opposed to the procedure. But in practice it’s so much more complicated when my mother and I are on two different sides of an issue, especially when she delivers the news with this expectant expression, as if we’d high five over it. As if I’d ever said anything that would have given her that impression. 

In theory, I believe no nurse should assist in abortion operations if they are morally opposed to the procedure. But in practice it’s so much more complicated. Click To Tweet

My mother is anti-choice and I’m pro-choice, and both of our stances are unlikely to ever change. I know that because we’ve spent years trying to sway the other. Debates, mostly in the cramped spaces of different cars throughout the years, usually ended the same: I’m mean and condescending and she’s narrow-minded and too religious. Nothing ever changes, except maybe the car.

Since the setting, this particular time, was the popular restaurant with the good ice cubes, I tried to avoid being mean or condescending. I didn’t ask what the point of signing such a document was, since she worked as an ENT nurse and abortions weren’t normally performed via ear, nose, or throat. I didn’t even launch into a speech about stigmatizing abortion because yes, yes, religious freedom. I reminded myself that my mother has a right to religious freedom, but I still felt betrayed by her decision.

Instead, I asked my mother if the paperwork was limited to women who had chosen to terminate their pregnancy for personal reasons or if it included women who were terminating their pregnancy for medical reasons. My mother told me she was excused from all abortions. Even those performed when the fetus has no chance of survival. Even those performed to save the life of the mother.

No, My Right To Abortion Did Not Cost Hillary The Election

So logically, I asked my mother if she thought women who had abortions at the direction of a medical professional were, in fact, sinning. Because that’s what her religious disapproval comes down to—that it’s a sin—right? My mother is an intelligent, practical woman. She graduated first in her nursing class and supported our family while putting herself through nursing school. I thought this woman must know that it definitely isn’t a sin to terminate a pregnancy when a doctor tells you that you’ll likely suffer medical complications otherwise.

As I write this, I’m aware that my mother may sometimes apply a similar rationale to me. She must think of how I’m the same law-abiding girl who wouldn’t even sneak candy into movie theaters. She must think that I’m the sweet girl who she sent to Catholic school for twelve years. And that girl, my mother may think, must logically know that it’s always a sin to have an abortion, no matter what. Or perhaps, it’s the opposite. Perhaps my mother hears my pro-choice arguments and secretly knows I’ve been evil ever since that one time in the third grade when I found out Mary is the Queen of Heaven. I was eight years old and I wanted to be the Queen of Heaven when I died, so I said I hated Mary. My mother told me to say ten Hail Marys to repent, but I never did.

My mother and I are of the same blood and flesh, yet separated by this issue, and also our religious faith, and also our brands of logic. We’re two different radio stations playing the same exact song just a few beats off. We are so much of the same, but we are never the same.

My mother sidestepped the question. She said she didn’t want to aid in abortions, period. I could have asked hypothetical questions, like what if my mother was the only nurse in the whole hospital who could help, and the patient was going to die unless she terminated her pregnancy? Wouldn’t God think letting a woman die was just as serious an offense as an abortion?

But instead of the hypothetical questions, I ordered another Old Fashioned with a big ice cube and thought about my abortion.

I’ve never written about having an abortion before because I feared becoming “that girl who wrote about her abortion that one time.” I feared the story would become the first thing that popped up when someone Googled me and it would become all of me. I feared what someone from my biology or algebra or world history class would think if they read that essay. Or what about all the boys I had ever kissed, what would they think if they read that essay? I feared that my experience would be discussed and ridiculed and dissected on Twitter and Reddit and conservative websites. I feared Donald Trump and Kevin Williamson and Retribution. I feared, so I never wrote. But there are worse things to be in the world than the girl who wrote about the abortion she had one time.

But instead of the hypothetical questions, I ordered another Old Fashioned with a big ice cube and thought about my abortion. Click To Tweet

 My abortion story isn’t very special or different or significant. I had sex with a boy, and we were both irresponsible. The pregnancy test was positive, but I was in college and had taken out student loans and graduating was important to me. After a predictable chain of events and one awkward phone call later, I sat in stirrups much like I had done during my run of the mill trips to the gynecologist, only it was in the basement of Planned Parenthood, and before entering I was patted down by a security guard with a visible gun on his hip.

I had been called back several times: the psychological exam, the payment, and the ultrasound which I asked to see, partially out of curiosity and partially out of a sense of responsibility. If I was going to have an abortion, I was going to look at what I was aborting. I reasoned that I owed that much to whatever it was inside of me. And it was something—a blob, a ball of cells, a dark splotch in the ultrasound version of my body. It wasn’t a baby with a foot with toes I would one day call little piggies. But there was a distinct matter in my body. Seeing this made me feel both better and worse. It didn’t have little piggies, but it was also there and it soon wouldn’t be.

Finally, I was called back and given a gown. The nurse knocked, waited for the customary okay from me, and entered the room. She managed to achieve the ideal tone,neither cheery nor somber nor cold. She was professional, yet also personal. More than anything else, she seemed to understand that I was a real person in a less than desirable situation. I was making a choice I would have rather not have had to make, and this medical procedure may be something difficult for me. But she also made no assumptions in the matter. She was perfect. She told me that the doctor was male and she’d be in the room the entire time. She also told me the doctor usually narrates the procedure so his patients know what he’s doing to them while he’s doing it, would I like that? I nodded.

I Had An Abortion Because I Love My Son

When the doctor entered, he was already wearing a surgical mask, so I never actually saw his face. For so long, this felt like a personal slight—it’s only now, as I type this, that I realize this man may have simply not wanted the risk. He provided my autonomy, but he demanded his anonymity. Years later, I’m okay with that. But sitting in stirrups that day, I wanted to see that he was a person, too.

The doctor didn’t make eye contact with me. He simply sat in the stool and asked if he could begin. I said yes and spiraled with the certainty that he was judging me as he parted my legs wider and disappeared into the tent of my hospital gown. I didn’t take into consideration that this was his job, which was likely exhausting and largely thankless and demonized by a whole group of citizens. And maybe he was sick of the cold weather we were having, I don’t know. There were so many possible reasons for his curt bedside manner, none of which had to do with me, but I took it personally. It was my abortion; I was taking everything personally. And why wasn’t he saying what he was doing to me? 

My face must have lit up with all these thoughts because the nurse stepped into the space next to me, held my hand, and narrated the procedure as the doctor silently worked. She explained every detail with language I can’t distinctly remember now, but I do remember her voice was calm and even. And she didn’t complain when I squeezed her hand from the pain. 

When the doctor needed assistance, the nurse politely asked if she could let go of my hand. It wasn’t a question, not really, but the fact that she phrased it that way was especially kind. We unlaced our fingers and I lost her to my lower hemisphere, but she kept narrating what was being done to my body and asking if I felt okay. That nurse’s compassion was the only bright spot of the procedure. 

I could get into the pain of the procedure, the tears my dog licked off my cheeks later that night, and the months of getting drunk and, one by one, telling my close girlfriends, some of which confessed their abortions to me, too. But, it’s all really pretty standard. 

I thought of telling my mother on several occasions, including over our fancy dessert. But if I told her in that crowded restaurant with people to either side of us, she would have likely had thoughts about my posture and my expression. She would have to remind herself that I have a right to reproductive freedom, but she’d still feel betrayed by my decision, as I did hers. And we’d both sit there in our betrayal, and the big ice cubes, dessert in the mason jar, and good fortune of those two open seats would be all for naught.

For a long time, I felt like I owed my mother an admission of my abortion because, if nothing else, she had gotten pregnant once, hadn’t had an abortion, and ta-da here I am. But there are also so many things that mothers and daughters don’t tell each other. I once went into the bathroom after my mother had showered and found that she had left behind a vibrator. I never told her I knew what she did during her showers and she never told me she liked to masturbate after shampooing. My sophomore year of high school, my mother had to pick me up from school because I bled through my tampon, through my underwear, and through my uniform. She knew the reason the school nurse had called her and she cleaned the large butterfly-shaped bloodstain from my skirt, but we never spoke of it.

She would have to remind herself that I have a right to reproductive freedom, but she'd still feel betrayed by my decision, as I did hers. Click To Tweet

And there were those quiet morning drives to school, during which we passed an abortion clinic. Even before 8 am, protestors would be outside with their chants and their signs and their rosaries. I’d wordlessly watch them from the window while my mother stared ahead. She was too tired from last night’s restaurant shift to discuss the protest, or maybe too tired to even notice.

Pregnancies seem to be marked by food. Women can recall with such specificity what they craved, what they missed eating, and what made them sick. My abortion, too, is marked by food. There was the sushi dinner I threw up, which was, in retrospect, likely the first sign of my pregnancy. There was the pizza I ate after my abortion, which went on to become my favorite pizza in the city. But every time I’ve ever eaten a slice, I remembered the first time I had this pizza was when I was wearing a jumbo pad and watching Rosemary’s Baby (an admittedly strange choice for post-abortion entertainment).

The salted caramel budino, too, has gone on to mark a moment in my story about my abortion. Between my mother and me were our vaginas we don’t talk about, religious freedom and reproductive freedom, decisions to or to not become mothers, and the nurse who never signed a paper exempting her from my abortion and who held my hand when I needed to hold someone’s hand. Between us there were no answers to be found, but there was dessert. And we split it.