September 29, 2015
“I’m sorry but I’m totally fan-girling right now: Tell me how to be you when I grow up,” said a student of mine, giggling. I’m in my office hours and my student has confessed she’s here to learn how she can follow my professional trajectory.
Occasionally people ask me for guidance. When this happens, my initial thought is, Have a momma like mine. And admittedly, I’ll share this thought in good humor, as I talk about how she firmly steered my education and fiercely fostered independent thinking in her household. I’ll talk about my lifelong private schooling; my travels abroad that began at 16; my graduating early from NYU, magna cum laude, and earning my Ph.D. from Harvard. My work experiences at places like The Nation, Vogue, the New York Times. All this by the time I was 31. And, yes, I’ll admit, it’s impressive: Last year I even received a Young Professional Achievement Award from my high school.
There’s no taking away from my work ethic and an old-school code from my sharecropping and working-class great-grandparents. It all sounds lofty and it’s all true.
But here’s what I also think and never say to my female students: “… And control your births.”
I was able to achieve and enjoy these accomplishments because I use birth control. And when I had an unplanned pregnancy at 23, I made the important decision to have an abortion.
Yes, all of the above happened the way it happened and continues to happen because I terminated an unwanted pregnancy. It is crucial I say that all of the above is possible to accomplish whether or not a woman chooses to become a mother. It’s just that I made the choice not to become a mother at 23. And nothing has made me regret that decision. I am among the majority of women who actually felt an immense sense of relief afterwards. I, like many women, will feel better equipped to be a mother after making an informed decision.
Should I mention the circumstances that led up to the pregnancy, the who, the what, the he said/I said, et cetera? Should I mention that I was on birth control? That I was a stellar patient and consumer of the pill, that I had not missed a day, nor had I been taking any counteracting medications?
“About two per 100 women get pregnant on this when used effectively,” my gynecologist said after I cried in her office. “And that’s why we’re a pro-choice office.”
After I got pregnant on the pill, my best friend and I joked that I should play the lottery—that’s how unlikely it was that such a thing would happen to me. I developed an acute, visceral aversion to medicine, specifically pills. The year following the termination, I couldn’t bring myself to take anything, not even vitamins. Even now, ten years later, the image of a pill makes me frown. So I had an IUD insertion. On some level I think I was still trying to be combative with my body, introducing a foreign object into it: “There, now try something.” But I digress.
Indeed, I did not need nor did I employ Planned Parenthood to get an abortion. I was fortunate enough to get one through my privately insured gynecologist. And there are other women who will have this same ability to do so whether or not Planned Parenthood is defunded.
But there are many more women who do need Planned Parenthood to get affordable and safe access to abortion services. Get this: Abortions happen. Safe—not dangerous, not lethal—abortions happen at Planned Parenthood, and through private practice. My mother told me about an illegal abortion her older sister, Earlene, had. She nearly bled to death. She was 15.
I think of my high-school algebra teacher who used to become exasperated and say, “I don’t understand why you don’t understand.” This is where I am. I don’t understand why legislators don’t understand. Why abortion opponents don’t understand. Why this is such a difficult concept to grasp.
In truth, I think the Senate understands full well that Planned Parenthood is not an abortion vendor. The defunding is, of course, a symbolic and much more blatantly classist and misogynistic statement. It’s saying: “We’re going to take away equal access to safe abortion.”
Note my use of “safe.” Because, again, I don’t understand why they don’t understand. As long as women have been getting pregnant, women have been aborting. I used to think it was cool that my great-grandmother had 11 children (11 who survived past the age of 3, that is). But as I got older, and especially after my own unplanned pregnancy, I realized that none of us knows how much all of that was a choice. Granted, I am projecting and assuming a lot, and of course, the more hands on a farm the better. Still, I have to wonder how much my great-grandmother wanted the kind of motherhood she had. I highly doubt she thought of it in such terms.
When I took to Twitter to express my frustration about the Senate I was open and righteously honest about my own story. There were plenty of favorites and retweets. But, I found myself silently fretting at what I saw as a lack of the usual group of Black women in my corner. I know I am not alone in having had an abortion—far from it. And I know women of color are concerned about access to birth control and family planning or lack thereof.
Recently, Kirsten West Savali wrote about race and Planned Parenthood and I don’t want that to be a rare thing: for Black women to discuss openly and honestly the realities of Planned Parenthood, reproductive rights, and Black women. And this silence is not passive. It is thick and it is charged. Are we scared to discuss this in the open? About the murky unsettling history we, Black women, share with reproductive medicine? Are we afraid to openly question if our methods of birth control might somehow be acquiescing to White supremacy? I understand, and I’m scared too. Because I love Black women, I love being one and being of us. And I worry that to speak on these things in this way will invite an e-version of a sucked tooth. But what scares me more is this pretense we hold. I love us too much to uphold more false pretense.
There are more fears surrounding this sort of talk. I fear that people will interpret what I am saying as, to be a successful woman, women must have had an abortion, or opt out of parenthood. No. What I am trying to get at is that we need to remove this focus on a woman’s reproductive choices and we need to be completely honest about things. Stop telling us she is, say, an exec and boss with a spouse and three kids … unless she wants that to be a part of her narrative. Because it is just as much a choice to be a mother as it is to not be one. I get anxious with this sort of talk. I simultaneously want to celebrate our choices to be mothers but I also want us to shut the fuck up about it. Every time I read a profile of some fabulous, famous, fantastic women and her fucking kids I think “was this her narrative or others’ crafted narrative for her?”
But I digress. As long as I keep things local, specific to myself, to my own vagina, then things make sense. And that’s the point. There cannot be any universalism regarding something so innately specific. For all of the above, there may have been a woman in my shoes who would have made the entirely opposite choice and been a mother at 23. Maybe she was just as frightened as I was, but felt better equipped—or maybe she didn’t. I’m not sure if it matters.
Here’s what also troubles me when discussing our wombs and choices with what to do with them: None of this has been to say something to the effect of “you, too, can be great, if you abort.” Not at all. It’s just that the control of births needs to be a clear and explicit part of these conversations we have about having it all. Having it all can so often mean not having it. And we need to talk about that. Without shame.
It’s taken me decades to fully grasp that most people think if you agree with one thing then you must embrace every single association with it. That never made sense to me.
I like milk but I don’t raise cows. I like rap music but I don’t hate women. I eat meat and I have a dog.
I believe in the right to healthy abortion. And I love motherhood. And I believe in being proud of having had an abortion—it was a good choice for me. And I also believe that if I make the decision to have a child one day, I know I will be proud of being a mother. See, the common denominator for me is that, to quote Dubya, I am the decider. Truly, it is this that has our whole government shutting down. Truly, Black women, we can reclaim those cloudier spaces when we start declaring ourselves the makers of our race.
When I think of abortion, I think of my mother and the time she told me about the abortion she’d had after having me. Her marriage to my father was dangerously falling apart and she had a 4-year-old little girl whom she loved dearly. “You can do right by this one,” my grandfather told her.
“And it was the best decision I ever made. I love being your mom,” she tells me, smiling.