Last year, at 37 years old, I underwent fertility treatments. After three failed rounds of intra-uterine insemination, my husband and I got incredibly lucky with a single, successful course of in-vitro fertilization. Our treasure of a baby daughter, Isadora Rose, was born on 12/28/2011. Motherhood fits me like a glove and is something I have wanted from my first memories of childhood. I used to mother every living thing and inanimate object in my midst. I once ruined my coveted Babar and Celeste dolls after having coated their trunks in Chapstick “in case they got dry lips.” I even sustained a macerated bottom lip when my brother’s pet turtle clamped on to my mouth…you see, I had dropped him while trying to feed him and leaned in to kiss his little face in apology. You get the idea.
So it might surprise you that at age 22, I had an abortion. My circumstances at the time were likely similar to many middle-class women who make that choice. I was fresh out of college, living with two friends in Berkeley, CA. I had one of my first highly challenging social work jobs on the way to graduate school. I was also still occasionally sleeping with my ex-boyfriend from college. In my personal life, unlike my educational and professional trajectory, I was vulnerable and I was in more than a bit of denial. I had a rocky road with this ex that included a brief engagement and at least two breakups. And then it happened – I got pregnant.
Reflecting back on who I was at 22 unearths many complicated feelings. I vacillate between feeling a tremendous amount of compassion for who I was then and being harshly critical of a young woman with all the advantages to know better. Mostly, I want to tell my younger self to hang in there until the next decade when things would get infinitely less awful.
Despite my lifelong desire to have a child, I knew that at that moment, I was in no position to do so. I was not emotionally or financially ready. I did not have a reliable partner. I had dreams of furthering my education and becoming a clinical social worker. Of course, I had more resources at my disposal than most, but I understood that this was not the time for me to become a mother. Still, it was not remotely an easy decision to end the pregnancy. Growing up in a socially and politically liberal family (in which I could count on support no matter which way I chose) served to bolster my confidence, but it did not take the weight off my shoulders.
As I carefully considered my options, the reality of my situation crystallized. I asked myself the tough questions – Could a person who had been careless about birth control really be trusted to raise a child? Could a person who still had to borrow a portion of the rent from her parents support a family? Could a person who struggled to disentangle from an utterly inappropriate relationship be a model for a child? Ultimately, I decided the instrumentals were workable – I could secure another job, I could garner additional financial support, I could move home, etc. – but where I was in my emotional development made the kind of parenting I always had in mind a long-shot.
As a person who had long fantasized about bringing a child into this world, with all the attendant joys and responsibilities, I wanted to offer a baby nothing short of every opportunity. At 22, decent parenting was certainly within my grasp (in fact I had known many fantastic young, single mothers), but excellent parenting was not…I simply wasn’t there yet. This is to say nothing of what having a child would mean for my own educational and professional prospects.
The debate in this country about reproductive freedom is almost always oversimplified. Being pro-choice does not mean being cavalier about abortion. Even though abortion was the right choice for me, it is diminishing to imagine I took the decision lightly. In fact, I had the luxury of considering all angles and being intentional about my choice. So many women, because of socio-economic, religious or cultural constraints do not have the same control over their lives.
And here is the truth about my life after the abortion: The ex in question responded negatively to the pregnancy and essentially disappeared, confirming my assessment of having an unreliable partner. I applied and was accepted to my graduate school of choice. I went on to establish a successful social work career, albeit one in which I would have struggled mightily to provide for a child. And I continued to make huge mistakes in relationships until I was finally ready, at age 34, to be with the right person and to nurture a marriage.
When I discovered that I would require fertility treatments to become pregnant all those years later, I was understandably baffled and immediately reflected back to that “missed opportunity” at age 22. For the first time since, I engaged in magical thinking about the abortion: ‘I squandered my one chance at having a baby.’ In my lowest moment, I even wondered if I “deserved” another chance at a child – maybe somehow I was being punished. Mercifully, it all worked out as it should and with the full capacities of an adult woman with a career, relationship security and the emotional stability requisite for parenting, I had a child.
I have experienced painful challenges on both ends of the procreative spectrum. The choice to have an abortion was gut wrenching, particularly in light of my lifelong desire to become a mother. Later, the choice to undergo fertility treatments was heartbreaking and the process grueling. It can be argued that these were the two most critical decisions of my life. I am grateful that the power to make them ultimately rested in my hands.