Photo: Suphat Bhandharangsri/Getty Images
A while back, I took my two young sons to the park. It was a beautiful late summer day, the clouds tatty and thin, like an unraveling of cotton candy. They ran and tackled each other in the grass. It was the kind of day where I let myself relax into feeling lucky.
Later, at home, I took a pregnancy test, the kind with two dark lines for positive. I remember taking those tests over and over, trying for our first. Squinting, willing a second line into existence. I am glad those days are over. I was taking the test because my breasts were hot and sore and my period was late. I was taking the test so I could stop that little worm of worry that kept getting into my throat. I have an IUD — there was only a slim chance. Such a wafer of a chance. And besides, my husband and I were done. We were past done. I was just starting to get myself back: I’d lost the baby weight and then some; I was writing again; my days weren’t filled with the carrying of children. Often, my arms were empty, and that felt like freedom.
Days with my children are both routine and freewheeling, bursting with creativity and mired in drudgery. Every moment feels untidy, unkempt, pre-defined, both beyond my control and demanding of it. My child complained that I was taking too long. I was rushing around my head, planning lunch and naps and maybe a brief, quiet window of writing. Then they bloomed before me, life emphatic, a yes to the question I never even wanted to ask.
Two dark lines.
No, was my immediate response.
My IUD was placed eight weeks after my second child was born. My oldest had hand, foot, and mouth; he was feverish and pleading in the waiting room, Let’s go, Mom. Let’s go home. But I did not want to risk getting pregnant again — the thought made me feel weak, ill. Power through, I told myself. Just power through. A cheerful midwife came in. I remember nothing she said. I do remember how terribly she hurt me when placing the IUD, because the IUD I had between the births of my sons hadn’t hurt nearly as much. I also remember how long it took for her to complete the procedure, and how desperately sad I felt looking at my oldest, red-faced and staring, powering through.
I’d made the requisite follow-up appointment to have the IUD placement checked. But I never went to that appointment, likely fearing the return of the sadness I felt in that white room, how out of my reach any semblance of control in my life felt.
At six weeks pregnant I was scheduled for an ultrasound so they could locate the IUD. It had migrated, and was now lodged in the rear right of my uterus, like Pooh stuck in Rabbit’s door. Two doctors, an ultrasound tech, and an ultrasound-tech-in-training stared at the screen, squinting and pointing and quibbling, while one of them held a probe inside my cervix, jabbing it here and there. “Oh, there’s the baby,” someone said, as the wand passed what looked like a blinking kidney bean. I barely made it to the car before the tears came, sloppily tumbling down my face and onto my coat. I called my husband and told him I wanted an abortion.
I didn’t have an abortion.
It’s hard to explain why I never went through with it. I realized I’d never truly faced what I would do if I were ever put in the position of an unwanted pregnancy. Each time I had been pregnant before, it was because I had wanted to be; the yearning for a child was so real that it was painful. Now, unwillingly pregnant at age 37, I had no idea if I was capable of either option: another baby, or ridding myself of a pregnancy. Each option felt equally terrifying.
I went to the internet, craving a sign at the very least, a definitive answer at most. What I found was surprising: of the information on abortion, most was targeted to or written by single, childless women who wanted to remain that way. I could not find any useful information about married mothers who are done having babies. It felt, and it feels, like an anomaly. Like the universe is saying, What’s one more child?
Or, What are you, a monster?
Because I could not decide, I didn’t decide. I wept and I raged. I allowed myself the rare moments of excitement. I went to my second doctor’s appointment. At some point, as I listened to my doctor describe the minutiae of blood tests and ultrasounds, she stopped herself. Maybe she saw something in my face.
“I’m sorry. I’m assuming you want to continue with this pregnancy. Is that a safe assumption?”
And I began sobbing.
She let me cry, and she explained my options. My in-network hospital would not perform abortions, so I’d need to be referred to another one. (Writing this from a more stable place, I would like to say fuck that hospital.) I could take a series of pills that would stop the production of progesterone and cause a miscarriage up until nine or ten weeks; if I chose to end the pregnancy after that it would be a surgical procedure. I was still crying, worrying the tissue she’d handed me into wilted confetti. The doctor asked me, quietly, had I experienced depression after my last two births?
Had I ever had suicidal thoughts?
There it was, the truth: I hadn’t healed from the birth of my second son, nearly two years prior, and I hadn’t healed from the birth of my first, almost five years ago. My trauma was right there; I was coated in it, a ghosty afterbirth that I could ignore but never wash off. She handed me a card for a therapist, hugged me, and told me everything would be okay. No matter what I chose.
I wish I could say my decision hit me like a lightning bolt, or a glowy miracle, or a loud, twinkly epiphany. I wish I could say my feelings about it are more clear, now that I’ve veered onto the keep-it fork in the road. I wish I could explain how I even got here. I can’t. I believe all women should have the right to choose, and that they should be supported before, during, and after. I believe abortion should be safe and legal, and I cheer for all the women who exercise their right to choose, and I ache for them. Life is hard either way.
If I could distill my decision down, it would be this: I need help. I need a lot of help. I will stop pretending that I don’t. I let that doctor hug me, and I hugged her back. I find myself in deep conversations with other women, strangers sometimes, about motherhood and abortion and how nothing is simple. I search their words for light, and the light always comes.
About a month ago, I found out I was having a girl. I had long ago made my peace with not having a daughter, though I used to long for one. “You said ‘a girl,’ right?” I asked the woman on the phone. And then I cried. They are leaving the IUD in because it is too risky to remove it. They hope it comes out with the birth but if not, there will need to be a surgical procedure. The presence of the IUD can cause preterm labor; it has perforated my uterus and that might cause an infection. This is my second “geriatric pregnancy,” so there will be a lot of extra monitoring. Still, she perseveres. Her heartbeat is strong; she kicks her legs in defiance of the ultrasounds. I feel the fury of her flutters.
In my first pregnancy, when I found out I was having a boy, my mother told me she was glad. That boys are special, chosen. I think of that, and I think of this girl, this “determined little nugget,” as a friend called her, and how she ignited upon landing, how she lit everything up, how she seems to have chosen me. Maybe I can’t explain how I got here because it wasn’t ever my decision. Life emphatic, a girl I welcome and fear. Not that she’s asking.