"Oddly, the epic confusion of my early years was not caused but rather mitigated by immersion in two languages: doubleness clarified the world....Every object, every action, had an echo, an explanation."-- Carol Shields, Unless
My second pregnancy was so longed for that it seemed impossible when it happened, that life could ever be this simple; imagine a person who simply got what she desired. Except that I couldn't -- imagine, that is. So I imagined the likelihood of miscarriage instead, magnifying the odds and agonizing about my powerlessness against them. Twenty-five per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, I'd learned, and with odds like that, it seemed unfathomable that anyone gets born.
During my first pregnancy, seven years previously, those odds had never registered. I was pregnant and didn't want to be, and nobody trots out statistics then to demonstrate how early pregnancy is tenuous anyway. No one will advise you to sleep it off, to lie down for a week or two and let nature take its course. Instead, unwanted pregnancy is a fate that seems sealed, a destiny threatening to devour you.
Motherhood, when you're pregnant and you don't want to be, is the horrifying back of an enveloping black hole. Inevitable, except (and thank goodness) that it isn't.
Everything I know about my abortion, I learned from the pregnancy I wanted. That gestation is dated not from conception, but from a woman's last period, for example, which means that any fetus is actually about two weeks younger than its mother's pregnancy. From poring over What to Expect When You're Expecting, I'd learn that the fetus I'd aborted had been little more than a centimetre long, which is a far cry from what pro-life propaganda photos had suggested. There was a heartbeat, yes, but it probably would have been undetectable if I'd looked for it, and the fetus had more in common physically with a tadpole than a human baby.
I learned that for the first twelve weeks, a woman really can be a little bit pregnant. Pregnant enough, of course, that she would be devastated if anything went wrong and if anything did go wrong, no doctor would be able to stop it. She's not pregnant enough to tell the world that she is expecting either, having to keep the news to herself because...and the explanation for this one is always lost on me.
Because it's really so likely that something will go wrong? And because when it does, that pregnancy will have to be a sad secret she carries around inside her forever and always? Isn't it strange and confusing the way that we have determined that early pregnancy is, in these cases, literally unremarkable?
It is only recently, and with a great deal of practise, that I have been able to say "abortion" in conversation without dropping my voice an octave and muttering in order for the word to be nearly inaudible. My aversion to the word has never been from shame but more from fear of offending others' sensibilities. Abortion is such a loaded term that has come to mean freedom to some and murder to others, always accompanied by its inflammatory rhetoric -- the language of either/or, before and after, good and evil -- and I just didn't want to have that conversation.
The reality of abortion is nuanced, which won't be news to anybody who is familiar with the experience. The reality of abortion is also that there are a lot of people who are familiar with the experience -- one-third of middle-aged women in Canada are reported to have had abortions, which suggests fewer offended sensibilities than I'd anticipated. And among these women, abortion exists on a spectrum of experience consisting of a million degrees.
It is essential for my purposes that you be able to imagine the desperation of being pregnant when you don't want to be, of what it is to be staring into that gaping black hole with everything you've ever worked and longed for lost inside it. I am aware that some people will find themselves more inclined to empathize with the six-week-old fetus in this matter, he or she (still indeterminate) about the size of a lentil, and whether such an inclination represents a terrific failure of imagination or an incredible imaginative leap, I'm still not entirely sure.
But I'd like such a person to shake their convictions for just a moment or two.
A single thing can have two realities. A person can hold opposing thoughts in her head at once. A 2008 study showed that 61 per cent of American women who terminated pregnancies were mothers already. It is possible that no one more than a mother can truly understand just what it is that a woman who has had an abortion has lost and gained.
During the year after my pregnancy and abortion, the novelist Hilary Mantel published the memoir Giving Up the Ghost, in which she addresses the health problems leading to her childlessness. I read her book and found myself struck by the notion of Catriona, named for the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, the imagined daughter Mantel never had whose existence she would dream of for years and years.
She writes, "[Children's] lives start long before birth, long before conception, and if they are aborted or miscarried or simply fail to materialise at all, they become ghosts within our lives."
It was the only script I'd found for processing my experience. I was living in England at the time, and in response to Mantel's Catriona, I took to writing terrible poetry about my own set of tiny ghostly footsteps echoing up and down the cobblestone streets. But I didn't believe a word of it.
My only regret was that I became pregnant in the first place. Of course, there was sadness, a sense that I'd lost something. My relationship had ended, and I wondered if I'd missed my chance to have a family.
But then the timing was so wrong, and so were the people. I was also humbled by the experience of having come so close to my whole life going off the rails, and I'd been shattered by the shame and stigma of unplanned pregnancy, shame so profound that abortion had delivered me relief that it was over.
I'd always wanted to be a mother, still suspected I'd become one someday, but this pregnancy had never been about a baby. The fetus inside me was an abstraction, and, yes, my abortion would extinguish its potential personhood, but then potentiality is a theoretical thing and a pregnancy isn't.
I remember lying on the examination table shortly before my procedure, the nurse rubbing jelly on my (relatively) flat belly before waving her wand above me, the ultrasound dismissing my ulcer hypothesis for good. The nurse pointed out the fetus on the monitor, but the image was as abstract as ever and I couldn't find anything recognizable in the noise of the screen, although all around me, the larger details were entirely familiar -- the jelly, the wand, woman on a table. It was a scene I'd watched a thousand times in movies and on TV, but mine was such a lonely inversion of the story, and not the same at all.
With my second pregnancy, from the moment of my positive pregnancy test, everything was different. The fetus growing inside me was never anything but a baby. We'd been quietly dreaming of her for years, imagining the colour of her eyes, her hair, trying out a parade of hypothetical names. Five weeks into my pregnancy, I bought her a book and we started reading to her even though she hadn't yet developed ears.
After six weeks, I noted the milestone, that I was more pregnant than I'd ever been, but also noticed that at six weeks' gestation, our baby was remarkably unsubstantial, invisible to the world. So much of my longing and love was already tied up in her being, and yet the fact of her personhood was still just an idea in the minds of her father and me, and to friends and family who loved her already, who were awaiting her arrival, still months away. A single thing can have two realities.
Doubleness clarified. I'd never doubted or regretted my decision to have an abortion, but as (to my great joy) my second pregnancy progressed, I became more sure than I'd ever been that my choice to terminate my pregnancy years before had been the right one. Pregnancy is hard, a complete occupation of one's body, from top (nine months of a runny nose) to bottom (leg cramps that woke me screaming in the night), plus all the more familiar symptoms. It's not something you want to enter into half-heartedly.
And then there is childbirth, the impossible agony of life with a newborn, and motherhood itself, which is an amazing and terrible story without an ending. When, years before, I'd stared into that black hole, I'd had not a clue about the specifics, but in experiencing them, I realized how right I'd been to turn away.
My daughter herself is also a testament to my choice. If I hadn't had an abortion, I would never have had her, this extraordinary creature who is so much more than I ever dreamed, a fierce and fantastic child whose actualness trumps potentiality every time. I would never have had our family either, to have been able to give my child a father who is the love of my life. Not to mention provide her with some financial stability and all its accompanying opportunities, a grown-up mother who was prepared for and wanting to embrace the role and hadn't had to sacrifice or compromise to get there.
When accused of selfishness in the face of all of this, I will plead guilty every time, without compunction. I stand by the dictum of Erica Jong, who wrote in her iconic novel Fear of Flying, "You did not have to apologize for wanting to own your own soul."
Undeniably, the fact of my unwanted pregnancy is unjust when one considers how many women struggle to conceive at all, but then justice has never had very much to do with reproduction. Some people would have considered it justice for me to continue with my first pregnancy, to raise a child I didn't want to have as a kind of penance for being a woman who has had sex. These people are ubiquitous, the sort who write things on Internet forums, like "If you open your legs, you slut, you should pay the price," and I really do wonder about anyone who values life so little that they'd invite a human being into the world to serve as someone's punishment.
But, yes, of course, I had other choices, or at least the one. I could have carried a child to term and then surrendered it for adoption, which always sounds like a simple solution to people who have never been pregnant, given birth, or surrendered a baby for adoption. I've been listening carefully, however, and I've discerned that there are few worse advocates for adoption than the birthmother, the trauma of whose experiences so often goes unspoken. In Lynn Coady's novel Strange Heaven, the young protagonist who has given up a baby reflects of that option, "Yes, but real human beings shouldn't have to go through that."
I concede, too, that mine was not one of the "good" abortions. I was not a victim of rape or incest, one of those worthy candidates who are always brought up when the abortion debate gets particularly heated. I was just a woman who got in trouble and was unwilling to make two (two!) failed forms of birth control define the rest of my life.
The notion of justice is a hard one to shake, though. I know that much of my anxiety during pregnancy resulted from a fear that justice would be dealt somehow, that I couldn't possibly be allowed to define my life on my terms, to stop one potential life and then go on to create another. Reproductive freedom remains a revolutionary thing for a woman to get away with.
On Mother's Day in 2011, I found myself standing with my husband and daughter outside a storefront around the corner from my house, the site of abortion-rights pioneer Dr. Henry Morgentaler's clinic until its firebombing in 1992. My daughter was just a couple of weeks away from turning two, and I carried her in a backpack. She was too little to understand what was going on but was happy enough to be out in the fresh air and sunshine, a Holly Hobbie silhouette in her giant red hat.
We were taking part in the Pro-Choice Jane's Walk, one of a number of events held around our city that day in honour of urban activist Jane Jacobs. It was an illuminating exercise -- I'd walked by 85 Harbord Street hundreds of times, but I'd never realized its significance, that just ten years before my own abortion, such a terrible act of violence had taken place on my own turf. I hadn't known how wrong I'd been to ever take my access to abortion for granted, which I'd only ever done because it seemed absurd that the decision of whether or not to continue with my pregnancy would have been anyone's to make but mine.
Once again, please imagine the desperation of being pregnant when you don't want to be. Our tour continued on to the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, where we were read testimony by an abortion doctor on the carnage he witnessed in emergency rooms as a medical student in the 1960s, when entire hospital wards were devoted to septic obstetrics. And it occurred to me then that there was nothing I wouldn't have done to end my unwanted pregnancy, that my desperation had been just the same as that of all those women who'd had unsterile elm bark slipped through their cervixes to induce abortion, but that I hadn't had to kill myself in order to relieve it.
Our group wandered through the university campus, underneath the leafy canopy of Queens Park, the very same trees I've walked under on ordinary days. The symbolism wasn't lost on me, the discovery that all my usual routes were lined with pro-choice landmarks and it was appropriate, too, that it would be on Mother's Day that we'd note them. The choice I'd had the freedom to make nine years before had permitted me to become the mother I wanted to be, and it was this freedom that made motherhood worth celebrating in the first place.
If I could, I would give my daughter the gift of immersion in two languages, but English is the only one I have to offer. So instead I take care to pass along English in all its richness, to ensure she understands the wondrous variety afforded by synonyms, that she is a beneficiary of variations between my Canadian-English and her father's British- English speech. We say tomay-to and tomah-to, though she refuses to eat either. She knows that in England, a cookie is a biscuit, a trunk is a boot, a boot is a wellington, and a sweater is a jumper. Already, she knows well that a single thing can have two realities.
Doubleness clarifies the world, and I want my daughter to know this world in all its complexity. And so one day I will tell her about what happened to me a long time ago, a worthwhile story for any young woman to carry in her arsenal, I think. And my hope is that she will see how the story has nothing to do with her at all, but also the many ways in which it has to do with everything.
Reprinted from The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, edited by Kerry Clare, published by Goose Lane Editions 2014. Used with permission.