Council of Exceptional Children
My undergraduate thesis is due in two weeks and I am a wreck.
Usually a fairly sanguine student, I have allowed myself to get overwhelmed by this task and procrastinate in all typical ways: playing Ms. Pac Man in the dining hall, over-researching to avoid writing – and having an affair with a cute actor from Duxbury, MA. The last wouldn’t have been noteworthy except that I also had a long-term boyfriend in New York. Oh, details.
I fixate on Duxbury Allan’s lack of constancy to avoid Chapter 3. The snow falls. My period is late.
I spend each day in a borrowed carrel at Widener Library glazing over another Sanskrit translation and watch my body for familiar signs. A cramp, thank God! No, just have to pee. My back hurts – that’s good, right? But it’s just from the seventh hour in a wooden chair.
I begin to panic. I am firmly pro-choice, already have friends who have had abortions and know there is no question I would do the same. The tiny wrinkle is not knowing exactly who the father is. This is where even I, in my sexually expansive state, feel the slow creep of shame.
I tell my mother over the phone – a little unusual since we didn’t at that time (and still) tell every last detail. But I am truly panicked at this point, cannot put up a brave front, need my mommy to make it all go away. I expect my mother to soothe over the phone, which she does, but then shocks me with: “I have a judge’s conference in Boston on Thursday. I’ll come see you then.” I am both comforted and startled by this. A summit means that this situation is REAL.
We walk around snowy Harvard Yard. She tells me that sometimes things happen for a reason, that maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the potential of this pregnancy. What? My mother is adamantly pro-choice, what is this she’s spewing to me? “Just think about it,” she says. I know I will not.
I pass in my thesis one week later and the day after that, the blood comes. Ecstasy! Christmas morning feeling! The Scrooge-future that I’d lived in for the past weeks – where my life as I knew it evaporated and I was placed into a life of slavery (that’s what parenthood would have been to me then, slavery) – that dystopian future was removed and hope rushed back in. I kissed the ground of my sloppy life with gratitude.
The TV is on in someone’s dorm room. Eight white men are discussing when life begins and the negative impact that abortion has on women. I literally laugh out loud. It was a Saturday Night Live sketch, right? What the hell did these dudes know about my last 7 days?
Oh, Allan stopped returning my calls. Just as well. When I did see him weeks later I said, “You know, that was pretty messed up for a while. I thought I was pregnant, and we hadn’t used proper birth control, remember?” “Oh sweetie,” he cooed, rubbing my shoulders with a practiced air, “That’s impossible! We only did it once!”
My mother begins Radcliffe during the war in 1943 at the age of 16. She is thrilled to get away from her home in Ann Arbor, MI and never again leaves the East Coast. She found home. My mother was part of tight group of gals with nicknames like Dizzy, Dorie and Ducky. My mother’s queenly name of Frederica became Freddo, or sometimes Quizkid because she was so young and so smart.
I grew up with these women, spending summers on the beach in Kennebunkport, Maine. They were witty, wise and bawdy — especially when the husbands weren’t there and the G and T’s flowed. I loved them. I loved my mother when she was around them. Their unshakeable bond became an early template for my own lifelong female friendships.
The ‘Cliffie’s would tell stories about how the boys came home in 1945 after beating the Nazis and Cambridge transformed from a dour nunnery to a Mardi-Gras of booze and parties and music and (although they were vague on this particular subject) sex. I knew my mother had been sexual before marriage, and I intuited, almost on a cellular level, her shame. As I grew into a sexually curious and active young woman myself, I could see the anxiety etched on her face. Some quite natural of course (I have a stunningly beautiful prepubescent daughter and I feel the familiar etchings), but some of the anxiety was cloudy and ominous. “Don’t have too many experiences,” she said more than once, “Or when you meet Mr. Right, he won’t be happy with you.” I’d snap back that Mr. Right is going to be thrilled that I know how to give a proper blow- job (oh the wit of a 21 year old!) but I sensed the tip-of-the-iceberg quality to her anxiety.
Later that iceberg was made clear. After marrying, my parents had a difficult time conceiving before my brothers and I came along. I know to my bones mom equates her youthful sexual activity with initial infertility. This breaks my heart.
The legacy of sexual shame, laid out between generations like a trail of breadcrumbs that all lead straight to the womb. Ancient, unmistakable, lethal.
I am 13 weeks pregnant with twin boys, conceived through fertility. My daughter Charlotte, also an IVF baby, is two and a half. She is displaying the first signs of cognitive differences – not talking, lack of fine motor skills – although she is a vibrant and emotionally connected child. I am thrilled to be pregnant again.
We do a CVS and discover one of the boys has a chromosomal abnormality. I am shocked, numb. My husband is shooting a movie so I take the lead in researching this condition and talking to a geneticist at the hospital. I try to formulate a plan as my heart was literally breaking in half; I was working 60 hours a week and mothering a special needs two year old.
The abnormality has many potentialities but few certainties. There are most likely (although not definitely) cognitive impairments, possibly quite significant. I know in my bones I cannot mother two special needs children under the age of three – and a typical twin to boot. Brad feels the same way. There is no doubt, and I feel comforted by the fact that after this terrible ordeal I will still be pregnant with a healthy boy.
We travel to a strip mall past LAX. This doctor is the expert in this kind of thing — aborting one twin while keeping safe the other – and she is kind. Still, there is something non-descript about the office – are we trying to hide what happens here? In case the Federales come busting in? She looks at the fetus, who is not moving as robustly as his brother. She assures me that he probably would not make it anyway. She injects the needle into his heart. Brad and I cry quietly. There is something holy happening in that room. Parents who know the meaning of special needs making a decision for their children, this fetus being one of them. “And now it’s done,” the doctor says quietly. I am sad, but relieved. No Christmas morning feeling like when I was 21, but relief nonetheless.
Because she is an expert doctor, there is but a 1 percent chance that I lose the other fetus. Four days later, I do. Six days later I have a DNC and the 14-week pregnancy is history.
I’d be lying to say my Unitarian soul didn’t turn Catholic there for a while. “I shouldn’t have had the abortion, I should’ve raised both boys, I should’ve, I should’ve”. But even as I played this Greek drama, I know it was Grief speaking, pure and simple. I didn’t really regret what I did. As Charlotte’s special needs became more apparent, there was no doubt I couldn’t have handled another special needs child – or didn’t choose to. At that time “choice” seemed luxurious. Was I a bad mother for not sacrificing my every waking moment to motherhood? Didn’t I want to earn the Mother Courage award? How dare I have an active hand in creating a life that was right for me? How dare I?
Brad and I went on to have our almost-eight year old son Bodhi Russell, but I don’t want to make this another “this is the child I was supposed to have” saccharine story. Those twin boys might have been fantastic; the one’s chromosomal issue may have been minor – we’ll never know. What I do know? That I was allowed, by law and by human right, to have a hand in creating a family that I could sustain. That I was treated with dignity by the medical practioners who cared for me. And that I greet my children with gratitude and consciousness every day because I do not feel trapped by them, which is the state that most parents have found themselves in for the past, oh, four millennia.
Like many Americans – men and women – I watch the current political discussion concerning choice with a mixture of horror and outright amusement. Talk about an SNL sketch! The anger comes later, at the fetishizing of motherhood, at the idea that parenthood begins at conception, at the tortuous practice of forcing a woman to listen to the heartbeat of a child she knows she has no desire to have.
In our hearts we all know that real parenthood is a series of covenants between parent and child. Some small bond happens at conception, I suppose, but the big bonds happen at 4 am croup-y feedings, spending all weekend at deathly dull soccer tournaments, or consulting the 40th doctor about behavioral problems. The political romanticizing of the heartbeat, then the total abandonment for the actual support for parenting – Head Start, medical coverage, good public schools – make my blood boil. Those eight white men that I watched in 1987 who knew nothing about choice are shockingly still among us. At 21, I never could have imagined that the conversation would have stalled so badly, or worse, gone backwards. As I said to my gay friend last election cycle: “Jesus, Sergio, we’re going to figure out this gay thing before we figure out if I have control over my own uterus!”
I don’t know why that is, exactly, but I have a feeling the folks in this room could tell me. Nancy Keenan has enlightened me about the perennial nature of this sovereignty-over-one’s-own –body thing, that perhaps the journey is not linear at all — a law was passed in 1973 that that’s that. Perhaps each generation of young women and men must declare anew their human right to decide how and when to start a family, and that starting a family is not about intercourse. Brad and I shacked up with our fertility doctor there for a couple of years there and had endless discussions over every single aspect of family making: our feelings about multiples, special needs, adoption. Once, exhausted, I said I was jealous of my brother and his wife, who seem to just look at each other and get pregnant. Brad, ever the glass half full guy, replied, “But look at how much we’ve discussed before our children are even here. Look how much more conscious we’ve been forced to become. Look at how much they are wanted.”
The abortion discussion is about good, conscious parenting. It’s not about killing babies. It’s about giving babies a fighting chance to be born into families that desire them and can support them. Anti-choice folks continue the legacy of sexual shame and punishment that women have been branded with forever, the trail of breadcrumbs leading straight back to the womb. It is a lie. As with all lies, it falls apart on close examination, like our sputtering pro-life candidates did on national television. But unexamined? The lie continues to cast a shadow of shame, forcing women to do reckless, demeaning things as they gasp to reclaim the life that they have every right to choose.
How dare they?