Paths Not Taken
Several years ago, I wrote a piece for Rebecca Walker’s Huffington Post blog about being the third generation in my family to have a surprise pregnancy. My focus was on how much better the situation was for me because of legal and societal changes, but I only wrote about my second surprise pregnancy, the one that I chose to continue, not my first surprise pregnancy, which I had chosen to terminate. Now, I wonder why that was.
In part, it was an issue of privacy; there were family members who didn’t know. At the time, though, it was really that I couldn’t figure out how it could comfortably fit in the narrative. Abortion didn’t seem useful as a choice in a story, seeming more like a closed door, a path not taken instead of a propelling action. I thought it was simply a choice not to do something.
In the United States, of course, we make choices all the time, big and small. It’s a defining part of our national identity. A friend who immigrated from the Soviet Union as a child tells a story of the first time his parents had to buy toothpaste here, how they stood briefly paralyzed in front of shelf after shelf of tarter control and mint and polishing options. In the Soviet Union, in proper Communist fashion, everyone got the same toothpaste. Flavor choice would be a bourgeois distraction.
We have long enjoyed toothpaste freedom in this country, but most choices, including that one, are limited by other factors: economic situation, regional toothpaste availability. The bigger the choice, the more out of reach the options become. We have the freedom to buy whichever house we want, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that we can afford every house, or that we’ll be welcomed into the neighborhood. The freedom to choose our destiny, the cornerstone of American citizenship, has frequently been constrained based on identity. Still, choice defines all our lives.
I reconnected with my daughter’s father on a night so cold, Mayor Bloomberg was advising us to stay home. I took the mayor’s advice, and spent much of the evening surfing the net. Googling was still a bit of a novelty in 2003, so it was with a bit of giddiness that I decided to look up the cute boy from high school I’d talked to once. He had a website with contact info, so I emailed him. Why not? Could be interesting.
An exchange of emails followed, then a date back in Brookline, our hometown, where he still lived, then weekends spent riding buses back and forth. Finally, I decided to move back home for a test period, to see where things might go with Mr. Dreamy.
I got knocked up my first official day back. In the excitement and chaos of the move, it turned out, I had missed a pill or two, and we’d both been tested for everything, so we didn’t use a condom. I was sluggish and cranky for a month, and I didn’t know why. I was unhappy, we were arguing, and then I found out I was pregnant. It was too soon, and things were too upended. Even though my then-boyfriend dramatically promised to provide a stable and happy life for me and any baby that might eventually exist, I knew it was the wrong time. A couple of years before, I’d spent a hour watching male weaver birds preparing nests for their female counterparts, who were getting ready to lay eggs. The metaphorical significance had stuck with me. We didn’t have a secure nest. I was grateful to have the economic resources and regional availability that enabled me to terminate a pregnancy I didn’t want to pursue.
Planned Parenthood had relocated to a more secure building after the deadly shooting there in 1994. We passed through a metal detector to get in, and my then-boyfriend wasn’t allowed to come back with me into the surgical area. When I came out two hours later, he was in the waiting room with bags of groceries from the Star Market next door. He got us a cab, and he took me home to take care of me while I recovered.
In the months following, we settled into a homey routine, getting to know our rhythms, connecting in a deeper, steadier way. Marriage and possible future children were frequent topics of discussion. We started to go to my childhood UU church, just around the corner, every week. One week, he made gumbo for the coffee hour. That was sexy as hell. We conceived our daughter that afternoon. I’d had food poisoning the week before, and, as it turned out, thrown up my birth control pill, but didn’t consider that in the throes of passion.
We got married.
The second bedroom in our apartment transitioned from my office to the baby’s room. I had no solid employment in the Boston area yet, it made sense for me to be the full-time parent for a year, instead of getting a job just to pay for childcare. An amazing child came into our lives, a person who I now know more profoundly than any other human I have ever known, still growing into someone who surprises me on a regular basis. People came into my life who I would never have known if they hadn’t had kids the same age as mine. I lost track of old friends who I never saw anymore. Paths appeared, paths disappeared, all because of this decision to continue the second pregnancy.
The nest we’d created wasn’t as sturdy as we thought, and the boyfriend who had become my husband became my ex-husband with a new wife and a new baby.
Life is a choose-your-own-adventure book, but without the limited selection of set endings. My decision to have an abortion, as it turned out was not a decision to not do something, but just a decision to do something else, as all decisions are. The decision to have an abortion was a tougher and more emotional decision than whether to stay home that cold night and Google cute boys from high school. Still, it would be hard to say which decision ended up being more significant, in the long run. Deciding to continue that second pregnancy, and bringing my kid into the world, that was the most significant decision I have ever made. That was a choice not to be taken lightly. It was a sad choice, but it was sad because I was mourning something that could have maybe happened, but didn’t, a baby that never existed. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another chance to have a baby. At the same time, I didn’t know how that pregnancy might have ended if I’d let it continue. Might I have had a miscarriage or complications that injured me irreparably, or killed me? It astounds me that there are people who believe that I shouldn’t have made that decision for myself.
I am old enough that I have a respectable list of things that might have been and never were because of choices I made. I’ve made a lot of choices. I never knew how any of those choices would work out. No one does. Not really. Some of the choices have been agonizing, and some I’m fairly sure I botched. I’m still grateful I had the privilege of making them.
Jen Deaderick has written on gender and citizenship for the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Dame Magazine, She is currently writing an illustrated history of the women's citizenship in the United States, and runs the popular and lively Equal Rights Amendment page on Facebook.