The Dark Mother Is Both Birth and Death

I discovered I was pregnant the day I started graduate school at Juilliard. My boyfriend was living in a sleeping bag on his father’s floor in a part of New Jersey I hope never to see again. I don’t remember his response. But I do remember my first day as part of the Playwrights Program - a lunch with our mentors, a city cruise for all incoming students. I remember standing on the deck of that boat looking at the Manhattan skyline wondering, why now? Spider-Man was right. I’d finally gotten a chance to prove my power as a writer, but with great power comes great responsibility. I’d have to grow up.

My therapist and my mom urged me not to have it; neither of them felt that the relationship would last, and hadn’t I just gotten my shit together and gone back to school after seven years of waitressing and drifting? My grandmother offered to pay for an abortion. I took the money and took care of the problem.  

But I was desperately in love with this boyfriend, who was everything I wanted in a man, except that he wasn’t an adult. Every time he looked at me, I trembled. Every time he walked into a room I thought he’d brought the light along with him. But these things are not an indication that one should breed. Four years younger than me, he was new to the city and reluctant to make commitments.  He couldn’t say for sure that he wanted to be with me. And he couldn’t leave. 

We were in this situation because we were immature when it came to birth control. My boyfriend was allegedly allergic to spermicide and found condoms intolerable. I tried to do that Lysistrata thing where I’d deny sex, but he said he didn’t care and would rather go without it than have to sheathe his member in latex. Aghast, I wound up fucking him anyway. He called my bluff, and I lost. We were on a wild ride of withdrawal, fertility awareness, occasional abstinence and abandon.

I went to the appointment alone - he had to work -  and I think I was alone most of that weekend. After the abortion, I focused on school and writing and I tried harder than anything to keep this relationship intact. Like I said, I loved him. 

A wise friend promised, “Even if you have an abortion, you will give birth.” Nine months to the date, my first year at Juilliard behind me, I was packing for a residency in Denver. And I was pregnant again. I couldn’t believe it. Hadn’t we learned our lesson the first time?! How stupid was I?! This time, my boyfriend had his own apartment but was mostly stoned and very apt to tell me that even though he’d moved to the city, he was in no way ready to settle down. In fact, the night before I took the pregnancy test, he asked me for space. He said, “I moved to the city for you, and I don’t know who I am here without you.” I replied, “I’m going away for the summer. Take all the space you want.” 

But suddenly there I was, pregnant again. Obviously this called for another talk. He was, to my great surprise, happy about it. “Well, that’s that.” he said. I didn’t understand. 

He said, “If there were a kid, I’d stay.” 

I said, “That’s not good enough.”

His mother said, “This is exactly what he needs to straighten up,” and I said, "No." I said, “You don’t stay because there’s a kid. It’s the other way around! You have a kid once you’ve chosen to commit.” I said, “Kids need a foundation.” My boyfriend and his mom apparently believed the opposite: kids bring the foundation. 

I left for my residency a few days later. Dead set against a second medical abortion, I consulted an herbalist and tried to induce miscarriage with a combination of tinctures known to do just that. I took the herbs every day for over a week until I became so sick I could barely go to rehearsal. At which point my friends intervened and said, "Stop." 

A few days later, I went to a local hospital and had an abortion, which was, thank God, legal even though I was in a red state.  

The doctor said, “ Are you sure you want to do this?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “It looks like twins.”

I said, “My boyfriend doesn’t want to be in a relationship, and I’m in graduate school and working as an office temp. If I can’t pay for one baby, how am I supposed to pay for two?”

He didn’t get the joke. 

After it was over, I was sore and sad. I called my boyfriend that night crying. He said, “Don’t look at me. I would have had it.” 

And then I went to New Mexico for the rest of the summer, heartbroken and sad, ready to dream myself whole. I didn’t feel good. But I knew I’d done the right thing.  

There is an art to timing, a holiness.  The Mother contains both birth and death. In 1998, in my friend’s house in New Mexico, I told myself that in this case, having an abortion was the right way to be a good mother. 

I have written about almost every aspect of my life. But I don’t talk about these two abortions. I’m not ashamed of them. I do not regret them. I stand by the choices I made that year. I am an ardently pro-choice feminist who has been marching for reproductive freedom since 1989. But my actual experience was complicated and painful. And you never know where people stand. So I mostly keep it to myself.

The choice to not have a child is as weighted and as poignant as the choice to have one. In my case, I loved my boyfriend and wanted to be a mother. Just not yet. It was as if there were two parts of me: the wishful thinker who believed True Love would save the day and the pragmatist who knew that one of us should have a job or health insurance if we were really going to do this. The part of me that shrunk when he said he’d need a baby in order to make a commitment was the part of me I listened to. And I am very grateful that I did. 

Now that I have a child, I know just how awful a choice it would have been to see either of those pregnancies to term. Not only would I have had to drop out of school, I may not have been able to stay in New York. I wouldn’t have been able to become a playwright or filmmaker. I would barely have supported myself, let alone my kid, and I don’t have family money to bail me out. I would have ended up a compromised person. But more importantly, I did not have the skill level I do now, the ability to raise a child, to put his needs before my own. I barely knew what my own needs were in 1998. I had to become a whole person first. 

This isn’t true of every pregnant woman. Some young women make excellent mothers. Some women really do find their true purpose through raising their children at a young age. I just wasn’t one of them. I could only be a good mother once I’d built a container for my child to come into, to be supported by, once I was actually an adult. And for some of us, that just takes time. 

For years, my ex-boyfriend would confront me with “Why did you kill my babies?”

I never have a good answer. 

Today he’s happily married with two kids and a wife who isn’t me. I’m happily married too. With a beautiful son. And a husband who isn’t him.

But this is not a love story. This is a story about choice and timing.

Brooke Berman is a playwright, screenwriter and author of three nonfiction books including the memoir No Place Like Home and the writing guide Nine Weeks To A Wonderfully Imperfect First Draft. Her plays have been seen at theaters including Steppenwolf, The Humana Festival, Second Stage, Primary Stages and others. Her short film Uggs For Gaza premiered at the Aspen International Shorts Fest where it won Audience Special Recognition. She is currently raising money for her feature debut, Polly Freed. Brooke is a graduate of the Juilliard School and Barnard College. She has never before written about her experiences with abortion.

StoriesBrooke Berman