My mother explained where babies come from when I was fairly young, which was a very good, healthy thing, although it did get me in trouble once.
I was about five or so, playing with a friend who was a year younger than me. She told me that soon she would have a little brother or sister; her parents, she explained, would be going to the baby store. I thought she was making a clever joke and laughed, which puzzled her.
When I realized she was serious, I told her there was no such thing as a baby store, she must have misunderstood. She insisted that there was and went into her house.
The next thing I knew, her grandmother came to the door and started yelling that I was a bad, dirty girl and should go home – I was not allowed over any more. Startled, I ran home crying. I told my mother everything that had happened while she cuddled me, stroking my hair and telling me I wasn’t bad or dirty.
I asked her why my friend’s parents would say something like that. My mother explained that sometimes parents tell their children stories, and I had to respect that and not interfere (we’d already had a similar conversation about not saying Santa wasn’t real when talking to the Catholic boy next door).
I nodded and said, still crying a little, “But I was right, wasn’t I? There is no baby store?” She laughed and hugged me, and assured me that I was indeed correct, which was a relief.
As I got older my mother continued my sex education. I learned about menstruation more than a year before I started getting my period, and so when it happened I wasn’t scared or freaked out in any way.
Actually, there was something rather tribal about it – I was at a sleepover at my school, in a room with several other girls, ages 10 through 13. One of the older girls saw me walking around in my pajamas and asked me if I’d hurt myself. When I told her no she said excitedly, “In that case Sheva, I think you just got your period!”. Everyone started hugging and congratulating me, and three of the older girls swept me into the bathroom; it’s hard to imagine a more supportive way to usher in puberty.
I guess it was a couple of years after that when my mother sat me down and told me about a trip we had taken, roughly a decade earlier. At the time she was 38 and my dad was 43; they had been married for 11 years, had already weathered one separation and a few financial setbacks, and were now living together with 3-year-old me and my 8-year-old brother Gordon in our tiny row house. Things were rolling along – then my mother learned she was pregnant, and knew she did not want to be.
My parents had been using birth control; it failed. I don’t know all the reasons my parents had for not wanting a third child, nor do I need to know. Perhaps if circumstances had been different – if they’d had more money, if they’d been younger – they might have decided to carry that pregnancy to term. There’s no way of knowing.
I can tell you it had nothing to do with not wanting or loving children. No children were ever wanted or loved more than Gordon and me. My mother was an educator and was devoted to every child that crossed her path; my father doted on all of my and my brother’s friends; they loved all of their nieces and nephews.
Whatever their reasons, they made the decision in a place and time when there was no legal right to make that decision, and no legal means to carry it out.
How did they know where to turn in those days? Where people have always turned. Everyone knew of a person who knew someone who could give you a name. So my parents asked and found someone, and thankfully for all of us, the person they found was a caring, competent doctor. A man willing to risk his practice and jail to help women who needed his services, who did what he could to ensure that women didn't have to end up bleeding on a kitchen table, or worse.
And so my father bundled us into the car and drove from Philadelphia to somewhere near the other end of the state, for what was probably a good six-hour drive. Yes, the whole family went on this trip, although of course my brother and I didn’t know what was going on.
"We all went together?" I asked. "Whose idea was that?"
My mother explained that my father made the decision to turn it into a family trip, so that my brother and I wouldn't have to stay at a relative’s house, feel confused or scared, or have any bad memory of "the time mommy went away."
She thought that had been very smart of him, and I agreed with her. Looking back, I think he did it as much for her as for us, so that she wouldn’t have to spend any more time away from us than was absolutely necessary, and would be surrounded by the family that loved and needed her so much.
We checked into a nearby hotel suggested by the doctor, and in the morning my mother went to his office, alone, while my father stayed with us.
About the actual abortion my mother said very little, except that it went fairly quickly and without any complications or much pain. When she came back to the hotel my father asked her if she was OK; when she told him she was, he said “Good – keep your coat on, I promised the kids we’d take them for pancakes."
And that was it, she said. We had our pancakes and returned home.
At this point in my mother’s story I suddenly thought about a drive through Valley Forge Park when I was very little. I’d always remembered playing in the snow and running around the little house-like structures there, but it was an isolated memory, not associated with anything else. I asked her if my memory of the park was connected to this trip.
"Yes," she said. "You and Gordon wanted to take a look around so we stopped on the way home." I sat there, stunned.
That small, simple recollection of mine was part of what I could only assume had been a traumatic event for my parents. "No," my mother assured me, "it wasn’t traumatic."
"We knew we were doing the right thing," she said.
Then she told me about my father’s World War II experiences, serving overseas as part of a medical unit. A nurse had been sleeping with one of the doctors; when she learned she was pregnant, he turned his back on her.
Some of the others, including my father, rallied around her and helped her find a doctor who could perform an abortion. "Your father told me about that," she said, "how he felt so bad for her, being in that situation and having to deal with it alone. He never forgot it." Little wonder he turned his wife’s abortion into a family outing.
"But how did you feel afterward," I asked her? "How do you feel about it now?"
She held my hands and told me that neither she nor my father ever, not even once, regretted their decision, that she knew they'd made the right choice for her and for our family.
"Did she ever think about that child?"
"Yes," she said. There had been times, for example, when she would think “Well, he would have been six now” (she was sure it had been a boy). But it never made her sad, she promised me. Our family was on the brink of more troubles -- my father would be out of work, my mother would suffer from a debilitating depression -- and these left her more confident than ever that she and my father made the right choice and the best decision.
As I sat there, letting everything I’d just heard settle, my mother said she’d told me the story because she felt I was old enough to know. She also cautioned me, as she did so many times, for all sorts of reasons, not to say anything to my father. I never did.
Even after she was gone, when my relationship with him changed to one between two adults, I never told him. I used to wonder if he knew she had told me. Given how smart he was, and how close he knew my mother and I were, I’m sure he did know. I’m sure if I had wanted to talk about it he would have, but he was never going to mention it. I came close to bringing it up once or twice, but always put it off for another time, and that time just never came.
Lately I’ve thought about my mother’s experience, and I think about the decades following Roe vs Wade. I have volunteered as a clinic escort; I’ve seen how abusive and cruel the protesters can be, to the women entering those clinics and to anyone with them. I know the things they would have screamed at my mother, and how devastating that would have been for her.
That’s the awful irony of it – in some ways she was actually better off to have had this happen when seeking an abortion was simply a criminal act, committed in secrecy. But then again, she was extremely lucky, and luck shouldn’t have to be a factor in such circumstances.
I know the necessity of women having full control over their bodies and full access to all reproductive health services. I know only too well the many horror stories that took place during the years before abortion was legal -- the back alley butchers, the caustic chemicals women swallowed in desperation, the punctured cervices, the maimed, the dead.
I know, and I worry, because there are too many in this country that would be happy to see those days return, who do not concern themselves with women’s health or well-being, who would like to see women afforded fewer rights to bodily autonomy than a corpse. That’s why it’s so important for every woman’s abortion story to be told, and heard.
But thankfully not every story is a nightmare, and not every story has a terrible ending. Some stories include wise, loving parents and happy children, and are as simple as pancakes and a visit to a national park.