Author’s note: This tender piece is published here because I’m a parent of teen–and because it takes a village and a voice–and a whole lot more to raise them. I forced myself to sit down and write this story–and then share it (privately) several years ago when my friend’s 15 year old daughter was considering sex. Recently, I found the courage to share it with my own son, who in response said, “I feel like I don’t know you… Like you’re a book I’ve been reading all my life and I’ve suddenly found a bunch of pages stuck together that I never noticed before.” And then he said something even more tender, “You have to share this, Mom. You have to put this out there, where everyone can read it.”
Part I: In LOVE
I fell in love at 15, nine months after my family moved back home to the shore to be near my grandparents.
I remember the very first time I saw M. as he peeked out behind the curtains at play practice. I was on the cast and he was on the crew and the director wasn’t looking. M. made me laugh again and again. His mother made the costumes downstairs. I’d asked her to refit one of mine twice. Later M. would tell me that his mother said to him that I was a spoiled doctor’s daughter. I’d only wanted the costume to better cover my breasts.
That was the fall. In the spring M. swaggered across the cafeteria from the upperclassmen side to the underclassmen side and saddled in across from me at the long table. As if on cue, the other underclassmen fled, until it was just M. and I. M. smiled at that, and then at me, cocking his head this way and that, as if to assess how to best proceed with me.
“Do you want to?” he said.
I looked back confused. M. continued: “What do you think?” he said. “You and me,” he said. “Friday night,” he said.
I don’t remember saying “Yes,” but I do remember M.’s crinkly eyes and his playfulness and how it softened me inside.
My heart had been broken the previous summer. An accident took the life of my beloved, my north star, my axis. My grandmother.
I’d had a boyfriend twice already, but by comparison those had been training wheel relationships. M. swept me up in his humor and self-confidence and surprising comfort in matters of the heart. M. literally taught me how to kiss, and even how to hug, how to lift my arms and wrap them around him. Like my grandmother, he left me feeling adored and deeply loved–at a time when I was literally aching for both but didn’t know where to find it.
M. and I felt blessed by the enormity of our love for each other. “Don’t worry about sex,” he’d whisper, “I can wait. I can wait forever.” Six months passed and M. turned 18. He was then an adult while I was still legally considered a child. I knew the laws. I was a bright young woman. We were both focused students. He was on the track and cross country teams. I was in all the plays and the French club. We each worked more than one job in the summer. We went out for fancy dinners. Mrs. M. said that I would ruin his grades, but I never did. In December, I turned 16 and in February on the floor of his mother’s sewing room where our bodies were joined as they so often were, but fully clothed, I whispered, “Now.”
M. was as perplexed by my words then as I had been in the cafeteria when he first sat down across from me. “What?” he whispered.
“Now,” I said again. But I had to explain clearly what I meant before he would proceed.
Trembling and flushed, we “attempted” intercourse though “Love” was something we’d been making all along. Intercourse didn’t quite work. M. wondered if there was something “wrong” anatomically with me, and he suggested I ask my mother about it. I laughed out loud there on his mother’s sewing room floor, imagining how that conversation would unfold, “Hey, Mom, M. and I were trying to have sex in on his mother’s sewing room floor, and he wondered if the uteruses in our family were tilted or something because he had trouble getting in.
The only “conversation” my mother and I had about sex was a drive-by in the kitchen which would happen months later when she spewed: “Do you know the teenage pregnancy rate!” I assumed it a rhetorical question and I kept moving. And that was the end of it.
My mother had been pregnant at 18. The father had been a tall, blonde, blue-eyed life guard. They’d already gone their separate ways by the time she missed her first period. Her parents sent her to a home for unwed mothers and my older sister who I never knew about was adopted. My mother would later confide this to me and M. in the kitchen when he and I were home from college.
By the end of February, when I was 16 and he was 18, M. and I had sex figured out without any consultation; and by mid-spring, less than a year after we first met, I missed my first period. We had learned a bit about birth control at our Catholic highschool, but birth control was for “sex,” not for love, and we were told not to use it, and we had no idea where to get it anyway. I can’t remember if we were trying to “be careful.” I think we avoided the middle of the month, but we’re both Irish. Within weeks of missing my period, I began to feel nauseous. I can’t remember much more than terror.
I was the oldest of 6 girls. The oldest of an entire generation of cousins, mostly girls, and I was upheld, again and again, as an example for the others. “See how Kelly Ann does this. See how Kelly Ann does that. Isn’t Kelly Ann smart. Isn’t Kelly Ann pretty. Isn’t Kelly Ann…”
Perfect “Kelly Ann” was now sitting at Planned Parenthood waiting for the results of her urine test. (You couldn’t buy those at the dollar store then–or even at a pharmacy.) An older woman whose strength reminded me of beloved grandmother’s, gone then from my life 2 years, invited me into her office and told me what I already knew. She wanted to discuss options–adoption–but I cut her off. “Make the appointment,” I said.
M. drove me to Atlantic City. The clinic was above a florist. The waiting room was carpeted with large desk in front of a door which led to another waiting room outside a small laboratory. I remember sitting in that narrow laboratory hallway in plastic bucket seats among a handful of other girls waiting for the results of our pregnancy-confirming blood draws. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t look at anyone. I didn’t breathe.
I remember the pre-op room and the tiny cubicle beside it where I had to go just before the procedure. A tall, kind woman sat across from me in the dark asking if I was sure. Did I want to change my mind? I was repulsed at her kindness given what I was about to do.
M. said I was brave. But I knew I was despicable.
I remember being wheeled into the operating room, the doctor and his assistants jovial and polite. I remember counting backwards and I remember that I woke giggling–cruel affects from the anesthesia–in a room filled with others on stretchers.
Before I could escape his place and never look back, there was another room with a low circular table upon which sat juice and perfectly round store-bought cookies like I’d been served as a girl in my best dress and patent leather shoes and white tights at Sunday School. Though I’d at first refused the offer, the kind woman in that room insisted I eat something–for the sugar–even as I refused her counseling.
And so it was that self-contempt was thrust into the mix of love and love-making in my relationship with M. and it never quite extracted itself. We were at the drive-in, on a late spring evening, two weeks before we had made it through the six-week waiting period–when we couldn’t wait any longer. Our bodies raged with hormones seeking familiar expression. Consolation. Connection. Absolution. Afterward, we both felt a rise of self-loathing that we had never known, particularly given the risk we’d taken with my healing body. We learned then that we could no longer trust passion. That we could no longer trust each other. Or ourselves.
Within weeks, the familiar nauseous feeling returned and my breasts swelled like a mother’s instead of a teen’s. I was working at the hospital in the lab that summer, riding back and forth with my father. The drive from the island to the mainland offered a special space of connection between us, one that his busy schedule rarely afforded. From time to time that summer, my father would even join me for lunch in the hospital’s “Cheery Corner” where I ordered a grilled cheese and he, a BLT. On the ride home I’d share a pack of Rolos that I picked up in the store with my own earnings while I waited for him to finish his rounds. And yet, there was an entire world between us that summer, a world I had not revealed to anyone, but my closest friends.
One day that summer, my secret was threatened. A doughy man with dark hair approached my desk in the laboratory, and in a hushed voice asked how I was doing. There was an odd sincerity about him, and when I looked up at him quizzically, he explained that he worked in the lab at Planned Pregnancy on the weekends and he’d run my pregnancy test. My face must have frozen–because he quickly backed away and never said another word to me that entire summer.
Decades later, I wish I could thank him for his tenderness. And holler at him for such a transgression. And talk to him for support. I needed an adult’s perspective.
It’s hard to distinguish one blackened memory from another, but what I do remember about my second time in Atlantic City above the florist is that there were complications–something that required I return for check ups. I also remember that M. packed a picnic lunch and that we went to the park afterward, and ate silently, under a bleak summer sun while children played all around us.
My father made an appointment for me to visit his Alma mater that very weekend and so despite the medical necessity for rest, I traveled to Philadelphia and walked across an entire campus. M. hovered around that day and I can see us there on the landing up four flights of stairs at the Villanova library–my parents ahead of us, looking down, asking whatever was the matter with me. And in that moment, I felt my entire childhood slip away.
Part II: Loss
After my second abortion, I’d returned to the Planned Pregnancy and gained a solid and practical know how. I assessed the pregnancy statistics and other variables, and decided upon a diaphram with spermicide. M. and I never had unprotected sex again, not once–but after two abortions, sex never felt the same between us–at least not for me.
That fall M. went off to college first, living with relatives that he could afford school. I had PE last period on Fridays, and from inside the locker room I could be heard belting out, “I have got love, ove… on my mind… I’ve got love… on my mind,” anticipating M’s weekend return. Soon however, he parents insisted he stay in the city more often so that he could keep up with this studies. One mid-winter eve, M. reserved a hotel room in Cape May so that we could be together without his parents knowing he was back in town. We went to a friend’s party first where M. had too much to drink. The night was dark and windy and frigid when we arrived back to the hotel. When I think of that room overlooking the ocean, I feel the chill inside me. As we crawled into bed, M. began to rage at me with ugly words of condemnation. Abortion had been my choice, not his, he said. And this was true. He’d suggested we get married. He’d even found an apartment and a job at the local grocery store. But I couldn’t bear that for either of us. I knew how important it was for him to get out of our town and out of the blue-collar life his parents led. I knew he would resent me and eventually leave or cheat. And there was no way I was ending up like my mother and grandmothers, with a dead-end life, and there was no way I could face my extended family who thought so much of me with that disgrace. I didn’t defend myself against M. that night and it wasn’t the first time he’d railed against me like this, but it was the singularly ugliest time. Afterward, I let him cry, and I resented him for his weakness.
We struggled to maintain our relationship through college especially as I became more and more independent, and he became more and more controlling. Ultimately what had once felt like a unique and sacred gift, had curdled into a source of anguish for us both, though neither would let go. We pushed and pulled for seven years, through which I left to live in London and study abroad and then returned again to back pack my way through Europe after college. That I was the one who was always leaving M. behind, he was the one who finally ended things by falling in love with someone else–and not mentioning it until after they were engaged.
III. Letting Go
I was standing in my kitchen in Vermont, 7 years and 300 miles away, when M. called. I was stunned to hear his voice on the handset that I held next to my ear, the cord dangling over my belly. I was three, maybe four months pregnant. He’d heard that I suffered two miscarriages, he said, and that news had excavated a depth of feeling inside him that he hadn’t known since loving me.
We talked then of our happy marriages and of how closely we escaped the doom of remaining together.
He told me about his daughters, and offered his deep regret about our shared past and his belief that my miscarriages were a result of what happened between us which at 18 was his fault.
Before we hung up, he wished me the best with my pregnancy and he checked back in often that winter, calling every few weeks or so.
Those were dark days for me, unfolding in fear that I would lose another pregnancy, days where I had to face the pain that I had never fully felt at 16. I remember another phone call with my mother where I confessed in sobbing convulsions, afraid that I would never get to be a mother like her. I had admired my mother and a younger sister who’d both chosen adoption when they found themselves pregnant, and I wondered why I had been able to be mercenary.
Are you even yet?” a body worked had asked as she rocked her hands across my womb after my first two miscarriages. “Two for two,” she said, of the abortions I had confided through sobs.
“Yes,” I said, ready to stop punishing myself.
9 months later I gave birth to my first son.
Part IV: Perspective
Regrets? What would I do if I could back in time? Sadly, I would have chosen abortion again if faced with pregnancy at 16. But what I wish I could have done differently is not get pregnant. Armed with that wisdom after my two abortions, I spent my late teens and early twenties educating every friend I knew about birth control. At 19, however, after a drunken party, I found myself back at Planned Pregnancy peeing in a cup. I knew if I was pregnant this time, I wouldn’t have another abortion. There was no excuse. But I wouldn’t get married either. The man wasn’t M. My best friend waited outside Planned Pregnancy for me in her car, and I came out leaping out across the parking lot with a prescription in my pocket. I wasn’t pregnant; and I was going on the pill.
For years I kept my abortions secret–a hidden soiling on the cloak of my life though there were moments when I longed for some kind of absolution. In the months before I became pregnant with my first son, I sat across from a fellow teacher who made reference to her own abortion; and trembling inside, I was suddenly freed to release mine. Gradually, I told some of my family members and in doing so I freed myself from the pedestal of family pride. This past week–thirty years from the first time I saw M. behind the curtain at play practice, I offered up my abortions in a conversation with a good friend, who to my surprise, was surprised to hear of it.
I realized then that my abortions had become part of who I am–good and bad– something I longer considered “news” or even private. The time had come, I realized, to write this story and put it out into the world so that others might know that the good and bad in them doesn’t have to be kept separate either. I write with deep love for that troubled 16 year old girl and with deep compassion for all those who struggle with any aspect of their sexuality. Sex is a true, but fragile gift, and ought not be put in such young hands, but having been so, must be treasured and guided so that all might know the gift of love and making love for as many years as I have.
The fallout of my relationship with M. put me in the hands of my best friend and most patient lover, Casey. Twenty-three years into our relationship and I realize that we are one of those more than contented middle-aged couples. (They still exist, don’t they?) It is Casey’s trustworthiness and love that has enabled me to reclaim all that was lost in my relationship with M.–my precious passion, my full sexuality, my tender heart.
Is it a betrayal to our marriage that I write of the depth of my feelings for M.?
Is it a betrayal of motherhood, that I choose the right for abortion?
Is it a betrayal of the gift of life that I so easily took it?
My story and my learning is far from over. I know this because almost thirty years later, the word “abortion” still chills and constricts me from the inside out; and once again, I feel that familiar ache inside my pelvis.
Approaching 45, I realize that although I have two sons, I have been pregnant six times.
I offer my unfolding path in the hope that it might warm and lighten your own.
Peace in all hearts,
ps. 5 years after this piece, at the age of 50, I was asked to publish one of my blog posts in the local paper. It was the hardest “Yes,” I have ever said. I checked in with my husband and with my older son (who had been the one to encourage me to originally share this writing on abortion) and even his girlfriend–to be sure they were okay about this being local and public. Then I broke the news of my abortion to my younger son, but this time there was no drama. I simply told him and he received it in the same way. There was something very significant about this for me.
This is what I published in the local paper: Anti-Abortion AND Pro-Choice