I told my husband he could be the one to look at the pregnancy test first. After all, it was he who, after 12 months of trying to conceive, had the feeling we’d hit the jackpot this month; he who’d cycled to CVS to pick up the pregnancy tests the minute I giddily admitted that not only was I two days late, but that I was also tired with sore breasts.
When he emerged from the bathroom, clutching sticks with plus signs, I thought his smile would explode and take over the universe. “Really? Really?” I asked, clinging to him in delighted shock. We’d done it. We were pregnant. My body had stopped screwing me over.
Under the right circumstances, this state of first-time motherhood is so exciting that, despite the exhaustion and sickness, I was in denial that anything could go wrong. Once we hit the “safe” mark of 12 weeks, we couldn’t wait to unleash the news on everyone.
I was studying for a Masters in English at The University of Louisville in Kentucky and was thrilled to be taking a course on the “cult of motherhood.” I could at last understand everything the female writers from the 19th century felt; I was part of their gang. After four years at a stressful job (physical side effects of which included hives and headaches) in New York City (physical side effects of which included insomnia and cracked heels), I had moved down South with my husband, moved into a pretty home, and settled into life at a student’s pace. The move couldn’t have come at a better time for me, my body or my baby.
Because of my apparent dotage (I would be 35 years old when the baby arrived), my pregnancy was deemed high risk for genetic disorders so, along with our first scan at 12 weeks and 2 days, the doctors performed a Nuchal Translucency procedure which involved a blood test and an ultrasound that would measure the fluid behind the baby’s neck.
As the faces of the medical staff turned ashen around me, I knew something was wrong. We were told the baby had too much fluid around its neck and brain. I felt woozy and sank back into the bed, my stomach still exposed and sticky from the ultrasound fluid, while Russell asked questions. The only answer I remember hearing is that we needed to see a specialist immediately because things did not look good.
After 72 agonizing hours, pacing around my house like a zombie, of waiting and weeping, a specialist provided us with a frankness and kindness that I will always be thankful for. “This fetus has zero chance of survival,” he said. “This fetus will die inside you within weeks or months, and for your health and future fertility I recommend you eliminate it immediately.”
An abortion? My only options were to abort this loved little baby or to have it die inside me?
I have always been pro-choice so the idea of abortion didn’t appall me morally but I didn’t feel I was being given a choice. This wasn’t the black and white scenario the activists like to imagine when they’re deciding who to terrorize that day. I had always felt strongly that women had the right to decide what to do with their own body but had studiously avoided ever having to make a decision like that for myself.
As soon as the news sank in, I knew an abortion was the only way I could cope—how could I function as a rational, sane woman knowing my baby could die inside me at any moment? The thought of leaving it too late for a D&C petrified me; being forced to deliver a dead baby was a nightmare a I had witnessed a friend survive. “If there is no hope for the baby, allow them to take care of it as quickly as they can,” she pleaded with me from England. “Waiting for the baby to die and then having to deliver it was the worst experience of my life. But I already had two healthy girls. Please don’t let this be your first experience of childbirth.”
I remained strong in our decision until, five hours later, I was dressed in my pale blue gown and told to lie down on the gurney. The anesthetist was struggling to get the IV into my arm because I was crying so much, the tears soaking my cheeks and neck. I could hear my husband, just outside the curtain, on the phone to my devastated mother in London, assuring her that I would be okay. His voice cracked as he struggled to keep his own pain hidden so as not to upset her even more.
“We really wanted this baby,” I felt the need to explain to the nurse. “We’d been trying to get pregnant for a while. My father-in-law has just died from cancer and we really thought this baby was a positive sign that our lives were improving; that my husband could feel happiness again.”
I could hear my husband quietly weeping outside the cubicle.
The weeks following my abortion passed in a blur of emptiness. I was mentally and physically empty. My swollen breasts and belly slowly deflated but the pain remained. My husband no longer kissed my tummy as he left for work each morning. I feared seeing newborn babies in the street in case I burst into tears. Pregnant women seemed to pop up everywhere but I was no longer part of their gang. My heart felt like it was too heavy to carry on beating. I couldn’t concentrate at school anymore; in fact, I’d deliberately think of other less painful things while the students around me discussed the mother as a literary heroine.
Five years later, all that is left of my little baby is a collection of memorabilia hidden away in the bottom drawer of my husband’s bedside cabinet: our positive pregnancy tests, the blue crosses still visible; the baby books he used to read to me from every Sunday night; a CD of the baby’s heartbeat at 10 weeks and an ultrasound photo. We have two healthy children now. We are lucky. But I’ll never forget the heartbreak that led to that abortion, and the heartache I have suffered since. I’ll never turn my back on women who have been in a similar position, whatever their personal circumstances.
The condemnation of abortion under any circumstance, which has once again played such an influential part in the outcome of our recent presidential election, pushes grief and depression into dangerous black spots. It makes women hide their tragedy and leaves other women, in similar circumstances, feeling alone and unsupported. If I have learned anything from this experience, other than what it actually feels like to be driven insane with grief, it is that women need to support each other, talk openly about this secret topic and have faith in whichever support network will get them through this personal decision, be it family, friends and inner strength, or a God who listens to their prayers. And men—men who do not know them and can never understand—need to stop playing God with their bodies.