On Mothering And Mourning After An Abortion

Photo by Femi Matti

“No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.” -Frederica Mathews-Green

I look at my son sometimes and wonder if he’s the same soul, come back to me. I know science doesn’t support it. I know it’s not healthy. Still, the notion soothes me, that the spirit isn’t gone — like the idea of heaven for believers. I named the one I couldn’t nurture Oliver. I didn’t have to consult my husband about it, comb through baby name books, research meanings. I didn’t get that far. I named him naturally, silently, in my mind. His name was something to hold in my mouth when I mourned him.

Mourning an abortion is often internal. It’s not a grief that the public respects. It’s quiet to the world, but loud in your body. In your body you sometimes quake at the aching, have crying spells, feel dirty, emptied out. Your body resists your better judgement, and your mind abuses you. Sometimes you think you deserve to be punished. Sometimes you punish yourself.

I didn’t cry on the table, though. I exchanged witty banter with the doctor. I do that when I feel uneasy. I was terrified, but I chose to be awake because I felt obligated to be present for my parting flesh. In my head I was paying respect. The doctor didn’t know I was afraid. He told me I took it like a champ, he said I was the best patient of the day, commended me. I repeated his words in my head for two years, berated myself for not lamenting loud enough for the universe to hear.

I saved my crying for later, and even then, it was quiet, and went unwitnessed. At first I felt cavalier, proud just to have made it out of the clinic. Part of me genuinely expected it to kill me — the alarms instilled in my Catholic upbringing sensed sudden doom and condemnation. But I was alive and okay and walking away, despite the picket signs and protesters in my path. The burden of making the decision was gone, the constant chorus of “what the fuck am I going to do?!” was silenced. I thought I’d made it through the hard part; I didn’t yet know about guilt and shame, grief and mourning.

Mourning was hard and lonely. My husband held my hand and said the right things, but it wasn’t his body. His instincts weren’t wailing against what his head knew. And so, though I was lucky enough to have him, I suffered the worst parts alone. And the grief wreaked havoc on me. I hated my mind for not being ready when my body was. I hated my body for not waiting for me to catch up. I hated myself for missing a pill. I hated my husband for letting me decide. I hated every ordinary day — forbade myself from relaxing — because a day I could manage was a day I could’ve been tending to the baby I’d refused.

I didn’t believe I was forgivable because my reasons for not keeping it were invisible. I was married. The Navy paid our rent, gave us money for groceries. We had two cars and a cat. But I was in a deep depression, one I couldn’t shake. My body was not a body to call home. I could be no place of refuge, no source of life. I felt poisonous. And so, as attached as I was to the potential in my gut, I let it go before it grew into something I couldn’t save from myself.

The attachment is the part that many “Pro Life” people negate. They don’t digest how one can love something, want something, and extinguish it. They cast stones at people who are often already aching, vulnerable. Attachment to the possibility you just permanently parted with is real, and it’s painful, and pain demands to be acknowledged.

I don’t speak for everyone who has terminated a pregnancy, maybe not even most. There are millions of us. That’s a vast sea of experiences, each one of us with a reason, each reason reason enough. There are spectrums of satisfaction, differing depths of regret. I don’t know how many feel like me, because most of us aren’t talking about it. We don’t live in a listening world, one where it’s a safe thing to talk about. And some just don’t want to, don’t need to. I needed to, but it festered instead. The grief was brutal. The guilt was merciless. I barely survived myself. I only made it by clinging to the merit of a parting promise: someday the mother in me would be restored, and when that time came, I would be ready.

Two years later, I became pregnant again. It was unintentional, and I was not what I had in mind when I promised readiness. I had just quit my job as a cleaning woman, and spent my days (and nights) wasting myself. I was taking too much of my Adderall prescription. I was scary skinny, and still dropping weight. I smoked weed all day to try to get myself to eat, but combined with the Adderall it mostly just gave me panic attacks. I hardly slept. My marriage was volatile. I was making a half assed effort at obliterating myself. But when I saw the pink (+) on the test, I knew I couldn’t handle the blow of another abortion, I just couldn’t do it. My first pregnancy — and the termination of it — brought my mind on its knees, to its limits. I decided that I wanted to survive. I had to save myself — and quickly — because I was going to be a mother.

I opted out of refilling my Adderall prescription that month. I stopped smoking. I even stopped drinking coffee (ok, only until I was out of the first trimester danger zone). I got a job. But without my self medicating “coping” mechanisms, I was lost. Instead of not sleeping, I spent entire days in bed. I blamed nausea, but pregnancy was easy on me. It was what it always was — depression.

And I was riddled with anxiety, vigilant about what was happening in my body — if it was happening on time, if it was happening properly, happening without complications. I was petrified with fear that something would happen to my baby, that I’d lose him, not get to have him. To some extent, all mothers experience this, but mine was heightened. I fixated. I was afraid that I would lose the baby as punishment, that some grand cosmic joke would play out and awful poetic justice would be served. I believed that I didn’t deserve to be a mother.

Even after birthing a perfect 7 pound bundle in an uncomplicated delivery, I moved on to the next round of fears. At each check up, the doctors congratulated me on a job well done — my baby was in great health. It should’ve soothed me, but instead I began to diagnose myself with death sentences, serious maladies. I was certain that the new pain in my gall bladder was cancer, though the doctor prescribed a less fatty diet and more exercise. I was certain that the lower back pain was a tumor, the cancer spreading, though the doctor said I just needed to stretch. I was certain that my left breast was bigger than the right because of inflammatory breast cancer, not disproportionate breastfeeding like the doctor asserted.

I would not relent. I would not allow myself to enjoy what I had. I couldn’t see a world where I was worthy of keeping that kind of love, a world where that kind of love wasn’t a betrayal to the one I had refused. I couldn’t fully engage in the joy, because that meant I’d have to fully engage in the pain. Becoming a mother after refusing to be a mother brings up feelings your body has worked to forget. Mine was still working to forget it, and failing. It remembered.

Of all my self diagnosing, the only one that the doctor affirmed was postpartum anxiety and depression. I have no doubt that it was a result of not having a forum to sort through grief after my abortion. It disrupted a lot of the the joy of early bonding with my baby. I spent many of our first nursing sessions analyzing my breasts for malignancy, many late night cuddles fixating on his breathing. I was only ever partially present, half of me always anticipating the worst.

I am lucky to have caught the anxiety early. Though I’m not healed, yet. The love I feel is overwhelming, the fear is too. I struggle to allow myself relaxation. I am always reading, always reflecting, always working to be better. I’m in therapy. I remember my promise to be ready this time, but I don’t think my former definition of ready exists — a version of myself that doesn’t grapple with disorder. I am making myself into the kind of person ready to receive each day, instead. I am learning to be soft with myself, to not exhaust myself in battle with myself. I am forgiving myself, for my son’s sake, for my sake. I am accepting myself, my decisions, my reasons, my messes, mistakes. I mourn the things depression has cost me. I mourn what I could not have kept without depression damaging.

My mothering after mourning an abortion is full of a fierce kind of loving — a love that has survived self-sabotage. A determined kind, the kind that protects and regenerates itself, filters toxins, refuses to be destroyed. My abortion made me ready to be the kind of mother I couldn’t be before — a damn good one. And after so much self-induced suffering — years of it — I am working to keep every bit of happiness I get. My son needs me to, and beyond that — I’m worthy of it.

I watch my parent friends sometimes and wonder how many of them know what I know, have endured what I have, sentenced themselves to similar punishments. I wonder how many of them are still doing time in their heads. I wonder if talking to someone who knew that brand of pain might have helped me navigate the dark labyrinth of my own aching. I want to talk to them, now, but I don’t. It’s not safe, and it’s not my place. The grief is private, the mourning long, the mothering first.

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