Self-Regulation: Nine Moments in a Life as a Mammal
Note: This was originally published in January 2017 in ROAR Feminist as part of a series of daily abortion stories, but is no longer available online because of what I will refer to as the whole Anna March thing, but it feels important to me, not as a life event (which it doesn’t really), but as a roll call, a visible statistic, a raised hand.
It’s hard not to feel like the script has already been written. Yes, this is where I call the man into the bathroom to look at a pee-soaked plastic stick, I think, and I do, with some crass joke like, “Well, honey, I guess you had at least one sperm.”
The small skulls and bones I’ve collected on hikes scatters the sink, the toilet tank lid. The lower jawbone of a marmot juts its two long, pointed teeth back at me. Fur and tissue still cling to the bone.
As a teenager, I would announce with adolescent conviction that nothing with teeth and hair was ever gonna grow inside me. Years later, it still seems like a reasonable rule.
We make lists, perform the kind of visioning exercises I mock when others do them, live together in a haze as we wrap ourselves around the fact that our bodies have done this strange and mundane thing of which we had deemed them incapable. We weigh money against mortality against desire against time, and I say that the abstractions on his list frustrate me, that if were a poem in a workshop I would tear it to shreds. He reminds me that of course it is not a poem in a workshop, his eyes wide with sincerity. Hormones make me impatient, sarcastic, uncharacteristically practical. The possibility of life as a parent stretches out before me mostly in terms of unread books.
Later, telling a friend about our decision-making process, she says, “So it sounds like the main disconnect between you two is that you’re frustrated that he doesn’t think it’s funny.”
My life is full of babies. I take auntie-dom seriously. I go to first birthday parties and elementary school dance performances, and not only because I live in a place where on an average winter Friday night there’s nothing else going on. I love those kids fierce. I love their parents. I love going home at their bedtime and pouring a glass of wine and opening a book and sleeping in so I have the energy to dance again with them the next day.
(Do I tell you that to convince you that I’m not deficient in my instinct to nurture, to love, to be the kind of woman a pregnancy is supposed to make you be? Or is it to say that I know what motherhood is, I know what a baby is, I have drawn henna prayers on pregnant bellies and held infants while their mothers broke down in tears at the wanted awfulness of it all, and it is an insult to those mothers and those babies to say that the darkened blob on the ultrasound screen was a child and the fact of its presence in my body made me a mother. No. It made me a mammal. Do not confuse the two.)
Bears are the largest mammals to reproduce through the process of delayed implantation. Our local grizzlies mate in mid to late summer. After mating, the fertilized egg divides once and holds in stasis for up to three more months, when the bear goes into hibernation. The female grizzly’s body self-regulates: if she hasn’t put on the fat stores she needs to get herself and the possible cubs through gestation, followed by months of nursing in the den before spring, she will reabsorb the zygote.
Upon learning this, someone in every group of tourists always says wistfully, “If only humans could do the same thing.”
“We can,” I always want to say. “We do.” We’ve just learned to call it something other than adaptation, learned to apply a set of laws to something that for bears is just necessity, a fact of life.
The nearest clinic is in Fairbanks, as is the nearest grocery store, the nearest traffic light, the nearest decent restaurant open on the Sunday night before abortion day. We check into a hotel and go out for pizz. As our server clears our plates, she wants to ask for advice. “You look like responsible people,” she says, “but like you also know how to have a good time.”
She’s twenty-two. She is leaving for six months in Utah before returning to Fairbanks, where she intends to live forever. She wants to know: should she sell her furniture, or put it in storage?
Together, we conclude that either way, it won’t matter in ten years. She’ll either have the old furniture or not, and the agony of the decision will be overshadowed by life, continuing.
In the parking lot, I laugh. “See, love,” I say, “Fun, responsible adults can lose track of ovulation. And in ten years it won’t matter.”
Alaska restrictions only allow first trimester abortions. To end a pregnancy later, a woman must travel out of state, usually Seattle, which for much of the state would mean at least two flights, hundreds of dollars in addition to the cost of the procedure, and time lost to trying to get all that figured out. It’s near impossible to track how many women tried and failed to end a pregnancy.
I have a lot in my favor. I have support. I have hashtags and a healthy sense of rage. I have a friend who offers the hotel room her employer paid for so I can nap after the procedure while my partner shops for groceries and brings me pho in a Styrofoam bowl before the two and a half hour drive home. I live on the road system and have a working car to get to the clinic. I have a sugar daddy with a year round job and a credit card.
“Don’t say it like that,” he says. “We’re in this together.”
“I know, love. Of course we are. “
We get to the clinic early, and after all the pills and forms and waiting, the procedure itself takes less than ten minutes, and then I sit alone in the recovery room, underwhelmed, eating goldfish crackers. I think about how, when I lived alone, I used to buy goldfish crackers, and I don’t anymore, but they’re still uselessly pleasing. I add them to the shopping list.
It’s ten degrees below zero when we leave, too cold for the protesters. I’m disappointed. I’d hoped to smile and wave as we drove off, maybe offer them a goldfish cracker.
(Goldfish are not mammals.)
Two weeks later, I attend a typical neighborhood gathering, where musician friends play cover songs in the community center and kids in socked feet duck between legs and under tables loaded with potluck food. I’ve been tired and cramping, sleeping early after work, and this is the first night I feel social.
The band starts playing Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio,” and I search for Rose, who is eight. Together, we join other childless women dancing with kids, and I lift her on to my hip. This is our song. She’s getting too big to hold like this.
She’s one of the first kids I’ve known since her birth, who I’ve babysat and rocked to sleep and yelled at and cried for, and who, at age two, sang a delightful toddler rendition of this song at the slightest suggestion. “Ooooh me oh my-oh,” she’d croon tunelessly, smiling shy for the camera.
I ask her if she remembers singing it when she was little. She nods, and I hold her tighter.
We sing together, and I swing her at the line, “I wanna do right but not right now.”
She and I will be the last ones on the dance floor. We will close out the night doing cartwheels with a teddy bear, and she will fall asleep in her dad’s truck on the way home, and my partner and I will walk home in clear, cold moonlight.
One day, I will tell Rose that we are doing right. Right now.