Red Dots, Black Dots: Family Planning before Roe v Wade
I kept a secret record in my diary. A red dot at the bottom of the page meant day one of my period, a black dot for the last. I wouldn’t have sex with my boyfriend for one week after the black dot. I knew when I was ovulating. I was a sophomore in high school in a small Midwestern town on Lake Michigan. It was 1972. Some of my girlfriends left it entirely to chance, swept away, they said by passion. They played roulette, and sometimes they lost. A popular girl, one year older, tried to cover her pregnant belly with her books, but we always saw her between classes, head bowed. I thought she looked beautiful. One day she disappeared. Her younger sister, who was in almost all my classes, never mentioned her. No one said her name, Cathy. Months later, she reappeared just as suddenly, her belly nice and flat. She’d been at her aunt’s, in the country. But we knew the real story, the dreaded home for unwed mothers, run by nuns, and shame.
That same year, I went to a Polish wedding in the downtown ballroom, but it was more like prom because the bride was 17, pregnant, and the groom was 18. I found her crying in the ladies room. Raccoon eyes, but still so pretty in rhinestone tiara, white tulle dress and lace gloves. Throughout the whole reception, it rained. Later my grandmother said, if it rains on your wedding day, “lots of tears.” I was not going to get pregnant. I practiced the only form of birth control available, and I got lucky. My boyfriend, Marc, didn’t want a baby either. We had plans. We were going to move to New York City and be artists. During that week of abstinence, he was very happy with the blowjob/handjob combo.
At 16, we didn’t have a lot of options for privacy. Parking down by the lake was out because a pervert was on the loose. He was peeking inside cars; the windows all steamed, naked girls beneath naked boys, seats down, humping away. The third time we caught him staring at us, we never went back. Sometimes we’d rent a room with another couple, We favored the shambling motels on a cliff over the lake, the outskirts of the city. One night, Marc and I reclined on one bed in the dark, and Sally, my best friend, and her boyfriend on another. We were drinking sloe gin and orange juice. Then Sally and Guy were under the covers, and soon his ass was moving up and down. Marc and I watched in the gloom, giggling. I’m pretty sure that’s the night she got pregnant. At first, she said, my period’s late, but we reassured each other, It’ll show up. We smoked weed in her basement, and listened to Horses by Patti Smith. But she stayed pregnant. I started skipping school in the afternoon to try and help her find a place to get an abortion. But it was 1972. And we weren’t having much luck calling Milwaukee or Chicago from payphones.
Then, like Cathy, she suddenly vanished. When I called, her mother said, Sally’s not well, and hung up the phone. She came back to school, two weeks later, belly flat, tits still huge. She told me she finally confessed to her mother, who took her to a doctor and confirmed that that she was four months along. She only said, we flew to New York City for two days. New York state had legalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade. But, Sally never used the word abortion. She never said anything else, except thank god, that’s over. The method was dilation evacuation. It had to be painful. Her mother never mentioned it either. It was like it never happened. But she was a changed girl. Somewhere, somebody along the way, must’ve told her she was bad, and when she returned, she lived up to it. That’s a lot of shame for a 16-year-old girl to carry.
Our other friend Nancy had her baby at 17, and married the father. They lived in a second floor walk up by the railroad tracks. She had it fixed up real nice; matching blankets on the furniture, plants in macramé containers, and curtains made from pillowcases. Her baby was born nine months after her best friend Tamara was hit by a car. They were walking along a county highway, drinking. It was dark. Tamara said, one moment she was next to me, and the next, she was gone. I always thought she needed that baby to replace what she lost. And her apartment was a good place to smoke dope.
During that time, I read Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones. I practically memorized it. It was a cautionary tale, a nightmare. I knew I never wanted to fly to New York City with my mother. I knew I never wanted to land at a home for unwed mothers, run by nuns, I knew I didn’t want to get married in high school, and live in a claustrophobic apartment with a cute baby, and a husband who dropped out of school. Who sat on the couch smoking weed, and watching TV. Because unlike their fictive counterpart, it was always the girls who shouldered all the shame, all the secrecy, all the responsibility for their bodies. The boys were invisible. Their erections and their desires long forgotten The girls “got in trouble.” They were labeled. Life was never the same for them. And it’s why I was so meticulous about my dots, red and black.
Much later, I found out that New York State was the second to legalize abortion, after Hawaii, and the first to not require residency. It’s why Sally got so lucky. I guess her mother knew exactly who to call. It never occurred to either one of us that getting an abortion might be legal anywhere. And it never occurred to any of the other girls, that it might be an option. The rule book in the Midwest in 1972, on the cusp of Roe v. Wade, was very clear. You were fallen. You were in trouble. You and your body were a problem that needed to be fixed. Or hidden, like a terrible secret. You had to listen to the women and men who were older and wiser. You had to give up the baby for adoption. Or get married. Of if you had a particularly astute mother, you flew your daughter to New York City, and carried the family shame home with you.
Originally published at BUST Magazine.