Before I could reply, my mother did. “God forbid,” she said. “If Ester got pregnant, I would march her down to 16th and L myself.”
“16th and L?”
“Planned Parenthood,” I said, slumped down in the backseat of the car with a hand over my face. I was 26 years old; I had been married more than a year.
Most people’s mothers do not joke about hauling their 16-year-olds down to abortion clinics, let alone their 26-year-olds. Most people’s mothers do not joke about abortion at all, but she and my father had dark senses of humor. Anyway, I knew what she meant: Simply because I had exchanged rings with someone did not mean I was ready, or could afford, to prioritize a baby. (I’m not the only one: the typical abortion patient is a mother, often a married one.) At 26, I was only tenuously established as an adult-in-training in New York. Jobs and apartments flitted by me like bats in the dark; I grabbed at them, they got away. My new husband had just taken the bar exam. Though he had secured a law job, his net worth was negative, a debt-shaped hole in the ground. We were in no shape to have a child.
Still, potentially procreating was my first major life decision to occasion a response from my mother. It startled me to hear that response be, “God forbid.” Especially since, for all she knew, I was or had been pregnant already.
Plenty of my friends and relatives have had abortions—and probably more that I don’t know of. Before I turned 30, almost never did anyone in my educated, privileged, but cash-poor cohort announce a pregnancy with an exclamation point, expecting “Congratulations!” instead of “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?” Yet the vast majority of those I know who had terminations in their twenties later got married, conceived, and carried a child to term, often with the same partner. Did the ticking of the fabled biological clock begin to drown out the panic about being forced into parenthood too soon? Did financial situations improve? Relationships stabilize? Understanding that we might turn to abortion again later on, as so many mothers do, I began to wonder: What, for the pro-choice among us, leads us to go through with a pregnancy in the first place? What is the abortion tipping point?
Money, specifically the financial instability that comes with being a young adult in this economy, plays a large role in many people’s choices not to proceed with an unexpected pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the other top reasons women give for termination are “negative impact on their lives” and “relationship problems.” But often, the reasons aren’t so acute and rational: The people I spoke to also wanted to be prepared—not just materially but emotionally—to become a parent. They wanted to be well-situated, mature. Even, if possible, optimistic.
One woman who struggled with undergrad and graduate-level student loans and low-income jobs in expensive cities, and who is now a mother, summed up what I heard over and over from so many couples: “I realized that going through with a pregnancy then meant sacrificing all my ideas for what I thought my life was eventually going to look like in the future,” she told me. “I didn’t want to just get by—I wanted to choose where and when we started our family.”
One man who grew up working class and still lives in a small, pre-gentrification city, and who has been a father for almost a decade, explained, “I have had a part in two unwanted pregnancies and the subsequent decisions around them. One of those decisions resulted in a trip to Planned Parenthood and a $500 bill for services; the other resulted in the seven-year-old who lives with me.” That seven-year-old is one of two children he had with his now ex-wife. He and his then-partner didn’t choose to go ahead with one of those unplanned pregnancies simply because they had more money, though that was a factor; it was that they had, he explained, because of circumstances, more optimism.
In my twenties, despite a secure relationship, I was not optimistic. I retained the same bleak, fearful outlook I developed at age 12, when I decided I wasn’t cut out for motherhood and told my friends that if I ever felt maternal I’d get a monkey. My mom was cleaning, cooking, or caretaking every hour she wasn’t at the office. She slept in her bra like a fireman in his boots and started each day at dawn on the scale. No, thank you. Her unhappiness manifested in hyperactivity, whereas my father’s unhappiness manifested in withdrawal. His route seemed preferable: At least he was able to be dissatisfied with his feet up. Observing them both, I decided I could be a father, perhaps, but I didn’t have the energy, stamina, or selflessness to be a mom.
At 26, though I had supported myself for years, saved some money, even gotten hitched, my opinion hadn’t changed: If I got accidentally pregnant, I would march myself to 16th and L (or its Brooklyn equivalent). That was not a decision I would have been able to justify to the 50 percent of Americans who, according to Gallup, only approve of abortion under certain circumstances. (Just 28 percent support the right to choose unilaterally.) Still, I knew that if a sperm were to penetrate the layers of defenses we set up by using two forms of birth control, I would admire its ingenuity, convey my regrets to the millions of Americans who would vote for a fertilized egg over the health and comfort of my husband and me, and exercise my veto power all the same.
A Catholic friend and coworker once told me she found that kind of thinking selfish. “Abortion for convenience,” she called it. I was fortunate, in that respect, to come from a very different tradition: Jews, as a body, are more progressive on the subject of reproductive rights than many other religious groups. Even Israel, for all its demographic panic, has more liberal abortion laws than America does. And it’s largely because of the efforts of Jewish activists that America provides the protections it does.
Still, I didn’t take the idea of abortion lightly. Indeed, it terrified me. It meant being invaded twice, first by an unwanted collaboration of proto-human cells staging a coup, then by medical science, and I was militantly anti-invasion. As a child, I could not make myself swallow pills; it wasn’t until I went to college that I used tampons. My whole life, I policed my body’s borders against any uninvited entry. I was 5-feet-2-inches of iron curtain.
To me, the procedure evoked the expressionistic horror of a Frida Kahlo painting. Such was my certainty that I could not be a mother that it still felt preferable to the alternative.
When I was 27 and my father was 69, an x-ray revealed that my father had late-stage pancreatic cancer. He had only gotten the x-ray because he tripped and fell while on vacation with my mother, celebrating his successful cessation of treatment for colorectal cancer. My father was fat and fatalistic: He never expected to live past 70, the age at which his own father had died. Sure enough, that summer was his last.
That fall, we children reconvened in another hospice for my uncle, my mother’s only sibling, who contracted his own fatal disease as part of the redundant second act of the tragedy no one saw coming. Stunned by the attack on a man who was neither fat nor fatalistic, who had just built a dream house on a mountaintop with his wife, we did it all again. Pressed a dying man’s hands. Bought protein shakes for a grieving woman. Tried to say goodbye when we were by no means ready.
My uncle died right before the new year. Looking down at the reflections of my cousins and brothers in the shininess of yet another coffin, in yet another cemetery, cut through with the ice of grief, I realized, This is why you have children. Company in dark places. A hand to hold yours while you shake.
We left my aunt to her mountaintop dream house and my mother to her empty condo where all too recently we had sat shiva with her on the floor and collected her food from deli trays. When I returned to New York that winter, the person I was at 26 seemed a long time gone.
One warm day, after my husband and I went with friends to a rally in support of Planned Parenthood, some of my sadness and anger ceded space to a new realization: Instead of waiting to be drafted to join the ranks of the adults, I could volunteer. After all, I had never been in a better position to have a child. I was not far from 30. I was married to someone I had been with for over a decade and who was as hardworking as my mother, as understanding of me as my father, and who I loved with a deep, giddy happiness. When we started having sex, I believed that getting pregnant would be a disaster, and, like a good partisan, I never revisited that view. But circumstances had changed such that I could no longer trust the appearance of health or the continuance of good fortune. I had hit my tipping point. If Ben and I knew we wanted children ringing our hospice beds, flipping off the Angel of Death, what were we waiting for?
“Do you regret anything?” I asked my father, toward the end.
With unusual seriousness, he said, “I started too late. I should have had you children earlier. You have that chance. You should take advantage of it.”
Earlier is relative. When I turned 29, I was ancient by historical and even “real America” standards, since the average American woman has her first child at 25; and yet, by New York standards, I was still a baby myself. None of my friends, or brothers, or cousins had children. I worried about my ability to convince my famously self-protective body to cede control. I worried more about not being able to live up to the tireless, self-negating efforts of my mother. Yet picturing Ben holding himself in miniature, an uncomplicated joy replaced some of the rage I had been carrying around since my father’s death. We decided to abandon our two-tiered birth control system and see what would happen.
Because I could not predict how she would react, I also worried about my mother. Would she warn me away from parenthood, gesturing back at her own experiences or to my own shortcomings? I called her and told her about the yawning bundle I pictured Ben holding and the feeling it gave me every time: optimism.
The Jews have a blessing for pregnant women: “B’sha’ah tovah.” It means, “In good time,” and the implication is that one wishes the baby to debut under favorable circumstances. I realize now that, as a blessing, it should be said not merely to expecting mothers but to every young person still feeling their way towards the kind of maturity that may or may not include children. May you conceive (or not) at the right time for you.
My mother did not say “B’sha’ah tovah” to me in that phone conversation. She said, with unfeigned enthusiasm, “Mazel tov!”
Ester Bloom is an editor of The Billfold whose work appears in Slate, Salon, Creative Non-Fiction magazine, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, Flavorwire, and the Toast, among numerous other publications. Follow her @shorterstory.