Abortion & The Absence of Motherhood

by Joanna C. Valente

I never wanted to be a mother. I didn’t grow up playing with baby dolls, imagining that I would one day become a mom who bakes birthday cakes and drives to-and-from school events. I liked dolls, and enjoyed the fanciful fantasy, but I knew it was just a game I was playing. The idea of my belly holding a human with tiny fingernails scared me—almost repulsed me—so much so that when I saw Alien for the first time, I felt as if I identified that level of terror. Sometimes I imagined I would be a mother, only because my mother was and her mother before her and before her and before her all were. It would just be part of the legacy of Greek women who become mothers and enjoyed feeding people spanakopita and moussaka. Because that’s what we Greek women do, at least in my family. But I also didn’t want that. And I instinctively knew that at age 5.

I never honestly thought much about motherhood until I was raped in college, and subsequently, became pregnant. Before that, I liked the option of having children if I wanted to in some far off future (so far away, it felt like a movie still out of someone else’s life), mostly understanding that I probably never would. I dislike having a lack of options—I have always felt this way, wanting my life to feel free, even if it wasn’t all the time. My mother was, and is, a housewife. And while there is nothing demeaning or anti-feminist in that life, I don’t believe it was her choice. I never wanted to be a woman without a choice, a woman afraid to be her own person, a woman who stayed because she had to.

But then I became pregnant. I couldn’t even legally drink. And I had to make a choice—become a mother, or not. I chose not to (I was young, in college, didn’t know what I wanted, had just been traumatized by my assault). It was a mature, responsible decision not to have a child. The phrase “I’m not ready” could not have been more apt. Yet despite this rationality, I felt I had been cursed. By myself.

Suddenly, I craved motherhood. Everywhere I went, I saw mothers with young children, mothers-to-be with beautiful, round bellies full of love and life and possibility. I felt empty, as if my body could never contain all that possibility—that I wasn’t fit or able. And worse, I didn’t deserve it. I was almost a mother, but then I wasn’t. I felt that absence, an empty motherhood, a mother to some strange ghost. A ghost that I fell in love with, that I felt loved me, that I wrote an entire book of poetry about. I really believed this baby was real. Sometimes, I still do.

I imagined this ghost-baby as genderless—somehow godlike—as if being inside my body gave them access to all of my desires, fears, unexpressed and untranslatable thoughts. Yet I also distinctly felt nearly suicidal at the thought of raising a baby, often thinking, “I will rot with you inside of me.” That thought made me feel like a disgusting, hateful person. Of course, I also recognized the incredible amount of privilege I had living in a city with easy access to abortion. This is not something I have ever taken for granted.

But it is this strange position—the absence of motherhood—that has preoccupied me in the subsequent years after my assault. It was the idea of owning my body, after having had little power over it, that became the true preoccupation; of course, the idea of giving birth to a baby meant I would also give birth to someone that needed me, that would hopefully always love me, just as I would love them. We all know that love is hardly ever truly unconditional and unchanging, but we often equate a mother’s love, and a child’s love, as such—this type of connection is naturally tantalizing for someone who feels unloved and unlovable.

Gradually, I began to stop romanticizing the idea of becoming a “real” mother, not an almost mother, and began focusing on what it is I actually want. It’s incredibly hard—almost impossible—for women to truly know what they want when society tells us over and over and over again. When the idea of “having it all” is put on a platter for us, as if we can grasp it with our fingers, as if this idea of privileged rich white feminism is a truism, not a classist, racist notion we keep buying into. That all we have to do is “lean in” to get what we want—as if there is no other barrier, like culture, geography, finances, and race. (Because, what is “having it all” anyway? Life is imperfect, so naturally, no one can “have it all,” nor should we aim to. Isn’t the best part of life the yearning and constant motion of working on a goal?)

It has taken a tremendous amount of soul searching, as people say, for me to realize— I am selfish. I want to stay selfish. I don’t want to be responsible for a tiny human, who will grow up to be a big human. Maybe my mind will change, maybe not. But it is a choice I have made thus far—and it is a choice I made when I realized it’s perfectly acceptable to be maternal, but not want actual children of my own—to make the “selfish” choice. And why should women be martyrs? Why can’t we be both Mary Magdalene and Mother Mary in our own nuanced and unique ways? Why can’t we make choices, change our minds, and not be told it’s because of a biological clock or need?

This is not to say I think having children means a woman’s life is “over,” or somehow, a choice a woman makes only because she is pressured to. Some women are the opposite of me—they simply want to be mothers—and they’re great at it. And part of me wishes I was that woman—but merely for the fact, I think, that I am told to be by my family, and by society. That there is something wrong with me for not wanting them. Yet I do find it incredibly problematic and sexist that women are expected to have a biological clock that will always “make her” want kids, as if women don’t have a choice of their own, as if it’s merely a bodily function—as if women are just wombs in waiting. Men are never questioned in the same way, never asked if/when they will have children just because they are men. There is a pressure, as a woman, to have children, to have your entire life figured out early—as if you are more of a woman if you mother someone.

I won’t lie: Motherhood frightens me. The kind of motherhood I’ve always been drawn to doesn’t involve humans, it involves art. It is freeing in many ways, untethered—which is the opposite of real motherhood. Unlike relationships, you can’t mess up being a parent too much—or at least, you shouldn’t. There is no going back. No fluidity. I don’t think this is a trait, the yearning for freedom that simply happened as a result of my experiences. I think it existed within me all along, just as the need to create art, to give birth to something other than myself, was a need. Perhaps it only strengthened after feeling ostracized by many of my peers growing up (that’s what happens when you’re a queer goth kid who writes poems and listens to Depeche Mode on repeat when you’re 12 years old), and naturally, intensified even more after being raped and having an abortion. While I no longer feel unlovable, sometimes, I still question whether or not I am capable of motherhood.

I want to talk about the fact that we all, at least me, feel totally unsuited for the world we live in. How we are confused, eternally, because we often don’t know where we fit in, or who understands us and loves us for us—as opposed to the idea of us—and the gender norms that lock us in. Or the fact that the society we live in caters to able-bodied hetero-normative individuals—and anything else is deemed as “other.”

How often do we simply contain ourselves and compartmentalize our connections and passions to fit in neat little boxes? That is the way we’re taught to live, if not an idealized way to live, but it’s a way I abandoned a long time ago. I abandoned it the second I became a mother. And then, unbecame one.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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