“First of all, I want you to know that none of this is in any way your fault.”
The doctor was being very sincere and looked me in the eyes as he said this. He had a big, disfiguring scar down the right side of his face, and thinking back on that moment, I’m surprised that of the many terrified, angry thoughts that raced through my head, I also had the quiet realization that he too must have experienced something awful. Probably much more painful and awful than this.
“Don’t let anyone tell you what you should do. This is entirely your decision,” he said. “But you should know that the legal limit on terminating a pregnancy in New York state is 24 weeks, so you’ll need to decide fairly soon what it is you want to do.”
I’ve always been pro-abortion, yet I never, ever expected that I would want to get an abortion. I just liked knowing that abortions were available, the way parachutes, life vests, and fire extinguishers are available for when situations get out of hand. And not just the kind of out-of-hand that even conservatives will acknowledge — rape, incest — but regular out-of-hand, like the condom broke, or we were drunk and got carried away, or being the rare 1% for whom the IUD fails. Life just isn’t that predictable. But let’s be honest, when I advocated for abortion rights, I wasn’t picturing myself. I was picturing women much less cautious, or less educated, or less fortunate than me. While I allowed for the slim possibility that I could find myself — me — in a scenario where I wanted an abortion, I never imagined this particular scenario: 35 years old, married, 21 weeks pregnant, eagerly expecting my first baby.
Maybe the doctor was born with that scar, I thought to myself. Maybe it wasn’t his fault or his mother’s fault. Just like it wasn’t my fault that my baby only had half a working heart.
Our baby had a condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome coupled with another heart deformation that would prevent oxygen from getting to his lungs as soon as he took his first breath outside the womb. We did our research, we were ready to face the challenge of saving his life, we consulted with the best cardiologists and children’s hospitals, but in the end it seemed that it was less a matter of “if” we’d lose our baby, but “when” we’d lose him. And since we were falling more in love with him every single day of my pregnancy, we decided to abort.
Imagine for a moment if we’d learned about his condition six weeks later, past the legal cut off point for abortions in New York. Would I have been forced to carry my doomed baby to term? To endure months of physical discomfort and emotional agony while prolonging the inevitable? To go through the pain and labor of childbirth only to watch him die the moment he left the safety of my womb? Or maybe we’d be lucky and the doctors would find a way to keep him alive, but what kind of alive would that be exactly? On life support in the NICU indefinitely? What would that do to me, to my marriage, to my finances, to go through all that?
Since losing my baby, I’ve heard stories from quite a few friends about their own losses, or their spouses or friends going through something similar. These stories are comforting to me, especially since so many of them are followed by the story of trying again and having a successful pregnancy and a happy baby. But so far no one I’ve talked to has told me that they were faced with the decision to terminate. Most women spontaneously miscarry or experience a stillbirth for one reason or another. I’m not saying I’m terribly unique in my situation, though, either, but I suspect that most women don’t want to talk about it because they are afraid of what people will think. Even I have barely said it out loud: I chose to get an abortion.
"You’ve become a mother with nobody to mother. You don’t know where to direct that emotion.”
No matter my pro-choice stance, there’s still the idea in the back of my head, planted there simply from growing up in conservative middle America, I suppose, that abortion is killing. It’s anti-life. In fact, a few weeks before this all came to pass I’d gotten into a polite confrontation on Facebook with my Mormon cousin in response to a prolife image he’d posted of a baby in utero overlaid with the statement: “If we are pronounced dead when our heart stops, why are we not pronounced alive when our heart starts?” I don’t think of my choice to abort our baby as killing our baby. Yet I won’t argue that although he was not yet born, I had come to think of our baby, who at five months was starting to move and kick, as very much alive.
Furthermore, abortion just sounds like giving up. But as I’ve started to learn as I get older and have experienced a failed business and a fair share of wilted romance, sometimes giving up is the compassionate choice. Compassionate both for yourself and for the thing or the person you’re letting go. That business was never going to thrive, those relationships were never going to be fulfilling, and our baby was never going to be healthy if he lived at all. I’m a stubborn person, and sometimes I’m proud of that (I’m tenacious!). But when my husband and I sat across the table from the cardiologist as he delivered the bad news from our second echocardiogram, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Liz, you’ve got to stop being so stubborn. Let him go.”
Two days later we started the process of terminating the pregnancy. Due to my being in the second trimester, I was to have a procedure called a D&E — dilation and evacuation. And since I was nearing my third trimester, the D was going to take 48 hours and be very painful. The only good thing about this is that the physical pain matched my heartache, so it created a sort of melancholy harmony. I visited the hospital each day, the very sympathetic nurses inserted small rods of seaweed called laminaria into my cervix, I cried in pain and squeezed my husband’s hand, I crept slowly to the lobby, we drove home, I laid in bed watching bad movies and holding my belly tearfully whispering to my baby, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“I was so excited to meet you.”
In the weeks that followed, I struggled with how to possibly get back to normal. I felt embarrassed for not quite fitting back into my pre-pregnancy clothes, and for turning up at my office babyless like the whole thing had been a big tease. No one knew what to say to me. I wanted to start over as if the past five months had never happened, but there was no hiding from the fact: I’m a mother now. I was physically and emotionally changed. A few years ago a friend of mine lost a baby four months into an unplanned pregnancy, and she described the feeling accurately: “You’ve become a mother with nobody to mother. You don’t know where to direct that emotion.”
As the weeks go by, the lingering emotion that I cannot shake is that of intense jealousy. I’ve seen friends who became pregnant after me proceed towards motherhood. I’m encountered daily by pregnant women on the subway and at the grocery store who cause my inner voice to cry out, “That should be me!” On one particularly unlucky day, I found myself seated next to a pregnant woman on the train who must have just come from her anatomy scan. She proceeded to pull out a stack of ultrasound photos and admire them as we traveled downtown. I cried for the rest of the night.
Another friend who endured a tragic miscarriage of twins at eight months gave me some good advice. “You may feel angry towards these other pregnant women you see, but you don’t know what they’ve been through. Maybe she tried for years to get pregnant, or maybe she’s had a miscarriage before this baby. When you get pregnant again, you wouldn’t want someone feeling that kind of jealousy towards you, right?” She went on to have a beautiful baby girl a year after her miscarriage, and I couldn’t be happier for her.
It’s strange how shrouded in secrecy our reproductive lives are. I’m angry that I had to make the decision to terminate my pregnancy. Let’s say it, to get an abortion. I want to be able to talk about it. When I get pregnant again, I want to be able to be open about it even if it’s possible it won’t last. If I’m fighting nausea or putting on weight, I want to be able to tell my peers why so they can help me through, rather than hide my pregnancy on the offchance that it might end tragically. Let’s stop being so delicate about it. Whose feelings are we trying to protect?
Women shouldn’t be afraid to talk about their pregnancies, their abortions, their miscarriages, or their bodies. Telling this story is my way of healing from the loss of our son, and preparing myself to try again. It’s only natural.
Image via Flickr/ Lee & Chantelle McArthur
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Liz Schroeter Courtney is a marketing strategist who champions brands that are shifting to more human, more sustainable business models. As an entrepreneur she's launched a gourmet hot dog food truck, caters seasonal dinner parties, and markets a fashion social enterprise called The Base Project. She's been a contributing writer for Venus Zine and tweets at @partyliz.