My Mom’s Secret Abortion Changed Her Entire Life—And Mine

Inside an intimate conversation between mother and daughter.
abortion

Feeling sucker-punched by the six-week abortion ban in Texas and the threat it poses to women’s constitutional right to make decisions about their bodies, I dug my favorite RBG shirt out of my drawer and attended the Women’s March last October to lend my support to Roe. 

During the rally, a woman in her 60s spoke earnestly about the abortion she obtained reluctantly but with huge relief when she was 16. She explained that in retrospect, ending the pregnancy that she and her then boyfriend were not ready for enabled her to go to college, attend law school, fall in love with the man who would become her husband, earn partner in a law firm, and raise three amazing daughters. She said she hoped her story—and her willingness to share it—would encourage other women to follow suit in an effort to lessen their burden and reduce the stigma we’re still deeply mired in when it comes to abortion.

I left the rally feeling inspired. I called my mom and told her about the woman’s story and how much I hoped other women would find that same courage. “I could do that,” my mom, Sandi, responded. “I had an abortion—did you know that?”

I did know, or at least I vaguely remembered her telling me something about it in passing. I asked my mom to tell me her story so I could share it and perhaps encourage other women to find that same bravery. It was transformative watching my 70-year-old mom dig deep within herself and tell me a secret that few people in the world know; it changed so much of what I thought I understood about her and about my childhood. 

My mom told me she obtained an abortion in 1967, before it was legal, when she was 17 years old. As she tearfully pieced together fragments of her young life, I watched rigidly as she removed emotional shrapnel, remnants of the shame her father, various doctors, and society scarred her with half a century ago. 

As she talked, periodically wiping her eyes with a soggy tissue, I wondered if my grandfather, Eddie, could have possibly known the domino effect he started with his callousness and ridicule. When he chastened her in her most vulnerable moments, he left my mother forever feeling insecure, unworthy of happiness, and resentful of everything the world had taken from her before she’d even had the chance to start her life.

What I learned as I listened to my mom, gently probing her with questions to learn more about this event that changed the trajectory of her life, is that her experience ultimately changed my life, too—and talking about it led to an intimate moment that will fortify our relationship forever.

My mom grew up the youngest of four kids in an upper-class suburb of Philadelphia. One night during her senior year of high school, she and her boyfriend, Don, slept together. They actually slept. “We had never really talked about having sex—I wasn’t there yet,” she recalled. “But we were making out that night and we slept together naked.”

She didn’t really think much about it after that. After all, they hadn’t really had sex. She had turned down an acceptance to Penn State University and planned to attend Temple University that fall, where Don was also headed, and she couldn’t wait for the next chapter of her life to begin. But after a few weeks of nausea and vomiting, my grandmother, Dorothy, took her to see a doctor who also happened to be her cousin (how Philly of her). Among other things, he gave her a pregnancy test, although my mom assured him that she couldn’t be pregnant since she’d never had intercourse. “I was so naïve,” she told me.

She was at home with her mom when the doctor called and grimly gave her the news that she was, in fact, pregnant. My mother then told my grandmother everything that had happened. “My mom said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll figure out a way to take care of this,’” she said.

That was six years before Roe vs. Wade—before abortion became legal in the United States—so my grandmother’s doctor-cousin found a backdoor for a safe abortion. He told my mom she would need to see two psychologists, and he gave her a script to follow when she spoke to them. “He told me I had to say this pregnancy would ruin my life and that I would commit suicide if I went through with having the baby,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “So, I said it. And then I went into the hospital and had the procedure. I stayed overnight. I was out of school for a few weeks, and I didn’t tell a soul other than my parents and Don.” 

To this day, my mom told me, I’m one of just a handful of people who know.

In the weeks and months that followed, my mom was smothered in shame and suffocated by silence and isolation. With no Planned Parenthood or insurance to cover the procedure, my grandfather paid for the abortion out of pocket, and he made sure my mom knew just how expensive it was. “My father made me feel so much worse. He told me I could never see Don again,” she said. “If abortion would have been legal, Don and I would have gone to Planned Parenthood and handled it on our own and not ruined my life.”

Instead, she reluctantly broke it off with Don and wrote to Penn State to see if they still had a spot available for her. There was nothing at Main Campus, so she glumly went to Penn State York Campus, where she was one of just a few women. During her first semester, she met a boy named Rick, who made her feel safe and loved. “I never wanted to go home again—I was too angry and ashamed—so I married Rick on Valentine’s Day; I had just turned 18. Then we moved to Denver. He got a job, and I took classes at the University of Colorado.”

My mom quickly got pregnant with my oldest sister, Stacy. Unlike almost exactly a year prior, this pregnancy was celebrated—she was married after all. But the marriage wouldn’t last. At 23 years old, my mom and Rick got divorced. “I came to understand that I loved Rick like a brother, and I was terrified of sex because of everything I’d been through. My Dad had divorced my mother and left her with nothing, so I came back with Stacy and lived with your grandmother in her one-bedroom apartment,” my mom said.

She raised Stacy—with help from my grandmother, babysitters, and even a maid—and worked her tail off to graduate with honors. Although there were few teaching jobs available, she eventually landed a role as an elementary school teacher, improving the lives of lower-income kids in the Philadelphia area for decades. When Stacy was seven years old, my mother was introduced to my father, Andy, a smart, sweet illustrator from Buffalo, NY, who quickly fell in love with my mom and with my sister. They got married and had me and my younger sister, Lindsay. 

At this point in our conversation, my heart was in my chest because, of course, I know the rest of the story. I lived it. 

Once we settled into our home in the Philly suburbs, we were all thrown into the rock tumbler of my mom’s shame and trauma. Her sense about herself that she was undeserving of our love resulted in explosive anger, which was sprayed at us like machinegun fire throughout our young lives. 

“I felt so much shame that when I had a good relationship with you girls or with Dad,” she told me, “I would sabotage it because I didn’t feel worthy. When things were going well, I would blow up with something so insignificant.”

While she focused on many of the negative repercussions of the abortion and the shaming she endured, we both acknowledged one major positive that undoubtedly changed my life. “Because of what I lived through, I had so much trouble with intimacy for so long. I equated sex with shame. But I never wanted any of my girls to have hang-ups about sex. I wanted to make sure you didn’t have the bad feelings I had.”

As a result, I remember my mom talking about sex a lot. Like, an uncomfortable amount. I still kind of shudder when I think about my parents sandwiching me in between them on their bed when I was 9 years old to read Where Did I Come From and later, it’s delightful sequel, What’s Happening to Me. My parents also gave me the green light on several occasions to let my long-distance high school boyfriend, Adam, sleep over without much fanfare or fuss. Now I understand why. My mom wanted me to associate sex with safe, happy memories, not with indignity or handwringing. As an adult, this general sense of confidence and ease around sex surely helped me discover my sexual orientation as a lesbian and gave me the confidence to come out, albeit a little late in life. (I was 40.)

When my mom finished telling me her story, my own cheeks were wet with tears. “I’m so sorry you went through all that, Mom,” I said. “I just wish you could have told us some of that because I think it would have made you feel better and helped us understand you better.” She nodded. I think she wishes that, too.

As I think about it now, I realize that my grandfather, Eddie, was a product of his own parents, of his own time, and of the misogyny that poisoned the air he breathed. He couldn’t have known the pain his actions would inflict on generations to come. 

But the thing is, now we know. After nearly half a century of abortion being safe and legal, we can’t go back. With this six-week abortion ban teed up for a Supreme Court that looks poised to bat down Roe, we stand, once again, on the precipice of a dire shift in women’s health, and all of us must do our part to fight that outcome, even if that means telling our stories. Abortion must remain legal and safe. For Sandi. For Stacy. For Lindsay. For me. For all of us.

Read more: What Happens When You Realize Marriage And Monogamy Aren’t For You Anymore?

Read more: So, You Want To Explore Your Sexuality. Here’s Where To Start

Jess Downey is an award-winning writer and editor from Philadelphia.  As the editor of Real Woman magazine, it is her mission to share the stories of women who are thriving, overcoming, and inspiring. She has contributed to Runner’s World, Destinations, Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, and told stories from inside a women’s prison and an operating room. She lives with her partner, two sons, and the most exuberant jack Russell/chihuahua you will ever meet, and she doesn’t mind that Eagles fans threw snowballs at Santa Claus.
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