Politics

The Stories Only Women Are Told

In the wake of S.B. 8, I’ve been thinking about the way I was raised to think about my body, and the way I will raise my son to think about his.

Two women having a discussion while sitting on the floor against the backdrop of a sunset through a large window.
Yuya Hata/Unsplash

When I was in college, I signed up to volunteer at a women’s center—to walk women from car to clinic door, in the hopes that my presence might mitigate the impact of the ever-present protesters, who zeroed in on each arriving patient with cries of, “Mom! Mom! Please don’t kill your baby!” The night before my first shift, the friend who had originally invited me to volunteer asked what had motivated me to sign up. There was a big difference, she said, between saying you were “pro-choice” and showing up at an abortion clinic at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning to prove it.

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I had recently read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and was struck by the line, “You’ve got to go there to know there.” I repeated this line to my friend, adding that while I had always intuitively supported abortion rights, my support had been abstract. Now, I knew that not 20 miles from my college, real women, during a time of personal crisis, were being singled out and screamed at by strangers as they made their way inside a medical facility for a procedure that often proved to be both physically and psychologically painful. If I believed that abortion was sometimes the best of an awful set of choices, if I understood that many (though not all) anti-abortion activists were more committed to upholding male supremacy than protecting vulnerable children, particularly those activists who also argued for slashing government services that might actually make having an unplanned child viable, then I needed to “go there.”

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Though I knew it might make me sound smarmy, I also told her that standing in solidarity with other women as judgment was heaped upon them from the sidelines resonated with my (progressive) Christian faith. Jesus had, after all, stood by the woman accused of adultery when a crowd was aiming its stones. This didn’t make him “pro-adultery,” and indeed, I wasn’t necessarily arguing that Jesus was “pro-choice” either. What I was suggesting was that Jesus accompanied people in their suffering. And suffering is something our world offers plenty of, including abject poverty, rape, exploitation, mental illness, abandonment, ultrasounds revealing devastating medical diagnoses, and the fallout from plain old human error. Given this, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in which I was raised, has, since 1970, affirmed that while abortion should be “an option of last resort,” the decision to terminate a pregnancy pre-viability is complicated and deeply personal, and should not be banned by law. Which is to say, it felt right both to strive for a world in which abortion was rendered less necessary (by working to increase the social safety net, for example) and to show up for women in the middle of such a sad, hard moment. And for those who approached abortion casually, for whom it was not a sad or a hard decision to make? Well, I didn’t think having a child should serve as punishment.

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My friend’s reason for volunteering was decidedly more straightforward. When she was very young, she’d gotten pregnant. Her mom had driven her to the clinic, as she was not yet old enough even for a learner’s permit. My friend handed me the story of her abortion like the vulnerable thing it was. Our friendship was new; it was a leap of faith for her to trust me not to judge her, not to spread her story carelessly around. Her story also proved salient—of course I thought of her as I accompanied a girl across the clinic parking lot who couldn’t have been older than 13 or 14, her hair pulled back with plastic barrettes, a somber middle-aged couple, whom I presumed to be her parents, beside her.

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My friend’s story made me think of others I had been told, the teller always female, often speaking in hushed tones, behind a closed door: About the rape of a relative by an authority figure when she was a child; about my friend whose boyfriend would constantly push her head down when they kissed, even when she had clearly stated her objections; about the guy who shouted, “You bitches are all the same!” at another friend after she successfully fought off his violent advances at the end of a date; about the daughter of the woman who cleaned my parents’ house, who got pregnant when she was 12, the same age I was when my mother told me her story.

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I do not believe my mother shared the story of the housekeeper’s daughter with any of my brothers. It was a story between women. It was a story that boys didn’t need to know. Except that those boys would grow to be men, and it is mostly men who legislate how the consequences of whispered secrets play out on women’s bodies.

Years later, I was living in my hometown of Atlanta, married to an older man who had begun as my writing mentor and ended up my husband. Our relationship had deep cracks in its foundation, yet there I was in the bathroom, age 32, holding a plastic stick, splashed with pee, that displayed a faint, blue plus sign. My then-husband was thrilled, and thus ushered in the most harmonious few weeks of our marriage, when he seemed to love me as much as he had that first year we met.

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During my initial appointment with the obstetrician, the doctor used a transvaginal ultrasound to check on the early progress of the fetus. His forehead wrinkled in concern. He told me that he could not detect a fetal heartbeat. This made a sudden sort of sense. My nausea had let up a few days earlier, coinciding with a dream I had in which I was boarding a plane with my newborn in tow. Someone took the baby from my arms and sent me to sit in the back. After takeoff, I realized the plane was being hijacked, and that my baby was lost.

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The following week, an abdominal ultrasound confirmed what the doctor surely already knew: My uterus contained an empty gestational sac. The official term was blighted ovum. The doctor said we needed to schedule a D&C to remove the remains.

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“Is that the same thing as an abortion?” I asked.

Yes, the procedure was the same. Did it matter that the fetus was not viable? The answer for me, under my particular set of circumstances, felt ambiguous. The secret truth was that I was relieved. I was both very sad and very grateful. It would be so much easier to dissolve our unhappy marriage without a child between us. This was my own personal experience of learning firsthand what I had already believed: The end of a pregnancy, whether chosen or not, is often complicated and fraught, and always deeply personal.

My second husband, my true husband, surprised me when we first started dating. He lived in a section of Atlanta that overwhelmingly votes Democrat. He was a devotee of punk. His best friend, a woman, had been in a same-sex relationship before partnering with a man. He cheered my ambition and drive. All of these details led me to believe he was progressive, like me. But he wasn’t. Not exactly. Yes, he said he was adamantly pro-choice, saw the right-wing’s fixation with abortion as a form of patriarchal possession (“that’s my seed in there, missy!”). Yet his pro-choice, pro-gay values were not a determining factor in how he actually voted, which tended to be for whoever promised to shrink the government, most often Libertarians with no chance of winning—even in presidential elections, when Supreme Court nominations were at stake.

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My husband was raised to stick to his word, to live within a budget, to fix things when they broke, to be a stalwart friend and neighbor. He was also taught that abortion rights were settled law and that because the procedure would remain legal, one shouldn’t let the issue determine one’s vote. No one was taking away abortion rights, my husband had been told. Democrats only pumped people full of anxiety over Roe v. Wade in order to manipulate them into voting for their inefficient and intrusive government programs.

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My husband did not come of age hearing the same stories I had heard: stories of rape, of violence, of unwanted pregnancy. He certainly didn’t volunteer at a clinic during college, wincing as protesters shouted, “Mom, Mom, please don’t kill your baby!” to strangers whose circumstances they knew absolutely nothing about.

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And so, I shared some of those whispered stories that had been told to me. I used them to rebut the argument he had long ago metabolized—that abortion rights were here to stay. It was a time of growing pains for both of us, during which I, too, questioned some of my long-held assumptions. But I was determined to let him know just how personal “social” issues were for me, that they weren’t theoretical or academic, but lived, and that how he cast his ballot did, indeed, affect me, especially when it came to who would be sitting on the Supreme Court. He listened, and as he did, he discovered that some of his arguments no longer made sense in light of the stories I was telling him. One night, he told me: My concern about the vulnerability of reproductive rights had become his, too. And he would carry that concern with him into the voting booth. He had taken my stories seriously enough to question the narratives he had taken for granted for so long.

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I felt so grateful for this, because I had not always been listened to with such care. There was this man I dated in my mid-20s. He was attractive and athletic, with a good job and a nice apartment in San Francisco. At first, he seemed as excited about our relationship as I was. A Californian, he was initially charmed by my Southernisms, charmed that I had a set of sterling silver flatware in my tiny studio apartment.

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One time, when I had my period and said I needed to purchase tampons, he responded with something along the lines of, “Yuck.”

“You said you want to have kids,” I said, slowly.

“Yeah?”

“What if, someday, we had a baby together? There’s a lot of blood involved with childbirth.”

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“That’s completely different. Seriously, no guy wants to hear about his girlfriend’s period.”

I snapped that he needed “to evolve.” Soon after, he complained about me to the friend who had set us up, lamenting that I was a raging feminist, that I couldn’t even watch a TV commercial without going on and on about sexism and gender roles. (Guilty as charged.) Clearly, we were incompatible, and it was good we figured that out sooner rather than later. But there was something broader at play than our singular failed romance: He was a straight, white man from a privileged background. I was also straight, white, privileged. The only real difference between us was our gender—but that proved significant. Unlike me, he could choose to remain ignorant of everything from the workings of a tampon applicator to, presumably, the omnipresence of sexual violence.

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All of this is on my mind as I navigate how best to raise my white, Southern son, age 7. As a grounding principle, I want to root him in the knowledge of just how beloved he is. And I feel certain that part of loving him well is making sure he understands that the world is wide and varied, and (despite much cultural messaging to the contrary) white boys don’t constitute its sole center.

Because my son loves nothing more than to chase, tackle, and tickle, my husband and I have plenty of opportunity to talk with him about boundaries and consent. He knows that if anyone says, “Stop,” during a tickle fight, that’s it, you stop. My hope is that the lessons we are currently teaching him about boundaries and play are establishing the groundwork for later conversations about sex—everything from the great pleasure and sense of connection that sex can offer when you love and trust your partner to issues of consent, birth control, and pregnancy. When it comes time, I also plan to tell him the harder sorts of stories that were told to me as I came of age, stories that alerted me to the particular vulnerabilities of living in a female body, the sort of stories I later told my husband, because no one really told them to him.

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Many Black parents acknowledge that when their children—particularly their sons—reach a certain age, they have “the talk” (or, rather, a series of talks), making explicit the particular danger their sons and daughters will face as Black people living in a country still choked by the roots of its racism. More recently, there has been a growing awareness that children at risk of racialized violence shouldn’t be the only ones to receive these talks—all children should. And just as we must commit to talking with all of our children about the grim outcomes of deep-seated racism, we also must talk to them about what happens to women and girls under patriarchy.

Most of the white boys with whom I’ve been in relationship, either through friendship or dating, were neither exposed to the concept of systemic racism, nor to what would have been labeled as “girl stuff.” During the spring semester of my senior year at my majority-white prep school, a friend’s mom arranged for us girls to take a self-defense class, during which we were sold small canisters of pepper spray, learned a few martial arts moves, and were warned never, ever to accept a drink handed to us at a party. As far as I know, no one suggested that perhaps the boys should attend a similar sort of course, stressing the many perils of getting blackout drunk, as well as the necessity of sober consent. And when, during that same final semester, a handful of my male classmates started telling loud, misogynistic jokes (What do you do if your dishwasher breaks? A: Slap her), I was told by the teacher I confided in to ignore them, that they were just smarting because they realized that power was slipping out of their grasp, that women and people of color were ascendant. Their jokes, my teacher argued, proved their declining status.

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If only power were ceded so easily.

Decades later, I thought about this while watching Sen. Susan Collins’ much anticipated press conference, during which she announced that she would cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice, despite professor Christine Blasey Ford’s credible testimony that he had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. On CNN, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said of Ford’s testimony, “I think she’s mistaken.”

Recently, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 8 into law, which prohibits all abortions in that state after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around gestational week six. Despite a brief respite, the law still stands—its validity is being argued in front of the Supreme Court this week. During a press conference addressing it, Abbott was asked, “Why force a rape or incest victim to carry a pregnancy to term?”

“It doesn’t require that at all,” he explained. “Because obviously it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion.”

I guess Abbott never fully grasped the logistics and realities of pregnancy, and so he never had to learn what I and most other women know: Gestational age is calculated from the date of your last menstrual cycle. Gestational-age week six, the time a fetal heartbeat can often be detected, translates to about two weeks after you’ve missed your period, if your periods are highly regular. It is not enough time, particularly if you were raped or the victim of incest.

That S.B. 8 continues to be the law of the land in Texas and will inspire other laws in other Republican-led states leaves me feeling hollowed out, defeated. The temptation to keep my head down and focus only on my private life is strong. Still, I know from experience that where there is love between people, hearts can soften and change. Which is to say: Women need to keep talking. To one another, sure. But also, to the boys and men we hold dear—and not just in times like these, in times of crisis when it feels like we are simply shouting our despair into the void. Yes, there are some who cling fiercely to their beloved ignorance, who use it as a means for control. But there are other sorts of men, men who care about the lived experiences of women, who have the capacity for an even deeper empathy.

And so, I think we need to commit, from the beginning of our relationships with our male friends, our boyfriends, our sons, to share the tales that were whispered to us, to demonstrate that the “personal is political” as our second wave grandmothers so aptly described. It is an act both of profound love and profound citizenship to insist on telling the full, messy stories of our lives to the men who might actually listen.

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