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I had an abortion when I was 19. One night, my college boyfriend and I were drunk and careless, and six weeks later, he and I and my mom all went to the clinic. While certainly not an enjoyable experience, it wasn’t a traumatic one, either. I knew it was the right decision then and I doubt I’d have the amazing family I do today if I had become a teen mom.
When my now nine-year-old daughter was born, I dove into parenthood with zeal. I wanted us to have an open and honest relationship, and I imagined our future conversations about politics, death and sex. Nothing would be off-limits, certainly not my abortion. If anything, I hoped that hearing my story would prevent her from being as negligent with birth control as I was.
Then, one day she asked, “Mommy, were you ever pregnant besides me?” and I froze.
I’ve never been secretive about my abortion. My friends and family know and I’ve even performed a monologue about it onstage. I’m unabashedly pro-choice and I’ve talked with my child in an age-appropriate manner about sex, pregnancy, birth control, and the fact that women have the right to decide if and when they become mommies. Yet when it came to revealing my own abortion — a necessary conversation so that my daughter views it as a personal choice, not a political one — I panicked.
Apparently I’m not alone. I spoke with a number of moms, including a few ardent feminists who discussed their abortions with me, but couldn’t bring themselves to tell their kids. As one admitted, “I don’t know why! I’m not ashamed of it, and it was the right thing to do at the time, but I have this mental block about it. The stigma goes deep.”
Writer Christen Clifford also had an abortion when she was in college. Now a mom of two, she recalls how awkward it was the first time she discussed the experience with her kids. “We were in the car and my son, who was ten, was talking about a friend who had two mommies,” Clifford tells Yahoo Parenting. After discussing sperm banks and pregnancy, the topic turned to abortion, specifically hers. “‘It’s one of the choices people can make if they get pregnant and can’t take care of the baby for whatever reason,’ I told them. I felt the whole temperature of the car change. Maybe I was projecting but I saw a look pass on his face that went ‘whoa.’ The statement made an impact. But being open about it, you normalize it.”
That’s just what Sherry Matusoff Merfish and her two grown daughters are trying to accomplish with their organization Not Alone. Merfish had an abortion in 1972 before the landmark Roe v. Wade case and, despite becoming a reproductive rights activist, she didn’t discuss her own experience for decades. She decided to tell her children before they went off to college, and her youngest ended up penning a New York Times op-ed about it that went viral. The experience inspired the family to launch an online platform where women can share their abortion stories in videos.
“I was stunned by the number of women who told me that they too had terminated pregnancies,” Merfish tells Yahoo Parenting. “These were some of my closest friends — I thought we had discussed everything. There’s something wrong when women are more comfortable discussing something like their sexual assault over their abortion.”
With a woman’s legal right to choose perpetually under attack in the U.S., particularly in Merfish’s home state of Texas, she believes it’s more important than ever to share abortion stories—especially with family. “That’s how abortion moves from the abstract to the real,” Merfish says. “You don’t think about a fetus, you think about your grandmother, your aunt, your mother.”
Openness seems to be the key to acceptance and understanding when broaching the topic with kids. “I have spoken on more than one occasion about my abortion with my kids, in fact, they knew about it while I was going through the process,” Jennifer Felder, an administrative assistant at a law firm, tells Yahoo Parenting. “My mom talked to me and my sister when we were in our early teens about her own [reproductive choices]. It influenced my decision to be open about it with my kids. It’s important they know they have choices, and the earlier you talk about that, the easier it is to view it as a normal thing.”
Danielle Thomas, senior manager of national programs for Exhale, an after-abortion talk line, agrees. She tells Yahoo Parenting. “It should be an ongoing conversation, not ‘that one time I talked to my kid about abortion.’ If your initial discussion feels open and welcoming, it will keep happening. Twenty-eight percent of our calls are about how to discuss an abortion with friends and family.”
I still haven’t answered my daughter’s question. The day she inquired, after a few moments of silence, I blurted out, “Why would you ask that?” and quickly changed the subject. Now I want to find my way back to that conversation, but in an organic way. I’d rather she initiate it than me say, “By the way, have I ever told you about the time I had an abortion?” So I’m waiting, but I know it will come. And this time, I’ll tell the truth.