I don’t know if their love was unrequited, but I do know she loved him more. My mother and father met at Florida State University. He was older — tall, dark and Italian, a football player named Pete. She was blond, teased, with a 19-inch waist she maintained with Parliament cigarettes and diet pills. Penny and Pete. I don’t know much about their courtship. I do know that in the summer of 1961, they took a break. Heartbroken, Penny went to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she cocktailed in a gay bar. The men treated her with affection. Some play flirting, some uncle-ing, Penny preened. In photos she wears black pedal pushers, a snappy bolero jacket with a bright sash and a big grin. “Hot pink,” she once told me. “I made fantastic tips.”
By August, her pants were snug. The men began calling her “Little Mama,” which she imagined was just another pet name. I’m not certain what she thought of the missed periods, though she says she was always irregular, as I would eventually be. Maybe she thought it was the sorrow, the yearning for Pete. By the time she discovered she was pregnant, she was four months along.
Pete was adamant about wanting no children. Penny was adamant about wanting Pete. By her telling, they sought an abortion, asked around, but it was too late, too hard and too frightening. They told their families, got married at the courthouse with the agreement that when the baby came, Penny would put it up for adoption and they’d really give the marriage a go. I’m not certain Penny thought the situation all the way through up until the moment of leaving the hospital without a baby. Perhaps she thought she’d change Pete’s mind.
They lived in a sixth floor walk-up with a bathtub in the kitchen in Alphabet City, a neighborhood in New York City. Pete tried to be an actor. Penny waited for the baby to come so her life could begin. Labor pains came a month early, and Penny hadn’t decided if she would choose Pete or motherhood. She gave birth in the charity ward of St. Vincent’s Hospital. No one who loved her held her hand in the delivery room, which was the way of the 60s. She told me she was tormented, refused to lay on her back, to put her feet in the stirrups. The doctor administered twilight sleep. For three days she refused to see the baby girl. The other mothers and babies on her ward cooed and cuddled. My mother finally saw me. Pete brought her suitcases to the hospital. She moved us in with her aunt and uncle.
Being a single mother in 1962 was not easy. My mother, who was 22 when I was born and felt her most important goal was to secure me a father, endured serial heartbreak by men who didn’t want an “instant family.” She struggled with bills and child care, loneliness and depression. In her sometimes despair, she overshared, and leaned on me too hard. Had abortion been readily available, her life would have been easier, happier. She tells me often that keeping me was the best decision she ever made, and believe me, I’m happy to be alive. But it wasn’t 100% her choice. Had abortion been available, she would not have been alone and afraid on the charity ward, faced with a shattering decision.
At 25, I found myself madly in love. Joel was boyish, funny and caring, and we were quickly inseparable. Our rom-com montage would have clips of us doing the sidestroke in a shimmering pool, staring into each other’s eyes, pretend bickering over the virtues of mincing or using a garlic press (mincing, of course). We always sat on the same side of a restaurant banquette, and we had lots of sex.
My doctor prescribed birth control pills. Most likely we abandoned secondary protection too soon; I experienced a few months of breakthrough bleeding, which my doctor told me was normal. But it went on too long and, like my mother, at the end of a summer I discovered I was pregnant. This was 1988, and my doctor at the time couldn’t be certain that the high level of hormones from the birth control that had been in my bloodstream for months was safe for a pregnancy. Joel made it very clear that though he loved me, he was not ready to be a father. Those two sentiments are not mutually exclusive. People who love each other do choose to terminate pregnancies.
I didn’t want my child to be my confidant or my roommate or my emotional support. I wanted my kid to be a kid.
I was tormented by the decision. More than anything I wanted to be a mother, and yet I didn’t want to repeat my mother’s experience. I did not want to be lonely. I didn’t want my child to be my confidant or my roommate or my emotional support. I wanted my kid to be a kid. I didn’t know if I could do that on my own. I didn’t know if I could be the mother I hoped to be.
The day of the abortion, I leaned on Joel’s shoulder in the waiting room. He tied my hospital gown closed. I shuddered on the table; tears pooled in my eyes. Joel held my hand and when I told him I was cold, he bent down to remove his socks and slip them on my feet. Even so, I had never felt so lonely. It was me going through the procedure, not my experienced and kind doctor, not my partner who shoved his bare feet back in his oxfords. I felt pressure, maybe scraping. There was noise. It was bright. That’s all I remember.
Had abortion not been available to me, I don’t believe Joel and I would still be together. The pressure of raising a child, the uncertainty of our jobs, the growth we still had to experience as individuals and as a couple, would have prevented us from thriving.
My story is not Earth shattering. My abortion didn’t save my life. My pregnancy was not the result of violence. I will never know if the birth control pills were a risk to the development and delivery of a healthy child. Thirty-five years later, I still love Joel, now my husband, and we still argue about the garlic press. I love my life and my two adult children. I’m grateful I had a choice. My abortion gave me the opportunity to be the mother I wanted to be. I am sorry that my mother didn’t have that choice.