I wore a long sweater to Christmas dinner, 2004: a long black sweater, to cover you up. You weren’t visible yet. Maybe I had just the tiniest roll over my pants that I could attribute to college weight. But to me, my belly was already huge, stretched to accommodate my giant secret.
We sat around the table, spooning mashed potatoes and green beans onto our plates. Mom gossiped the way moms do about kids we used to know, ones who didn’t turn out as their parents had planned. She clucked her tongue about a girl from church who was pregnant out of wedlock. I looked at my roommate across the table, the only one who knew my secret.
That Christmas, the long sweater was my shield. You may have learned already, as a daughter, the ways we protect ourselves from our parents’ anger, our parents from disappointment. We learn to lie: to tell only parts of the story or to make up different stories altogether. Or sometimes we sit silently at the dinner table, chewing green beans.
I was raised to be quiet. “Children don’t speak unless spoken to.” I was educated at a kitchen table, from 30-page workbooks with Christian comics as page headers. Learning a specific kind of morality was paramount to my upbringing. I was sheltered from the beliefs that weren’t ours, from the people who weren’t like us, from the television that blared sin in different shapes, from radio stations that played songs about sex. I spent my youth oscillating between my home and my church as if they were the only places on earth.
So many times I wished I was born into a subservient body. How much easier life would have been if I could just follow. But I was not born to obey.
“One need not write in order to have a voice,” I heard once. But it was only in private writing that I felt allowed to speak as a child. I asked for journals with locks and wrote in them my resistant opinions, my unspoken outrages, my dreams of turning into someone else. I carried my secrets on lined pages, stuffed them behind my shoes.
While I sat at that table, my parents didn’t know about the nights I’d blacked out from too much alcohol. They certainly didn’t know that I had lost my virginity that summer, after taking a shot every time Kyle blew something up in Grand Theft Auto. He and I ended up in his bed where I knew he was leading me, softening me with booze, blurring my boundaries. I winced once when he entered me. I watched the ceiling. The next time I saw him, he said his mom gave him hell for the blood on the sheets. Imagine the hell I’d get, I thought. My parents thought I was their virginal 21-year-old daughter who worked two jobs to pay her own bills and aced her classes.
There, I decided I would schedule an abortion.
To preserve what they thought of me. Abortion could save me from shame. Shame and a life I didn’t get to choose. One in four women have abortions but I don’t know the statistics on how many women talk about it. One in a hundred? A thousand? That option was my only hope that Christmas. It gave me a plan, a place to look besides down. That choice was my way of staying alive, of making it from one breath to the next.
Because you were born, people often mistake me for pro-life. They think what I wanted most was to save your life. But there is more than one way to be pro-life. There is more than one life to consider. Calling Planned Parenthood that winter was my realization I had agency. You see, before that, I kept confusing choices for mistakes. I hadn’t been raised to think for myself. So when I was faced with a decision, I thought there must be an order I didn’t know to follow.
But in our story, after I scheduled an abortion, a girl from my college googled my father and told my secret for me. In our story, I returned to my parents’ home, to obeying them once I couldn’t escape shame after all. I didn’t keep you though, although my mother tried to convince me it was the right choice. I had learned what decisions were mine alone to make. I found you a family better than me.
Desperation dwells where there are no choices, I know now. I know that after marrying the wrong person, after taking so many years to leave. I know that because I’ve felt backed into a corner so many times; felt over and over that I had to turn out like the woman I was raised to become. I used to think I was ashamed of who I’d turned out to be. Only now I realize that shame was from staying quiet when I should have been honest, outspoken, outraged.
It’s May 2019 and Alabama has outlawed abortions. Women are coming forward and giving voice to secrets they’ve kept for so long. They are sharing their abortion stories, telling the truth so women will continue to have choices.
So now it’s my turn.
I didn’t abort you, true.
But after I gave you away, I aborted the atonement baby my body made in the lonely ache you left. I had a secret abortion, right after visiting you on your first Christmas. I borrowed money from my then-almost-husband to terminate what I couldn’t bear to tell him we had made. It was January in Nebraska, or maybe February. It was cold, and the woman who sheltered me from the protestors with signs saying “Abortion is Murder” outside of Planned Parenthood wore a parka. I don’t know what else to say about it, except that I never told anyone for years, a decade.
I have regretted a lot of choices in my life but this was never one of them. I was too fragile to handle another child in my womb, with you so fresh out of it. I couldn’t house a child who wasn’t you. I couldn’t play mother then. I was too broken, too spilled open, too empty.
“I’ll be honest” is a phrase we say these days, as if the truth is unusual. And I know it to be, since I remember it being locked away, out of sight.
But times have changed and I have a voice now.
Here are our origin stories: I was born into a life filled with expectations rather than options. You were born as one of those choices I didn’t make. Your loving family is the choice I did make. That choice was the best I could give you. The abortion I had after you was the best I could give myself. It was how I could stave off devastation, how I could make it from one breath to the next. I am writing to you now, when I have finally learned to be honest. And I want to tell you our origin stories don’t define us. Our child selves and adult selves are not tiles from the Memory game that have to match.
The last time I saw you was summer 2015. It was a few weeks before your tenth birthday. I gave you a journal without a lock. For you to fill with your stories, with your becoming, with the choices you’re allowed to make.
First publishing credit: Jellyfish Review, Pro-Choice stories, 5/2019
About the Author
Holly Pelesky writes essays, fiction and poetry. She received her MFA from the University of Nebraska. Her collection of letters to her daughter, Cleave, is forthcoming from Autofocus Books. She works, coaches slam poetry, and raises boys in Omaha.
Supporting Reproductive Rights
This is a critical time in our fight to preserve access to abortion and reproductive healthcare. We believe that every action counts. Here are three things you can do.
- Fight stigmatization by sharing your story and/or supporting people who have shared their stories. Supportive comments and likes make a big difference to the people who have chosen to share their personal experiences.
- Reach out to your representatives on the federal, state, and local levels and tell them that you want them to pass legislation that protects reproductive rights including abortion access.
- Donate to organizations committed to protecting access to safe and legal abortions. This writer recommended Planned Parenthood for the work they are doing to ensure access.