Once, from behind the window of the nursery. He was wrapped in a blue blanket, and he was so small. They asked me if I wanted to hold him, and I said no. Just as I had in the delivery room, right after he was born, when I had squeezed my eyes shut so that I wouldn’t see him, my heart, the heart that I was giving away. I said no.
It would have killed me. It would have killed me. I couldn’t have gone on. I loved him.
So I said no. I refused to hold my son.”
I was holding my own son – then just two and a half months old – on my lap when my mother told me this story. I would only be stating the obvious if I said that I clutched him a little tighter as I listened to her words and watched the tears brim in her eyes, but I’ll state it anyways: I held him, tightly, and my heart ached to think of not holding him. My heart ached to bursting at the thought of not holding him, of giving away any opportunity to hold him. And then my heart ached some more, because I had, once upon time, done something that, in some respects, amounts to the same thing.
This was the secret inner dialogue that I conducted with myself while my mother and I sat discussing the baby that she had given up for adoption years before I was born:
Me: Oh, my god, my god, how terrible, how heartbreaking, how did her heart survive it?
Myself: How did YOUR heart survive it?
Me: Survive what?
Me: That’s so different.
Myself: It’s not.
Me: The heartbreak of giving up a child…
Myself: Isn’t abortion a kind of ‘giving up’? Except, you know, MORE FINAL?
Me: Yeah, but…
Myself: But what?
Me: She’s mourning a child that she lost, a child who is still out there somewhere.
I clutched Jasper to my chest and squeezed and thought about the child who is not out there somewhere. How much does that ‘not out there somewhere’ matter, in the heart’s measure of what could have been, or of what simply never came to be?
My mother’s heartbreak, when she shared it, was almost unbearable to absorb. Her guilt, her worry, her desire to both know and not know whether her child had been given a happy life, whether she’d done right by him to give him up. She insisted that there was no regret – she’d done what she had to do, she had no choice, it was the best thing to do, the only thing to do, at the time – but regret is complicated. She didn’t regret making the choice that seemed best for him, but she still hurt over that choice. She hurt over that choice because it represented a loss, for her. Because it represented the loss of an unknown and unknowable future. Because it was a choice that changed someone else’s life, someone else’s future. Because some part of her felt that she needed to explain that choice, perhaps apologize for that choice. To make it clear that the choice was made out of love.
The choice that caused her so much pain was not the same kind of choice that I made. There is no one to whom to explain my choice. There is no one to whom to apologize. No claim can be made that my choice was made out of love. There is no one to whom I might make that claim. Because that’s how abortion differs from adoption: it means that the only person you need ever – can ever – explain your choice to is yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re sorry or not. Abortion means never having to say you’re sorry. It means never even having to consider the question.
Which is not to say, of course, that we don’t consider the question. I’ve been considering the question – of whether or not I’m sorry, of whether or not I should be sorry, of whether or not sorry matters – since I first set foot in that abortion clinic. I have wrung my hands. As I’ve explained before in these virtual pages, I can’t say that I regret having had an abortion, but I also can’t say that I don’t. It’s complicated. That complicatedness sometimes hurts my heart. Which is precisely why people talk about the emotional consquences of abortion. Because some women — not all, maybe not even most — find, like I did, that their hearts hurt. They try to figure out how to reconcile the complicated tension between regret and not-regret and find that they’re unable to do so. Sometimes, they strain at that reconciliation while bearing their children, their wanted children, in arms.
But that struggle — that is to say, my personal experience of that struggle — is one that can, most of the time, be compartmentalized, tucked away on some back shelf of the psyche and forgotten until some event — pregnancy, say, or miscarriage, or one’s own mother’s admission of having given a child up for adoption — prompts one to go rummaging around on the shelves of Buried Hurts and Ambivalent Regrets and Things That I’d Rather Not Think About Unless My Sanity And/Or Moral Stability Depends Upon It. My mother’s struggle with her longstanding conflicting emotions around having given up a child for adoption is not – has never been – something that she can just tuck away on a shelf and forget about. She has never passed a day, she told me, without thinking about her lost boy – without looking at the faces of strangers who seem about his age and wondering is it him, without reading in the newspaper or hearing on the news something about any male person of his vintage and wondering is it him, without casting back to that baby in the blue blankie and wondering what became of him what became of him what became of him?
And that is so hard for her. I have seen the heartbreak on her face. Decades after the fact, and the heartbreak is still there. I see the heartbreak on her face and I tell myself, there but for grace went I. And, thank gods for that grace, that I did not go.
But it is not so simple. It is not nearly so simple. For I know that the primary reason I am able to compartmentalize my own, quiet struggle is because it is entirely my own, and it is entirely my own because of the nature of the choice that I made. My child does not wander this earth, living another life. My child — and it is such a mental and emotional wank to even use these terms — was never born. My child never became my child. He/she/it was embryo, barely fetus, not a child. I did not have a child; I had a pregnancy. And then I didn’t.
(And yet. Even as I say that — “I did not have a child; I had a pregnancy” — I want to take it back. I’m a mother. I’ve had a very early term miscarriage. I very nearly lost Emilia to miscarriage. I know the terror of losing or fearing to lose that embryo, that not-quite-fetus, that not-child who is loved none the less for his or her unformedness. I would never have said — could never have said — of the embryo-that-became-Emilia, this is just a pregnancy, there is no child here. For even though she was not yet child, she was the cellular embodiment of my wish that she become a child, that she become my child. In the absence of that wish… is it just cells that remain? I don’t know. I do not know. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that these experiences are different, and that it is crucial that every woman retains the right to distinguish between them.)
What remains: my inconstant, ambivalent not-regret, and my mother’s endless heartache. Neither of these would I wish on anyone, but neither would I hold them up as justifications for tampering with our rights to choose those hurts, those aches, over others. We both chose our heartaches, out of desire to avoid greater heartache for ourselves or for others. In my mother’s case – in any birth mother’s case, I think – a more difficult choice was made, because it was a choice that opened up another future for another life, a future that she would never be able to see but would always, always feel. I, on the other hand… I chose the road that denied other lived futures, and that has made all the difference.
The right difference, the wrong difference, I don’t know. It is, ever and always and only and nevertheless, the one that I chose.