My head was in the dishwasher trying to solve the mystery of why the glasses and mugs weren’t coming clean when my 12-year-old casually lobbed that grenade into my lap during a SpongeBob SquarePants commercial break.
Her younger sister, who’s nine, instantly tuned in, and for a minute I thought maybe this would be one of those questions no one really expects an answer to, like “Where’s my library book?” Or, “When are you doing laundry?” Maybe I could get away with pretending I didn’t hear or that I didn’t understand the question.
But today was not that day. Both little faces were turned to me, expectant.
I’ve never been a big fan of “I’ll tell you when you’re older” or “Ask your dad” because I’m afraid to discourage my kids from sharing what’s on their mind. I’m proud of the open dialogue I have with my girls, especially when it comes to sex and bodies, and they know they can ask me anything. But I also don’t want to terrify them.
How do you begin to explain abortion in a way that’s accurate and age appropriate?
“Welllllllll …..”, I said, “When a woman gets pregnant and she doesn’t want to have the baby, a doctor can perform a procedure that makes her not pregnant anymore.”
Gotta be honest, I was pretty happy with this answer, especially on short notice. Then this happened:
“Why wouldn’t she want the baby?”
“What does the doctor do to the baby?”
“Why kind of procedure is it?”
“Does it hurt?”
Holy shit. They were coming at me with both barrels.
“Weeeelllll…..” I started again, “I don’t know all the details about the procedure, but I do know there are lots of reasons a woman might not want to have a baby.”
“Like it’s not the right time in her life. Like, she isn’t ready to be a mom. Like, the baby isn’t healthy, or the mom isn’t healthy and it would be dangerous for one or both of them.”
Or maybe it’s no one else’s business, I think but do not say.
“Why wouldn’t she be ready to be a mom?” my little one asks.
At this point words like “rape”, “incest”, “poverty”, “law school” and “unknown father” start clamouring for space in my brain. Fortunately, I have the wherewithal to silence them and say:
“She might be in school, she might not have a place to live, or she might not want children.”
Both my daughters were in foster care before my husband and I adopted them. Both can remember a time when we were not a family, and both have some understanding of the very complicated and personal reasons they are no longer with their birth families.
So I continued to describe how hard it can be for anyone to raise and support a child, especially if they don’t have resources and support. My daughters understood this because they’d heard it before. We talked about how much diapers cost, and how much babies cry and how little sleep moms get. We talked about having to take time off work and how hard carrying and delivering a baby can be on a woman’s body.
But they kept coming back to the why, and in trying to explain that as best I could with no personal experience, I realized that I really wanted to frame abortion as a medical or practical necessity, to say that these were the only reasons a woman would terminate her pregnancy. But I knew I’d be lying. Despite believing very strongly in a woman’s right to choose, I hedged when it came time to explain it to my kids. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that sometimes healthy women carrying healthy babies simply do not want a child. For some reason, in the moment, I just wasn’t ready to go there.
So I swapped the speech I would like to give (a bold message of female empowerment populated with “You do you!” and “Your body your choice!”) for a more age-appropriate, less complicated version because I realized my commitment to answering the initial question and to being honest wasn’t going to be compromised if I held back information I didn’t think they were ready or able to make sense of yet.
So we talked about choice. We talked about how you – and only you – can choose what happens with your body. Only you decide how it looks, how you decorate it, who you share it with. We talked about how some people believe a woman should stay pregnant no matter what and how ridiculous and unfair it is for complete strangers to think they can tell women what they should or shouldn’t do with their bodies.
We talked about feeling confident in our decisions and exercising our right, as women, to do what we want and say what we think, even if our choices seem unpopular.
And I decided that as long as my girls had a foundation for understanding that they, and only they, should make decisions about their bodies that was as good a place as any to end our first, but likely not our last, conversation on abortion.