July 31, 2010
I drove much of the way home to Minneapolis that evening. Holding the wheel helped me keep from getting sick. As Dan slept, I began passing billboards in a series along the highway back to the Twin Cities. Each billboard featured a bouncing baby, several months old, bright and expressive.
What! I could smile before I was born, one stated, rather inscrutably.
Hello world! said another. My heart was beating 18 days from conception.
The signs were like slaps in the face—invasions of the quiet peace I had managed to cultivate over the weekend. Did the organization sponsoring the billboards, Pro Life Across America, really believe that women needed to be reminded that the choice to end a pregnancy is a choice against a life of some kind? I knew I might one day choose against seeing my son’s smiles. Against pressing my ear to his chest and hearing his heart thumping like a tight little drum.
Abortions were legal in Minnesota up to twenty-two weeks’ gestation, when a fetus would have fingerprints and hair, suck his thumb, and hear sounds from his mother, but would not be able to survive outside the womb—and certainly wouldn’t wear size-three diapers or grin with billboard-perfect dimples. Against my better judgment, I had been dipping into mainstream books to read about the progress of my pregnancy. Like the billboards, each book eagerly addressed embryonic and fetal development, giving me, week by week, little human characteristics to mourn if we chose to say goodbye to our pregnancy. An abortion following DNA testing would most likely take place at about fourteen weeks, when our four-inch, translucent-skinned fetus might begin to coordinate the movements of his arms and legs.
As the colossal spokesbabies flashed by, I realized that I wanted a book to reassure me of the things my six-week-old embryo couldn’t yet do. I wanted to read a single paragraph that took pains to remind me how far from consciousness, from human behavior, my gestating fetus was: Your baby is one-and-a-half years from being able to interpret simple spoken sentences, and at least two years from speaking phrases on his own. Your baby is at least two years from recognizing himself as a conscious being, and three years from understanding that other people are separate individuals. In five years, he may have the capacity to read written language. He is at least eighteen years from distinguishing information from propaganda.
But instead, the authors of some popular pregnancy guides actually identified which circumstances might justify an abortion. “If testing suggests a defect that will be fatal or extremely disabling,” one said, “many parents opt to terminate the pregnancy.”
These passages always caused me to call into question my reasoning. HED wasn’t directly life threatening. Our affected son would be unlikely to die as a child. And I didn’t know what “extremely disabling” meant, but I suspected that the authors of the book would not characterize HED that way. Neither would I.
Dan slept in the passenger seat with his head tipped back and his jaw gently open. My frustration grew as the city lights drew closer. I felt angry that my society had made a taboo subject of one of the most important journeys of my life. An abortion—a story that would belong to me, shape me, become a part of me—would henceforth divide people into those who could handle a relationship with me and those who couldn’t. It seemed I would have two choices: I could live as if I had a terrible secret, or I could live marked.
The next morning, I phoned my friend Eula, who described a woman’s rights in words I hadn’t considered: “A pregnancy falls within the mother’s domain, and no one else’s,” she said. “Not the public domain, not the church’s, and not the state’s.”
Now that I was carrying a baby, I viscerally felt what Eula meant by “a mother’s domain.” I had a moment of physical sickness just thinking about the idea that anyone else might try to claim authority over my pregnancy. Imagining such a thing was one of the most confining, frightening feelings I had known as a woman who had grown up carefree and safe in a nation of so many freedoms. It was the feeling of persecution. Someone might as well steal my hands and face, I thought, and call them their own.
“But I still feel so guilt ridden,” I told her, “to consider ending a little life just because it is imperfect. This baby would live, and he could quite possibly have a good life. I just can’t know.” But “I’m doing this for the baby,” I reminded myself out loud, “not for Dan and me.”
Eula let my words hang in the air. Then she said, “Why don’t you feel you deserve to have the child you want?”
I was struck. Her words touched into the thinking that seemed most dangerous to me, most immoral. Could it possibly be all right, in my America or in some other life in some other place, for parents to want healthy children for their own peace of mind? I thought of my ancestors who, like millions of modern people around the globe, needed plenty of healthy children with strong backs to ensure the family’s survival—and with any luck, prosperity. Dan and I had no plans to rely on our children for a livelihood; we wanted children just for the joy of it, just for the journey. Even though we knew a baby without HED would save us tens of thousands of dollars in medical and dental bills, our choice to become pregnant, and our desire for a healthy child, could not be rationalized as economic necessity. It was closer to emotional luxury.
But thanks to Eula’s question, I saw folded deep in my heart a tiny possibility. Maybe, I thought, I should want a healthy baby for myself, and for Dan, and for our marriage and future. It might be noble to shoulder a burden, but it is also good to forestall harm and strive for plenty.
I kept the thought to myself, holding close its kind whisper of acknowledgement that this was, after all, about me, too. I felt a glimmer of self-love—something I had not allowed before. It marked the beginning of a turning for me, but my transformation was slow. I still read pregnancy books like an addict. I couldn’t pull my mind away from the details about how much bigger and more vital our baby was becoming.
“I’m due at the end of May,” I told my sister over the phone. “It’s the strangest thing to look into my future just seven months and see such different possibilities.”
“You know,” my sister said slowly, “you’ve started the journey toward having a baby, and it’s really not going to be over until someone is born. The way I see it, you’re going to be pregnant until that child arrives, whether that’s eight months from now, or twelve, or twenty-four. This might not be the baby we hold. But you’re on your way.”
She was right. I felt as if I had jumped into a lake and started swimming, not knowing when I would reach the opposite shore, or even how far it was. I had been thinking of my pregnancy as three months long at minimum, about ten at the max. But my sister helped me stretch my idea of pregnancy to include another sense of the word: meaningfulness in waiting.
I felt better with the idea that my swim could be all one long, blind backstroke to a distant shore, instead of several dogpaddles from the sand to the dock and back. I liked water, but swimming to actually get somewhere had always been exhausting and difficult for me. Holding my pregnancy—the figurative one and the physical one—felt no different. Yet in my dreams, I had been swimming almost every night. I swam through floods, under ice, through choppy shipping canals, and across the bows of ocean liners. I was never afraid. I always knew I would make it. Sometimes I rescued other people who believed they would drown.
I was bursting to talk to my mother, who lived 2,000 miles away in Seattle. She was an avid dreamer who would relish helping me explore my nighttime swims. But it wasn’t just for the pregnancy news or the dreams that I wanted to call her, go to her. I just wanted to be close to her. I took my daily walk, shoulders slumped, wishing that she would appear around the next bend, waiting with a hug for me, a rub for my hair. A phone call to Seattle wasn’t going to give me the connection that I wanted. And I was tired of words. I knew if I told my mom about the pregnancy and our plan, it would rend her heart. It would pry open years of her own questioning, leaving her with a daunting emotional project. After all, she was a carrier, too, having received the gene for HED from her father, who lived a too-short, too-difficult life. And she passed the gene not only to me, but also to my brother, who now lived with the disorder. If I told my mother about my tentative pregnancy, with modern medical choices she never had and perhaps never would have wanted, I would be forcing her to reexamine her own secret sadness. At that moment, I didn’t have room in my head or heart for the guilt I would feel if my pregnancy became anyone else’s burden. Someday I would be ready to share, but not now. Not halfway through week seven, when my lungs burned from swimming and my baby’s heart had just bloomed into four perfect chambers.