I am weightless, airborne as I look down at my body on the examination table.
Like my mother and her mother, my post-baby weight has gathered in my belly, making me appear several months pregnant even at nine weeks. My legs are spread wide so the doctor can apply a cream to soften my cervix, easing my body to give way to the abortion.
Sometimes I wish this story had a cinematic ending. But I did not jump off the table, holding the back of my gown together, walking away backwards saying, “This is a mistake.” Saying, “I’ll keep the baby.”
Six months earlier, I was nine months pregnant, also waiting for my cervix to be effaced. At ten centimeters I could begin pushing my first baby out of fluid darkness.
“What will we call the baby? I asked my husband before the Pitocin made me heavy then delirious with pain. Later on in labor I disconnected from my body after an epidural paralyzed my legs so that pushing felt mechanical rather than necessary. I worried that without ripples of crushing pain I had not fully earned the right to be a mother.
The second pregnancy was like the flowering surprise of a bloodstain blooming on a crisp white bed sheet. I breastfed my first baby and hadn’t had a period yet. My husband and I should have known that I could get pregnant, but that would have meant taking the time to fumble for a condom or the diaphragm. There could be no barriers between us on that cold, starless January night. And given how difficult it was to get pregnant the first time, we never thought it could happen so effortlessly. In the two years we tried to conceive our first baby we desperately willed our bodies to do what they were meant for. When I was finally pregnant, it was as if I were the first woman in the world to carry a baby.
That first time I tested for a pregnancy, I rejoiced that a drugstore kit rarely registered a false positive. The second time I tested for a pregnancy I prayed to be the exception.
In the late afternoon the baby would not stop screaming and squirming in my arms. I often had fantasies of popping her in the microwave, cooking her until she was quiet. “Do you want to hurt your baby?” a therapist asked. “Wring her neck like you would a small chick?”
I lay the baby down in a basket plumped with clean clothes as if I were sending her away like Moses on the Nile. She rubbed her eyes and let out a few cries before succumbing to exhaustion. I hated parents who were nostalgic for a child that fit into their arms, that couldn’t answer them back. I longed for independence, for words to articulate how long the days were. “Yes,” said one of those parents, “the days are long and intense, but the years are short.” Liar, I thought.
My breasts were tender—a sure sign that I would bleed at any moment. I peed on the telltale stick anyway. Twenty minutes later two pink lines appeared. One for each baby I could have within the year. Pink is for girl. Two baby girls—one on each hip. I thought of my mother and her panic when she believed she was pregnant for a fourth time. She cried for a miscarriage. That was also the summer of her continuous migraine. “I can’t take this anymore,” she said about her headaches and her motherhood. She stripped down to bra and panties and lay in bed with a wet washcloth over her eyes. Her long dark hair was down from its bun and splayed on the pillow.
My baby girl was two months old when the Susan Smith drama unfolded on CNN. Each night at dinnertime I breastfed my colic baby to quiet her as I watched the police piece their way to the inevitable conclusion that Smith strapped her little boys into their car seats and rolled her car into a lake. She murdered her children to be free to pursue a romance. Was I, who was terrified of microwaving my baby to free myself from the long twilight days, so different than Susan Smith?
The summer I was due with my first baby, a series of business trips kept my husband from attending all but one childbirth class with me. I called my sister to come down to be my temporary birth partner. She was game until the instructor passed around a metal prod used to break the amniotic sac. It turns out I was a natural water breaker. Two weeks before my baby’s due date, I lay down to go to sleep and my water broke. Soaked and scared, I went to the hospital only to be sent back home until I had labor pains. The pains never came. They must have been waylaid deep inside my body.
The night before my labor was induced, I was tucked into bed among other women also awaiting their babies. We were curtained off from each other for some semblance of privacy. A couple of hours after I had had a sonogram to establish the baby’s position, a nurse came in and told me that I was having a boy. I called my husband in the middle of the night to tell him to prepare for a brit—a circumcision—in the next week. He would be marked like his father.
With Pitocin, Demerol and spinal block flooding my veins, my baby was born sluggish. She took a few minutes to cry. When the doctor finally announced that I had had a girl, I managed to sit up and ask if she was absolutely sure. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” she said to me.
The doctor who delivered my baby girl snaps off her gloves after she spreads the cream on my cervix. “It’s early enough so that all you’ll need is a D&C. It’s also encouraging that you’ve been spotting the last couple of days. You might have had a miscarriage.”
After I saw specks of blood on my underwear, I took long hot baths to hasten a miscarriage. My grandmother had done the same when she became pregnant with my uncle. She also tried to ripen her cervix with olive oil. Her two daughters, born a year apart, had frequently sent her to convalesce in the hospital. My grandmother gave birth to her only son born seven years after her first child, my mother. Mom brought him up.
The morning of the abortion I am still nine weeks pregnant. My husband drives in wide circles around the hospital for what seems like hours before we check into the day surgery. “You don’t have to do this,” he tells me. He holds my hand in the car as I explain to him again that Jewish law makes room for an early pregnancy termination if the mother’s health is at risk. “I’m in no shape to have two children fifteen months apart,” I say. And yet I want him to tell me that I can mother two young children if I have to. I want him to tell me that he will hire someone so that I can grocery shop alone and come home to folded laundry.
Abortion is what the unmarried do. What the unhappily married do. At that moment, I somehow manage to be both.
This is where the story could have another cinematic ending. I could tell my husband to drive me home. If my cervix holds up, I will have the baby. If I miscarry, at least I made the decision to keep the baby. But we walk into the same hospital where I gave birth to my baby girl, grateful that there are no screaming placards accusing us of murder. Just a waiting room wrapped in the quiet euphemism that I am there for a D&C. My cervix will be dilated and the doctor will scrape my uterus and scoop the cluster of cells. I mostly convince myself that there is just tissue lining my uterus.
I part from my husband to undress—the gown opened in the back—and I lay down on yet another table where I shade my eyes from the fluorescent lights. “Will I hear a vacuum sound?” I ask the nurse. As soon as the question floats between us I wonder how such a domestic machine can undo such a domestic act.
“We give you drugs that make you forget,” she says. That’s the conventional wisdom about the pain of childbirth too. I am the exception. I remember all of it.
Feet in stirrups, sheet draped over my legs, the doctor asks me to “scoot down” and count backwards into blankness. The number 97 is the last thing I remember. I wake up in a cold amnesia, shaking. Excitement is the other side of anxiety, and mania has taken hold of me.
I am lighter, unburdened, triumphant. I want to know the sex. Another girl? I don’t believe the doctor when she says that the sex cannot be determined so early in the pregnancy.
I catch myself thinking that I would have named the baby for my father and I cry for the first time that day. No matter that my father is still alive then. I follow Spanish-Jewish tradition. And right then and there only the living count. The abortion is for the baby I already have.
The abortion is also for the baby boy I will give birth to three years later. He is named for my father. He’s almost a man now—six feet tall with a deep voice, nerves of steel and the heart of a saint—yet I’m afraid to tell him about the abortion. What if he asks me if he would have been born if I hadn’t had terminated my pregnancy? I can’t give him a vague answer about the alignment of the stars determining his fate. He’s a smart boy and he won’t be convinced if I simply tell him that he was meant to be born. Meant to be ours. I can only tell him that he is wanted, needed.