The day after Roe v. Wade was overturned, my 90-year-old mother called from her retirement home and greeted me with, “I can’t believe it.” I knew, without her saying, exactly what she was referencing. “It makes me so angry to think that what I had access to thirty years ago, women won’t have after today.”
“Mom, actually it was over forty years ago,” I said.
“You remember?” she asked.
Of course I did. I remembered it clearly. And in all the years that have passed since, I’d never once asked her about it. But this day, I didn’t have to. She was eager to tell me.
“I was shocked when I found out I was pregnant. I didn’t want any more kids. My gynecologist knew that. He told me that I was right on the line, that I had twenty-four hours to decide. Since the state didn’t allow abortions beyond a certain number of weeks, I think it was ten or twelve, I can’t remember, I would have to go to Atlanta if I waited. We couldn’t afford to do that.”
This was Mississippi in 1978. My mother was forty-six, a high school Spanish teacher. My dad worked for the state as a civil engineer. My brothers and I were all in our teens, stumbling through adolescence, limping through high school, one brother on his way to college. Money was always tight growing up and the stress was evident in my parents’ marriage. There was discord over money. There were arguments over money. There were fights over money. At the time my mother became pregnant, my parents were at the lowest point in their relationship. Nothing in this scenario said, Now would be a great time to have another child.
I remember my mom summoning me into her bedroom first thing in the morning. She was rushed to get dressed to make her 9 a.m. appointment, pulling on a pair of pantyhose, which seems as absurd to me now as it did then, the ritual beauty-making observed on her way to get an abortion. She knew it would upset me, she said, but she’d made up her mind. And I was upset. As the youngest of three, with two older brothers, I had fantasized about having a younger sibling. I offered to drop out of school to help care for the baby, a bad idea I knew even then, but it was the only thing I had to offer. I remember tearing up, pathetically feeling sorry for myself, for my loss. But at the same time, I heard something in my mother’s voice I’d never heard before: the vivid, unequivocal expression of her needs.
“I’m too old to start over,” she told me. “I don’t want to start over. I’m tired.”
There was no arguing this fact, and I knew it. I’d seen her those nights she stayed up late at her desk grading papers under a fluorescent lamp, marking the pages with her red pencil while the rest of us readied for bed. I’d heard her recount the struggle she’d had with her school principal, trying to garner his enthusiasm for innovative teaching approaches to foreign languages, using art and music and role-playing instead of rote recitations. Or being reprimanded for failing a star athlete instead of giving him a passing “C” so that he could continue to play football. I’d watched her grow weary, feeling undervalued and unsupported in her career and, at times, in her marriage. She’d spent years fighting to be heard and taking care of others. Now I heard her; it was time she took care of herself.
For the first time that morning, I saw her not as my mother but as an autonomous woman, an empowered woman, who just happened to be my mother. She had an identity and a voice and needs and wants outside of that of mother and wife. And at fifteen, I needed to see and hear that. I needed that because—while there was Billie Jean King and there was Mary-Tyler Moore—there were no models in my immediate world of women who did not succinctly comply with the prescribed roles of what a woman could do and be. My mother’s rightful choice to assert her personhood and end her pregnancy has informed my life ever since.
“Sometimes, I look back and think about how he or she would be an adult now. But that’s it. I always knew it was the right decision. I’ve never regretted it,” she said. I told her I always thought it was the right decision, too. “I wish I could write about it, to tell my story. Every story is different.”“I’ll tell it, Mom,” I said. I told her I love you and we hung up. And it was then I realized that this was not just her story, it was our story.
by Jane Newkirk
Jane Newkirk has worked as a cook, bread baker, visual artist, and art gallery owner. Her poems have appeared in The Night Heron Barks, JAMA, and Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. She currently works as an occupational therapist in a long-term acute care hospital in Jackson, Mississippi.
Artist Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/janenewkirk_writer/