Driving through the Rockies, heading to a friend’s wedding, back in 2010, I tried to hold down my lunch. I imagined it was the altitude or car sickness, but by the time we stopped for the night in Canmore, Alta., all I wanted to do was lie down. I felt queasy. I couldn’t finish my glass of wine at dinner. I put my two-year-old son and six-month-old daughter to bed, curled up beside them and was out for the night.
As our family vacation neared its end, I felt no better than when we’d left our home in Northern Ontario one week before. My stomach was bloated, my head clouded like I was hungover. On the journey back, a little voice in the back of my head was getting louder and louder: Take a pregnancy test.
But how could I be pregnant? Since the birth of our second six months earlier, I could count on one hand the number of times my husband and I had had sex. With breastfeeding, night waking and the start of my son’s terrible-twos tantrums, I wasn’t in the mood. Still, I drove to the closest pharmacy and picked up a pregnancy test. I’ve peed on these sticks before, but I didn’t feel the same adrenaline rush I had in the past. Just dread. When the pink line appeared across the window, my legs weakened and my skin flushed. I felt powerless, like someone had pinned me down.
I opened the bathroom door. My husband was sorting through a pile of dirty laundry. “I’m pregnant,” I said. We sat down at the kitchen table with two glasses of red wine. My husband was working 70-hour weeks in the restaurant industry, and I was the primary caregiver to our children. My son still woke up crying several times a night, and I was nursing my daughter every few hours. Both wanted only me for comfort. I loved my babies to bits, but I was emotionally and physically drained.
I was also on two back-to-back maternity leaves, with no EI for the current one because I hadn’t gone back to work after the first. I had even been debating whether to resign from my job as a reporter to work part-time or from home. We were not opposed to having more children, and there was a tiny part of me that thought we could make this work. Maybe if I had some help. Maybe if the kids were in daycare.
But the reality was we couldn’t afford child care for two kids, and my husband couldn’t cut back his hours at work. Our own parents were still working full-time, too, and I knew the responsibility of caring for all three kids would fall on me. I understood my capabilities and limitations as a mother. I would never be able to handle three children under three years old. It would place insurmountable pressure on my family, and I worried it would end my marriage. That night, we decided, together, to terminate the pregnancy.
I was raised Roman Catholic, and so was my husband. We were told that abortion is a sin, just as wrong as adultery and murder. I’m not sure when I deviated from my religious upbringing, but I always believed a woman should be able to make her own decisions regarding reproductive health. At my all-girls Catholic high school, during a discussion on abortion, I was the only student in the class who said I’d terminate a pregnancy if my life were at risk. Everyone else said they couldn’t imagine killing their unborn baby. My rationale was based on logic: Was my life not valuable? What if I had other children to take care of? So when I faced an unplanned pregnancy, I did not pray to God for guidance. Instead, my husband and I trusted each other.
Within a few days, I made an appointment at a local hospital’s “options clinic” and spoke to the nurse, who explained my choices. But I had come in knowing what I wanted. After an ultrasound revealed I was seven or eight weeks pregnant, I had to wait another week for the procedure. It was the longest week of my life. I wanted it to be over.
When I finally found myself in the hospital waiting room, I was asked to sit in a corner designated for patients undergoing the same procedure, which allowed the doctor who would perform the abortions to address everyone at once. There were seven of us.
Sitting under the bright fluorescent lighting early that Friday morning, we were strangers with a common secret. But eavesdropping on these young women chit-chatting about boyfriends and social lives, I convinced myself that I was different. I was the oldest one there by a good five or 10 years. I wasn’t single and promiscuous. I was a 32-year-old mother of two with responsibilities. I knew it was wrong to judge, but I found myself doing just that. The procedure seemed routine to them. One young woman revealed it wasn’t her first abortion. Another teen, accompanied by her mother, spoke openly about her decision: She was in high school and couldn’t manage a baby. The other women nodded in agreement.
I wanted to escape that corner of the room. I searched for something familiar and picked up an Archie comic. Glancing up periodically from its pages, I recognized many of the nurses and doctors in the hospital. They dined in the same restaurants and shopped at the same grocery stores as my husband and me. They lived in my neighbourhood. One nurse walked up to me and asked how I was. I didn’t know what to say. She must have known why I was there.
I was home before noon, feeling groggy and cramped, and as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out. My husband spent the afternoon with the kids and let me sleep for a few hours. Convincing him I was okay — or forcing myself to resume a routine — I took over and he went back to work. That evening, a friend came over with her toddler and we watched the kids chase each other around the living room while I held my youngest. I don’t think I even offered her anything to drink. She was trying to have another baby and had suffered several miscarriages. I didn’t dare tell her about my day.
My husband and I barely spoke about the abortion. And I was okay with that. I wanted to forget and I thought not talking about it would help me move forward. The truth was, for weeks after, I thought about the abortion constantly. I remembered the miraculous feeling of a tiny life growing inside of me. I would estimate how far along the fetus would be. For strength, I reminded myself why I’d had the abortion in the first place: to be a better mother. It became a mantra.
I resigned from my full-time job and started to freelance from home. I said it would help balance my family and work life. But I made this career move largely to honour my reason for ending the pregnancy. As my son and daughter became little independent human beings, my husband and our extended family stepped in to play a larger role in their lives. My children no longer depended on me every waking — and sleeping — moment, and they were thriving. It was a huge relief. I felt closer to my husband than ever before. I was more relaxed as a mom and could dedicate more time to my career. Our family was in a good financial position. So when I learned in early 2013 that I was expecting, there was no sense of doom. It was different this time around. We welcomed our third child, a boy, in late 2013.
Over the years, I’ve started to open up to some friends and family about having an abortion. Three years ago, my sister, a young mother of two who has suffered from severe postpartum depression, learned she was pregnant. The father didn’t want another child. She did, but she was traumatized by her previous depression and afraid the same sense of paralysis would return. I wanted to let her know that she had options. Most important, I wanted her to know I supported her unconditionally. Accompanied by her partner, she made the trip to a Toronto clinic a few days later.
Then, last summer, I was sitting with a friend in a coffee shop, reading the paper, when I saw that Health Canada had approved mifepristone, a pill used at home to end pregnancy in the first trimester. The article debated the drug’s legal and moral implications and said that many pro-life organizations wanted the government to stop distribution. That stance felt like a personal attack. If this drug had been available to me six years ago, I would have, without a doubt, used it and spared myself the humiliation of having to go to a hospital in a small town. “I had an abortion,” I blurted out to my friend as I read the news. It was the first time I’d said it without hesitation or fear. She was taken aback but acknowledged the decision must have been a tough one. “I don’t regret it,” I said. “It was the best decision I could’ve made for my family.” We sat in silence for a while and then I turned the page to the arts section.
That coffee shop conversation stayed with me. I realized that not only was I okay with having had an abortion, I wanted to share my experience and defend my decision. I had been stunned to learn that nearly one out of every three Canadian women under the age of 45 has had an abortion. If abortion is this common, why aren’t women talking about it more openly? What is preventing more of us from taking a stand on the right to access abortion services and assert control over our reproductive choices? Six years ago, sitting in that hospital waiting room, I was convinced I didn’t belong with the other women there. I identified as pro-choice, but I harboured my own stereotypes: Women who had abortions were young and irresponsible, not wives and mothers like me. In fact, in 2011, there were more abortions performed on women in their 30s and 40s than on women in their teens, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. More than half of those who terminate a pregnancy already have children. Mothers represent the majority of women who access this medical service, so we should own our place in the abortion debate. This is why I’m telling my story. But before I shared it with Canadians, I had to tell my parents. I worked up to it at their home, where I grew up. “I need to tell you something,” I said to them. “I had an abortion six years ago.” Silence.
I am the eldest of five siblings. My mother almost never challenged me — she didn’t question my decision to backpack across Europe as a teenager or, a decade later, to follow a doctor to Sri Lanka to write about his work when the country was on the brink of civil war. But this, I could see in her eyes, was very different. Abortion was acceptable in some circumstances, she agreed, but this wasn’t one of them. I was stronger than I gave myself credit for, she said. I could have handled another child just fine. She said she’d been better off not knowing. I looked at my father. “That’s life, I guess,” he finally offered. A week later, my mother brought up the subject again. She wasn’t troubled just by my abortion but by the fact I was willing to write about it under my name. She warned that I wasn’t thinking clearly. When you’re living in a small city, this decision will follow you everywhere, she said.
I’m a few years short of my 40th birthday. I don’t really care what people think of me. But the woman who brought me into this world wasn’t convinced. Her hurt was real, and I couldn’t ignore that. And that’s why, for some time, I struggled with whether to write this anonymously. In the end, I used my own name. I understand why so many women stay silent, but I won’t anymore. I don’t feel ashamed. And if you see yourself in this story, neither should you. We’ve held our collective breath for too long. Let’s begin to let it out together.