One of the recent belly pictures I put up was of a woman had an abortion. Her picture included a bit of personal jewelry that she asked me to take out for privacy reasons – she was concerned her young teenage son might see the picture and wasn’t sure she was ready for him to know she’s had an abortion. (Her concern is valid – there are a number of relevant reasons her son might actually see the site.)
Since my conversation with this woman, I’ve been ruminating on the issue of when and how and whether parents should tell their children about the less-than-ideal aspects of their pasts. Abortions are a particularly thorny issue.
In general, I am in favor of parents telling their children their full biographies. There are lots of reasons to tell your children things, and there are lots of reasons not to tell your children things. It’s a very personal decision, and has a lot to do with what kinds of kids you have and what kind of past you have.
There’s not a lot in my personal history that I’d shirk from telling my kids. (I’m not willing to say there’s nothing, but only because of that one time in 8th grade when… Well. You’ll have to get to know me better before I spill that one.) My openness is probably because I’ve led a relatively toe-the-line path. And when I have strayed from the path, I’m generally pretty proud of my choices, even in retrospect. It’s a lucky place to be, as a parent. (However, you can feel free to call it “boring” if you’d rather. My best friend from 8th grade certainly does!)
Would I feel differently if I’d had an abortion? Maybe. The woman who had the abortion certainly had an uncommon strain in her e-mail tone when she asked me to crop the picture. She also used the word “yet.” As in, “I’m not sure I’m ready yet for my son to know I’ve had an abortion.”
Which is a good point, because just because you’re not willing to share something …yet… doesn’t mean that you’ll never share it. But that you’re aware that the right time and place and developmental stage hasn’t come up …yet. On the other hand, a parent might rely on that excuse to delay telling their children forever.
Our children’s opinions of us can be deeply powerful, something that we work hard to maintain. Another mother I know did not get around to telling her son that she had had an abortion. One day, as a young adult, he was going on about how irresponsible and incomprehensible it was to him that women had abortions. Rather than stop him and tell her story, she let him continue. She apparently did not feel comfortable humanizing the place where married mothers sometimes find themselves unable to carry and care for another child. While I haven’t had a specific conversation with her about it, I suspect that she did not bring it up because she did not want her son to put her into the categories of irresponsible and incomprehensible. I suspect she decided it was not worth it – right then and right there – to tell him.
But the problem is that, at some point, if your child doesn’t know something about you, it becomes immeasurably more difficult to tell them. At some point, if you haven’t told your child, they will feel that their trust has been violated. After that tipping point, the question becomes whether to let your child feel hurt by your previous silence or to just keep that part of your past permanently to yourself.
As someone who was fanatical about birth control – really, incredibly fanatical – and lucky, I never had to face the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. I suspect I would have made different choices at different points in my past. And so I will not have to make the decision about whether or when to tell my children.
But I hope that had my past been different, I would choose to tell them. I hope that I would pick one long, comfortable car ride one day when they were in their middle-teens to bring it up and hash out whatever they felt the need to. I hope that I would feel confident enough in my current self and compassionate enough for my past self to have that difficult conversation with dignity.
I deeply respect the women who make the difficult choice to have an abortion when faced with an unexpected pregnancy. I deeply respect the women who make the difficult choice to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term. And I hope to pass on that respect to my children.