I recently met someone new and we talked for a while. She asked me where I’m from; I asked her what she does for work. She asked me if I have any children.
That last question gave me pause, not because it was too personal but because I wasn’t sure how to answer. If I said no, it would feel like a sad lie. If I said yes, she might ask how old my child is and I would have to say, “He would have been one in March.” Then she might say, “Oh. I’m so sorry,” and we would sit together in a sea of awkwardness rising around us. Maybe she would stop there, or continue with a sympathetic “May I ask what happened?” And I would have to say, “He died.”
But that would be a half-truth.
If I were being honest, I would string together a series of words so ugly I never thought they could be real: “I ended his life.”
I paused for a moment and said, “No children. You?”
I have been thinking a lot about when parenthood begins. We have heated debates in our public discourse about when life begins, especially now, as an emboldened anti-abortion movement tries to build a case against reproductive rights. But the question of when parenthood begins has been on my mind as I read the headlines: “Uproar in Virginia Over Late-Term Abortion,” “New York Codifies Abortion on Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.”
For me, parenthood began 21 weeks and two days into my pregnancy. It was pouring outside as I rode to the hospital for my mid-pregnancy ultrasound. This was the big one, friends told me, the one where you finally get to see your child: his face and all of those small fingers and toes. The technician made small talk as she glided the wand across my protruding belly. My husband Josh and I marveled at the tiny, flawless-looking human who came into focus on the screen. Josh cracked a joke: small butt, just like his parents.
Everything seemed routine. The technician finished up and left the room. The soundtrack of our baby’s heartbeat played an upbeat tempo in the background. A few minutes went by and the technician came back, letting us know she would take a few more pictures of his head for a clearer look. That sounded reasonable. She left again, this time for longer, and when she returned a doctor wearing a white lab coat walked in behind her looking very serious and shut the door.
What the doctor said was a blur, but went something like this: The pictures revealed a part of our baby’s brain was missing… “agenesis” of something called the “corpus callosum” which connects the right and left hemispheres… he could likely survive without it, but his quality of life was a serious question… this could be a sign of other complications… an MRI would give us more information. Then quietly, carefully, she asked: Had we ever discussed the possibility of termination in a worst-case scenario?
It was like hearing words underwater, muffled and I felt unmoored. I sat there, reminding myself to breathe so I wouldn’t pass out. I thought about his name—Jonah—and the Bible story in which a whale swallowed Jonah whole. After sitting in the whale’s belly for three days and nights, he managed to survive, spit out into the world unscathed. I’m not a religious person, but I found myself silently wishing that our Jonah would have the same fate.
Starting our family wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I remember the night in July when I found out I was pregnant. It seemed impossible considering I’d stopped birth control just a few weeks prior—when Josh and I decided over Negronis and bar snacks that it was time. But there I was, sitting on the edge of my bathtub, fidgeting as I waited for the stick to reveal a tiny symbol that is supposed to change your life forever. A plus sign. Plus one.
I didn’t feel ready for the monumental shift I knew was coming and was unsure where motherhood would fit into my identity. There was the first doctor appointment; the telling of the parents; the quiet plans Josh and I made while laying in bed. It didn’t feel like a child to me then, more like a new idea. In those first days, though, every hour I spent with this idea eased the dread and grew the joy in me. I was going to be a mother, and moment by moment, that started to feel like a title that could fit.
I imagine that for most people, the threshold to parenthood is a gradual transition that goes on like this for nine months. Week by week, pregnancy transforms a woman’s body along with her identity: her decision-making process, her priorities, her sense of self. And by the end of it, she is a mother, hopefully with a baby in her arms. That’s how it started for me; slowly, steadily becoming a parent, until that ultrasound radically altered the journey.
Until New York passed the Reproductive Health Act in January, abortion was only legal for any reason up to 24 weeks. After that, it can be done only if the baby’s or mother’s life is at risk. And even then, terminating a pregnancy is much more complicated. With less than two weeks until the cut-off, my pregnancy became a grimly ticking clock.
After the ultrasound, the next few days were a whirlwind of genetic tests, blood tests, MRIs, amniocentesis punctuated by excruciating waiting periods to gather as much information as possible, only to be told that the data we sought did not exist. We spoke to the best specialists in the state and no one seemed to have any answers. Our case was unprecedented, they said, so rare that there was no telling just how much damage this particular combination of anomalies would cause our son at birth, or throughout his life.
If we were lucky, he could have a learning impairment. If we were not, he could have uncontrollable seizures, chronic pain, physical and mental incapacitation. He could lack the ability to talk, move, grow, and interact with other people. He could be denied the feeling of joy. Modern science suggested the risks were high but not exactly how high. It told us the outcomes could be bad but not exactly how bad. It revealed just enough to raise the question of what constitutes a livable life without providing answers. The answer would have to come from us.
I remember sitting across from the head of neuroradiology as he read to us the results of the fetal MRI. He spoke kindly, with authority and empathy and reassurance. I tried desperately to focus on his words but I couldn’t because an erratic drumbeat kept tapping me from within me.
Thump thump. Kick kick.
I was scared, and Jonah was patting me like an equestrian would his frightened horse. Or maybe was he protesting, telling me not to do what it seemed like needed to be done. Or maybe he was simply reminding me he was in there, asking me not to forget him. I wished I could ask him which it was.
I read once that “pregnancy is the entire history of philosophy and religion condensed into nine months, plus constant urination.” It’s a perfect description, though my nine months were crammed into nine days between the ultrasound that derailed my family’s future, and the procedure that would bring it to a broken-hearted end.
The morning after the MRI reading, Josh and I woke up in a haze after a sleepless night. He turned to me and said, “Let’s go to the zoo.” Strangely, it sounded perfect. We love animals and maybe being among them would give us clarity, or at least a distraction from the surreal hell we now inhabited. Life was too much to bear, so we got up and went to the Bronx.
We spent a lot of time in the monkey exhibit watching white-cheeked gibbons groom each other atop a maze of branches. There was a fat mother gibbon and several miniatures who swung around her, new infants popping into view every few minutes. They came over to her in search of comfort and a saliva bath. She groomed her babies for hours, licking and plucking without a thought, her maternal instincts running on autopilot. She had no decisions to make, no wrenching questions to contemplate. I envied her so much that it hurt my bones.
There were only a few stories I could find about women who had a later abortion. I became very familiar with them over the next few days as my shock turned to desperation for any person, any information, that could help me decide what to do. The accounts have a common theme: A couple terminates a pregnancy because a tragic diagnosis guarantees the baby would not survive to see his or her first birthday, or the baby is certain to arrive a stillborn, or the mother’s and child’s lives are in grave danger. Each story is uniquely devastating, but the ones I could find tended to lack ambiguity. They are almost all black or white; death now or later. Either way, death seemed to be the certain conclusion whether by a medical procedure or by an act of nature.
What does one do when the story is not black or white at all, but a foggy, murky grey? We had no idea what outcome Jonah would have. “The data you seek does not exist.” Ours was not a choice of death now or later, it was a constellation of choices. Life with a probable disability, dependence, chronic suffering that could be severe or, by some miracle, not so severe, or no life at all.
Over the next few days, we made lists. Which outcomes were we willing to subject our child to, and which were dealbreakers? We weighed the pros and cons, pored over medical journals, took long, soul-searching walks, made the mistake of Googling and then quickly closed Google. We even looked up what Judaism had to say about the matter. (In cases like mine, Jewish texts across the ideological spectrum leave it to the parents and their doctors to decide.) Eventually, we realized the futility of these exercises; they were predicated on having some vague idea of Jonah’s prognosis. We had nothing.
Our choice came from a place deeper than philosophy, deeper than religion, and deeper even than science; it came from instinct. Deep down we knew that parents make choices on behalf of their children every day; to maximize their chances of health and happiness and minimize their pain and suffering. Ultimately Josh and I followed that most basic instinct to its tragic end.
The Saturday after I came home from the hospital, I felt strangely at ease, perhaps even hopeful. The weight of having to make a decision had been lifted, the anxiety surrounding the diagnosis gone. I was recovering at home when my doorbell rang. Food deliveries, flower bouquets, and friends started showing up at my door. The lovely gestures confounded me. Why did it feel like we were sitting shiva? I realized, of course, that we were sitting shiva; someone had died.
It would be weeks and months before the magnitude of what happened sunk in; when life was supposed to return to normal, and the steady stream of concerned text messages from friends and parents began to wane. Despite having the emotional support of a truly wonderful husband, I was alone. Minus one.
The person I’d carried for five-and-a-half months had disappeared, and there were few traces of him. I stashed my maternity clothes and sonogram pictures deep in our closets, and made sure every vitamin, book and back pillow was far out of sight. I was suddenly walking through life solo again: eating for one, sleeping for one, breathing for one.
When I came back to work after disappearing for several weeks, a colleague who I don’t see often passed me in the hall and gleefully asked to see my belly. I froze, and my expression must have been one of unmistakable horror because her face reflected mine, and I knew she understood her mistake. We both walked away in hysterics. That night, I opened a blank email and addressed it to the entire staff, including people I hardly knew, and drafted a brief but brutal letter telling them I was no longer pregnant, I had lost the baby, and I was letting them know to avoid rumors or confusion. I just wanted to avoid the renewed devastation of having to explain my situation time and again. Best to do it once, I thought, cry myself to sleep, and wake up ready to try and move forward.
Some mornings I did feel ready. Other mornings it was hard to breathe. Grief was a tide that washed in and out on unpredictable, debilitating waves.
As quickly as I had gotten used to the idea of becoming a mother, I had to come to terms with not becoming one. But the tricky thing about motherhood is it’s a transformation that can’t be undone. I’m a parent without a child now; a parent who misses her son and will for a long time. Maybe always.
On a particularly emotional week in January, when my sadness felt piercing and raw, I opened the New York Times and saw an op-ed by David Brooks headlined “The Abortion Memo.” In it, Brooks argued that if Democrats want to win elections, they should concede later abortion as a bargaining chip. “Do we want late-term abortion so much that we are willing to tolerate President Trump?” he asked. “Do we want it so much that we give up our chance at congressional majorities?”
It was surreal to see those words strung together in a sentence: “want late-term abortion.” Who wants this?
No one “wants” a later abortion. Few people get them (only one percent of abortions happen after 21 weeks), and nearly all the parents who do are grappling with devastating diagnoses like mine, or worse. I have spoken to many of these women in a private support group. Like me, they would give anything to exchange their abortion for a healthy, living child. The best choice we had was ending our pregnancies to ease our children’s suffering, or for some women, to save their own lives.
I think that’s why my mind goes back to the question: When does parenthood begin? We accept that a parent decides what’s best for his or her child, but we assume that parenthood begins when a child is born, leaving pregnant women and their partners vulnerable to everyone else’s judgment.
I learned only enough this year to know that the experience of later abortion doesn’t match the language used to describe it. Ending my pregnancy was the most selfless act of love I have ever committed.
Jonah will always be my plus one. I think of him every time I jot an idea on the notepad that sits on my coffee table, which I couldn’t bring myself to put away. We bought it for him when I was pregnant; it’s covered in tiny blue whales.
Missy Kurzweil is a creative director and writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and rescue cat.