A Letter to My 3-Year-Old Niece on Abortion

I’m sharing this with you because I think choice is the most important thing we have.

As I consider the very real threat to reproductive health and freedom that women face under this Trump presidency, I think mostly of my young niece, Hadley, and the fact that shes growing up in a world that continues to undermine her power, her autonomy, her body. I wrote this letter a year ago, for her to read some time in the future. It suddenly seems important to share now. Our experiences and our truths: we must stand in them—strong, unwavering, unashamed. Our bodies and our choices: we must fight like hell to keep them our own.

The hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’— gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” –John Steinbeck

Dear Hadley,

I’m sitting in a cafe a few blocks from the beach in Los Angeles. After ordering, the waiter asks if you’d like to hear the question of the day. I always say yes, but I like that they give the option of no. You don’t have to share your answer. You don’t have to say anything at all. It’s just something to consider for the day. I keep coming back for coffee because I like the questions so much.

Today’s question: What are you choosing?

When I was 20, I bought four pregnancy tests and took them all in one evening. Eight dark pink lines appeared instantly in vertical sets of two.

I scheduled my abortion at a clinic on Chicago’s west side.

I stayed with my best friend from high school the night before. I wanted to be with someone who knew me when I was younger. Someone who understood how I made decisions, who wouldn’t wonder whether I had considered all sides. She made sure I ate; nothing after midnight. She slept next to me in her bed. She set the alarm, she drove the car, she held her head high as she walked with me through the foggy doors.

My roommate was there just like she was there when I counted the pink lines. She had given me a note, a reminder in ink that any decision I made would be mine and would be right. She wore one of my shirts that day—everything was shared.

My boyfriend came from the office wearing handsome shoes and a clean white shirt just like the one I soaked with dark mascara tears the night I buried my face in his chest and told him. Warm and kind and careful, he was the only man in the crowded clinic. He gave me all of his support and an envelope with the price of my choice stacked neatly inside.

I’m sharing this with you because abortion is veiled in assumptions too thin to rightfully live anywhere near the vicinity of truth.

My tribe—the people I had chosen, the ones I trusted to protect my decision and understand my unchanged worth—sat side by side on the worn brown lobby chairs. He held my hand until it was my turn. They watched me go in, they waited for me to come out. It took time.

I hung my black t-shirt and black underwear and soft black sweatpants in a steel locker with a single hook. I fastened the key to the front of my disposable gown with the colored safety pin the women at reception gave me when she took my name and replaced it with a number. I waited quietly with three other women. All older, all with hair and skin darker than mine. All, like me, carrying life and choice.

I hated the lighting. I hated the room, the way it smelled like nothing.

I ran my thumb back and forth over my hipbone. Scared and sure.

Waiting for a doctor I had never met and would never see again, I knew the question “how did I get here?” no longer applied. Under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent lights, the series of choices I had made were exposed, laid out on the cold stainless steel table alongside my changing body and goose-bumped skin. I chose him. I chose that intimacy. And when my body’s will proved stronger than the protection of my daily pill, I chose that suffocating, sterile place. I knew what I was doing. The decisions had all been mine. The consequences would be mine, too.

There are certain moments in life that will change you. Moments when the impact of a choice you make will weigh more than all the other choices you’ve ever made put together. If you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable to the experience, to open yourself up to the consequences, I think these are also the moments that have the power to catapult you away from dependency, hurl you past the familiar lands of blame and excuse, and land you surprisingly nearer to yourself.

I’m sharing this with you because like most things that stir deep emotional discomfort, we’re told to keep it to ourselves.

On that table, innocence disappeared in a sharp flash. When I awoke from sedation, bleeding in a shared and sticky recovery room, I wasn’t sure it ever existed at all. The once reliable comfort of luck, chance, and soft cotton were gone. The dry practicality of saltine crackers and a super absorbent pad had taken their place.

Hadley, I’m not sharing this with you because I think abortion is a necessary or singular path to decision ownership. No way.

I’m sharing this with you because if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I want you to know you are not alone. That you have support and a voice and the right to make your own decision. If this is never part of your story, still consider that it’s part of a friend’s story, a coworker’s story, maybe your sister’s. I just want you to know that it’s real.

I’m sharing this with you because while people are willing to fiercely debate the morality of a woman’s right to choose, they seem less willing to honestly discuss the experience of choosing. But we carry our experiences in our bodies, too. And there’s still too much shame, too little vulnerability, insufficient empathy on all sides.

I’m sharing this with you because abortion is veiled in assumptions too thin to rightfully live anywhere near the vicinity of truth. That it’s easy. That having one means you value neither life nor your incredible capacity to hold it. That once it’s done, you never think about it again. That you will regret it.

I want you to know I sobbed on the table—terrified, desperately clenching the gracious assistant’s warm hand. That nine years later, I’m still calculating age every fall when a birthday would have been. That I’m thankful for proof of my fertility. That my experience is not every woman’s experience. That I didn’t regret it then and I don’t regret it now.

I’m sharing this with you because like most things that stir deep emotional discomfort, we’re told to keep it to ourselves. To stuff it down so we don’t upset or offend others who may have chosen differently for themselves. We forget that regardless of differences in personal opinion, each individual experience adds to the collective female experience, which gives shape to the whole human experience. It all matters, it’s all worth talking about.

I’m also sharing this with you because I think choice is the most important thing we have. It’s worth fighting for, worth protecting. I think, even at just 3-and-almost-a-half, you already understand. You are the most decisive kid I’ve ever met.

Keep refusing passivity. Do not accept what’s in front of you as what must be. Choose for yourself. With thoughtfulness. With honesty. With great care and consideration. This life is yours.

When a job or a relationship or the lighting in a restaurant doesn’t feel right, choose to leave. Or choose to stay. When situations or light bulbs change, choose to go back. Or choose to stay gone. Or choose to run off to Paris. But consider your reasons, understand your role.

Choice is your right, but it’s not about getting it right. It’s not about flawless decision making. It’s about, as Joan Didion famously said, having the courage to accept your betrayals, your judgements, your mistakes. It’s about the willingness to accept what you must give up to have something else.

We all give things up.

Choice is not about blindly ignoring consequence. It’s not about distancing yourself from the downsides with justifications. It’s about considering the morality of a given situation and, as one of my wisest friends once said, accepting the repercussions of playing on either side of that line.

It’s about ownership. Which means it’s also sometimes about apologies.

Try to avoid language that reduces personal responsibility. You don’t have to stay in that relationship or go to that party or stick it out at that job that sucks your soul. You were not over-served. And contrary to how it might feel some (/most) days, your parents did not ruin your life. Words hold meaning and it’s powerful to use ones that remind you you’re in control.

When I think about the things that make me most proud, most grateful, most satisfied, I consider the string of decisions that came before. Every day I think about how a thousand big and little decisions led me right to this, here, now. It’s not perfect, not without failure and hurt and mistake. But when I look in the mirror, the face I see is my own. And the older I get, the more I like how it looks.

Keep choosing your life, Had. I’m excited to see the shape you make it take.

I love you little one,

Aunt Liz

Read more at Letters to Hadley