I was curled up on the couch next to my mum watching an episode of Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me.
One of the minor plot lines featured Josh’s friend, Claire, having an abortion. It was one of the first storylines featuring abortion I had watched on TV.
Claire wasn’t emotionally devastated by it. She didn’t suffer horrific medical complications, end up clinically depressed, or regretting her choice.
Unlike how I expected, the show depicted Claire’s decision as just that – a decision. It wasn’t careless, but it didn’t become a defining point of her character. She made a choice as an empowered woman, with support around her.
When the episode ended, I mentioned to Mum how untold these stories are. Not only on our screens or books but in our everyday lives.
I wondered aloud how many of my grandmother’s friends would have aborted pregnancies silently. You wouldn’t know; sitting in a circle most of them would be speechless on the topic, but filled with secrets.
“Well, the same with my generation,” Mum added. I nodded in agreement. Even now, every generation. Secretive but silent.
“I had one.”
That’s all she said, to begin.
In all honestly, I was paralysed. The first thing that came to my mind was how to react; the right way to respond.
I shouldn’t look shocked, but I don’t want to seem nonchalant in case this was a big event for her. Should I hug her or does she even want pity? What if she feels nothing at all?
I looked at Mum: she'd had one. Mum.
This was late last year; I had just turned 18.
Listen: Mamamia Out Loud team discusses Donald Trump's stance on abortion. (Post continues after audio.)
It was her first pregnancy, and she was married to my dad. They were financially secure. Their relationship was okay – it had never been perfect, nor would it be – and they had the means to provide for a child. In a traditional world, they had almost ideal circumstances to bring in new life. But, the truth was, my mum, didn’t want to be a mum at that time. Something niggled in the back of her mind that she would end up a single mum. With the support of my dad, she aborted the pregnancy.
Why she kept me? She doesn’t know. She just did.
Two years after I was born, my dad left.
As I processed the information, it grew on me how strange it was Mum had never told me about the abortion before. Forever, I have grown up in a pro-choice household. Mum and I regularly talked politics, gender, and reproductive justice.
We hadn’t gone into the personal, just the policy behind it. In fact, it had never even crossed my mind that my mum had had an abortion.
And, that’s part of the problem.
Despite all my talk about abortion, my heated discussions of pro-choice, and my assumed knowledge, I didn’t know the real face.
Even though one in three American women will have an abortion by the time they are 45, yet only 40% of us say we know someone who has had an abortion. (FYI: If you’re wondering about Australian statistics, it’s hard to know because each state has different collection methods.)
So much our literature and media tell us of the ‘exception’ cases to abortion. The edge stories. The woman who was raped and impregnated. The 19-year-old kicked out of the home with no money to support a child. Or, the pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother.
We hear these sometimes devastating stories when the truth is, this does not represent the one in three women. This does not represent my mother, who was using birth control, married, and financially stable.
As we continue to perpetuate this myth about abortion, we isolate women like my mum to make these decisions. Equally, we instill shame in generations of women who will be faced with these choices.
When I asked my mum if anyone but my dad knew, she shook her head. She didn’t tell a friend, her own mother, or seek additional therapy.
She’s not ashamed, and neither was she ashamed at the time. Her reaction was similar to Claire’s. But, as she told me, abortion was and still is, a political minefield.
Mum didn’t talk reproductive justice with any of her friends, and even the word sex wasn’t uttered as she was growing up. She faced it alone because she didn’t know what judgement would be cast upon her.
She didn’t know which of her friends fell in the pro-life or pro-choice bucket, and if they happened to be life, she couldn’t suffer their judgement and the verbal warfare to follow.
In a TED talk, abortion advocate Aspen Baker articulated this harmful gap between the politics and personal of abortion. We deploy an ‘us against them’ mentality — myself included.
That’s why she started Exhale, a support hotline for any person to call to discuss their abortion experience freely. It is free of the politics, of the judgement – just to talk. They employ a little something called empathy in their counselling, something that's broadly lacking from our conversations.
As Baker says, empathy doesn’t mean we have to change our positions on a topic automatically. Empathy doesn’t equal harmony and agreement, but empathy frees us from positions of judgement. It frees us from hating and fearing people on the other side; it encourages respect. It encourages de-stigmatisation, it frees women from shame – it would have freed my mother from silence.
I shouldn’t need to explain the research that when a woman feels free of judgement following an abortion she actually has a better recovery. Even the slightest amount of judgement she suspects can impact her mental health following the event.
That’s what broke my heart about my mother’s abortion. She hadn’t shared it because she was jarred by the fear of judgement.
When my mum shared her abortion with me, she freed me, too. I haven’t had to make a decision like that yet, but it doesn’t mean I won’t. And, it felt surprisingly relieving that any woman can be put in that position. She opened my eyes that it wasn’t just these edge cases, but even my mum – a now 50-year-old woman, living in the suburbs of Brisbane.
She did something so special as a mother to make her daughter feel safe; to know that I could talk to her. Unlike she could with her mum.
That’s why I ask women who are reading to have a conversation. Not all can. Not all will. Whether it’s with your daughter, sister, friend, niece, or even granddaughter, share. It’s not a campaign to publicly #ShoutYourAbortion; it’s a conversation.
It’s empathy. It’s respect. It’s a conversation all women should be having.
One last thing - thanks, Mum.