In the five years that I have spent as a writer, I have told almost every deeply personal story about parenthood that I could tell… About financial struggles. About losing my temper and spanking my daughter. About parenting with an anxiety disorder. About struggling with life as a single mom. About finding my fiancé and becoming a family, when I thought I'd be alone as a parent forever. I've opened my soul to the whole internet and shared pretty much every story I have to share… except one. This will be the first time I tell this story to anyone besides my very closest friends. It's the story of how I intended to have an abortion -- and why, largely because of the staff of Planned Parenthood, I chose not to.
I was 20 when I got pregnant with my daughter, and my life was an absolute mess. I was living in extreme poverty, was severely depressed, and had essentially no support. I was also vehemently pro-choice. However, the day I saw two pink lines on a pregnancy test, I fell in love with my daughter, and I wanted to be her mother. Despite the well-intended protests of many of the people closest to me, who insisted (perhaps correctly) that I wasn't prepared for motherhood, I planned on becoming a mom. I stopped smoking immediately. I gave up coffee and even chewing gum. I took my prenatal vitamins every day, even though they made me sick 75 percent of the time, and I was forced to dig through my car for loose change to buy more to keep my little bean nourished. I read every single book about pregnancy and parenthood that I could get my hands on. I already knew in my heart that she was a girl, and I knew exactly what she would look like and what I would name her. I was scared, but also confident… until one horrible day that I will always remember as the most awful day of my life.
When I was 17 weeks and two days pregnant, I got the most heart-stopping, chilling phone call I could have ever received. It was from the parents of my unborn child's father, and they were calling to warn me. They told me that my baby's father had been suffering from dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder) since he was in his late teens. They told me that everything he had ever told me was either a lie or delusion: the careers he'd had, the cities he'd lived in… even where he was born and when. The more they told me, the more I realized that I did not, in fact, know him at all. They told me he was dangerous, and that they feared that my unborn child might inherit the worst parts of his cursed DNA. They told me that the best thing I could do, for myself and for my baby, would be to "be 20, find a sane boyfriend your age, go to college, and just take care of yourself." They said I deserved to take care of myself for once in my life -- not their son and not his child.
I knew immediately what they were suggesting. They gave me the address to the nearest Planned Parenthood that would perform the procedure, a three-hour drive from where I was living, and said that it wasn't too late to terminate the pregnancy, and that they would even cover the cost. Everything would be okay, and my life would be okay, if I just "took care of this." It would be a secret. I would just tell everyone that I lost the baby and that it wasn't in my hands.
I have never cried more in my life than I did on the lone drive to Planned Parenthood, where I had scheduled the procedure, but I believed that I would be able to go through with it. I was shaking and crying when a nurse sympathetically escorted me to the clean white room where I would get an exam before it started. She patted me on the back several times and repeatedly said, "You don't have to do this." When I sobbed to her, "Yes, I do," she asked if I wanted to see an ultrasound image of the baby before the procedure. I bristled a bit when I heard her say the word "baby," and asked, half-jokingly, if she was allowed to call it that. She then said something I'd never forget: "I'm a nurse here because I support choice, not because I think I know what choice is best for everyone. I don't know you, and I'm behind whatever decision you make, but everything I'm seeing right now tells me that you don't want to do this. And if you don't want to, you don't have to."
When the ultrasound technician came into the room, she slathered gel across my slightly swollen belly and an unmistakable image appeared on the screen. I knew exactly what a seventeen-week-old fetus looked like, but seeing her little body on the ultrasound screen, with eyes and a nose and tiny, little fingers and toes, was something new and surreal. She lifted her little hand to her mouth and sucked her thumb. My daughter. My baby. I burst into such gut-wrenching sobs that I started vomiting into a trash can, while the nurse held my clammy hand. The ultrasound technician nodded silently, and left me in the room with the nurse while I tried to compose myself.
"Do you still want to do it?" the nurse asked quietly. I gripped her hand, trying to contain my sobs long enough to speak.
"I can't do it," I whimpered. I kept trying to form other words, other explanations, but I found myself mute.
The doctor came into the room shortly after, only long enough to hear me tell her what I'd just told the nurse: I don't want to do it. I can't do it. That was my baby I just saw, and I love her. I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but I have to go home. And I have to bring my baby with me, inside me, safe. The doctor completely respected my decision and gave me packets of information about WIC and family assistance programs. They were useless to me since I was three hours from home and in a different state, but I thanked her anyway and stumbled back to my car in some kind of bizarre combination of panic and euphoria. I called my baby's paternal grandparents and said only, "I didn't do it," before I hung up the phone without further comment. I didn't speak to them again for three years.
I wish I could say that I made nothing but the best decisions from there, and that I've never once questioned whether I made the right choice at Planned Parenthood when I was 20 and stupid and hysterical and confused. But I didn't. I made many, many bad ones. The worst, perhaps, was choosing to stay with my daughter's father out of fear of single parenthood. I protected him, defended him, and trusted him, even when it hurt. I justified this decision to myself for three years after, believing that the vow "in sickness and in health" should be my motto, and that I should tolerate abusive behaviors because they stemmed from his mental illness. I left him only when it was undeniably clear that my in-laws had been right about one thing: he was dangerous.
Yet they were wrong about so many other things. My daughter did not ruin my life. She saved it. No, I never had the chance to just "be 20," or to take care of only myself. But I did have many other opportunities that life wouldn't have given me otherwise. I started working as a writer so I could make ends meet while caring for an infant… a career that at first couldn't even cover the cost of laundering cloth diapers, but later turned out to be a lucrative, enjoyable, and flexible career built through persistence and a love of work-at-home parenthood. My daughter gave me the strength I needed to choose life for her before she was born, and to choose life for myself three years later when it became clear that her biological father was, in fact, dangerous. She gave me the joy of motherhood that got me through those years of Hell. She still, every day, gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I have created a wonderful, beautiful, brilliant human being who brings joy to every life she touches.
My little girl is now nearing five years old. She is the smartest kid in her class. She makes me laugh every day. She has an adoring father-- my fiancé, who loves her with as much passion and devotion as I do. She is happy and healthy, and she loves me unconditionally. I could not possibly feel luckier than I feel when I wake up every morning with the life-affirming knowledge that she is my daughter, and that I created her to be the wonderful person she is.
Two years ago, I wrote a letter to my nurse at Planned Parenthood thanking her for supporting my decision. I could not remember her name, but I hope it reached the right hands. The response I got was signed by the entire staff of the clinic. It reads, tersely but appropriately, "Thank you for your letter. We are glad you and your daughter are doing well. Planned Parenthood will always support CHOICE." One of the signatures is inside a heart… an illegible row of squiggles followed by the label "RN." I'd like to think that this signature came from the woman who held my hand, the hero who told me that I really did have a choice.For five and a half years, I have kept this as my deepest secret, feeling on some level that I have committed some atrocity against my daughter by ever intending to have an abortion, and, paradoxically, that I had forsaken my own pro-choice beliefs by being unable to go through with a procedure that was not, in fact, what I wanted. While I will never judge another woman for making the decision that I could not make, I am now sharing this story largely in the hopes of comforting the millions of women and girls who face unplanned pregnancies and are afraid of the outcome if they choose life. Life can and will get better, and each of us has to make the decision that we can truly live with. I had a choice. I made a choice. And I love her with all my heart.
Juniper Russo is a Parenting Guru for Yahoo! Shine and a full-time freelance writer. When she's not busy with her brilliant, eccentric daughter, she writes about a diverse array of topics including health, activism, green living, and motherhood.