My intentions are not to convince you of anything. It is just to reflect on the rationale that works for me at this moment. This rationale is a system of understanding that I find meaning in. I am trying my best to locate comfort, understanding, and acceptance at the moment we all find ourselves in. Trigger warning, this essay talks about the termination of a pregnancy due to medical reasons. Feel free to skip it in favor of something else that feels good for you right now.
Throughout my life, ideas around where and when life started have changed. When I was young, say high school, when I took everything for granted, I felt like life really began at age 2. When you were able to start talking. I think there was some sort of rationale that was that a child was not really alive until they could take care of themselves (total nieve offensive bullshit). And have conscious memories that were sticky enough to hold onto into adulthood. Which, now having a two-year-old, is definitely not the case. M cannot dress herself, however, she can remember. Will she remember everything from this time? No. I would argue she has a clearer recollection in her mind and bones than I do in my foggy current state. I think at the time (high school), I am VERY embarrassed to say this now, I thought that it should be the right of the person having the child to decide when and how life started. It was an extreme radical stance on the abortion debate. One that I only mention here because it is illustrative of how beliefs can change radically throughout a lifetime. I am already regretting saying telling you this. But I felt so strongly at the time. You cannot help but judge me. We are both humans.
Over time and with the act of having a baby my views have changed. With the current questioning of Roe V. Wade, I felt like it was time to reassess where they are at. Why does the question of where life begins matter so much for Roe V. Wade? I felt inclined to weigh in on the topic with my current understanding of what life is. Having just terminated a very much wanted child.
Let me first start by saying that I am trying to question what it is that makes the most sense to me at the moment. I am uncertain that the question “Where does life begin?” is a useful understanding of how life actually works. I want to think critically about the stories I have been telling myself and their implications.
Growing up in the midwest, the highways were littered with signs advocating for adoption with the text, “You can hear a heartbeat in 18 days after conception,” or “I am so happy I was born (with the photo of a white blue-eyed baby smiling back at you).” Other billboards read things like “abortion is murder.” All the same, I didn’t really think about them. I grew up in a second-wave feminist household where we adhered to the ideology that valued trusting women and medical providers to make decisions around their health. That things were complex. Situations all required a nuanced appraisal of the course of action that should be taken.
But nevertheless, this question about where life begins has always sort of been with me, thought-out the years. It is, I will say, a convenient, simplistic way of understanding the world. Life starts and it ends, like a really good book. Or movie. Hopefully, with your own life, you will have the ideal story structure, a climax of success from a lifetime of work. You will have love. You will be loved. You will have struggled, but your resistance won in the end. The world will be a better place because of you.
To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. - Katherine May
Life might not start. Or end. This is messy. It’s helpful to me to look at in the format of cycles. For me, the concept is evolving. Take the idea of human eggs. Or the chicken or the egg question we learned about in grad school.
I was walking with a friend last week who was pregnant, talking about the theory that if you are pregnant with a girl you are more tired during the pregnancy because your body is building a lifetime of eggs. Millions of eggs. All embedded with the potential of a person. Regardless if this is true or not, the implication is that life could begin in the grandmother’s body, with her choices. Her diet decisions. Her generational traumas affect the quality and quantity of eggs created from cells all coming from energy. But if we include our grandmother’s decisions, we must then include all the decisions made in generations past. All have an effect on who we are and if we are alive. The possibilities endless, the complexity beyond my comprehension. Particles with personalities just waiting to develop. My friend said she was not that sick this time because she was expecting a boy. I trust her experience as her own. And we walked and marveled in the awe that is life. So much we don’t understand.
This friend, also wrote to me before we met up to tell me that she was pregnant. She wanted to be sensitive that if I didn’t want to see her because of it, she would understand. In September, I had lost a baby. In medical terms, I had a medical abortion. In popular culture, I had an abortion. Something I believed I should have the right to choose, but never thought I would have to choose it.
Since then, I have started the process of IVF. This is fucked up, but during the surgery, IVF was the only thing that I found hope in. My sadness ran rampant. I was ending a life with the hope of another. There is something deeply troubling about this. However, at the moment, I took comfort in it. And in the joy, I received from being with my living daughter. Whose survival is a miracle of modern medicine.
I could also file IVF with abortion as something I thought I would never be doing. There are so many children in this world that need homes, why would one go through the pain and financial burden to have one’s own if they didn’t care about passing on their genetic information? I am not sure. I just want a healthy baby. A sibling for M. There is oddly not a clear reason why that I am conscious of. Perhaps a deep-seated evolutionary desire that I have not yet made up a story to make sense of.
After countless tries to find a IVF clinic that was in-network with our insurance, and even then, our insurance has said that they will not cover it. We are in the process of contesting it because if we did have a second child with IVF it would cost the company over a billion dollars throughout their life. That IFV is a short-term cost to them when compared to a lifetime of chronic illness. It is in everyone’s best interest to just do the IVF.
The social worker at the IVF clinic was sweet. We talked through my medical history. And then with all appointments these days, the abortion comes up. “So you had an abortion?” She doesn't know that I am not comfortable with that term. That I prefer saying that I lost a baby. That abortion for me implies that I didn’t want the baby. My voice starts to quiver as I explain the complexities of the situation.
She says that the starting of this process requires a lot of blood work. I tell her that I have basically done all the blood work, the genetic testing, and what feels like every test under the sun. I have records - I just have to find them and send them to her.
So I opened mychart with her on the phone with the hope that there will be a clear way to send everything to her. Like press one button and I won’t have to revisit this question again. But there are just so many tests and each of them needs to be downloaded and encrypted and then uploaded. I click on the most recent one without reading the subheading while on the phone with her.
It was the pathology report. The one where they talked about the baby girl. And I broke. I had intentionally not read it. And suddenly she was here again.
Oddly, when I think of her, I don’t think of her in the future. I think about her in the past. Like with a certain nostalgia that is both real and imagined.
I think about the first time I took a bath with her and M. I had just found out I was pregnant and for some reason the delight that we were all three in the tub together was overwhelming. She splashed in my belly, M splashed the tile floor. “Keep the water in the tub if you can please,” I remember saying as we played on for long enough to turn our fingers and toes into raisins.
There are other times, in which I imagine a time in the future where I look back on the past, I see her all grown up. She is tall. She is awkward. She breathes with her mouth open. And has her father’s nervous giggle. She and M grow up together. They learn to understand the world through the lens of a sibling. They take care of each other.
When I think about nostalgia, it is always a longing for a certain past. A knowing that something will be. Understanding and accepting what was. There is a comfort to be found in this knowledge even if it is sad. In this case, it is a longing for an imagined future, in the past. Slightly different. Feels eerily similar. There must be a better term for this type of fantasy. In this uncertain future (& the reality that all futures are uncertain) and loss of control, the what was, whatever it was, good or bad, offers comfort.
This imagined static time, wherein which I dream her into living longer than I let her, haunts me. Endless in its variations. In some she lives a healthy life, in others, she struggles like M. Both ideas I wrestle with. And time moves on without my concent.
So back to the question where does life begin? And honestly, I have no idea. If life is energy and particles that are finite, it never ends, always being recycled and reformed into something. Cycling through time without clear purpose hoping to stumble on something that helps elongate its current state of being. The question becomes almost irrelevant. Life endures. In limitless formats. Beyond our field of awareness. Into something possibly more beautiful than we can imagine.
If meaning is a human construct, and I can choose to believe whatever makes sense to me, I want her to be comfortable. I want her to be free of pain. I want her to know that she was loved.
When people tell me what I did was an act of love, I have a hard time believing it. Including letting someone go under the umbrella of “love,” challenges my core belief in the definition. Love is sticking with someone. Love is remembering. Love is holding on until the last possible moment. Love is also saying goodbye.
I am not saying that I want you to re-think your idea of what life is. We don’t have to agree. I just am grappling with regret. And trying to frame it in a way that makes me ok with feeling joy again, someday. Accepting the decisions I made as the best I could at the time with the information I had.
Unrelated End Note: Savala Nolan, who I interviewed a few weeks ago, posted this quote, “I meant everything I said when I was on my period.”
Which got me started on re-think the things I say a few days before my period. All my life I have been told that they were not how I really feel. They were just “The things I said while I was on my period.” I cannot tell you how many times someone has responded to my strong emotions with, “Carissa, are you on your period?” BUT actually, most of them were true. I did want to break up with Colin (my ex) every month. And really should have long before I actually did. I pushed the feelings back because they were hard, but they were also real.
Last week, the grief got to me. I was also about to get my period. I told the lady on the phone at the IVF clinic that I deeply regretted my decision to let this baby go. And through my ugly cry with a complete stranger, across miles of fiber cables, I was able to be honest with myself. And come to terms with the emotional and physical release of having a period. Periods have this cleansing property. A sacred moment full of deep muscular information.
I thought I was over it. But I am still sad. And that’s ok.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. -Mary Oliver