This is a guest post by Natalia Koss Vallejo. Natalia is a feminist activist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 2011 she appeared on a television program called No EasyDecision, broadcast internationally by MTV, on which she spoke about the importance of de-stigmatizing abortion and supporting women through this common experience. She is currently working on an undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. In February 2013, Natalia and 4 other Pro-Voice Fellows shared their abortion story at universities across the country.
This summer, I did something that I’ve been putting off for eight years: I sat down and talked to my parents about how they handled my abortion. We’ve talked about my abortion before, a sentence here or there, but usually it’s in the context of a larger conversation about something that’s going on in politics or the news. The most we’ve ever talked about it is when I’ve talked about my feelings about my abortion. I have never given my parents the space to talk about how it affected them, never gave them a platform to talk about their own feelings. I think this is because I had been carrying a load of resentment for a long time.
You see, I had an abortion in 2004 when I was 17-years-old and they found out about it nearly a year later when my mother read my diary. They confronted me about it, and while we eventually got past this rough spot in our relationship, we didn’t really ever discuss all our feelings with one another. At the time, I was so furious that my privacy had been violated that I had absolutely no regard for their feelings. In fact, I didn’t even think they had a right to have feelings. It was my abortion and my secret and it had been shared without my consent. If they were sad or upset then well, that was their punishment.
It has been eight years since that all happened, and while I can still relate to the teenager in me who was so enraged, I have come a long way in forgiving my parents and finally understanding that the friends, family, and partners of women who have abortions also have complex reactions to the abortion and deserve an outlets through which to process them. What you are about to read is the raw conversation I finally had with my parents this week.
Me: Think back, when you first had children, did you both discuss what part of raising children sex-education would play? Was it assumed that mom would talk to us about it because you had girls? In general, what (if any) planning did you have throughout my childhood and adolescence regarding my education about sex and relationships?
Dad: Regarding your sex education, I thought it would be awkward for me to take a leading role, although your mom and I did talk about it.
Mom: We didn’t discuss sex education when we first had children. Through your growing up, we emphasized the importance of close relationships, and values related to it: respect, kindness, love, faithfulness. I believe you grew up in the midst of our living by those values. We agreed I was the one to talk to you regarding sex, as the mother of two girls. I spoke about having sex when you love someone and having kids when you are committed to that person and married. I don’t recall having a formal conversation with you about pregnancy prevention. I left the sex education to the school. They explained their curriculum and we authorized your participation in that class.
For me, I think I didn’t handle the sex education and I didn’t talk to you about teen pregnancy or abortion because of my own upbringing. I grew up very conservative and very privileged. When I was growing up most of my friends probably were virgins through high school and that [sex ed] just wasn’t part of my life experience at all. In a Catholic all girls school in Colombia, there was no birth control available at that time. I mean it just didn’t exist. I graduated high school in 1969, and even if it existed, we didn’t really know about it in Colombia because everybody was Catholic there. I literally didn’t know anybody growing up who wasn’t Catholic…I mean I remember one maid of my aunt’s who wasn’t Catholic, and they fired her. That was the only person.
Me: So, you think part of the problem was our cultural difference?
Mom: Well, I thought I just needed to teach you the values of being good, of not having sex with someone that you didn’t love, of not having sex before you get married.
Me: I don’t remember you ever saying that…
Mom: Well, I didn’t explicitly tell you not to have sex before marriage but I tried to instill high standards in you. I KNEW you wouldn’t live by them, but I thought I would try to teach you those ideals anyway. I mean, I also had sex before marriage! I knew you would have sex before marriage, but I wanted to at least teach you those ideals as much as I could. And maybe that’s the problem, I taught you about my ideal and not actually preparing you for the reality of life. To me this is a sad conversation because, you know, I really wish I had done it differently. Well I just hope that whether you have a son or a daughter some day, I hope you do it differently than I did. I would have started talking to you about it by 13.
Dad: If I had known that your mom was unable to talk to you about it, I would have stepped in and gotten someone else to talk to you about it, one of my female family friends or one of your aunts…someone that is less inhibited about talking about it.
Mom: I could have even asked your doctor when I didn’t feel comfortable telling you about it. I could have asked her for help, or asked her to step in and talk with you herself.
Dad: The thing that I think parents really can and should help their kids through more is the connection between emotions and sexuality. The kids might be getting that information from popular culture or love songs, and I think what’s going on mentally and not just anatomically is something that parents also need to focus on, not just pregnancy and STD prevention. And simply reinforcing the message “trust me.”
Me: So, what was it like finding out that I had been pregnant and had an abortion?
Dad: You know I never grieved myself for the “unborn,” but I grieved for our relationship and what we went through. I had hoped that you would have understood that we would be behind you when it might be difficult, as well as when it might be easy. Instead you told your story to a judge instead of telling us. This made me really sad. (Here my dad is referring to the fact that I kept it a secret from them, and in order to circumvent the parental consent law in my state, I went to juvenile court to seek permission from a judge to not tell my parents. This is called a Judicial Bypass.)
Mom: Well I found out long after you had the abortion. I read your diary about the struggles to get to the Planned Parenthood clinic, get out of school, get a ride to go to children’s court, get permission from the judge to have the abortion, gather enough money to pay for it all, have the abortion, fake that you were going to your prom, and learn that you sold your ticket to save the money, etc, etc. I was devastated, not about finding out you had been pregnant or had an abortion, but about learning how much you faced and struggled by yourself in order not to tell us about your pregnancy. Your father was on a vacation in the Amazon. There was no way to reach him. I just talked to you and told you I had read your diary. You were so angry about my reading your diary and we argued about it. I told you I respected your decision, but it made me very sad you went through so much alone. I don’t know if you remember it the same way I do. It’s very sad for me to talk about this.
Me: I feel like we have grown closer from it, and I’m not sad anymore. I really hope that you won’t be so sad one day, mom.
Mom: I will ALWAYS be sad because of the way I read your diary and I found out about how you sold your prom ticket after we had set up a limo for you and your friends, and that you went through all of the motions just to pretend that everything was fine for us, and it wasn’t. You were supposed to go to a dinner and go to a dance with your friends, with the limo we rented, and I thought that was just such a special night, and it was not. And how you went…my little girl stood in front of a judge all by herself. You escaped from high school and managed to find a ride all the way to Wauwatosa, and you have never been to a court before. You know, you did that all by yourself, and that will always make me sad. And also, when I found out I was all alone…I remember one of those days I ran into a woman from my book club at the grocery store and I just started crying. She was really nice and supportive, but I mean, this was a conversation at the food store.
Me: Did you reach out to anyone else or ask anyone for help?
Mom: No, I waited two weeks until your father came back from vacation and then I told him. And you know? I’m REALLY GLAD I read that diary. In hindsight, I don’t know why I didn’t always read your diaries. And that’s advice that I would give to any parent.
Me: Mom, no! That’s incredibly unethical! You cannot say that!
Mom: One thought that I had was that, if Natalia had that baby it would have been a beautiful baby. I mean your boyfriend and you were both so beautiful, and he was a sweet person and so are you, and that baby would have had a wonderful disposition. I used to think about that. Now I don’t. But I used to think about it all the time almost wishing that you had had the baby because I would have loved that baby. And your boyfriend has always been very nice, and I have a lot of affection for him still. There is that connection, that he got you pregnant, and I will always have some affection for him because of that. Because it COULD have happened and I will always think differently about him because of that. Maybe that sounds weird that I think like that…
Me: No, it’s not weird. I almost feel more sympathy for you at the time than I do for myself. I thought about it, too, as a hypothetical, but maybe with less sentimentality than you did. Those are reactions that people think of as typical of the girl who has the abortion, but in reality lots of people, family and friends, go through significant emotions like that.
Mom: I did think about what the baby would have looked like, and that is a part of grief. That baby would have been a great dancer! Maybe someday you’ll have a baby and I would be very happy about that.
Dad: You would be a good mother, too. One of the things that I miss most about my mother having died at a young age: she was a teen mother herself, she was 19 when I was born, and I believe that I was conceived before wedlock. If my mother was still alive, you would have had a real grandma who could have lent a little bit of perspective on this.
Me: So dad, what did you think when you came back from vacation and mom told you about all of this?
Dad: When I found out about this it was already old news, so I felt like I couldn’t possibly have any input. My feelings about it are fairly simple. The most important thing that I remember about that learning experience…the most important thing is that you didn’t come to us for anything that would resemble support. Even though I thought you should have felt comfortable doing that.
Me: Can you understand why a young person wouldn’t want to tell their parents?
Dad: I assume that it means there’s a lack of trust. Even you said that you felt that you couldn’t come to us. And I…I can’t understand another reason. So I think it has to be from a lack of trust.
Me: Wow. you couldn’t be farther from the truth! I trusted you both so much. I can see why you would think that, and why that would hurt your feelings, but it was something other than that. It’s like I couldn’t imagine a reality where we talked about it…I was struggling with a lot of denial at the time…it was all I could do to admit to myself that this was really happening to me, and I very literally couldn’t fathom a world where I talked to you guys about it. I don’t even know how I would start that conversation. It’s not that I thought that you’d react badly, it’s that I couldn’t bring myself to even think about talking to you about it period, I didn’t want to disappoint you guys.
Dad: It’s really important for people of my generation, and those in the future, to be able to communicate with their teenage children that we are aware of sex at that age. Many of our friends engaged in it. We basically all knew girls that got pregnant when they were teenagers. All children need to know this: that their parents have known people that were teenage mothers. And it’s important that they can learn, not necessarily from their parent’s direct experience, but the experiences of the people that they knew. I mean, all of my stepsisters were teen mothers, so it wasn’t a foreign concept to me. I was very well aware that it happens. And there was a lot that you could have learned from me. But you were a girl and I was your father, and there’s something about that that made me not want to talk about sex with you, because I think teenage girls think that’s kind of creepy. I probably could have told you some things about people that grew up in my household when I was a teenager, because they were getting pregnant all the time. At least that might have taken the edge off of you being ashamed of it.
Me: Exactly, I feel like I didn’t have a notion of that reality because no one in my middle class high school ever had babies. I mean, there must have been other girls who got pregnant, but they either had abortions or they moved, or something. But, I didn’t grow up in an environment where teen pregnancy was a visible reality. It made me struggle a lot with denial and made everything about it hard, and telling you both was just something I couldn’t fathom. I just couldn’t.
Dad: Many girls who didn’t grow up in a nice suburb with high achieving families all around them would be handling this situation very differently from you, and more like my step sisters did.
Mom: It’s just normative to have teen pregnancy in a lot of communities.
Me: Yeah, and for me, as much as people would think that growing up in an area without teen moms would be a good thing, for me it meant that I was completely void of any examples of this happening.
Dad: Yeah, you crawled in your shell.
Mom: Yeah, it was unreal for you.
Me: This is why we need more narratives about this out there. Normalizing and respectful narratives would be ideal, but I mean that we need more narratives, period. This can be in the form of TV shows and movies, stories, ANYTHING. I just can’t stress enough how much I wish I had heard more stories about this happening, because the utter shock and cognitive dissonance that I went through almost ruined me. Narratives create a platform from which to have a conversation about the topic, and then you go from there.
Me: How do you feel our relationship changed directly after you found out about the abortion? How do you think it has affected our family in the long run?
Mom: I developed a lot of respect for you as a person. I realized the strength of character you had, at 17 managing so much on your own. Initially, I felt you distanced yourself from us. I tried to not put pressure on you but assumed you were working it through. In the long run, we all have become very open in discussing our position about women’s rights and abortion.
Dad: I felt there was a little more distance, but later I was proud of your work with Planned Parenthood and Exhale. I mean, I remember when I’d be waiting for you at home or picking you up from school, and I used to think that we were really close. I remember driving you to ballet and having talks in the car, and teaching you about the blues, and music, and politics. I remember saying those things to you and thinking that we were really close…and after that happened I understood that we might not actually be close in the way I thought we may have been.
Me: I feel like in the long run it’s made us a lot closer, but I understand that at the time it might have made you feel like there was distance. I feel really bad about that, really guilty actually. I think it’s one of the most hurtful things I’ve ever done to you guys. But for me, I was just so wrapped up in my own feelings that I didn’t even have space to consider your feelings. I was too busy handling my own mess and being resentful of you guys. In some ways I wish you had handled it differently, but I also sympathize and understand that there’s no manual for how to deal with these things. Is there anything you would have done differently either before the abortion or in the aftermath of you finding out about it? Is there any advice you would give to teens and parents who are finding themselves in the exact same position right now?
Dad: Kids have to understand how much love and loyalty parents have for their children. Parents have to understand that communication in families is often hard but easier for adults, and because of that, parents bear more responsibility to keep the channels open. It doesn’t even have to be about pregnancy, but kids should know that in almost any situation, their parents or someone their parents knows has probably been in that kind of trouble, as well. My brothers, and sisters, and friends, we all knew people who committed suicide, we all knew people who got arrested, we all knew people who had to come out of the closet. Kids have to know that there is a lot of experience that the people raising them have that they can draw on, and that they’re not the first person in the world to get into trouble. You gotta be able to ask for help sometimes.
Mom: Maybe instead of everybody emphasizing sex education, we should say that parents should talk to their children about their experiences with all taboos of society. That means suicide, depression, abandonment, abortion. But the emphasis is in talking about just sex education, but you need to share with your kids more about the stories of other people’s failures, the challenges, and the horrible difficult experiences of other people…
Dad: …the challenges of growing up, because parents grew up too! They were kids once! We know this stuff! You know? My brother grew up as a gay teenager in rural Wisconsin, and although he didn’t share with me everything he was going through, we all know these things or know someone who has had these hardships. While we don’t want them to happen to you, they’re not foreign concepts to parents.
Me: Any last words?
Mom: There are families where it’s not only culturally acceptable to have kids, but it is in fact expected, and then there are families where that’s not the case. And that context will change the experience of the abortion for not only the girl having the abortion, but the couple and the whole family having the experience. Their experience depends entirely on the community that surrounds them, and the stories they see, and the people that they know who have either gone through that or not.
Dad: This may sound kind of peculiar, but you may have heard it before too. I believe that it’s actually important to understand that the experience of my mother being a teen mom and my stepmom being a teen mom and her kids being teen moms…that was ALL NORMAL. Until very recently in human history, teenage girls were getting pregnant, although normally getting married too, all throughout human history. When young women got pregnant in years past, there were jobs for young men that could support a family. When they got pregnant in years past, they would be a part of a larger family that would help out, you know? Teenage girls were not ALONE. Not just for my generation, my class and race, but also when girls were getting pregnant in the 1500s. When the Virgin Mary got pregnant, you know, she was a teenage girl. I think that young mothers need more support from the rest of society, and I think that young fathers who would like to stand up and be fathers, there should be a way for them to do that. There should be a path to adulthood that’s well marked out and that people can pursue, and right now we really don’t have that.
I’m so glad that I finally got a chance to clear the air with my folks. As it turns out, they’re pretty insightful people, and I learned a lot from what they had to say. I also got a chance to apologize for being defensive and resentful when they needed love and support. I guess children sometimes forget that their parents are humans too. I definitely did.
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