when I was At 8, my mother, who was about 20 weeks pregnant, moved to Boston with my then-stepfather. She returned without a bump or baby.
When she got home she was broken. I was like that too, because I’ve always wanted a younger sister. I was thrilled when my mother’s belly started growing and people started congratulating her wherever we went.
He had remarried less than a year ago, and the transition to being a new man in the house was difficult for me and my younger brother. A new baby was something we could collect around, so it was especially difficult for all of us when my mom had complications.
Early in her second trimester, when she started telling people she was pregnant, she started bleeding and cramping. I spent a lot of afternoons at my cousin’s house while my mom attended doctor’s appointments. She would come back to pick me up, and I would find her whispering with my aunt on the way. The night after dinner, we had a family meeting where he told us that the baby had a heart problem and would need surgery right after he was born.
The bleeding continued, and there were doctor’s appointments and late afternoon pickups and whispered conversations. A few weeks later, my mother moved to Boston. When she returned, a new word was added to my second grade vocabulary: abortion. At the time, I was old enough to know that the baby was gone, but too young to understand or remember any of the nuances.
Still, my mother’s “miscarriage” shaped my perception of pregnancy. I understood its fragility.
In the fall of 2017, as the Memphis air went from moist to crisp, my mom and I went for our regular morning walk. She was in the middle of chemotherapy treatment for stage 4 cholangiocarcinoma, and I had my first positive pregnancy test. I haven’t told him yet. My mother didn’t even know my husband and I was trying. I was only four weeks pregnant, and I was afraid to give up on her hopes at a time when she really needed things to believe, so I decided to wait until I shared my news. The doctor did not detect heart palpitations at the six-week appointment. And I had an ultrasound picture to show her.
As we walked under a canopy of brown and burnt orange leaves, I asked her the question of when she was pregnant with me: “How do you feel? what was it like? Dard hua kya?” This was something I started doing about a lot of different topics. I asked her for information I wanted her to know and asked questions while she was still around to answer.
But that morning, my mom didn’t have many answers about when she was pregnant with me. “I don’t remember,” she told me. “You forget the hard parts, so you can do it again.”
We turned into a big bend in the road, and I thought of a poppy-sized fetus inside of me. My mother turned to look at me. I expected her to give some insight into morning sickness or a craving for food, but she changed the subject.
“You know it also had genetic abnormalities?” He said somewhere. Actually, I didn’t know that, because she never talked about her lost child. “My body kept trying to abort, but it didn’t happen. So I kept on bleeding.” Her voice was far away as she had mentally gone back to that time.
Now, nearly four years after my mother’s death and five years after that conversation, I still remember it vividly—the breaking of leaves beneath our feet, the exact turn of that road, the mild weather of the day. That moment was a glimpse into my mother’s experiences I could never see again—a reminder that she would die with so many untold stories.
One day last summer, when I saw my two kids playing under the bright pink flowers of crepe myrtles in our backyard, I started bleeding. It was a very early miscarriage, nothing like that happened to my mom. But it still made me think about him and that conversation. I couldn’t know the extent of her worse tragedy, but I too was experiencing a third pregnancy that would never happen. My miscarriage – this third child that will not happen – made me feel connected to it.
It wasn’t until last month, when Tennessee’s total abortion ban went into effect, that I finally understood that my mom didn’t have an abortion. Technically, legally, she had an abortion.
Tennessee’s ban is one of the strictest in the country. It does not cover incest or rape, or exception to the life of the mother. Instead, the law provides the possibility of an “affirmative defence,” which allows a doctor, if charged with a Class C felony, to argue that the abortion was necessary to “prevent the death of the pregnant woman.” Sufficient for or to prevent serious exposure and irreversible harm to a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”
As I read the language of the law and understood that women in Tennessee were no longer guaranteed equitable, potentially life-saving health care, I reflected back on my mother’s words: That’s why I was bleeding.
I wanted to know what happened in Boston. I was almost certain that the pregnancy had put my mother’s life in danger and had to have an abortion, but I needed confirmation. I called my aunt who lives in Boston, and she immediately answered questions I never knew how to ask.
“Yeah, it was a miscarriage,” my aunt told me. “It wasn’t a viable pregnancy. It was risking your mom’s life. It was an extremely difficult situation, and she had to go to Boston for the procedure because it wasn’t legal in Tennessee.”
My great-grandmother could not remember the details as to why the pregnancy was not viable. I knew there was only one person who went to those appointments with my mom and probably knew everything: my former stepfather.
It took me weeks to text him. We hadn’t spoken since their acrimonious divorce, a year after graduating from college. I was not even sure that he would be receptive to these questions. The experience was long ago, and it was very painful.
But he was immediately responsive, and ready to share the details he remembered. They told me that the fetus had a chromosomal abnormality, misshapen kidneys, a hole in the heart, and structures in the esophagus and rectum that prevented the processing of amniotic fluid. My mother’s health was also in danger as she was bleeding. The neonatologist said they needed to make a decision.
The specialist sent her to an abortion clinic in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When my mom called the clinic for more information, the receptionist warned her that patients were usually harassed when they entered the facility. So my mom called her aunt in Boston, and she connected her to a doctor at a hospital there.
My former stepfather said, even though the baby had chromosomal abnormalities and a lot of physical issues to fix, and even though my mother’s body was trying to abort the baby naturally, it was still a It was an unimaginable decision. He sought advice from his Episcopal priest and diocesan bishop. He consulted another doctor in Memphis. In the end, doctors in Boston confirmed that the embryo was not viable and would not survive if carried to term. Because of this, and because of the risk to my mother’s health, she decided to have an abortion.
I will never know what my mother experienced during that process. Even though it was a miscarriage – and she chose an option – she still considered it a “miscarriage” and described it to a few close friends with whom she discussed it. I know it was painful, and so my family never talked about it. Most importantly, I know it was a process that my mother needed for her own safety, and a process that other women would need to themselves.
Chrissy Teigen recently revealed That, like my mother, what she claimed was an abortion was actually an abortion. “I told the world we had a miscarriage, the world believed we had a miscarriage, all the headlines said it was a miscarriage,” the model said. “And I got really frustrated that I didn’t say what it was in the first place, and I felt silly that it took me over a year to really understand that we had a miscarriage.”
There are many reasons why someone may not admit that they have had an abortion – from fear and grief to a bad political climate and simply wanting to keep their medical decisions private – and they are all valid. The bottom line is that abortion should be safe, legal, and accessible to anyone who wants or needs it.
Despite the deep trauma of her miscarriage, I know my mom was so grateful that she could get one. This ensured that she would survive and allowed her to remain my mother. While I didn’t know my mother’s story until recently, I do know that if she were here today, she would have been offended by what has happened in this country and what is still happening. I know she wants lawyers to challenge abortion restrictions enacted by various states. i know she will Want Lindsey Graham to understand the devastating impact that the federal 15-week abortion ban will have on the health of women and those with a uterus. I know she wants voters to support candidates who support abortion rights. And I trust that she would be proud of me now for speaking up and telling her story in the hope that it matters – it could mean something and maybe even help make something happen.
Ultimately, she wants women to have access to the process that protects their lives. And she wants them to have it, no matter where they are in their pregnancy, or what state they live in.
Sarah Hunter Simonson received her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His writings have appeared in Salon, Romper and The Daily Memphian. She is currently working on her first novel.