"Everyone says, 'I don't know how you do it, you're such an amazing mother.' I don't feel that way, especially not today," Kathy said to me, with her head in her hands. Kathy was one of several patients I've seen lately whose abortion stories are seriously underrepresented. She is the mother of two special needs children already. She assumed, due to her age, that she was well past her childbearing years. She spoke eloquently about the challenges of caring for her girls and of how another child would impact her family.
"The girls were born prematurely. I was in the hospital for some pre-term labor. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain and within about ten minutes they had me in for a c-section." Her babies were in the NICU for several weeks and finally came home, but required specialized care. "The first 16 months, they had sleep apnea monitors. I slept on the floor of their room because I was so scared the monitors wouldn't work." Now her girls were five and she still hadn't had a night's sleep with her husband. One daughter was beginning to talk and the second, "we've still got her in diapers, but we've got hope..."
"Everything changed when they were born," Kathy said. "They're the light of my life, I love them so much it hurts, but everything has to revolve around them. Everything. They're still so fragile." When Kathy found out that she was pregnant again, she and her husband were shocked. "I looked at myself in the mirror and said 'what if it's healthy?' then 'what if it's not?' I thought 'how can we do this again? how can I do any more? And then I felt so guilty..." Kathy loved mothering, loved her family fiercely. Her decision to have an abortion stemmed from that same mother-love. "Ultimately, I decided that I have to take care of the girls. There's no one else who is going to be able to do it."
I have heard similar thoughts from several other mothers recently. Liz's son was autistic. "He's so much fun, but he's angry when he can't communicate what he needs. He's hurt me, hurt the pets--always on accident, but I can't imagine what would happen if he had to share my attention with a baby. I could never look away, never relax. He's come so far in school this year, less hitting, fewer tantrums, but only because we work together 3, 4 hours every night. How could I do it with a baby--it's just not possible."
At 43, Janae had longed for a child. When a drug-addicted woman in her neighborhood dissapeared, abandoning an infant daughter, Janae adopted the child. After months of doctor's visits and a search for a diagnosis, the doctors had settled on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. A few weeks later, Janae got a positive pregnancy test.
Carmen was already in danger of losing her job because of all the time she'd had to take off to bring her severely asthmatic son to doctors and specialists. She had a nasty cold when she came to see us for her surgery and had to go back to work immediately afterward. "It sucks, but I gotta keep the job and I have to save my sick days for Ian."
Ellie worked nights and weekends, her husband worked days to cover medical bills for their developmentally delayed son. They never saw each other, their marriage was strained. "No one gets it," she said, "all the families around us are happy, healthy. They go on trips, they can get a babysitter. I practically need an electrical engineer to understand all the machines he's hooked up on. How are you gonna teach a 16 year old babysitter about a colostomy bag?"
I was struck, with all of these women, by their deep devotion to their children, by how they transformed their lives to give their kids the specialized kind of care each required. Each had built their identity around being the mom of a special needs kid. I was also struck by how isolated they were and how, despite all their sacrifices, each doubted that they were mothering their children well enough. Their decision to have an abortion seemed to stoke that fire. There was nothing I said during our sessions that made a bigger impact than when I listened to their parenting stories, looked each in the eye and said "you are good mother. You are doing a good job."
I suspect that there are a lot of stories out there from families like Carmen, Liz, Ellie and Janae's. I would love to hear from other mothers of special needs kids who have had abortions--I bet that there are some powerful stories out there. As Carmen said, "If I knew at least one other mother out there who was doing this same thing...I think today would be a lot easier."