The Landscape that Shapes Me
In my hometown—the place of my birth and the place where I live now—I drive by the landmarks that shaped me, like the wind is always sculpting the dunes along the southwestern shores of my beloved Lake Michigan. I drive the avenues where my maternal grandmother first placed a newborn kitten in my tiny palm, down the alleyways where a childhood friend and I ran more than once from predatory humming engines, past the streets where I pedaled my mini 10-speed until my heart nearly exploded, barely escaping from neighborhood bullies. I pass the tiny combustible house my mother and ex-stepfather shared with three dogs and two cats; where, at only twenty, I first brought my daughter home. And I drive past the subsequent apartments in which I raised her alone with no child support. Once in a while I think I drive past the cornfield where I was raped on the 4th of July, 2 weeks before my 16th birthday, but since it wasn’t an area I frequented, I’m never sure which cornfield it was. Any cornfield can take me right back to that moment on the wrong day when I can't drive by and it's just a cornfield.
Several times a week I drive the road that winds past where I seriously weighed the consuming thought of driving off a cliff into frigid churning waters during a snowstorm with my daughter in the back, buckled safely into her car seat, her trusting eyes watching me in the rearview. It would have been so easy. But thankfully choosing whether to take her with me or to leave her behind to face a lifetime of thinking it was her fault was paralyzing. Much like avoiding a real decision about whether or not to have her, I didn’t choose. I procrastinated. I let time pass. I stayed. And so, I also drive past the houses where my husband and I began, and where we blended a family and raised a generation of girls together, one his and one mine, and where we now raise a generation of boys, one of whom neither of us had anything to do with bringing into the world. He is our nephew, and we choose him, too. We more than chose our son. We worked for our son. Hard. It took six years for him to breathe life, when our girls were fourteen and sixteen. And so I also drive past places where we showed up, toddler in tow, to take prom photos, to attend soccer and football games, choir performances.
An aerial photograph of my hometown, with these landmarks highlighted, might look like a sleeve of so many tattoos of my progress through this life; my growth as a girl, as a daughter, a sister, a young woman, a too-young single mom, a wife, a mature mom. These bumps and curves and hills and potholes and exhilarating passages might look like any other place to someone who didn’t grow up here. But to me, they look like home. I see the contrast of their beauty running parallel to the darkness, and it steals and steels my breath.
These same places where I was once a victim are the places I now work to influence change and growth and better opportunity for girls, for women, and for young people in my community. Dear God, grant me the serenity and wisdom to raise boys who don’t contribute to someone else’s landscape in ways that make them anything but better for having met them. I am a mother by choice, again and again, and I know that the stakes are so very, very high.
I wasn’t always a mother by choice. The year before I became pregnant with my daughter, I chose not to become a mother. I had an abortion at the Kalamazoo Planned Parenthood clinic in Michigan in 1985. Almost the first thing I did after Donald Trump was elected president, was sign up to volunteer as a speaker for Planned Parenthood. I am on the Leadership Council for Planned Parenthood's National Speaker Bureau. And so I keep finding myself driving the hour from my hometown back to Kalamazoo and revisiting my other developmental Michigan landmarks. My first apartment away from home, and away from my parents and the six marriages and five divorces they, by now, have between them. In Kalamazoo there is the house where my daughter’s biological father tried to convince me he didn’t need a condom because, it was just so sad, he could never have children. Ha. The same house where, when I stopped by to return a purse one of his roommates had left in my car, he stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel and a petite blond. Apparently, he had a type.
It’s rare when I go back to Kalamazoo and don’t drive past the apartment where I was held captive and raped one terrifying night near Western Michigan University’s campus. I drive past the bar where a “friend” had put me in his buddy’s car. I’d had little to drink that night, but I was upset, and I wanted to go home. The buddy was supposed to be giving me a ride, but the minute the car door closed he was all over me. On these visits I drive the very roads on which he’d driven us to his apartment instead of mine. Past the parking lot he’d roughly and hurriedly walked me through, while my mind spun wildly, failing to land on any viable options. Where I never fought or screamed because I was frozen like a hunted animal. I was a hunted animal, a trophy, little more than a forgettable blip. If you have to hold someone in a vice grip all night long, she’s not laying there, trapped against a wall, willingly. If I ever knew his name, I blocked it out. I was consumed with relief when he finally took me home the next morning. I never reported him because in the 80s we didn’t. And he probably had a type, too. I’m sure there are other petite blond blips. I pray—because I do pray—that there are no dead and buried ones all these years later. He may have managed to bury my soul and my spark for a time. But I'm still here.
The year after I had my abortion, the Kalamazoo Planned Parenthood clinic was firebombed by anti-abortion terrorists. Someone climbed up on the roof, drilled a hole through the ceiling, poured in a flammable liquid, and dropped down a lit match. I was still living in Kalamazoo at the time. Nowadays when I visit the rebuilt clinic on business, I drive through fencing and it’s monitored by surveillance cameras. At the time, however, it was unprotected. And when I'd heard the news of the clinic’s destruction on my car radio, I pulled over to collect myself. “Thank God,” I breathed. “No one ever has to know.” While I have never once regretted my abortion, I had always felt tremendous shame. But soon after the Women’s March, on one of my trips, I’d attended an event at Kalamazoo College called Pro Voice Monologues. After the readings, a panel was set up on the stage. A professor of women’s and gender studies from the college sat down. Representatives from Planned Parenthood joined her, together with an elected official, and lastly, a member of the clergy sat down at the table before us, sporting a collar and all. As the minutes passed, I grew more uncomfortable in my seat. I began to feel as though the walls of the tiny theater were pressing in on me. I couldn't imagine what the reverend could possibly be doing up there. I braced myself for a lecture; for the other side to speak. I didn't know yet about the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, or that Planned Parenthood had a Clergy Advisory Board, or that in the 50s and 60s there was a clergy abortion referral network that drove women and paid for their abortion care at safe, vetted illegal clinics, or about Dr. Willie Parker, who counsels women this way:
"I address [the conflict some women who are Christians feel about choosing abortion] because if those [protesters outside] are getting inside your head and you're feeling conflicted, if you are not comfortable with what you're doing, you may be processing this far longer than you need to. There's nothing immoral about taking care of your health. There's nothing immoral about making the decision to not become a parent before you want to become one. There's more than one way to understand religion and spirituality and God. I do have belief in God. That's why I do this work. My belief in God tells me that the most important thing you can do for another human being is help them in their time of need."
I want to hug Dr. Willie Parker.
I’d grown up very active singing in church. I sang my first solo when I was five years old, and I like to say that my grandmother built our church. Which, of course, she didn’t literally. But there wasn’t a single blue coif who would have challenged her weekly spot in the front pew. Years before I sang in the youth choir, my grandmother had directed it. She was a scandalous divorcée, and she and my step-grandfather (whose wife was still very much alive, but in a mental institution) had met singing together in the adult choir. My parents and my brother and I attended more Sundays than not, until I was fourteen and my parents divorced, and suddenly church and getting into heaven weren’t as important if it wasn't Christmas or Easter or Mother's Day.
And it turns out that night at K-College, a lecture wasn’t what Reverend Nathan Dannison was on the panel to share at all. What he said that night—with conviction—changed everything for me: “Nowhere. In scripture. Is abortion. Condemned.” I had to fight back tears. And in private, when I’ve shared his words with other women, some of them have burst into tears. It's worth it to risk not getting into heaven to save our lives for our precious time on earth. It's worth it to have better, stronger, happier families when we're ready. And it's okay. But if you were raised in a faith community—even if it’s with fast and loose Methodists, like I was, and even if you haven’t been to church in years—it’s pretty incredible to hear from someone who has more clout with God than you believe you have that you may still have a shot when you approach those pearly gates.
I was the featured speaker at a Planned Parenthood gala late last year when I first shared this story. And I know from how many people came up to me afterwards, from the note I received from Lori Carpentier, Planned Parenthood of Michigan’s president, that the reverend’s words will impact many other women, and probably many men, too, if I can share them more widely, and if I can help relieve the shame and stigma, and influence other mothers to speak about their abortions. If I can influence young women and men to have difficult conversations with their own mothers.
One in four women has had or will have an abortion by the time she is forty-five. #IAm1in4. These women aren’t faceless others. We are your daughters, your sisters, your girlfriends, your wives. We are your aunts, your mothers, and your grandmothers. There may be women who regret their abortions, but for the majority of us, it was the right choice at the time--a choice that saved our lives and our futures. Safe and legal access to abortion care is about prioritizing women's lives and children's lives and families over the potential for life. Safe and legal access to abortion care allows us to go on to be remarkable mothers by choice. It can be a choice that allows us and our children, if we ever chose to have them, to be better educated and more successful. When women prosper, their families prosper--their daughters and their sons.
I wrote Trigger Warning: Mothering Boys before the news broke of Emily Doe’s rapist’s sentence, after he'd been convicted of assaulting her behind a dumpster while she was passed out and incapable of giving consent. The incident his father lamented would cost him too much for "twenty minutes of action." And I wrote and presented Mother Ffffeminist for PechaKucha before the #MeToo movement broke. Because I, too, was broken, but I am resilient. My sexual history no longer defines my worth. And I’ve been thinking about my landmarks through a generation of girls and a generation of boys and for every moment of my daughterhood, my sisterhood, my motherhood, and my wifehood journey. And I rise to write again after Parkland, Florida, and after Santa Fe, Texas, because our school could have a terrorist, too--any school could--and I’m afraid for my boys and of my boys and the future they will or won’t forge based on my landmarks. I feel at once hopeful and hopeless, at once victim and vindicated. Much like the dunes along Lake Michigan, I ebb and I flow and I shift--speaking, writing and mothering--against the battering winds of an extreme religious right that politicizes and exploits our shame, as if it is we who should be ashamed, and I try to make a difference.