Helping her helps me
I skulk into CVS and head straight for the Family Planning aisle. I scan the shelves of pregnancy tests and tampons, condoms and intimate gels. What I seek has to be here somewhere. My cheeks feel flushed, and I’m breathless. I glance left and then right — no one else is nearby. So far, so good, I think. I have to hurry. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and school just let out. Any minute now a throng of sugar-addicted junk-food craving teenagers will converge here like ants at a picnic. I haven’t felt this self-conscious in decades.
On the top shelf, I spot a cereal box-size, clear plastic container with a lock, and take a closer look. It holds one small cardboard package that reads: Plan B One-Step. Bingo! I grab the container and glance at the price tag. One pill costs fifty bucks? No wonder it’s locked up like Fort Knox. Oh well. I have no choice and I’d pay $500 for this pill, so I head to the pharmacy register to make my purchase.
I pick that register at the back of the store for privacy sake, and it’s a good decision. There are only two people in line ahead of me. My left hand holds the box against my chest, a feeble attempt to hide its contents, and I gently rock my ring finger to and fro to catch the glint of the fluorescent lights off my wedding ring. If teenagers are going to snicker and point a finger at the middle-age lady with the sex pill, at least they’ll think this a wedded oops, not an unwed one.
They will be wrong. My 16-year-old daughter is out in the car right now, terrified and crying. The pill is for her. When I picked her up after school, she crumpled into the car, burst into tears and demanded that we drive here to get it. One of her friends must have suggested the pill as a way to calm her down. I hadn’t thought of it, and I don’t like the idea. For some reason, ingesting one pill with enough of the hormone levonorgestrel to disrupt or even prevent ovulation is scarier to me than the idea of regular birth control pills with the same hormone in a lower dose. But I can’t let her suffer for weeks, like my generation used to back in the day, waiting to see if she gets her period. The morning after pill was created for a situation just like this.
I don’t want to be here, but my presence indicates that there really is no limit to the lengths a mother will go to help her daughter. I inch forward in line, glad this option exists. I wish it had existed years ago when I desperately needed it.
When it’s my turn to pay, I deposit the plastic container on the counter. The line behind me has grown, and all I want to do is get out of here. The cashier looks at the box and then at me. I smile and wear my best I am in charge of my reproductive freedom-expression, but the divot between her eyebrows tells me that something is wrong. Before I can ask what, she grabs the container, holds it over her head for all to see, and calls out to the pharmacist, “Do you know how to open one of these things?”
My insides shrivel, and my heart skips a beat.
Within seconds, every employee in the pharmacy is involved in the mystery of how to open the locked Plan B box. I feel hysterical — it’s all I can do to keep myself together, undulating between mania and despair. I had the same reaction two nights ago when, after watching my daughter sob, I suspected what had happened between her and her boyfriend.
We were in her bedroom late at night. She lay on her zebra-striped bean bag chair curled up in a ball, discarded clothes and stuffed animals littering the floor around her. I sat down beside her and placed my hand on her leg — my way to ground her, help drain the pain out of her body, and the only way she’ll receive comfort when she’s upset. Her wails hurt my chest and my ears. I said nothing when she choked out the words, “I’m afraid to talk to you. You won’t let me see him anymore.” I waited for her storm to subside. After 15 minutes, she sat up, spent. She wiped her eyes and heaved a deep sigh.
In my most calm voice, I asked, “Did the two of you have sex today?”
She nodded. Tears again filled her big blue eyes as she answered, “It only lasted, like, five minutes, but I’m scared. I’m so scared about getting pregnant.”
My heart sank at the same time I had the thought, Of course it only lasted five minutes. You’re 16! I wanted to support her, but I was disappointed and kind of pissed off. After all, I had done my job. We had talked about safe sex, condoms, the pill and not growing up too fast. We’d talked about her body and holding it in high regard. I had suggested sex was a Big Deal. She’d dismissed me with a couple of “yeahs” and a hearty, “MOM, I KNOW!” I had hoped my message stuck and now it appeared that it hadn’t. She hadn’t listened and here we were in the exact spot I was trying to avoid.
I racked my brain for the perfect words to support her. Come on, I thought. She needs me. I tried to recall what my mother said about sex when I was a teen and then remembered we never talked about it. In my mind’s eye, I saw the night, soon after high school graduation, when I returned home. Sore. Raw. Feeling disappointed and dirty. I couldn’t tell my mom what I’d done or how I felt, so I simply hugged her and told her I loved her, words not often spoken between us back then. Scared and confused by my first experience of sex, and saddened by our emotional distance, I went straight to bed.
I didn’t want my daughter to feel that alone. I didn’t want her memory of her first time to be about how my words failed her instead of how they brought us together, so I bit my lip and skipped saying the part about poor decision-making and lack of control. Besides, I wasn’t one to talk.
I was 22 when I had my abortion. It was 1990, and I had just graduated from college and landed my first job in a small Maryland town as a photographer taping video footage for a local television station’s nightly news broadcast.
A nurse in the clinic’s procedure room instructed me to strip off my clothes and don a gown. She offered no kind words, not even a smile. She didn’t say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay,” or pat my hand. She provided no medication to ease the pain or the fear. Shivering, I lay down on the table and berated myself again for ending up in this position. I’m such an idiot, I thought. I deserve this — my punishment for having sex without protection and for saying, “It’ll be okay, just this once.”
I was so ashamed. I thought about my mom and dad and how disappointed they’d be in me. I thought about how disappointed I was in myself. I tried to imagine myself as a 22-year-old single mother and knew I was making the right decision to avoid that fate, but that didn’t make it easy. I wondered why it’s true that we each have to learn our own lessons and usually the hard way. My heart pounded and my body broke out in a cold sweat. I figured that no good would come from this experience, and none would.
The doctor entered.
“Put your feet in the stirrups, please” she said without a trace of sympathy.
I obeyed, terrified by how easy it was to end up in this predicament and exhausted by weeks of not knowing what to expect of this moment, and by my inability to ask.
In my memory, the doctor jammed the vacuum cleaner-like device up my vagina as if to say, This will teach you a lesson, and, without warning, turned it on. Unprepared, I gasped at the force of the suction. Tears popped out of my eyes. I writhed in pain. I needed to vomit. I wanted someone, anyone, to be with me, but I was all alone.
Twenty-four years later, I focused again on my daughter in the zebra beanbag chair and settled for some simple words to comfort her: “I’m so sorry you’re putting yourself through this.” And I meant it. “I’ll call the doctor Monday morning for an appointment to get you started on the pill.”
“Okay,” she said, and blew her nose in her shirt.
We hugged, and I left her room happy that we’d talked and that she admitted the truth, but I also felt uneasy. I felt like I should have said more, like maybe I missed an important opportunity but had no idea what it was.
Two days later in CVS, the mystery of the locked box is finally solved. I pay for the pill and run to the car. My daughter is more composed than when I’d left her, but the skin around her mouth and at the corners of her eyes is pinched.
“You get it?” she asks, anxious.
I tear open the box and extract the pill.
“Here you go,” I say, and hand it to her along with my water bottle. She gulps it down, wipes her mouth.
“Are you mad at me, Mom?” she asks. “What if I am?” She means pregnant.
“I’m not mad, babe. And if you are, we’ll deal with it. I don’t want you to worry. I don’t think you are, but either way you’ll be okay. I promise. You’re going to be fine.”
That’s when it hits me. Decades have passed between the day of my abortion and this one. Though the experience didn’t devastate me, my memories of it are shrouded in lonely sadness. There are so many women who have made the same choice, but I don’t know who they are, and they don’t know who I am, and I carry that loneliness with me. My daughter will not end up needing an abortion, but if she had, she wouldn’t have faced it alone. I would have been with her every step of the way. Now, I see that changing the outcome of her future also changes the outcome of my past. To help her heals me by making sense of what I thought could never make sense.
“I love you,” I say. “I’m here for you. I’ll be right beside you. Always.”
A phsst sound, like a deflating balloon escapes her lips, and I feel her anxiety decrease. She says, “I need an ice cream shake.”
“Great idea,” I say, and start the car.