I must have been eight or nine years old. We were living in Caracas, Venezuela, where I was born and grew up. I was looking down at my cold pasta dinner in the half-remodeled kitchen of my dad’s house, facing him across the table.
I was staying with him for the weekend, as I did a couple of times a month. On that last dinner before he took me back to my mom’s place across the city, I brought up the fact that she could no longer afford my school tuition on her own anymore. She needed him to pay up.
“She says you never help out,” I told him, sheepishly relaying the message in her words. “It’s in your divorce settlement.”
My dad was furious. My parents had been divorced since I was a baby, but the arguments between them continued for years, back-and-forth. If the culprit wasn’t his failure to pay alimony, it was my mom’s dislike of his ever-changing roster of girlfriends. He resented her badmouthing him, and our growing bond. I would often repeat what one said about the other, sometimes without giving it much thought.
That evening, I suppose I got what I was looking for: My dad’s furrowed brow and piercing eyes; that look of quiet anger I knew all too well. We sat still, looking down at our food, for what felt like 20 minutes.
“You know, you could have had that brother or sister you always wanted if it wasn’t for your mom,” he said, straight-faced but staring at the wall behind me. “But she got rid of them before they were born. And then you came.”
His words left me cold, alone.
I confronted my mom about it as soon as I saw her that Sunday evening. She looked sad, ashamed, confused.
Years passed before I could comprehend what those two abortions had meant for my mom, for my parents’ marriage, and for me.
By the spring of 1995, my mom and I were four years into a new life in the United States. I was a freshman at Rutgers College in New Jersey; an idealistic teenager, if not terribly naïve, desperately hoping to belong and feel loved. One day, my roommate invited me to a meeting of the campus chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women, where I was recruited into what I foolishly thought would be the easiest volunteer task of all.
I was an “abortion clinic safety escort.” That's where you stand outside of an abortion clinic and lend moral support to the women making their way in and out of the building, while protesters try to intimidate them and get them to change their minds about going through with the procedure.
For someone still guilelessly unaware of the politics surrounding abortion in this country, the job seemed straightforward, perfect for a fledgling feminist unwilling to give up too much of her leisure time. It turned out to be far more difficult than I had ever imagined.
The protesters yelled terrible things at the women, things like "Baby Killer!" and "One Dead, One Wounded!" while waving posters with blown-up pictures of bloodied, dismembered fetuses. A couple of times during my early morning volunteer shifts, I remember seeing young women who were headed into the clinic turn back in shame once they witnessed this spectacle—and themselves, in the middle of it—which was exactly what the protesters were aiming for. Needless to say, I didn’t last long at my volunteer gig, either.
A couple of years later, on a gray, chilly morning, I was the young woman walking past the picketers and into a clinic. I was 21 and two months pregnant.
“Are you sure about this?” Jay, my partner at the time, asked, upon seeing the graphic posters. I was not—I was terrified, really—but I told him yes. There was no doubt in my mind about not wanting to become a mother at that point in my life; not while I was totally broke, still in college, and a kid myself. Jay came from a Catholic immigrant family and opposed abortion on tradition alone. “You can still change your mind and we’ll figure it out somehow,” he said, over and over again, as we sat in the waiting room for over 45 minutes, browsing through fashion magazines.
Part of me wanted to believe him, in the way my mom believed my father when he told her everything would get better between them if they simply had a child. Over the years, I would try to dig up, to no avail, any details about the circumstances of my mom’s abortions, and speculate about why, just two years before their divorce, I was spared from becoming one, too.
All I can assume is that these were painful decisions for her—with or without a child, sharing part of her life with my father had left her broken and resentful. It takes a certain kind of relationship to go through an abortion and get over it; and perhaps, a certain kind of individual to not see it as a sign of failure, a source of shame.
As I sat there in that waiting room with Jay, I realized this abortion would be a turning point for me. It would force me to grow up quickly, to become independent, and it would keep me from making some of the same relationship missteps my mother had. It would force me to come to terms with being alone. Within weeks of finding out I was pregnant, Jay and I noticed we had surprisingly little to talk about. His affections suddenly started to feel contrived, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to survive this.
The procedure was quick and painless, save for the trauma of walking past the gauntlet of protesters into the unmarked clinic. I was taken into an examination room by a friendly nurse, given a gown and full-body anesthesia, and after, left to rest in a small room for a couple of hours. The whole thing cost us $300, which we paid in cash and split two ways. I came home that afternoon and slept into the evening.
When I woke up, I cried. The next day, I told my mother about it.
“Are you feeling OK?” she asked. She hugged me tightly, and that was that. There were no words of encouragement. No questions from either of us.
In the 17 years since, we haven’t discussed our abortions much. Our abortions were, for better and worse, the one experience that totally changed the course of both of our lives, the one shared experience that strangely taught both of us how to be alone.
There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t think about the child that wasn't born, and the the little girl who eventually was. And when that happens, I can’t help but also think about my mother, who had to end two pregnancies, in shame, while stuck in a bad relationship and living in a country where abortion was criminalized. I think about many of my friends, who have told me of having to cross state lines, or having to lie to family members and borrow money to get the procedure done. I think also about cousins, neighbors, and friends-of-friends in the U.S. and elsewhere, who have self-prescribed with pills they weren’t certain were safe.
And then, relieved, I think back to my own abortion. When my baby girl grows up, I will tell her all about it, hoping that we’ll be living in a place and time where that freedom is still within her reach, regardless of the trauma, regardless of her mother's experience, regardless of the situation.
Ruxandra Guidi is an independent journalist currently based in Boulder, CO, focused on immigration, human rights, and Latin America. She’s originally from Caracas, Venezuela, and collaborates regularly with her husband under the name Fonografia Collective.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]