By Nancy Wick
This is the sort of thing that happens to a teenager, I think, as I sit in the newsroom, the phone to my ear. Calling my therapist from work is a first for me. Desperation strangles my voice and cinches my shoulders tight. I speak quietly even though the newsroom is practically empty this late in the day. As the entertainment reporter, I’m supposed to be preparing to review a play tonight, but I’m distracted—only capable of thinking about one thing—the thing I’ve been obsessing over for weeks: I’m pregnant, unmarried and I don’t know what to do.
It’s the winter of 1981 and I’m 33 years old; I know about birth control—have used it faithfully in the past. But since leg cramps forced me to give up the pill, leaving me with a messy and inconvenient diaphragm, I’ve gotten complacent. I think I know my cycle, when I’m fertile and when I’m not. I’ve been sexually active since I was 21 and never had so much as a mild scare… until now.
I guess I’ve assumed I would have difficulty getting pregnant. I think I’m like my mother, who had been married seven years before she gave birth to my sister.
“We thought we weren’t going to be able to have children,” she always said.
Unlike her, I’m not longing for a child, though I’ve always thought I’d have one in the vague someday. I am longing for a partner, though, because that’s what’s supposed to happen, my generation has always been told. Go to college, meet a suitable man, be engaged by your senior year, get married right after graduation. In my sorority, every step on that path—lavaliering, pinning, engagement—is celebrated with a candlelight ceremony. In the spring, weddings are the only topic of conversation in the house. At the senior banquet, girls who aren’t engaged are given lemons as a joke (or is it a message?).
I graduated without an engagement ring or even a steady boyfriend. My good grades and honors are meaningless in the face of that fact. Now, twelve years later, I’m still alone.
Blame feminism for that—the movement that burst into the sorority bubble and cracked my mind open. I’m wary of ending up a domestic slave in a relationship where I’d be expected to cook every night and do all the cleaning too, even though I have a job. I also don’t want to settle for some guy who isn’t really what I want, just to have a husband, like some women I know have done. What I want is an equal partnership, and that, it seems, isn’t so easy to find. I’ve had several long, off-again, on-again relationships. But Bob—the man who got me into my current predicament—is something else.
We meet in a laundromat. I’m waiting for my clothes to dry, and there is this guy—rather scruffy looking—with longish hair pulled into a ponytail that hangs down the back of his frayed, plaid flannel shirt. The sleeves are rolled up, revealing a thermal undershirt that once was white but is now approaching gray. Blue jeans, of course, faded and ripped. And he wears thick glasses that magnify rather than obscure bright blue eyes. (I’ve always been a sucker for blue eyes.)
Why do I want to speak to him? Just lonely I guess. Feminism always battles in my head with the old refrain that not having a man makes you worthless, and anyway, everyone hungers for warmth and closeness, don’t they? Alone in a laundromat says he’s single and he looks to be in my age range, so I make an innocuous comment about dryers taking too long, and a conversation begins that culminates in:
“I joined the army right out of high school and went to ’Nam. It kinda messed me up, but I’m going to school now, trying to get myself together.”
Right on one of my hot buttons. I’m always attracted to “wounded” men—men with serious problems that they say they’re trying to solve. I seem to see myself in some romantic role as “the only one who can save Charlie”—a role I know doesn’t pan out but draws me in anyway, every time. Bob and I exchange phone numbers.
A weekend ensues. I see two former boyfriends with their new loves—something that’s all too easy to do in the “big small town” I live in, where young singles run in the same circles. Single men are in short supply here, they know it, and this gives them license to move quickly from woman to woman. Boldly, I call Bob the following Monday and he comes with me when I review a movie. Later, he calls me to invite me out for a beer.
What’s the attraction? Maybe it’s that we both come from blue-collar families, parents who work in factories, no college degrees; I understand the milieu he was immersed in growing up. But Bob’s family sounds a lot more dysfunctional than mine.
“My dad used to take my brother and me to the bar when he was supposed to be babysitting and leave us in the car for a couple of hours while he drank,” he tells me. More woundedness, along with an inspirational effort on his part to transcend his background through education. I’m impressed.
Christmas comes a few months later. We drive eleven hours together—he to see a friend and I to visit my mother—sharing confidences in the darkness of Bob’s pick-up truck.
“I was married when I went to Vietnam,” he says. “While I was gone she had an affair.” How could she? No wonder he’s still single.
“When I got back she said it was over with him. She wanted us to stay together. But I couldn’t let it go. I told her I wanted a divorce.” He pauses. “She’s married to someone else now.”
My desire to be the understanding woman who will heal the wounded warrior rises. I pat his shoulder awkwardly. I ask him about Vietnam, but he says little—only that he learned to drink and take Valium to kill the pain of what he experienced there. Now he can’t sleep without the aid of one or both.
Alcohol? Valium? Every night? I brush away the shock, discount the big red flag waving in my face, concentrate on his vulnerability instead. I can help him overcome this.
“Have you ever been married?” he asks me.
It’s the question I always dread, like the answer betrays my unlovability. I shake my head. “No. Had a lot of relationships, though.”
He glances over at me. “How come you never married?”
I tell him a little of my history—about the series of commitment phobes I’ve been involved with and the heartbreaks I’ve suffered.
He reaches over and squeezes my knee. “You deserve better.”
That night we stay at his friend’s house, where we become lovers. I am hooked, wrapped up in his arms and his semi-tragic story. So hooked that what he tells me the next day doesn’t scare me off. He’s been having an affair with a married woman. He knows it’s a bad idea but he hasn’t been able to break it off. Now that he has me, though, things will be different. He’ll say goodbye to her, move in with me and in a few months we’ll get married.
I feel pulled along in a whirlwind, unable to resist the idea of marriage even as I see all the risks he poses (maybe the risks make it more exciting?). I push aside my fears and allow him to move into my apartment. He tells me he’s broken up with the other woman. Now we’ll be together, I think. Everything will be fine.
But then the arguments begin, always over small things, always instigated by Bob. One night, for example, he comes home to find me frying some pork chops.
“I thought I was cooking tonight,” he says.
I look up, startled at his tone. “I got home first, so I thought I’d go ahead.”
“Yeah, you’re always ready to change things, aren’t you?” He stands in the middle of the kitchen, his jacket still on.
I turn to face him, puzzled at his response. “I was just trying to be efficient.”
“Oh, I know what you were trying to be,” Bob says. “You were trying to be in charge, just like always.” He makes a disgusted noise, turns and stomps out of the apartment.
Is he going to see her?
It’s been a month since we moved in together, and my period is late. At first I don’t worry, because I’m having premenstrual symptoms and it hasn’t been that long. But as the days pass I become more and more concerned, so I make an appointment at Planned Parenthood.
When I tell Bob, he says, “Well, if you are pregnant, you’ll have to get an abortion. I will not tolerate a child.”
His declaration feels like a slap in the face. We’ve never discussed the possibility of children, and I never suspected his total opposition. Now he thinks he can tell me what to do. If I am pregnant, I’ll have a decision to make—me, not him—and it won’t be that automatic.
He doesn’t offer to go with me to Planned Parenthood, and I’m too hurt and angry to ask him, so I go alone. When the doctor says that yes, I am pregnant, my only response is a sarcastic, “Wonderful,” and I’m sent to talk to the social worker.
She gives me a lot of information about my options—all three of them. I can have an abortion, extricating me from the current crisis, but given my age, I may not have another chance for a child of my own. I can have the child and give it up for adoption, but that means going through a pregnancy, only to place my own child into the arms of another and still possibly end up childless forever. I can have the child and raise it alone; it doesn’t look like Bob will stand by me. But am I really up for that? I know nothing about children; I’ve never even been a babysitter. And my job with its evening hours doesn’t lend itself well to motherhood. I go home with a heavy heart.
When I walk in, Bob is on the sofa drinking a beer and watching television. “Well?” he says, without looking up.
I sit down next to him. “I am pregnant, about five weeks.”
He doesn’t react. He sets his beer on the coffee table and says, “I guess I’ll go talk to the landlady about the electrical problems we’ve been having.”
When he returns I try to talk to him. I move close, lay my head on his shoulder, but he is as unmoving as stone, and just as cold.
He looks at me, finally. “What would you have me do?”
He stares at me for a minute, then shakes his head and turns away.
I go to bed, where I lie rigid, my eyes open. I want to cry, but I can’t. I can’t sleep either. I return to the living room “We have to talk.”
He doesn’t look at me. “I don’t want to talk about it now.”
“When I’m ready.”
“‘Don’t you care how I feel?”
Like a shot he’s up and walking past me into the hall. “You don’t want to know what I think,” he says. “You planned this, didn’t you? Well, I can be out of here in a second.”
I just stand there while he scrambles to find his car keys. Planned this? Why would I plan this? What would this get me?
He answers my unspoken question. “I don’t have to marry you. Don’t think I do.” He finds his coat and shrugs it on in one motion. “Anything I leave here you can have. I don’t need it.” Then he bolts out the door, leaving everything, even his toothbrush.
It’s late, and I have to work in the morning, but sleep is out of the question. I consider my three possibilities, and I know now for certain that the decision is mine alone to make. Mostly, I’m grateful for that. I remember when a college friend of mine got pregnant eleven years ago, abortion was illegal so she didn’t have a choice. She went to an “unwed mothers home” and gave her son up.
Still, the choice feels like an enormous weight that I am required to lift somehow. None of the solutions look ideal. But I can’t go back to a time when this child didn’t exist. When I was the person I used to be. I can do something to resolve the situation, but my life will be radically different no matter what I do.
Days pass, and Bob is missing in action. Frantic to talk to him, I call all his friends, but they claim not to know where he is. When he finally resurfaces, it’s only to reiterate his rigid stance: “This shouldn’t have happened, right? So there’s only one thing to do.” Then he grins sheepishly and adds, “I can’t have a kid; I’m just a kid myself.”
You’re over 30, same as me, I want to scream, only you can walk away from this and I can’t. His woundedness can’t excuse his fecklessness. I begin to wonder why I wanted him.
As time goes by, I try to reason my way to a decision. I write lists of pros and cons, and on that list abortion comes up as the best option. When I talk to my friends, all but one of them favors that course of action, pointing out that Bob is unsuited to parenthood and trying to convince me that I’m young enough to get pregnant under better circumstances. My therapist, of course, gives no advice. She listens as I talk and weep, weep and talk.
Eventually I make an appointment at an abortion clinic. Because there are none in my town, I’ll have to travel 120 miles to a larger city to get the procedure and find a friend to accompany me because I am not supposed to drive myself home. Plans are now in place for the upcoming weekend, but I feel no relief at having made the decision. Unease dogs me, and as I sit in the newsroom I realize I’m waiting for some bolt from the blue to save me from what I’m doing. I have no moral objections to abortion, but is it the right thing for me, now, at this time in my life?
That’s when I call my therapist.
“Beverly, am I doing the right thing? I’m 33 years old. If I don’t take this child, will I ever have another chance? Who knows when I’ll even meet another man to go out with, let alone marry? I’m through with these wounded types.”
“Well,” she says, “you’ve been saying from the first that you want the baby.”
I have been saying that.
But always with qualifications.
As in, “I want the baby but I’m afraid I’m not capable of raising it alone.” As in, “I want the baby but I’m not sure I have the courage to face my mother and people like her.” As in, “I want the baby but I’m afraid of giving up my freedom for the next 18 years.”
I’ve been focusing on the qualifications.
I haven’t noticed that the central thought is the same: I want the baby. As I sit there with the phone in my hand, I hear a distinct click from somewhere inside me. My breathing becomes deeper, and I feel as if I’m floating. All the tension I’ve been carrying is gone.
“That’s right,” I tell Beverly. “I do want the baby.” In that moment I feel a certainty that no amount of fear can dislodge. I hang up knowing what I’ll do.
On the day I was supposed to have the abortion, I go to the park with a friend instead. I have a photo of myself from that day. I’m standing in the sun, wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. Looking at me, you can’t tell that I’m pregnant; I am my usual tall, lanky self. My hair is long, thick and curly from a perm; I’m wearing large aviator glasses. And I’m smiling, resting on dry land after a long time of swimming against the current.
Copyright Wick 2022