When your greatest shame is also what makes you free

The spring before I left the Bronx to go to boarding school, to accept a scholarship that would change the entire trajectory of my life, I had an abortion. I was 15.

I was raised a devout Catholic; I’ve always been a deeply spiritual person. But I also had been so desperately lonely for such a long time. My high school boyfriend was a dumb ass and so was I. But he was lonely, too, in a different way. Poverty, violence, rage: They make you want the instant gratification it seems that sex can provide when you’re young.

I got pregnant not long after my mother had a manic episode during which she threatened to kill me. I’d run away from home to my best friend’s apartment in the projects as a temporary solution, to gather my thoughts. That was the weekend, when I was 14, that I first had sex. Looking for safety, a home, somewhere, with someone.

I had been keeping a journal daily for at least six months up to that point. When I told social workers I’d applied to boarding school, that I didn’t want to go home because it wasn’t safe, but I just needed a few more months to figure something out, they told me I could go to a group home, but it was unlikely that I could go to boarding school from any group home.

Reluctantly, I returned home. When she tried to hit me again, I held her wrists. “The next time you hit me, I will hit you back.”

It was a small win compared to what came next, which was that she found my journal, which, because I was an idiot, detailed how ambivalent I was about a future I didn’t know I could believe in. On one hand, I believed that if I had a baby, my boyfriend would always have to love me, and it would mean on some level that at least two people — he and the child — would have to love me. Right?

On the other, I have never wanted to be a mother. I have seen what this world does to Black babies. I am named for one who was killed at 12. A day does not pass when one is not harassed, though these days, it feels lucky that they are not murdered.

My mother’s discovery of my journal triggered our visit to Planned Parenthood, where she recited her rosary, loudly, while we waited to see the doctor. This was, for the doctors, a red flag, that she would be so bold. They saw us separately — in retrospect, I don’t know if this was legal or not. Is it safe, they wondered, to tell her that you’re pregnant?

“Absolutely not,” I said, shaking my head.

When they called her in, they lied to her. I lied to her on the day that I went to have the abortion with one of my Catholic school classmates. I have never cried so much or so hard in my life as I did as I mourned my deepest shame.

By then, the packet of summer reading for my first year at the new elite school had arrived in the mail. I had stopped writing things down. I was going to read my way to my future.

News out of the Supreme Court this summer and the resurfacing of the threat to Roe v. Wade reminded me of my abortion and the nuances of our stories. So often these discussions and debates make it seem as if women are gleeful about this difficult choice, but it is — and should always remain just that — a difficult choice. God bestows judgment over me now. He is the only authority on this I recognize.

I also know that my deepest shame has been thing that allowed me to make the life I have now. I would not have this life, I would not have been able to write, to move, to survive my childhood without the choice I made. I am beyond dismayed to think there are others who could be deprived of this choice soon, possibly for a generation.

I’m also weary that this topic has reemerged.

I felt privileged to be included in edited by Kim Wyatt and Sari Botton, published in 2013, Get Out of My Crotch. I would learn, a couple of years later, more about the history of reproductive justice working as a contractor for a Black women’s health organization. I learned still more, statistically and holistically, working as a speechwriter in the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But everything I need to know about how lack of access to abortion could potentially impact the lives of women that most people never think about, I learned at 15. This anthology, unfortunately, feels timely. I wish it weren’t. Here are some lines from a draft of that essay:

Before I got pregnant, I had been caring for myself for at least half my life, so trying on a boyfriend by way of having sex without love or intimacy seemed to go with the territory.

I never wanted to have children because I was scared to death that I would be like my mother – that I would have a child because I wanted a perpetual shadow, someone to come with me, someone to be a witness to the parts of my life I wanted him or her to see. The main message I got about motherhood from our culture was that it was unpaid labor and grueling work; a burden usually borne by women alone in a world where men sired children and women raised them.

I wanted a destiny replete with freedom and the unfettered currency of movement comes with its own costs. Because I didn’t know any women who lived that way up close, my 14-year-old woman brain decided that if I had a kid, maybe that was it’s own container for my desire and for sustenance. The teenage mothers I knew were cared for because they had children. They got food stamps and new clothes from baby daddies; they had fresh gear even if their faces showed just how worn out they were.

Now I know this is the dysfunctional poverty porn Republican dreams are made of, but it is also the truth of growing up as a poor and working class woman of color in any American urban city. All of our choices are non-choices. They are narratives embedded in us as destiny that we either choose or they are written and chosen for us. 

You can read the edited version of this piece, and work from Roxane Gay, Lidia Yuknavitch, s.e. smith and many other talents in the anthology.

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About Joshunda Sanders

Author, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. @JoshundaSanders on Twitter | @joshunda on IG.