The spring that Trump wins the Republican primary, I discover I am pregnant with my second child. The pregnancy is unintended. A surprise. A month after I tell my husband I want to stop at one child, my urine on a stick reveals two pink lines.
My reaction isn’t joy. I am deeply conflicted. But when I mention potentially terminating the pregnancy, my husband walks out of the room, refusing to discuss it.
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” – Donald Trump
I don’t know what to do. Earlier that winter, when we were still debating a second child, my husband had leaned against the wall and said his purpose was to be a father. He wanted to volunteer as a troop leader and serve on the school PTO. He wanted clambering and laughter and a house ringing with children’s voices. As he spoke, his face had opened, a small, trembling truth, and the fact that I no longer wanted a second child snared the space between us, so that it was me holding him back, me stopping him from fulfilling his vocation—me, the barrier between him and his life’s fulfillment—and I thought, This could break us. This, here, is the moment that could break us, and that’s what I think again in the days after I pee on the stick, and my body has betrayed me, and I wonder if I can be the person who says “no,” who carves out of her body the child he wants, who commits an act that, in my husband’s mind, will only ever be a sin.
I begin to lie on the couch and hold my breath against nausea. I stare at our family photo, hung on the opposite wall. In the photo, my daughter is four months old. She looks up at me, mouth open, while I prop her baby body with my hand. My husband leans over us both.
I inventory the belongings that fill our rented duplex: the books and mementos and matching t-shirts and coffee mugs. The rubber tubs of baby clothes, leftover from our daughter. A wave of nausea passes over me—metallic saliva. I reach for a cracker and shut my eyes to the world.
In the evenings, when I say, “I wish this weren’t happening. I wish I weren’t pregnant,” my husband says, “I know,” or he says nothing, or he rubs my back until I am silent and spent.
When I say, “I’m not excited for this child,” he says, “I’ll be excited for both of us,” and something inside of me shrivels and cracks, because what does that mean for him to be excited enough for both of us? For me to become the body carrying a child others want?
I do not want to be pregnant, but I don’t want to hurt my husband, and since I can’t not have the child without hurting my husband, the pregnancy continues.
“It must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees.” – Donald Trump
That summer, my blood volume increases by fifty percent. My breasts double in size. A brown “mask of pregnancy” appears on my chest. I succumb to exhaustion by 2 p.m. every afternoon. I grow dehydrated quickly. I watch my blood pressure tick up, like it had when I was pregnant with my daughter. I must stop to catch my breath after climbing a flight of stairs. By the end of the September, the muscles on my abdomen detach from one another. They leave a chasm around my belly button that will take two years to heal.
My daughter begs to swim with me, to bike with me, to go down the slide with me at the park. I try to keep up like I used to, but the fetus presses against my diaphragm, and my loosening ligaments cause my hips to click as I walk.
I begin to research unintended pregnancies. In tabs I hide from my husband but keep on my browser for months, I discover how unoriginal I am. Just shy of half the pregnancies in the United States are unintended, the Guttmacher Institute and Center for Disease Control report, and many of those women are using birth control. In 2008, 1,272,000 women became pregnant after missing a pill or “incorrectly using a barrier method during some acts of intercourse,” while 155,000 women became pregnant after using contraception perfectly.
I fall into the first category. I had hated hormonal birth control—the mood swings and weight gain and risk of deadly blood clots—and so I didn’t go back on it after the birth of my daughter. Instead, I wanted to let my body be my body, un-manipulated and free, and we used non-hormonal means. Though at some point, we must have done something wrong. Or I did something wrong. When discussing contraception, the Guttmacher Institute only uses the term “women.” It assumes the responsibility rests primarily on females; it never references “contraceptives” and “men.”
In early November, an external safety review stops testing on a hormonal, two-injection birth control for men. The reason: too many men dropped out of the study due to acne, mood swings, and depression.
Around the same time, JAMA Psychiatry publishes a Dutch study that links depression to hormonal birth control in women. The “use of hormonal contraception,” the study reports, “was associated with subsequent use of antidepressants and a first diagnosis of depression, suggesting depression as a potential adverse effect of hormonal contraceptive.” Though women have long said hormonal birth control can lead to depression—and though some women have tried out multiple forms of birth control before discovering the correct hormonal cocktail for their bodies—this is the first study to suggest the link’s truth.
Feminist groups discuss both studies as a sign of institutional sexism, yet the pushback is immediate. NPR Science Correspondent Rob Stein says there’s “a different risk-benefit analysis when it comes to men using a contraceptive. When women use a contraceptive, they’re balancing the risks of the drug against the risks of getting pregnant. And pregnancy itself carries risks. But these are healthy men—they’re not going to suffer any risks if they get somebody else pregnant.”
Jeffrey Jensen of the Women’s Health Research Unit at Oregon Health & Science University similarly downplays the JAMA study: “Depression is common. Contraception use is common. So both of those things are commonly going to occur together.”
“It’s a tragedy of the riches,” Jensen goes on to say. “If you really want to be depressed, have an unintended pregnancy.”
On the last point, at least, Jensen is right. I schedule OBGYN appointments and take prenatal vitamins, but after I drop my daughter off at preschool, I also willfully imagine myself getting hit by a truck. Day after day, I pause near the roundabout. Day after day, trucks hurtle toward me. As my belly bloats against my seatbelt, I think, it’s okay if I died. It’s okay if it hit me. If I sped out right now, it would smash into my door. It wouldn’t really matter. I’ve made a mistake I can’t get out of. I’ve already ruined the life of this child.
I get counseling and try to think positively about the birth, but a journal entry of mine, written in early November, is full of fear. Fear that I won’t bond. That I won’t be happy. That something will go very, very wrong, and I won’t be a good mother to my child.
On November 8, I am thirty-six weeks pregnant. The infant I am carrying butts his head against my pubic bone, swelling my perineum. I cannot get out of bed or the car without a sharp pain in my hip, and my abdomen is so large and immobile I bump into doorknobs and burn my stomach on the stove. When I have a Braxton Hicks contraction, my watermelon-sized uterus suddenly hardens into stone and I cannot breathe. At night, I wake up on my back, stiff, as if suffocating.
The sensation does not diminish when I turn on the news.
Three weeks later, I am bleeding. My son comes so quick, I drench our bedroom carpet with amniotic fluid, and the placenta lands in a bloody blob on the bathroom floor. Our son is healthy. Alive. I am healthy and alive, too, though I require two inches of stitches, and for four weeks I must spray myself with a peri bottle every time I use the bathroom.
“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” – Donald Trump
In the hazy weeks that follow, the margin in the popular vote widens. Hillary Clinton leads Trump by nearly three million votes. Articles are published about the Electoral College and what loopholes the constitution allows for such results. Liberals and conservatives opposed to Trump call their state’s electors, imploring them to vote for Clinton instead. But on December 19, the results do not change.
On December 19, I am home alone with both children for the first time and on the verge of tears for no clear reason other than the fact that they are demanding all of my time. Someone always needs something—breastmilk, a snack, a diaper change, a Band-Aid, a hug. I spend the day with one hand lifting my shirt for my son, the other reaching for my daughter.
I feel pessimistic. I fear military action. I fear a quickening of environmental destruction that we won’t be able to recover from. As my son’s jaw moves up and down and he takes long gulps, I think, what will the future be like for this child? The walls close in on me. I want to speak out, like my colleagues and friends who are making dozens of phone calls a week and writing long editorials, but my writing is fragmented and I can’t get more than ten minutes alone.
I make plans to attend the Arkansas Women’s March. My husband asks if I’m sure I’ll be safe. My mother-in-law asks why some marches aren’t welcoming pro-life organizations. My mother-in-law was in college in the 1970s. She said she was pro-choice then; she says her opinions changed after she had children. “Life begins at conception. We know this now,” she tells me.
Many of my extended family members are pro-life. When I borrowed my grandmother’s car for a week while in college, I peeled her “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart” window cling from the back seat. It wasn’t that I advocated abortions—on the morality of the procedure, I, then a liberal Catholic, was confused—but I believed they were a deeply personal choice, and not a choice I or anyone else could dictate or judge. When I returned the car at the end of the week, I forgot to put the cling back up. My grandma stared at the empty spot, looked at me, and frowned.
When I was pregnant with my first child, my utter amazement at the experience of being pregnant made me, too, reconsider abortions. How, I wondered, my hand to my belly, could anyone not be overwhelmed with this awe?
When I was pregnant with my second, I felt erased. Swallowed whole. I sensed myself staring at a dark path, and I knew the version of myself that came out of it would not be the version of myself going in.
At the Arkansas Women’s March, I wear my son in a wrap. He breastfeeds during the speeches, which I find humorously appropriate. A young feminist, my friends and I tease. An older woman comes up to me, despair pulling her face. She says she’s marching for her grandchildren.
I feel empowered. Caught up. I am heartened to see the crowd, though I get an odd catch in my throat when I cradle my son and remember all the nights I curled in on myself, silenced by the ever-growing weight of the child.
When the crowds at the Women’s Marches around the country far exceed those from his inauguration, Trump critiques the entertainment and asks, “Why didn’t these people vote?”
Shortly after, Trump signs one of his first executive orders and rescinds funding from any NGO that even refers a woman to another organization for an abortion. The publicity photograph shows Trump at his desk, surrounded by seven other white men.
Though I recognize that I love and am bonding with my son, the thought of other women staring down that same dark path fills me with horror. After we’ve put the kids to bed, I argue with my husband about politics, demand to know why he isn’t as angry as me, and slam the bedroom door.
I return to work. I adjust my life to a new routine: waking in the dark to the sound of my husband leaving, getting both children up, feeding my daughter, changing and nursing my son, getting myself in the shower, hoping my son’s either still sleeping or happy in the bouncer in the bathroom while I, myself, get dressed and fed. Gathering material, including the bottles from the fridge, a smaller cooler with fresh ice packs, and all the parts of my breast pump. My daughter’s preschool takes attendance. In that first month, we are tardy five times.
After work, I pick my children up, my husband returns from work, we make dinner, we eat dinner, I nurse my son at least two to three times, though in those first few weeks he’s still cluster feeding every thirty to forty minutes. I stand, exhausted, at the sink in the evening, the pump parts floating in hot water: the rubbery valves, the flanges, the collection containers, the bottles, the nipples. I wash and rinse them while my husband helps my daughter brush her teeth, and it seems all of life has become these small tasks. My back aches. I want to lie down. Instead, I dip my hand into the water and pull out another valve.
In February, the GOP launches its healthcare reform. It wants to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, though what the repeal will look like has not taken shape.
The Affordable Care Act that ensures access to birth control and maternity care, and obliges employees to provide a clean, private space for working mothers to pump, and requires insurance companies to cover breast pumps so that all mothers, if they want to breastfeed while working full time, can access the equipment they need.
At work, I pump breastmilk three times a day. I close my door and listen to the motor. I know others can hear it, whether in the hallway or the offices beside me. Sometimes students or colleagues knock on my door while I am pumping, and I have to suppress a sudden panic. “Just a minute,” I say. I am sitting at my desk, my shirt lifted, my nipples caught in the suction of the two flanges.
When colleagues ask how I am adjusting, I do not know how to respond. I want to be at work, and yet when I kiss my son, he smells so much like his daycare I almost cry.
I forget the bottles at home and have to rush to retrieve them between two classes. I get stuck behind a train and am almost late.
I feel the full effects and costs of early motherhood—the sleep deprivation, the hormonal shifts, the $25,000+ average spent in an infant’s first two years—as funding for Planned Parenthood is being repealed and newspaper articles announce that Trump’s cabinet is the whitest and most patriarchal since Reagan.
I remain haunted.
Midway through my pregnancy, a few weeks before we found out the baby’s sex, I dreamt I gave birth to a boy. In the dream, I was disappointed. A film formed between us, a dark scrim. I pushed the baby away and did not bond with the child.
When I mentioned the dream to the counselor I was seeing for prenatal depression, she brushed aside my fear that the dream would come true and instead asked, “What men in your life are you mad at?”
That spring, Oklahoma State Representative tJustin Humphrey calls pregnant women “hosts” and proposes a bill that requires women to get permission from the fetus’s father to have an abortion. “I understand that they [women] feel like that is their body. I feel like it is a separate—what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so […] after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”
In my home state of Arkansas, ranked fourth worst for women’s representation in the government, new legislation bans the safest form of second trimester abortions. New legislation requires any doctor providing an abortion to first obtain a full medical history of previous pregnancies. The second bill is intended as a roadblock, even though Arkansas only has one clinical abortion provider and patients must make two visits, forty-eight hours apart.
Arkansas also passes a law allowing men to stop women from having an abortion. According to the new bill, the biological father can step in and say “no.” There is no clause excluding rapists from being considered biological fathers.
In March, my son catches respiratory syncytial virus. He coughs and wheezes like an eighty-year-old smoker, even though his lungs, together, are the size of my single fist. I bring him to the pediatrician’s office three times in a single week. They take an x-ray of his lungs and inject steroids into his chunky thigh.
I am tired. We are not sleeping well. I stop watching the news because it depresses me and I am already feeling drained and depressed. By the end of the week, when I stand on the scale at home, I discover I’m back down to my pre-pregnancy weight—seven months quicker than it took with my daughter. I can feel the hard curve of my hip bone again, and the pants that were snug a year ago sag even when tied.
On the prenatal/postpartum depression forums I occasionally visit, women who suffered terribly after their first child sometimes post about second pregnancies—some unintended, some not. They are terrified about experiencing postpartum depression again. “I am so lonely,” one of the women writes.
My family and I sit on the couch. My son is nursing. My daughter rubs a mole on my side.
Entirely surrounded by children’s skin, I almost can’t breathe.
“I love you all,” my husband says. Then, he leans over and whispers in my ear, “but I love you the most.”
From Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which I read on the couch while nursing my son: “Since 1973, women in the United States have had the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. Women have had the right to choose not to be forced into unwanted motherhood.”
To be forced into unwanted motherhood. The words catch me. Did I feel forced?
At the dinner table, my son cries from hunger. While my daughter and husband interrupt each other to talk about their days, I breastfeed on one side and then the other, eating awkwardly with my non-dominant hand. Any energy I have drains from me into him.
“You realize I did this for us. I did this for you,” I tell my husband.
Later that evening, I sit alone in the car in a parking lot. It is raining. I wonder how long things can continue before I lose grip of who I am. In a nightmarish kind of way, it feels all too possible: that I have sacrificed too much, stepped over a line that protects my own sanity, and that I one day might pack a bag and run away.
“Are you going to run away?” my mother had asked me a few weeks after the birth. I had looked at her, startled. What in my face made that a question she thought she should ask?
On Mother’s Day, the local church that covered its lawn with Trump placards in the fall has a new sign:
EVE WASN’T A PERFECT MOM
BUT GOD STILL FORGAVE HER.
We drive by the church on the way to a park, where we eat a picnic lunch and wade in the lake. Across the beach, a minister baptizes adults in murky water.
My husband and I grew up Catholic. We were married in a Catholic Church. On my first Mother’s Day after the birth of my daughter, the church we occasionally attended handed out magnets: “Mothers are the heart of the family.”
Oklahoma State Representative Justin Humphrey considers women hosts.
Divine hosts? I begin to think. Parasitic hosts?
Is there a difference?
In early May, the House of Representatives passes their second attempt to replace and repeal the Affordable Care Act. This new bill will allow states to consider pregnancy a pre-existing condition, thus allowing pregnant women to be placed in high-risk insurance pools. Estimates suggest that women of child-rearing age who want maternity coverage will pay $1,000 more a month than men of the same age. Neither the meeting the White House organizes with House Representatives nor the Senate’s review committee includes any women.
The next morning, my daughter joins me in the shower. She slips off her spacesuit pajamas, her rainbow underwear, and insists, at age four, that she’s old enough to graduate from the bath. Her body is thin, her stomach the smooth and rounded stomach of a child, unlike my own, still puckered and pocked from the birth of my son.
I rub the luffa sponge over her back and then my own. I scrub between my breasts. My daughter, hunched forward, wraps an arm around my thigh.
When I press my forehead into the tile, I want to destroy either myself or these walls.
“Why wouldn’t you let us discuss the possibility of an abortion?” I ask my husband.
It’s odd timing, I know. Our son is here. He coos and rolls over and has started to laugh, though it’s a laugh unlike any other I have heard. A throaty caw that makes me giggle. But I need to ask. And I need to know.
My husband hesitates. “Because it’s my child, too, and I feel responsible. I want to take care of him.”
My husband, I know, is genuine. He considers himself responsible. Following through with the pregnancy was never a question for him.
And yet, in his response, something nags at me: the assumption—the honorable assumption, yes, but the assumption, just the same—that he has an equal say. Or more: that his desire to have an equal say, and to take responsibility for our unintended pregnancy, overwhelmed my own ability to make a decision about my body.
In the weeks before I gave birth to my daughter, when my husband and I spent evenings curled next to each other, his hands on my belly, he said that if something went wrong, he’d rather lose the baby than me. He loved me, and I was the known quantity. The infant was not.
It was a touching moment. I understood it. And if it came between choosing one life over another—mine over the fetus’s—I’d understand that difficult, difficult choice.
Yet death isn’t the only way to lose a life. Did I have the choice to say I wanted to choose my own wellbeing over that of an unintended fetus? Are my choices in this culture so firmly dictated by my ability to give birth?
Growing up, I sometimes wished I wasn’t female. I did not want to be male, but I didn’t want to be female. How could I feel empowered when our culture places so many of the costs, and risks, and burdens of sexual reproduction on women?
A pro-life meme that circulates around Mother’s Day:
Not a Mistake.
Not a Burden.
Not a Problem.
Not a Punishment.
Not an Inconvenience.
Not a Nuisance.
Not an Accident.
In the evening, just after I’ve swaddled my son and laid him down in the crib, I ask my husband again why he wouldn’t let us even discuss an abortion. My husband grows silent. He clenches his jaw. His left foot begins to shake on the coffee table where he’s propped it. “I just can’t… it’s not moral…” he says, and I almost begin to cry, because I can see his suffering—the wrenching of his chest as he turns away from me.
“Even knowing what it did to me? Even knowing how miserable I was?” I say, almost pleading. Then, softer: “If I had had an abortion, would our marriage have ended?”
His answer is a whisper. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
What I want him to say: “You are important. Your body is important. What decisions you make about your body are important, and you are not beholden to anyone else when making those decisions. I never should have placed you in that position. I should have told you I’d support and respect any decision you made. I am sorry.”
Instead, he can’t let go of the fact that some of that decision should have been his, too. That he needed a say. The fact that it was my body—and that I would bear most of the burdens in those first two years—didn’t make it more of my own choice.
What I want is exactly what he can’t give.
We sit on the couch, three and a half years of the Trump administration ahead of us, and it doesn’t matter just now what reconciliation we’ll come to. My bra smells of breastmilk. Our son, who we both love, cries in the bedroom. Like the country around us, we are cutting new teeth.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.