My baby girl was no longer a baby.
Updated: Jan 5
It’s August 1977, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, sun is coming into the room and I’m talking with my mom and her sister. I just returned from working as a camp counselor at the YMCA Camp Rogers in the Uintah Mountains. I am so excited about my upcoming senior trip to Hawaii with 8 other friends from high school. I’m talking to my Mom and Aunt about the trip and the excitement of leaving right after to Utah State to attend my first quarter of college. My mother got up from the table to open the mail that had just arrived. I saw the color of her skin drain out of her face and she looks up and says to me, “Jill, did you have an abortion?” I stood up and ran out of the house, “yes I did and it’s all your fault.” I then slammed the door. We never talked about my abortion again and it was the only secret that I know she ever kept from my father.
Fast forward to January of 1993 and I’m at my Mom’s with my 3-year-old son and 3 of my aunts, one who was at the kitchen table the day my Mom found out I had an abortion. We’re all watching the presidential inauguration, Fleetwood Mac and Michael Jackson are singing and Maya Angelou is speaking. My Mom and my aunts started talking about women’s rights, maybe because the men of the family were not at home. I sat and listened as they talked about the abortion my Grandma Bea, who was born in 1900, had around the 1930’s. The story was, the doctor had told my grandfather not to get Grandma Bea pregnant again or she would die giving birth. Her body couldn’t take it. Well, grandpa got her pregnant and to save her life Grandpa Bill drove her from Winnemucca Nevada to Boise Idaho to have a back ally abortion, which was illegal and dangerous. My Aunts and mother talked about how Grandma Bea hurt so bad and how she had to wash the sheets daily because her body kept bleeding for weeks and how no one really talked about what had happened. My Grandma Bea died in 2002 at 102, living through a back alley abortion that threatened her life but in the end saved her life.
My Mom and Aunts kept telling stories and casually mentioned how my Great Aunt had also had an abortion. How my great Aunt who was at the kitchen table in 1977 had had a shot gun wedding. Listening to these stories I became very angry and sad. I wondered if they had told me this family history back in 1977, maybe I would have felt safe talking to my Mom about my abortion and not kept it a secret. I wondered if they had told me about my Grandma and Great Aunt when I became a young woman, if they talked to me about sexuality, sex, women’s bodies, birth control, I would have felt safe telling them what I was going through in 1977. But such conversation was never talked about, secrets were kept so my belief had been for years that, “I am bad, I am irresponsible, I am a disappointment. And for sure, I’m the only one in the family who has ever experienced such a thing.”
Fast forward to 2012 when my daughter McCall came home from school and told me about a volunteer opportunity with Planned Parenthood she applied for. It’s called Teen Council, where teens are trained to be peer health educators and teach subjects like healthy relationships in classrooms across the Salt Lake Valley. It was then I asked McCall if she would go for a walk with me so I could tell her why Planned Parenthood is so important.
I told her “honey, when I was 18 years old, I was in love with my boyfriend Mike, I had a college acceptance letter and I was working at Camp Rogers unable to stomach the oatmeal and raisins for breakfast and was always so tired. I realized I hadn’t had my period for a while and fear skyrocketed. Mike, he is such a good guy, you’ve met him before because we have stayed close friends, he was my first love of my life (the only one before your Dad). He was supportive and we talked of continuing the pregnancy or having an abortion. We cried and cried and cried for what seemed like days. I think I was about 6-7 weeks along. I knew I wasn’t ready to be a parent but at the same time I loved Mike.” There was such confusion and my belief was that I couldn’t talk to my parents; I didn’t want to disappoint them nor did I want them to be ashamed of me. Mike and I decided I would have an abortion. He came with me, paid for it all and we had made all the necessary arrangements for my parents not to find out. All mail, bills and such would go to his house, not mine. Well that didn’t happen.
I proceeded to tell McCall, about her beautiful great Grandma who was so amazing, who’s personality she acquired. How her great great grandmother, who homesteaded in the place she is named after, had given birth to Grandma Bea in 1900 when she was 14 years old. I then told her about Grandma Bea’s back ally abortion in the 30’s. She survived and died never talking about it, enduring the emotional and physical pain mostly alone. I told her that when I think about Grandma Bea my heart breaks and I don’t ever want anyone to go through such an ordeal alone and afraid. I told her about her Great Great Aunt who had an abortion and her Great Aunt who got married because she was pregnant. I told her people keep secrets and don’t talk about things that they think are taboo or difficult. I want you to know that you my beautiful McCall can talk to your Mom and Dad about everything and anything, even if it’s uncomfortable or scary. We love you no matter what and will always encourage you to be exactly who you are doing things perfectly and making mistakes along the way. My dream for you is that you feel confident about your body and about being safe and about never having to make any hard decision alone.
As McCall and I were walking we could see the Wasatch Mountains in all their glory. She listened intently and expressed feeling special for disclosing things that could be viewed as shameful to her. Talking about something that mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters don’t talk about. She said she felt honored that I felt she was mature enough to hear the story of my abortion and of her great great aunt’s abortion and about her beautiful Grandma Bea’s abortion. She held my hand and we walked together in silence realizing that at that moment nothing was more important than our trust about what is true and to always, always feel safe within our family. Our relationship shifted that day, my baby girl was no longer a baby. She is wise, loving and an amazing young woman, much like her Mother, her grandmother, her great grandmother and her great great grandmother, who all have done the very best we/they could with all they had.
My daughters, McCall and Talus and my son Cody are smart and kind. They are all advocates for sex education and for respecting women and giving them the right to choose what they need to do for their bodies and minds to stay well. They come from a strong matriarch and patriarch and are the next generation who will be the voice of choice. I am proud of who they are and I am sure their grandmothers and grandfathers are looking down upon them with pride.
-Jill James, Salt Lake City