I Wish My Grandma Had Gotten The Chance To Be Childless

The recent Texas abortion ruling makes the need for safe and legal abortion even more urgent. My grandmother is proof.

In one of my most cherished photos of my grandmother, we are squinting into the sunlight, our hair the exact same color: mine still blonde, hers not yet white — or at least, not as far as she’s willing to admit. I am wearing a truly dreadful color-blocked anorak and white leggings that are baggy at the knees while holding a sign that says “Pass the Freedom of Choice Act Now!” She has one tucked under her arm that says “I Am the Face of Pro-Choice America.” It is 1992. Planned Parenthood gave us those signs, and we are in downtown DC with my sister, my mother, some of my neighbors, and 500,000 other people at the March for Women’s Lives. Neither of us looks especially good in this photo, her because the sun is making her squint and me because I’m 12. But I love it because it shows a bond deeper than family: the shared conviction that reproductive freedom is a moral good.

At this march, or maybe a different one — another March for Women’s Lives followed 12 years later, and then the Women’s March 12 years after that, my life segmented into even dozens by the same weary protest — my mother grew frustrated with the chants of “What do we want? Choice! When do we want it? Now!” “We have it now,” she complained. “We want to keep it.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, her attempt at a “What do we want? Choice! When do we want it? Later!” chant did not catch on. But I still think about it all the time, and not only at marches. It’s good to have a choice now. It’s better to have a choice perpetually.

Pregnant people who don’t want to be pregnant anymore will always have a choice, though now that Roe v. Wade has been undermined in Texas, that choice is becoming substantially more difficult, dangerous, and expensive. Banning abortion has never stopped abortion and never will. It’s not even meant to. Misogynistic legislation like Texas’s SB8 is designed to constrain the choices available to people who can become pregnant. It’s supposed to make our lives smaller.

I learned that from my grandma, too.

In 2008, when Grammy was still alive and not yet losing her memory, my cousin Andrew interviewed her in a StoryCorps booth, which was designed to record interviews between loved ones, in Manhattan’s Foley Square. She was 84 years old and in relatively good health. A year before, she had moved from the Queens rowhouse where she’d been rattling around for a decade since my grandpa died, and now she was living in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side. She had a boyfriend in her building, was in a book club, and went to see films of opera productions around the corner at Symphony Space. “I love getting older,” she told Andrew. “I didn’t think I would.”

At the beginning of the tape, she expressed some concern about being asked personal questions: “There are some things grandsons don’t need to know.” Andrew reassured her that he didn’t mean that kind of personal; he just wanted to talk about her, not other people in the family. Not her parents or children — just her.

“May I just interject one thing?” she said, and then, as she always did, went right ahead. “One day I was standing in front of my living room. I was taking care of my nephew, because his mother, who is my sister, had to go to work. I was also concerned about my parents. I had two children, a husband, two sisters, and I stood in the middle of the floor and said, ‘I don’t want to be anybody’s mother, sister, cousin, daughter, wife. I want to be me.’”

Andrew, I assume, had heard this story before. I had heard it before. It was always softened, afterward, with the acknowledgment that she couldn’t possibly isolate herself from her relationships: “And then after I said it, I said, ‘Well, how would I define me? That’s who ‘me’ is.’” But to me, that part never rang true — not as true as “I don’t want to be somebody’s mother,” anyway. It was a moral tacked on to make all of us feel better, to reassure us and herself that she had no regrets. Even she couldn’t fully commit to it, though. When my cousin paraphrased — women of your generation, and you, particularly, really do define yourself by roles like “mother” and “wife,” he said — she corrected him. “But I resented it,” she said, “because I do not truly define myself by that, but these are responsibilities thrust upon me, which I could not deny. How could I?”

Did you always know, Andrew asked, that you were going to be a mother? She cut in: “No. No, I was not going to do any of that. But it happened.”

At one point, she claimed that she never thought about what her life would have been like if she hadn’t gotten married. But after just a little pushing, it turned out she knew exactly what she would have done: “I would have been a bum. I would have traveled all over the world, I would have had no responsibilities, I would have taken whatever job would give me the ability to travel, because I always was hungry for travel. And I would have been maybe lonely, but I wouldn’t have had worries.”

Throughout the interview, you could hear my cousin trying to prod her into talking about how proud she was of her family. This is an image of my grandmother that much of my family has always clung to, the kvelling matriarch, even as she told us over and over that it wasn’t the entire story. I don’t mean to imply that he didn’t appreciate what she was saying about resenting the loss of independence; he did, I think, but he was also only 23. At that age you don’t want to hear your grandmother, in many ways the linchpin of the family, say that her relationships have mainly brought her grief. “A lot of these questions on this list that I printed out are like, what are you proudest of, what matters to you the most, and I don’t know but I think the family would be a big part of that for you,” he prompted at one point. She considered this. “Yeah,” she said doubtfully, “because it was thrust upon me. And here it is.”

This interview is hard for me to listen to. What is difficult, of course, is first and foremost that she is dead. This was the last thing she ever wanted. A staunch, lifelong nonbeliever — Andrew once trolled her with an elaborate April Fool’s prank involving a letter that said she’d been chosen for a church Adopt-an-Atheist program — she became, as she aged, increasingly fixated on how impossible it is for those without religion to make peace with death. “I’ll be ready to die once I’ve found God,” she always said, with the implied wink: I’ll live forever.

It worked for a long time — she lived to 92. But ultimately, death doesn’t wait for you to be ready, no matter how good of a joke it is. We scattered some of her ashes, surreptitiously, on a rose bush in the median of Broadway, across from Symphony Space. I took home some of the rest; they’re above my TV, in a little box with an infinity symbol on it, like the one on her gravestone. This is not a reference to some sort of supposed infinitude of the soul, which she would have scoffed at; it’s just an acknowledgment of one of her most annoying and endearing habits, which was demanding that you explain the concept of infinity and then looking dubious and declaring she would never understand. (Her other favorite bit was saying, “With the brain God gave you, how could you believe in him?”)

My grief trips me up when I listen to the interview. Her grief — mourning the life she didn’t get to have — does not. Or rather, I don’t take it personally; it doesn’t make me feel like she loved us any less. Quite the opposite, really. My grandmother was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known, always opening her home to family and strangers alike. (Half of my mom’s cousins lived in her basement at some point. So did a girl named Karen, who had been a student aide at Grammy’s school secretary job. When her mom kicked her out, Karen moved into the basement and stayed there through college. As a kid, I just assumed she was some kind of cousin, too.)

In true Jewish grandma fashion, she took on your troubles as if they were her own, whether or not she understood them, whether or not you wanted her to. But she didn’t experience this as generosity, because she didn’t consider there to be any other alternative. You couldn’t deny someone in need what it was in your power to give. You couldn’t not take care of children: your own or other people’s. You couldn’t leave the gift ungiven, the loan unlent, the teenager without a home. There was something truly Talmudic about it — not only the righteousness, but the sense of being afflicted with righteousness, as Jews are always afflicted by something or another. She got it from her own very Jewish mother, maybe, or from her socialist father: a sense that if you have, you owe. Anyway, it was a duty, not a choice; she wasn’t especially happy about doing it, but she had to. She brushed off praise: “What else was I supposed to do?”

That’s how you knew her love was truly unconditional: If she could have loved you less, if she could have cared less, if she could have given less, she certainly would have. The fact that she didn’t was proof that she couldn’t possibly. Most people who tout unconditional love still think they have some kind of option. She knew she didn’t. My grandmother didn’t love anyone she didn’t feel she had to, but her love, once given, was an obligation to both of you: It could not be turned off or turned aside.

So I know that, as dubious as my grandma sounds on the tape, my cousin was right: She did define herself by her role in the family, and it was a lot of what mattered to her the most. And her family was also, at the same time, a yoke and an anchor. She could imagine life without them, and always had — but no matter how much she wished to be footloose and worry-free, she couldn’t regret them, or imagine devoting anything less than her life to them. She was someone’s sister, daughter, cousin; she became someone’s mother and wife, and someone’s aunt and great-aunt and grandma and great-grandma. It was thrust upon her, and here it was.

In fact, I may be the only person still wishing she’d gotten a chance to be a bum. I don’t think she mourned her lost life, exactly, but I do; what breaks my heart when I listen to the interview is realizing that the world has lost her twice, both the matriarch she was and the carefree traveler she didn’t get to be. Maybe that’s why we understood each other, the thing we shared: recognizing that there is something to be lost in having a family legacy.

About one in four US women has had an abortion by age 45. This statistic is an average over the whole population — specifics vary according to factors like class and race, since it’s much easier to get an abortion if you have disposable income and transportation, and much less necessary if you have access to affordable birth control. But the point is, no matter how much we are encouraged to see motherhood as normal and abortion as deviant, ending a pregnancy is so common an occurrence as to be unremarkable. Abortions are unnatural the way soap is unnatural: wrought with organic materials, ubiquitous, and good.

Proponents of Planned Parenthood have often insisted that the bulk of the organization’s services are crucial medical care — Pap smears, contraception, STD tests, transition hormones, prenatal checkups — provided to low-income or uninsured patients. It’s life-saving stuff, and anyone who truly cares about reproductive health or human life in general should sing its praises. All of this is true, but Planned Parenthood does also provide abortions, and they’re life-saving too. And yet we are supposed to believe that every single one of these people is a monster for not wanting to be pregnant, or simply for not wanting to be pregnant right now. (Something like 60% of the people who get abortions are already parents; others will become parents later on.)

Republican politicians who oppose abortion will tell you that they believe it’s infanticide, but this is, for the most part, a sham. They’re not invested in children, or even in mothers — the same people generally oppose paid maternity leave, subsidized childcare, universal healthcare, social support programs benefiting mothers with kids, and sometimes public schools. They’re not even invested in reducing abortion — the same people oppose comprehensive sex education and accessible contraception. They’re not even invested in reducing deliberate death. Anyone who still believes the “pro-life” spin after months of watching the GOP downplay COVID-19, kneecap efforts to supply hospitals or limit spread, and call for the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands on the altar of the stock market is using a twisted definition of “life.” What they are invested in is birth: the conversion of a person into a mother, after which they and their baby can be left to struggle. There are so many things you can’t do with a child to take care of. There are so many things you won’t do if you’re afraid of getting pregnant. The point of forced birth laws is to keep you from doing those things.

Legends from Malaysia to Mexico (and all the way back to Mesopotamia) imagine a fearsome woman who steals newborns, or tempts children to drowning, or rips fetuses from the womb. Sometimes she’s a demon, sometimes a snake-woman, sometimes a head trailing intestines from its severed neck. In Greek mythology, she’s a once-human woman named Lamia, who is variously described as a snake or a sea monster. Sometimes she’s part of a group of vampiric child-killing demons called the Lamiae. In some stories, Lamia also has the strange power to remove her eyes. These ghastly visions reflect the fragility of pregnancy and childhood; when children die, as they often did in the past and sometimes still do, it helps to have a story. But these stories also created monsters out of anyone who was pregnant and chose not to be pregnant anymore.

A monster is a perversion of the natural order. And while having children is not the only element of the natural order — there have always been women who are infertile, women who don’t have uteruses, women who don’t want to be mothers — it is the order imposed by those who grant themselves the right to speak for nature. To deviate from the prescribed motherhood narrative is to be made monstrous. And there are, as always, so many more ways to stray from the path than there are ways to succeed. The “natural” mother must subsume her life to procreation. She must be effortlessly fertile, using her own pristine eggs and uterus that she was born with; she must undertake this gladly and deliberately and without second thoughts; she must put her other needs aside. We’re supposed to ask, like my grandmother, “What else was I supposed to do?” But for so many of us, the little demon inside whispers: something.

And so we are unnatural: the one in four women who’s had an abortion, and those of us who haven’t had one but haven’t needed one either. Anyone not involved in the woman-to-mother assembly line. All of us monsters.

At our grandmother’s funeral, I asked my sister (full disclosure: she works at BuzzFeed News), whose daughter was then very small, whether she planned to have another. She told me, “I’ve always pictured myself with two.” This was absolutely incomprehensible to me — pictured yourself? With children? Pictured yourself in the future at all? — but as with most of my sister’s predictions about her life, she made it come true. There are also, of course, people who are sure they don’t want children, and though they’re fighting uphill against expectations, they at least have the benefit of clarity. But what if you’re not sure, and worse, what if you suspect you’d do a bad job? That’s the kind of fear that stalks the water, no matter what I do: When will I regret this? When and how will I fuck it up? No matter which choice you make, it’s potentially the biggest mistake of your life: the slow-roll pervasive sadness of regretting the children you didn’t have, the acute toxicity of regretting the ones you do, or the late-stage regret when you feel like you’ve done so badly that you shouldn’t have started at all.

This isn’t even getting into the general state of the world. The truth is that, as much as we are all thundering toward oblivion together, in many ways I am buffered from the worst. I’d be bringing a child into a bad world, and I would burden the world’s already scant resources by doing so, but both of us would be insulated from the immediate consequences of that decision. This isn’t a good enough reason to have a child, but it’s true. On the other hand, though, right now it’s a comfort to me that at least when the end of the world comes, my husband and I will be able to lie down and quietly die together — my biggest fear is that we won’t, that we’ll be separated or worse. That anxiety is not only compounded by the addition of a child — it’s increased exponentially, because not only do I have yet another life to worry about, a life I will by all accounts be even more disastrously concerned about than I am about my husband or dog, but I am virtually guaranteed that even if the end of the world as we know it doesn’t come in my lifetime, it will in theirs.

I’ve never had an abortion, but that’s by pure chance of not needing one; I’ve never been afraid to, or even unwilling. My greatest fear is the sea monster under the surface: the great mass of resentment and peril, scything through the water when you least expect it. To be natural, we are told, women must have babies. But nature is often vicious, and humanity often worse. Can it truly be our primary function to procreate by force, or obligation, or coercion? If so: how much better to be monstrous.

In May of 2019, after several states passed near-total abortion bans that flew in the faces of both law and medical science, I went to a Planned Parenthood rally in Foley Square. I told people I was planning to spend the evening “shouting about abortion,” but in truth, I didn’t shout much. I rarely want to shout these days — or rather, I always want to shout, and the very wanting saps my energy to the point where I can’t always make my lungs obey. A week earlier, the online humor magazine Reductress had published an article about abortion rights headlined “Aww! These Three Generations of Women Have All Been to the Same Fucking Protest.” This was funny, but also an understatement. I’d already been to reproductive rights protests with three generations of my family, and I was almost 40. If I’d had a kid, we would have been on generation four.

It was a beautiful day, balmy and bright. Ringed with tall buildings, Foley Square was already cupping early twilight in its palm, but homemade signs turned their faces to the sun like hopeful plants: Abortion Is a Human Right, My Body My Choice, Never Again. To my left, early-evening light gilded the motto inscribed on the front of the New York County Courthouse. The only word I could read from where I stood was “justice.”

My friend and I hung just inside the crowd, straining to hear the speakers but also intermittently talking to each other. We clapped at applause lines, even if we weren’t sure what they’d said. We listened with mild schadenfreude for that last “No hate, no fear!” that always rings feebly out after the chant has braked, like a kid going over the handlebars of a bike. Doing more felt perilous, like we might overexert our already-aching hearts. At one point, an older woman came winding through the crowd, shouting “over 90 coming through!” In her wake was an even more elderly lady with a floppy pink sunhat and a rolling walker, bowed by age and a heavy plating of pro-choice buttons. She didn’t look anything like my late grandmother, apart from being over 90, but she looked exactly like her, too.

The StoryCorps booth where Grammy had told Andrew about resenting her responsibilities was behind us, a little outside the crowd. I picked my way over to it through the dispersing bodies, over chalkings that read “Fuck your ban” and “We won’t go back.” It was a large glass box, about the size of a shipping container, with “Listen. Honor. Share.” inscribed on the side in the same cursive font you might use to write “Live, laugh, love.” On my way, I passed some young people with interesting haircuts and an acoustic guitar. They were practicing a protest song.

There’s an earnestness to rallies that claws at your heart. They are about anger, yes, but they’re also about optimism — otherwise why not be angry at home? — and optimism feels to me like the very tenderest underbelly you can show. The unspoken assumption of a protest is that someone is listening, someone is seeing and counting and registering your rage. A rally is an act of prayer. It requires a sort of unguarded hopefulness that is at once stubborn and naive and painfully vulnerable: You have to want something so much that you begin to believe it’s possible, and that belief becomes a soft new organ that hurts even more when it dies. It’s the same desperate idealism that lets people keep deciding to have kids, thus giving themselves a million new things to grieve.

Inside the lightly frosted glass of the StoryCorps booth was a smaller red box, like the pulp inside a tooth. That’s where Grammy sat 11 years ago, talking about the choice she made but didn’t make, the choice that didn’t feel like a choice. My grandmother believed in progress, reveled in it; she was fond of delightedly exclaiming “America!” when faced with some new innovation or technology, even if she had no intention of using or even remembering it. (This was a joke. Her parents were immigrants, but she was born in the Bronx.) It’s hard for me to imagine how she would react to Roe v. Wade being under threat, because it was so incomprehensible to her to go backward. A few months before she died, she told me that at least nobody would admit to being an antisemite anymore; Hitler had just made it too embarrassing. It was 2017. If your strongest beliefs are where you’re most vulnerable, what would it have done to her to see us dragged back into the bloody past? It felt, looking at the closed-up booth, as if she might still be in there, talking. What could I say to her, if she came out, about why I’m here, about where this is all going?

It’s easy to become fatalistic, especially now, living as we do in a maelstrom of terrible news. The world is too bad for any of us. It is far, far too bad for anyone new — and one of the ways it’s bad is that we are expected to keep bringing new people into this terrible world, piling them up like a sacrificial pyre. Some of them will be the kindling, and some the meat, and some the flames. We are not supposed to opt them out of this sick ritual: that is considered murder, which is to say, it’s cheating. They have to live long enough to be put to death.

All the choices are grim — but for now, all the choices are choices. That’s the point: not to have all your options be blessed, not to be shielded from making a mistake, but to be the final arbiter of how your body is put to use. Even your regrets should be your own.

I wish my grandma had been able to live the carefree, transient life she imagined. But for her own part, she did ultimately embrace her identity as someone’s sister, someone’s mother, and also herself. It wasn’t the missed opportunities that pained her, but rather the idea that my sister, my cousins, and I might find ourselves obliged to disappear into motherhood. She never imagined we could have that choice taken away. I’m glad she never had to. ●

Adapted from Women and Other Monsters: Building A New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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