Abortion Can Be an Act of Parenting

“No amount of love and desire for the fetus will relieve its future suffering... So River has made an appointment," abortion doula Hannah Matthews writes.

Abortion Can Be an Act of Parenting
Photo:Rachel Epperly; Atria Books.

The following is an excerpt from You or Someone You Love: Reflections from an Abortion Doula by Hannah Matthews, an abortion doula based in Maine. Matthews defines an “abortion doula” as “someone who supports you—physically, emotionally, spiritually, practically, and logistically—through your abortion… The work of an abortion doula can be done, in one form or another, by anyone, no matter how stretched thin across jobs and obligations and methods of survival.” Out Tuesday, her book is emotional, full of pathos, and highlights how abortion makes possible all the wonders of life. You can buy it at Bookshop and Amazon.

As an abortion doula and care worker, I often support people through ending pregnancies they don’t want, but River is a client of mine who does want their pregnancy, and they want it very, very badly.

A fetal anomaly renders that pregnancy unable to survive, which they and their partner have just learned at 20 weeks. After an anatomy scan, River is told that the anomaly is virtually guaranteed to create a life that wanting cannot save. The love that River feels for the fetus growing inside their body is real and overwhelming. But no depth, no volume, no amount of love and desire for the fetus will relieve its future suffering, or prolong its brief and agonizing time on earth. So River has made an appointment, devastated, distraught, swallowed whole by anticipatory grief.

We communicate via text message and phone call, mostly. They cry and cry on the other end of the phone. It is 2020, and our state is awash in its first wave of covid infections. No one is allowed to accompany River to their appointment, not even their partner, and they sit alone in the clinic waiting room, staring down the barrel of a panic attack. Their grief and anxiety—descending alongside the nausea and the intense hormonal shifts that occur in any pregnancy—are threatening to bury them alive, they tell me.

Were I sitting next to them, in this moment, I would ask to rub River’s back. I would offer my hands for them to squeeze. I would breathe deeply with them. I would talk them through the ebbs and flows. But, from my little apartment on the other side of town, I can only give them words. So I do. I tell them how proud I am that they are already a parent and a damn good one at that. I tell them what a loving and powerful act of parenting this is—to make this personal sacrifice, and take on this pain, to prevent the suffering of the being that would have become their child. I do a little mantra with them, one I first learned from a doula of my own, though she likely wouldn’t have called herself that at the time.

“You are the deep blue ocean,” my doula-who-was-not-a-doula said to 26-year-old me, and I hear my 34-year-old self say it to River in turn. “You are not the crashing wave.”

“You are not the crashing wave,” my doula-who-was-not-a-doula repeated, reversing the order of the statements as she brushed a strand of sweaty hair away from my temple. “You”—she kissed each cheek, and folded me tightly into her arms—“are the deep blue ocean.”

I pass this to River now, across time and space, as they are called into a procedure room for their abortion. They are the deep blue ocean, too.

Three months later, the seasons changing and life running roughshod over me as usual, I run into River, unexpectedly, at a backyard potluck. Their full, smiling mouth is a jewel, painted in a deep berry shade of lipstick, and they’ve baked a delicate three-tiered chocolate cake.

They sing and joke and ask questions and do impressions and argue playfully, late into the evening. They’re the life of the party. Eyes full of laughter, River regales us all with tales of their chaotic 3-year-old; her hellish sleep patterns; the complicated games she invents for the family (designed so that there may only be one winner: her); her penchant for pterodactyl-pitched shrieking when she becomes enraged, or excited, or bored.

“I’m in such a good place now,” they say.

Friends and neighbors and community members surround River on all sides, passing them full steins of cold beer and bowls of ice cream, and handing them wool blankets to drape across their shoulders and their lap as the sun dips below the trees. River moves seamlessly in and out of full-chested laughter and intimate conversations, answering questions about their work, their garden, the books they’ve been reading and the books they want to read next.

As the party winds down, the fire sparking and crackling as it dies, the orchestra of voices becoming thinner and thinner as guests drop away into the night one by one, River approaches me. They look into my eyes, reach out for both my hands with both of theirs. They give me a private smile.

“I’m in such a good place now,” they say, weaving their fingers through mine and squeezing.

“Thank you.”

We both know what they’re referring to: the minutes and hours and days and weeks that they’re holding in stark contrast to this moment of their life, this good place, this “now.” They open their arms, we hug tightly, we say goodbye. I don’t know when or if I’ll see them again, but I’m so grateful to have witnessed them, to have crossed paths a second time, to have been with them both then and now. We go forward, our paths branching away from each other, but in parallel and with two shared memories now.

I give a little wave as River climbs into their car and backs out of our friends’ shared driveway, wheels spitting gravel. They pull out onto the long, pine-flanked, starlit road, heading home to the little house in the woods where that whirling dervish of a 3-year-old daughter is, finally, mercifully, asleep.

I watch River drive, moving forward and away from me.

“You are the deep blue ocean,” I think, as I watch their tail lights retreat into the darkness. “You are not the crashing wave.”

From You or Someone You Love by Hannah Matthews. Copyright © 2023 by Hannah Matthews. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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