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Personal Essay

Abortion and the Mythic Mother

(Wassana Somsakorn/Alamy)

They do not realize good mothering comes from fearlessness. Few things promote more fear than being deprived of control of one’s own body.”

When my children were young, I spent two weeks in the hospital. My husband brought the kids to see me, and much to my shock at the time, my five-year-old boy turned his head away, yelled, and wanted nothing to do with me. My daughter, three, shot me a baleful look, and asked about “the doctor you live with now.” Only the oldest, then eight, seemed concerned—but about a splinter in his foot and when I would be able to pull it out. I should not have felt surprised! Children have no mercy for a mother with her own needs. Of course not. Their survival is at stake. A mother is never supposed to get sick. She is supposed to get up from that bed and make breakfast. A child’s worst fear is abandonment. Their natural narcissism is self-defense. 

My children’s reactions help me understand tweets sent by anti-abortionists. 

At first, I found their comments heartless: “Take the consequences,” “should have kept her legs shut,” and “Why is the woman’s life more important than the baby’s life?” Pro-choice advocates often interpret such remarks as anti-feminist, sex-avoidant, puritanical, or righteous religious indignation, but something far more fundamental is going on.  

Behind the rage lie the fears—and the reasoning—of a child: What if my mommy does not want me? What if she did not want to give birth to me? Take care of me? From childish fears, irrational thoughts arise: What if the mommies stopped giving birth? It is the giving that matters. Mommies are givers, never takers. What if there were no babies? No more mommies? The meaner the tweet, the greater the fear: Mom does not want me. Me! For children, this means the end of the world. Their sadness, followed by their rage, is not softened by the stories of women who suffered and died or gave birth to unwanted children and struggled through poverty or miserable marriages. Pain in a mother is an original sin. Literally. The very first mother, Eve, is told she will bring forth children “in sorrow” because she disobeyed God, listened to that snake, and ate that fruit. That is, she thought of herself and her own needs and wishes. From the point of view of a child needing attention, that is enough to condemn her.

The writer Claire Culwell condemned abortion on the grounds that she was the lucky surviving twin of a procedure in which the physician failed to see her. I do not feel the same way. I am glad to be alive, but my mother would have been better off aborting me. She was in a terrible marriage that worsened, frustrating all of her talents. A gifted artist and writer, she had no natural ability as a mother, and my sense is that this role, forced upon her, made her desperate. Naïve as a sheltered young woman could be in the 1950s, she admitted to me, decades later, “Well, he was a man. I wanted babies.” 

I have wondered what it meant to her to “want babies,” since she had never had much contact with (or interest in) children. The more desperate she grew, the more I, as a child, resented her. Mommies are supposed to be happy and good and want to take care of you all the time. They are not supposed to go off to a corner and cry. They are supposed to comfort you when you do that. 

Preparing meals, she splattered walls, panicked in the over-perked coffee and blobs of oatmeal turned to glue. But she read to us and seemed to enjoy that part of motherhood. She, too, liked stories. The needs and wishes of children bored her; when I was very sick, almost dying, she barely managed to get me to the hospital. This happened more than once. Her reactions to my children are not those of a grandmother but of a lonely young girl. When they were small, she enjoyed playing with them but became bored or angry if they contradicted her or lost interest in the games she wanted to play. She never knew my children’s sizes and rarely remembered their likes or dislikes. She seemed to expect them to be companions who would admire her—not endlessly demanding creatures who judge a mother mercilessly, as children do. 

On a visit to her, my middle child, then six months old, developed a high fever and chills. My husband and I were frantically searching for an emergency room, and she said, “There is not a thing wrong with him.” “But she,” pointing to me, “always gets overwrought.” We found a doctor, who diagnosed coxsackie syndrome, which can lead to meningitis when untreated. 

She shrugged when we told her as if irritated. When I was trying to get help for my son, I fueled her suffering. I realized she was behaving like my children when they visited me in the hospital, feeling what they felt: If mom cannot take care of me, she is no good. There I was, paying attention to my kid instead of to her! A bad mommy! She is bad. Very bad. 

II

Bad Mommy is not just the wicked stepmother in Cinderella; she is the primum mobile of dystopian fiction. A brief tour of dystopian film and fiction reveals a vast cultural terror of women who do not want to or who cannot become mothers. Such women make the world fall apart. In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, motherhood is controlled and exploited by the state, leaving women with no power either to keep or protect their own children, who are often ripped away from them to be given to members of the ruling class. Toxic waste has poisoned the environment—a recurrent theme is a dying Mother Nature. The few remaining fertile women are raped to provide the ruling class with offspring. In other novels and films, among them Avatar, climate change has frozen or roasted Mother Earth, so she is anything but a bountiful nurturer. In P.D. James’ 1992 novel The Children of Men, which was also adapted into a 2006 film, the protagonist announces all hope is lost now that women have become infertile. Hope appears in the form of the first pregnant woman the world has seen in 18 years, and she must be smuggled to safety and give birth. In these novels, which had enough grip on the popular imagination to become films or television series, fears surrounding mothers and motherhood advance the plot.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, an alternate history of an England producing cloned children for organ donation, the female caregivers fatten children for the slaughter. A teacher named Miss Lucy tells them they will never work for a supermarket or become actors or go to America. She has been listening to them chat about their ambitions. No, she says, they will become adults only to begin “donations,” namely, to be robbed of their vital organs one by one so that citizens may live longer lives. Their short lives will, she informs them, “be complete” by the third or fourth donation. She never tells them to try to escape the outrageous demand to sacrifice their lives so that other citizens may live past 100.

Miss Lucy’s name resonates: I wonder whether she is named after Miss Lucy in a comic schoolyard rhyme about a laughably terrible mother. Many versions of the song exist; the one I sang to my children begins as follows:

“Miss Lucy had a baby,

His name was Tiny Tim!

She put him in the bathtub

to see if he could swim.

 

He drank up all the water,

He ate up all the soap.

He tried to eat the bathtub,

but it would not go down his throat.”

Numerous verses detail Miss Lucy missing what mothers should not miss: The kid is hungry! She calls the doctor and the nurse, who wonder whether Tiny Tim (Is he tiny because his mother forgets to feed him?) needs penicillin or castor oil. A character called the “lady with the alligator purse” appears and provides pizza. Everyone eats; the problem dissolves. I laughed with my children over this song. The sadness beneath the humor only becomes apparent when one discovers the existence of mothers like Miss Lucy. 

In Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel The Hunger Games, the model is that of the incompetent mother. Katniss Everdeen’s mother collapses after the death of her husband. Too depressed to find or make food, she lets her children starve. Droughts, floods, and fires have wiped out most of North America; Mother Nature, too, is moribund, yet Katniss, taking over her mother’s role, must provide. Like good mothers everywhere, she ensures her own survival first.

Which, incidentally, is not what my mother did, as far as I can tell, except when she took a solitary weekend trip to a lake or got up at midnight to eat a pint of ice cream. There is an old saying, “If Mamma ain’t happy, nobody is happy.” For my parents, Mamma was their mutual psychoanalyst, whose status in our family was that of revered matriarch. When she came to Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter dinner, they fought to open the door. They pushed and shoved; each wanted to hug her first. To please her, Mom and Dad stayed married for 25 years, though they could not have been more unsuited.

III

What anti-abortionists want is the desire for absolute control over a being who they think, as the perfect mother, should take complete charge of the family. Mommy always knows best; mommy says so. But mommy knows best about her own body? (Wait, mommy has a body?) They do not realize good mothering comes from fearlessness. Few things promote more fear than being deprived of control of one’s own body. Recognizing the humanity of one’s mother destroys the illusion of her omnipotence, the delusion that her child is her sole interest. As a small child, like all small children, I longed for a mother who would always make everything better, appear when I needed her but vanish when I did not, face down every danger and feed me when I desired but stop when I was sated. That is, I wanted and expected her to understand all my needs without having to explain them. She had to know everything. 

This mythic mother is the one for whose existence anti-abortionists long. Their lack of interest in fetuses who have advanced to babyhood exposes their unwillingness to accept women as beings who must have needs met in order to choose motherhood—who should be granted the right to both.

But no child wants to think of mom as a person with needs of her own because that makes mom vulnerable. All-powerful beings should not be vulnerable. A woman who wants to feel mothered rather than become a mother is, for children, unthinkable. And some children understand a rested mother does not lose her temper and yell or hit, as I did on a few occasions when I had been woken five times a night for too many nights. A woman who desires children, as I did, who plans and hopes and dreams, has a bigger chance of doing a good job than a woman who hates every moment of a pregnancy she never wanted. 

Anti-abortionists often say God will take care of the child. Just like Mom. Makes it easy for the anti-abortionist, who is not going to mother the child. Mommy will do that. That is her business. But, for an anti-abortionist reason, I saved someone just like me. Good for me. Good girl. A pro-life site quotes Mother Teresa: “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” The flowers dumped in foster care or out on the streets do not attract the attention of pro-lifers. The needs of these children are overwhelming; the lack of interest in meeting these needs is revealing.

Those against abortion typically see the procedure as a mother’s betrayal. In the case of the raped ten-year-old girl who had to travel to another state for an abortion, the general counsel for the National Right to Life organization made clear to Politico he would never have allowed her to do so: “She would have had the baby, and as many women who have had babies as a result of rape, we would hope that she would understand the reason and ultimately the benefit of having the child.” That so-called “reason and benefit” is another excuse for not facing the threat of a mother’s personal needs. Not to mention the needs of the hips, the uterus, and the bones of a ten-year-old. Not to mention the toll a C-section takes on a child.

In a 1974 margarine commercial, Mother Nature walks through a lush rainforest, where she gets fooled into thinking Chiffon brand margarine is “my sweet, creamy butter.” Discovering the deception, she hails down thunder and flashes of lightning. Her face goes apocalyptic, and the commercial fades to a desert, complete with dry grass and cacti—an image of infertility. Like much good humor, this scene is grounded in the potentially tragic. When mothers are disrespected, when women are, everyone suffers. A good mother knows one cannot force things. She knows what happens when things are forced—when she is forced. She knows when she needs to care for herself. Deny her what she needs, make her powerless, and demand she keep that fetus in her womb until it grows into a baby. Take the consequences. 

If I had been pregnant, refused an abortion, and forced to bear a daughter, I would do everything in my power—as scores of mothers in that position have done—to help my child get an abortion if she fell victim to an unwanted pregnancy. If I told her she had to bear the child and give it up for adoption, or if I told her she had to bear the child and give it to me, I would be harming my child, and that would be my greatest regret.

Melissa Knox is a writer and educator living in Germany. Her recent writing appears or is forthcoming in Areo, Counterweight, and Parhelion.

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