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Maternal Interlude: Birthmother

Between dreams and lies, our faces were knit with uncertainty.

It was New York City's premier abortion clinic, and I was about six weeks pregnant. Overlooking New York City’s Central Park, it was an elegant, peculiarly chic Park Avenue destination. The entrance festooned with a stylish green canopy, it beckoned visitors into its warm lobby.

I walked in and sank into one of the several comfortable couches near the admissions desk. With morning sickness worsened by the three-hour bus ride to New York City, I felt nauseous, exhausted and deeply sad.

I was also waiting for him to arrive. I was waiting for an envelope stuffed with $500. to end my pregnancy. I was about to walk into a moment that remains vibrant, enduring nearly 40 years.

A few minutes later, I was still waiting and saw the elevator doors open. A young woman in a wheelchair, huge with pregnancy, giddy from painkillers and soon to give birth to something dead, was wheeled down the hall. About 12 hours earlier, the amniotic fluid was drained from her uterus, where her fetus might have grown into somebody. Now it was waystation where a shot of saline solution would kill nobody in particular.

It was 1971, two years past Woodstock and just as far away from the end of the Vietnam War. Back then, being an “unwed mother” meant giving birth to a “bastard.” In the early 1970s, there weren’t any celebrity baby bumps to watch. Unmarried women wore the equivalent of a scarlet letter – morally bereft. There were always “homes for unwed mothers” where girls were hidden until they gave birth, but few stops in between.

About an hour later, I was growing impatient, waiting alone in the clinic, when he ambled into the lobby and leaned into my shoulder without a hug. Surreptitiously, he handed me the envelope. I wasn’t thinking that he would tell me he couldn’t stay. He said he couldn't be seen with me. Someone might see him.

Afraid to be less than not myself, I smiled; sure that he would call me later, pretending he would return.

There were so many young women arriving – some of them brought their moms. I brought a rosary in a velvet pouch and the latest issue of Seventeen magazines. I handed the envelope, the whole wad, to the admissions clerk. Slowly, she counted it, a pile of small bills.

I was ushered into the waiting room. Unlike the spacious lobby with water lily prints against a backdrop of Wedgewood blue, the waiting room was crowded. Narrow as a subway car, it was dimly lit and, a dinghy beige, furnished with folding metal chairs. One lamp teetered on the edge of a makeshift table. The chairs felt soft as a pavement.

Some of us exchanged names, others shared stories of lives they may have been living. Between dreams and lies, our faces were knit with uncertainty.

One woman was sobbing – her husband would leave her if she didn’t end this pregnancy. He had gone to work and couldn’t get a babysitter – someone would find out. Someone already had – her children were in the waiting room, right alongside her, little girls no more than two or three years old.

The rest of the faces have faded into memory, splattered into a sepia montage, except those several mothers whose voices rose like a chorus creeping into the hollow walls. Most of them were relieved to be there, “glad we can put this all behind us.” Their daughters’ grieving would be overlooked, assuaged by a shopping excursion next week. Tongues clucked to think otherwise.

I was next, called into a darker room. There was a nurse who asked me to undress and put on a paper. Within seconds, the doctor came in and asked me to lift my feet into the stirrups. At that moment, without contemplation, I knew that I would be a mother. I didn't know what it meant or what would be lost, only that I would become a mother.

“I’ve changed my mind.” I insisted. I muzzled the memory of the staff's reaction, even as I asked to get my money back.

I fled the clinic, ashamed and afraid, stepping into an unknown life, unaware that I could not be a "real" mother or that I would bring her home and surrender her just four months later. What I didn’t know, when I slipped out of the stirrups and into the street, made all the difference.

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