My mother’s world
My mother would have turned 80 today.
She died last August, so this is the first time I won’t have to feel guilty on her birthday. Guilty that I didn’t call her, or worse, guilty that I did, and it went badly. My mother was “complicated,” you see. Everything about her has always been complicated.
I wonder what she would have thought about #metoo. Maureen McGovern lived an 80-year saga of one “me, too,” after another. From the time Maureen was five years old, until perhaps aged 78, her life was defined and shaped by men she didn’t know and didn’t love, and who certainly didn’t love her. And that, in turn, shaped my life, as I will share some part in shaping the life of my daughter.
My mother was raped when she was young. I don’t know how old. Five years old the first time? Six years old, maybe?
Young enough to believe her piano teacher’s husband when he said the Virgin Mary was watching from the corner of the bedroom. And young enough to believe the evil old bastard when he told her that Mary would kill her family if she told. She told me, when telling me what men were like, and why I should be wary, “I was six years old, and I learned what men wanted. And I did what I had to do to save my parents.”
She would go for her lesson with the piano teacher, who would then lead her to the bedroom, where her husband was waiting for the skinny little girl who had her hair in two braids. When the husband had finished, the wife would be waiting outside the door with a piece of Wasa bread and a smear of cream cheese on top, or perhaps brot and butter, as a treat.
This went on once a week, week after week, for years, until my mother, at age ten or so, simply said to her mother, “I don’t want to take piano lessons any more.”
The damage, of course, was done.
When Maureen was fifteen, and the damage was still invisible, and the secrets still ran deep, my mother went to a party and was raped. His name was Walter, and he was a friend of the family.
No one ever asked who the father was or what had happened, or how a nice Catholic girl from Staten Island who’d never had a boyfriend and who went to an all-girls school was pregnant. She didn’t even know she was pregnant until she felt the baby move: “I had no idea how my body worked. I didn’t know what my period was for. We just didn’t talk about things like that. I was as surprised as anyone that I was pregnant — I never even connected it to being raped. I didn’t even know what ‘rape’ was — I just knew that the boy had climbed on top of me and it hurt and was disgusting. I didn’t connect it to a baby. It just happened.”
She went to a home for unwed mothers run by nuns, and the baby was taken away. My oldest sibling. It was a boy, named Christopher. Or perhaps David. My mother doesn’t remember. A nice family from Manhattan adopted him.
My mother’s family had to move that year, to hide the shame. After that, my mother said, everyone assumed she was a whore.
She was laughed at, sneered at, abused. Her mother cut off all of Maureen’s hair one night, in a fit of rage, “to keep boys from looking at her.” Finally, Maureen said, “If I was going to be treated like a whore, I might as well have fun and act like one.”
She went off to college in San Francisco for a while, but it didn’t work. The damage was starting to show. At that point, my mother didn’t even remember the abuse from her childhood. It was completely blocked out. She loved some men, and men loved her, but there was no birth control, which made it dangerous.
On August 5, 1962, she got pregnant again — this time by a guy named Lee Hansen, whose nickname was “Mr. Irresponsible.” Go figure.
She said she knows the date, because they were all on the beach together, and the news of Marilyn Monroe’s death came over one of the radios on the beach, and everyone on the beach was quiet, and all of the radios got turned up, and they all sat on the beach like that for a while, and then she went home with Lee.
She tried to have an abortion. She was 24, and not married, and was a journalist in New York. She wanted to do something with her life, and she didn’t love Lee.
She went to an abortion clinic, though it was illegal, somewhere in the “bad part of the city,” and she went with her friend Barbara, because she needed someone to drive her home. It was dark, and after midnight, and dirty, and Barbara lost her nerve and started screaming, and the doctor told them to leave and not come back.
So in 1963, my mother had another baby. A girl she named Ann-Margaret, and who she gave to another nice couple, helped by the nuns. This time, she was allowed to hold the baby for a minute. There was no question of keeping it. She didn’t make enough money to pay her bills without her family’s help, and her family would have disowned her.
“Don’t forget, there was no birth control then,” my mother said once. “I liked men. They liked me. There really weren’t many options. I was born twenty years too soon.”
Two years later, she was pregnant again.
This time, “a guy named Scotty, from the Village.”
She decided to have an abortion. She went to a different clinic this time, with her friend Vinnie. He was going to drive her back to her apartment. Instead, the doctor came out and said that the abortion hadn’t worked. My mother was further along than they’d thought. “Take her to the hospital, but if you tell them who I am or what I’ve done, I’ll kill you both.”
At the hospital, she gave birth to a tiny baby boy, as they read my mother the last rites and called her parents to tell them she was dying.
“Let us know if you need money,” her dad said. He was out of his depth, out of his field of knowledge. How do nice Catholic parents end up with a daughter who’s dying because of a botched illegal abortion? How do they sign away the rights to their grandchild as she lies dying?
The boy was either Christopher or David. He was given to a nice Jewish lady from uptown. My mother had to hand the baby to the woman, who was “older,” probably 40, and was too old to adopt. My mother has said this is the baby she wants to find, because she liked the lady she gave him to.
And then my mother met my father.
He was not a good man, nor a kind one. How could he be? She had no idea what those words meant, or what they would look like in a man.
In 1966, when she met my father, she was 28. She’d given up three babies for adoption, after trying to abort two of them. And she still had a dream of meeting a nice man and settling down and having children.
But my father was married already. He had a wife, and they had a child. He didn’t want a child with Maureen. She was an affair. Nothing permanent.
And when she inevitably got pregnant, he said he’d leave her. He said he’d go back to his wife unless she had an abortion. They were living together, and at last, she had a man who loved her. All she had to do was get rid of the baby.
So this time, knowing what to expect, she went to the clinic and had another illegal abortion, and went back to the apartment to “wait for everything to pass.”
A few years ago, when she had come to terms with all of it, and when she wanted to talk about the babies she’d given up for adoption, my mother finally told me this story, the one she cried about when you asked her about abortion, the reason she hadn’t gone to confession for fifty years.
“If there’s a hell, this is why I’m going. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. I was in severe pain — I should have gone to the hospital. But I went home, and I was walking to the bathroom, and the baby fell out on the floor. And yes, it was a baby. A little girl, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She must have been about six pounds. Your father came home, and got me into a tub, and the water in the tub turned bright red from the blood, and when I got out it was cleaned up, and it was over. I was so naive. I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.”
And then, two years later, I was born.
“You were the special one,” she always said. “You were the first baby I got to keep!” And by the time I was six, I had three younger sisters. And when my last sister was born, and my mother was 35, she had an emergency c-section, and they tied my mother’s tubes on the operating table, while she was unconscious, the last time that a man she didn’t know her and didn’t love her made a decision for her about how many babies to have and when.
When people say that abortion is murder, perhaps they are right.
In my mother’s case, the end result of illegal abortion was a dead baby girl, delivered alone by a frightened woman in an apartment in New York, and probably disposed of down the garbage chute. My older sister. She’d be 52 today, or 53.
That was probably murder.
And because abortion was illegal, there are three adults out there today who would not otherwise be alive.
But I will also say this: My mother’s life has been a tragedy, defined by men who sexually assaulted her. She lived with the consequences every day of her life. But what about the man who raped a child? The man who raped her at fifteen? Mr. Irresponsible? Scotty from the Village? My father? Do they wrestle with the consequences of a fling they had back in 1963? Do they even remember my mother?
Why is my mother the one who believed she is going to hell?
Why do the men get out of this with a free pass, while a half-century later, I writhe with guilt over sins that aren’t mine? The reason that men feel they can legislate women’s bodies is because they don’t have to live with the repercussions of their actions. My mother, my sisters, my daughter and I have to live with the repercussions generations later.
Men have no accountability in pregnancy. They have no standing to argue the case.
If there had been birth control and access to the morning-after pill for that lost 15-year-old girl who was raped in 1953, perhaps my mother would have gone to college and finished.
Perhaps she would have found counseling. Perhaps she would still have been a mess, and still have gotten pregnant four more times, and would have had abortions every time. But a morning after pill, or a legal abortion at six weeks is a better outcome than a dead blue-eyed baby on the floor, every time.
When I was sixteen, I started on the pill. I slept with whomever I pleased. I was never raped. When I was 22, I was so afraid of unwanted pregnancy that I got an implant put in so that I couldn’t get pregnant for five years, and I didn’t take it out until I met my husband.
I have had complete control over my body, and over how many babies I’ve had, and when I’ve had them. And my mother would have had a different life if she’d been born twenty years later.
I now have a little girl. She was born 72 years after my mother, into a whole different world. There are no nuns to tear her babies away from her. No homes for unwed mothers. If she chooses to have a baby without being married, she can do it without shame or guilt.
But I will fight with my dying breath for her to be able to have her babies when she chooses, and IF she chooses. I will be damned before I see her live in a world when one man who doesn’t love her can impregnate her against her will and another man who doesn’t know her or love her can tell her she has to carry that baby to term, with no regard to whether that baby is wanted or loved.
There are people working right now to outlaw abortion in across the country. I’m sure the laws will be challenged, and they will be taken to the Supreme Court, and then what? And in the meantime, there will be women who will be forced to bear children they do not want, and women who will use dangerous methods to abort pregnancies they’re terrified by. People who support legal abortion are not pro-murdering babies. They are, instead, about protecting the lives of women, and of girls.
I will NOT live in a country that values the life of a fetus over the life of a woman. My daughter will grow up to be a woman, and I will not have her value reduced to how long she can incubate. My sons will NOT grow up in a world that tells them that if their wife or sister is raped, well, too bad. Just wait while your wife carries the rapist’s baby for a while, and then you can have your incubator back for your own brood.
My children have more value than a fetus does. A fetus is NOT a baby, any more than an acorn is an oak tree. The logic is flawed, and the intention behind the recent push to outlaw abortion is clear. It is NOT to save babies, or to protect women, but to control women.
And I’m going to fight for as long as it takes so that the world where my daughter grows up is a better one than my mother’s world.