A Full Circle from Stigma to Support
By Kenya Martin
When our children look up at us, they see superheroes. We often work hard to ensure they don’t see our vulnerabilities and that we can keep them from encountering fear and shame for as long as possible. But I envision a world where our vulnerability and honesty is our superpower, where we’re not perpetuating the myth of strength in isolation, and where we trust our children to love us because of, not in spite of, the decisions we’ve made through our lives. I know that world is possible because being honest and transparent about my abortions with my daughter has proved to be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.
She was ten years old the first time the word abortion came up. Her father and I were having a back and forth when he tried to shame and hurt me by saying my daughter told him I had an abortion and I brought her with me. But you can’t bring children to the abortion clinic in Houston. Even though I knew he was lying and using my fear against me, I was thrown into a panic. I was so deeply disturbed by the idea of my daughter processing abortion on her own as a child that I just couldn’t wait until I picked her up from school to have this conversation. I called the school and had her pulled out of class to ask if she’d told her father that she went with me to have an abortion. She replied, “what’s and abortion mommy?” and I instantly felt like I’d made a mistake, that I was the worst parent on the planet. I’d introduced my child to the concept of abortion in an atmosphere of shame and fear, panic and confusion. In that moment I couldn’t find the words to explain. One day we’d have a conversation about abortion, I’d tell her about my abortions, but I wasn’t ready that day. I was dealing with my own internalized stigma.
When our children look up at us, they see superheroes. We often work hard to ensure they don’t see our vulnerabilities and that we can keep them from encountering fear and shame for as long as possible.
I wasn’t able to decide for myself when I was ready to have that conversation; her father’s toxic shaming and manipulation didn’t end there. She came home from her weekend visit with him and asked me if it were true that I’d wanted to abort her. Again, the panic set in. I still wasn’t quite ready to talk to her about my abortions, but I decided in spite of my terror that keeping details from her was harming her more than protecting her. So I told her that I did consider having an abortion, that I hadn’t felt ready to be a parent. I took a deep breath and went on. I explained that my parents shamed me out of my decision and refused to give me money for the procedure. I added that I didn’t know her father very well and I was afraid to parent with him. I knew abortion was the best option for me, but I couldn’t get one. And then I reassured her that I loved her so much and I’m glad that she’s here. That moment of honesty taught her she could trust me to always tell her the truth, and always respect her decisions.
Years later, I still remember how terrible that day felt, but in retrospect, I’m glad it happened because it’s the moment that set the universe’s wheels in motion and set me on my intended life path. You might be surprised to know that I’ve designed my whole life about guiding people through supported conversations about abortion. I didn’t start as an advocate or activist; I’ve now had a lot of time to process the events of that day and dreamed about the things I wish I’d known to say, the ways I wish I’d known how to react. But the only real mistake I still believe I made is that I should have reassured her that I wouldn’t have been scared to have her in the clinic with me, even if the story her father told her wasn’t true.
It sometimes feels like a movie to look at my life, to know that past, scared Kenya wouldn’t have believed that those experiences would have made me more adamant about having abortion conversations. She would be so surprised to know that I found some of the most rewarding work of my life working as a counselor at the same clinic where I received abortion services. Talk about life coming full circle. Taking that job was the right opportunity to talk to my daughter about my abortions. She was 15 and timing couldn’t have been more perfect for me to tell her. In that conversation I was able to position abortion as powerful, as the center of my excitement over my amazing new job and as something that I had personal feelings about. “Kazsia I need to talk to you about something. What do you know about abortion?” She replied, “I know that I wouldn’t have one.” I chuckled to myself at her response but I knew it meant it was time to dig deeper. I told her she never had to have an abortion she didn’t want. I asked her if she remembered the time her dad told her I wanted to abort her. She remembered, so I shared that although I decided to continue my pregnancy with her, there were other times since then that I decided to have an abortion, more than once, and that I was glad that I was able to do that. When she told me she told me she understood, and crucially, that she was proud of me for doing what was best for me, I had to fight back the tears. I told her if she’s ever faced with making a decision about whether to have an abortion, I’d want her to do what’s best for her, and to never let other people define what that was. Her life, and mine, was changed because of our honest conversations. She knows that I understand what goes into making that decision, and my out loud refusal to ever be shamed again gives me credibility when I tell her I’d support whatever decision she made. Our relationship is based on deep trust that I’ve painstakingly fostered to ensure she would always feel comfortable talking to me. The path wasn’t easy for me to go from internalized shame and stigma to devoting my life to supporting people getting abortions, but it’s worth the struggle. I’m most proud of this honest relationship I’ve built with my daughter. I wasn’t given the tools to build this level of trust by my parents, and I felt harm as a result of that. I’ve sought out ways, sometimes painful, to learn those lessons because I prioritized my daughter growing up free from the harm I that I felt. It’s made all the difference.
I envision a world where our vulnerability and honesty is our superpower…I know that world is possible because being honest and transparent about my abortions with my daughter has proved to be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.
His actions to try to shame me had the opposite effect; in my defiance of his expectations and refusal to be shamed, I’ve become proud of my abortions. I’m now comfortable talking about them because there are people who need to hear their decision is right if it’s the right one for them, and that I know from experience. As an abortion counselor, the majority of patients I met were already parents. The insight I gained from those conversations confirmed that so many of us who have abortions don’t talk about them. We don’t tell our friends, we don’t tell our families, and we especially don’t tell our children. My work introduced me to countless young people who were navigating through secrecy and fear to get abortion services without their parents knowing. I’ve even talked to the parents of patients who shared their own personal abortion stories with me, followed by the assertion they’d never tell the patient, their child, about their abortion. I often felt moved to share what my experience talking to my daughter was like and how it deepened the trust in our relationship.
I sometimes wonder if my mother and grandmother had an abortion. I’ve tried to imagine a time where we’re sitting at the kitchen table having a conversation and my granny blurts out she had an abortion. Then my mama says she did too. And then I say, well so did I! We all burst out in laughter, feeling so many pounds lighter after releasing all of that internalized stigma and shame. When I picture the future I envision a world where abortion stigma doesn’t exist and the three of us, three generations, are sitting around at family gatherings playing spades, starting the conversation about the time they had an abortion. I may not have had that, but I’m going to keep working for a world where my daughter, and maybe her child, feel the ease and lightness I can feel in those daydreams. She deserves it. I deserve it, too.
Kenya is the Communications Program Coordinator at the National Network of Abortion Funds.