My mother and I were never close. It’s probably because we’re so alike—stubborn, unyielding and always right. It’s hard to have a healthy relationship with someone with whom you spend most of your time butting heads. There were times in my life when my mother and I went months without speaking, only coming together again at my father’s insistence or, at times, his tears.
I always figured that once my elderly father passed on, the two of us would simply drift apart, with her two children from a previous marriage standing in to care for her as she aged. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that my decision to have an abortion would lead to a strong, supportive relationship with my mother.
It happened when I was 19. I was attending college (the college chosen for me by my mother, of course), and I was not ready to become a parent. So when I became pregnant, I chose to have a medical abortion and complete my schooling. I also chose not to tell my parents. I paid the bill in cash so that the procedure wouldn’t show up on our insurance statements.
It wasn’t shame or guilt that compelled me to keep my abortion a secret; it was fear that I would disappoint my parents. Abortion was never taboo in my family. We’re a weekly-church-going Episcopalian and feminist family. My mother was so happy when I took a job with a reproductive-rights organization, and proud that I was defending the right to abortion. But still, I couldn’t tell her that I had one because that meant admitting to premarital sex, and it meant admitting I did something that was not in her life plan for me.
My parents came to this country from Guyana in the 1970s, laden with expectations of a new future in a new country, dreams they placed squarely upon the shoulders of their children, as most immigrants do.
When I was born, the three of us, along with my Guyanese-born brother and my sister, all lived together in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. Every penny they earned went to my future.
It went to private school education, the infinite number of books I wanted to read, international trips to make me well-rounded, piano lessons, ballet lessons, weekend finishing school lessons, and a house in the suburbs with a yard to play in.
Having a child at 19 would have been the equivalent of returning all these precious gifts and sacrifices to them. I couldn’t bear the thought. They could never know.
I got the first hint that maybe I should tell my mother when we watched a recording of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt rally together. People who had had abortions told their stories in front of the Supreme Court, including Amanda Williams, executive director of the Lilith Fund, a Texas-based abortion fund.
She talked about how difficult it was to obtain the funds necessary for her abortion in Texas. Williams didn’t tell her parents about her abortion for a long time, but when she eventually shared her story, her mother said, “M’ija, why didn’t you tell me? I would have gone with you.”
When we listened to Williams tell that part of her story, my mother did something I only ever saw her do when someone had died: She began to cry.
We don’t cry, my mother and I. For us, crying was always a sign of weakness. For her to cry in front of me, Williams’ words must have touched her deeply. I opened my mouth and started to tell her that I, too, had had an abortion, but the words wouldn’t come out. I just wasn’t ready.
I was ready to tell everyone else, though. I started by co-writing a letter on behalf of people of color who’d had abortions, rebutting the insulting, racist, misogynistic testimony I heard during deliberations on a federal abortion bill.
Witnesses characterized abortion in the black community as something thrust upon us, instead of something we chose with our own agency. I wanted to stand up and shout, “I am black, and I chose to have an abortion.” But I didn’t. I co-wrote the letter to rebut the insulting testimony and the bill itself. Signing my name to that letter liberated me.
Sharing my story felt amazing, so I kept telling it.
From the steps of the Supreme Court, I told the crowd at the rally for the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision in 2016 that I was a black woman who had had an abortion. I joined We Testify, a leadership program of the National Network of Abortion Funds dedicated to increasing the spectrum of abortion storytellers in the public sphere and shifting the way the media understands the context and complexity of accessing abortion care. And on last year’s anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I shared my story in a national magazine.
Yet, I still hadn’t told my mother.
Out of the blue one evening, she called me. My sister had recently taught her how to use Google, so she did a search of my name and found my We Testify profile. She asked me if I had had an abortion, and I said yes. After a brief pause, her response was, “OK.”
I know there were a million words behind that short response. I waited for her to say something more, and when she didn’t, I asked her how that made her feel. She broke my heart when she said, full of uncharacteristic emotion and sentimentality, “Well, I’m just wondering if I’m the worst mother in the world that you felt like you couldn’t tell me.”
There were days growing up when I thought she was the worst mother in the world. She was an incredible provider, but her methods of motivating me or supporting me through tough times were never helpful. It often seemed as though only my father understood and loved me for who I was instead of who I had the potential to be.
In an instant, I finally understood that my mother’s love for me was deeper than I had perceived it to be. The grave disappointment I expected was nowhere to be found.
And then I told her everything. I told her how complete my silence had been—that it wasn’t just about her. For years, the only people who knew were my boyfriend and, later, two close friends.
I told her about my medical abortion, what the experience was like and the relief I felt afterward. For the first time, I felt like she truly listened. I think she realized that she may have missed out on a lot in my life because of our dysfunctional relationship. And I realized that my mother has been on my side, whether I knew it or not, all along.
The way we express our love for each other might not be how the other understands love to be, but we can both say without a doubt that our phone conversation was nothing but mutual love and support.
Discussing my abortion with my mother was a positive turning point in our relationship. I sometimes wonder what our relationship would have been like had I told her sooner. But when I do, I try to refocus on the fact that we now have a bond that I always craved. And for that, because of my abortion, I will always be grateful.
Kristine A. Kippins is a constitutional lawyer and an abortion storyteller with We Testify, a leadership program of the National Network of Abortion Funds. She wrote this essay for The Root for the 45th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion in the United States.