A Letter to My Daughters,
This week, the Republican majority of the United States Senate forced a vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court against incredible opposition. The Republican majority party even had to change the rules of the game to win. They cheated. This man’s judicial record threatens women’s access to healthcare for years to come. Women and girls have not been this threatened in this country for decades as the right wing faction continues to chip away at that which makes society civil.
I am teacher; an artist; a writer. I am your mother. I can’t build a wall around you, or send you to Mars. I can’t force you to think like me or make one decision over another. My words are your shield.
However, I’m not going to show this letter to you yet. As you are only 10 and 13 at this writing, you still have some growing and thinking to do about who you are before you need to learn my secrets. Perhaps, you’ll find it one day as you peruse the web and Google your mom. And that’ll be fine. I’ll leave the discovery up to chance for now. In the mean time, I hope other readers will appreciate my story and allow me to disperse its details, like ashes, amongst both detractors and supporters.
I’ve been pre-occupied with this letter for months, if not years, but with our American democracy at risk, the environment under attack, and human rights being taken away from women, children, immigrants, people of color, non-christians, working dads, brothers, and uncles everywhere, I feel like it is finally time for me to put a chapter of my life down in words as a gift to your future. My private story is no longer mine to keep.
Perhaps it begins with my mother’s need to leave. But, that’s her story and I won’t go into it. Being creative, depressed and constricted in a small town in the early 1970s can’t have been much fun and I try to see it from her perspective. Yet, it did leave a confused 7 year old in the care of a grandmother, a dad, and a new mother. I’d like to make it clear that I think everyone did their best. It is a tall order to replace the gaping hole left by a missing mother. My years between 7 – 17 were intertwined with the challenges of adolescence, growing up in a Catholic household, and the politics of the time – those of which I was barely aware.
At 15, I was an unhappy, glass-half-empty teenager that felt misunderstood and unwelcome. I listened to Jimi Hendrix, Chicago, Simon and Garfunkel, the B52s. I was pretty, funny, artistic, a bit of a loner. I was a cheerleader for a losing team just to get out of the house. I tried to run track for the same reason. My safe place was Mr. Sanfilippo’s high school art room. I was a risk taker and irresponsible, the neurological standard for anyone under 25; a dreamer with my eyes on a future far, far away from home.
I found the love and acceptance I was craving in the attention of boys and eventually got me a handsome football-playing boyfriend. He was flirtatious but very polite, had beautiful eyes, and paid attention to me. I needed attention. His gentle touch was a positive introduction to my sexual being – it was safe and loving and magical. This part of the letter is of particular importance. I want you to know that sex is not bad (I realize you’d both use the word “gross” right about now). Feeling intimate with someone you love is a critical part of being human and links us together. Mutual respect, generosity and caring is a good thing. My “first time” having sex was a positive experience. That said, I do wish for you to wait – until you gain the knowledge, confidence, and self-awareness you’ll need to manage the consequences of young womanhood.
My first love’s attention was not enough – I needed more. Maybe because I had a deep hole in my heart that needed to be filled. And so, I moved on from the handsome football player to another who was just as flirtatious, and darn those beautiful eyes. We had fun and I got pregnant just as I was about to graduate from high school and get out of town.
Prior to this, I had no education around my changing body, sex, birth control, or relationships. I think there was a sex education class in school but I have no memory of its contents or paying attention. I didn’t know that I was too young to have sex – it felt perfectly natural. Birth control was not a priority nor was it accessible. And I certainly did not know what to do about being pregnant. So I did what most small town, naive, teenage girls, who don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents, would do – I asked my friends’ older sisters (reminder that Google was not a option in the early eighties).
Having a baby at that time in my life was not an option. I would have done anything to return that tiny birdlike being back to the universe. Just as other mammals, as well as insects, fish, amphibians, and birds have done since the beginning of life on earth – abort offspring when it is not the right time to bring it to fruition. Rather than a selfish act, as many accuse, it was an act of mercy for both of us.
So I borrowed money from a friend, got a ride to a clinic in Buffalo, New York, and had an abortion at the hands of guy who wore brown clogs. That’s about all I remember. Another important moment in this letter – I do not regret this action for one minute.
I slept for a day at the friend’s house and then went to my bedroom in my parent’s house. Eventually, I began to bleed and became very sick, was hospitalized, and had an operation. I won’t go into these details. Thankfully, my parents were home and got me to a hospital for medical care. I survived.
Any residual anger about this experience is towards the culture of religious fundamentalism that represses the education of young women and forces them to go underground with their sexual desires, their questions, and their abortions. That is what made me sick. Had I access to a local Planned Parenthood clinic, quality sexual education, an open relationship with parents that could have sensibly guided me – perhaps the outcome would have been different. Perhaps I would have delayed having sex until I was better able to handle it responsibly. Perhaps I would have used birth control. Perhaps I would have moved on from this time in my life with my self-respect in tact and with the support and love I needed to heal. Instead, I ended up with staples in my stomach and then I just moved on.
Of course my story from this point onward fills many pages and takes many twists and turns – eventually I did heal and found your father. I was able to experience a profound love and unbreakable commitment with a person of exceptional character, strength and intelligence. And when the time was right, we had two perfectly wanted babies that are growing into powerful young women.
I want you to know that I will talk to you about sex; I will talk to you about causing a pregnancy and ending one; about self-respect; about consensual intimacy; about what it means to be a good friend and partner; about religion; about independence; about violence; about justice; about your rights; about your responsibilities; about your joys and fears; about blue hair and tattoos; about your potential.
I found my power by running away, by hard work and persistence, and by opening up to the many mentors that accepted and encouraged me along the way.
Every night, I ask you what you are thankful for. I love this part of the day. Sometimes, we are tired and grumpy and annoyed with each other, but each of you in your own ways manage to end the day with gratitude. However, I rarely tell you what I am thankful for. I am thankful for you. I am thankful for my younger self that knew what I needed to do to get here to be with you. I am thankful for your father for pointing out that the glass is actually half full. I am thankful for the work ethic and the sense of responsibility that I gleaned from my father. I am thankful for the drive of self-preservation and the insight of an artistic mind from my mother. I am thankful for an appreciation of music, good food, and a clean house from my 2nd mother. I am thankful for the unconditional love of my grandmother (with whom I was able to talk about that abortion). I am thankful for my grandfather’s Sicilian heritage. I am thankful, so thankful, for all the teachers in my life that have truly shaped who I have become as an artist, a teacher, and a thinker. I am thankful to all the scientists and doctors that have toiled for years to make healthcare accessible to women who both want and don’t want to have children. I am thankful for all the politicians and activists that are fighting against the interminable wave of oppressive thinking that insists that women are property and do not deserve the right to control their bodies or plan their families, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and violence that continues to afflict women.
After a period of hope and improvement for some (and the environment!), the United States has now entered a period of darkness shadowed by even more ignorance, inequality, fear and violence. People of color, the economically depressed, and women have long felt the affects of this shadow. There are many problems for us to solve – never mind the avoidance of war that this current president may trigger with his carelessness. But my mother-focus is on you. If the US further constricts safe abortion access, this country will align itself with Chile, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, where abortion is illegal in most cases (in Chile there is no exception for the health of the mother). Abortion still happens in these countries at high rates – but it is unsafe and women are criminalized. Yet, the data proves that teen pregnancy and abortion rates go down with good sex education, frequent and honest discussions with parents, and access to reproductive healthcare (including safe abortion procedures).
When does life start? It doesn’t. It is continuous. It is in every leaf, in every bird and bee that flies below the living stars and above the breathing ocean. It is in the struggles of a growing teenage girl and the wisdom of an old man. Life sometimes starts in death.
with all my love,