By Lauren Apfel
The conversation I had with my son about abortion wasn’t one I planned for. We were sitting on his bed. I had just returned from a trip abroad. He was asking me how it went, and most importantly, because he is ten, what movies I watched on the plane. “A film called Grandma,” I said. “It was good, quirky but with some serious stuff too.” “What’s it about?” he asked. “A grandma,” I said, “not surprisingly.” Then I paused, but only for a second. “She helps her granddaughter get an abortion.”
“What’s an abortion?” he asked. I knew, as soon as I revealed the plot, that was the direction the conversation would go in. My son has never shied away from sticky questions; I have never minced words with him. And why not have this discussion now, I figured, since the topic presented itself so organically, through the well-worn channels of cultural media. According to one expert, it is a conversation we should have already had.
“An abortion is when you stop a pregnancy from progressing,” I said. “What do you mean?” he asked, incredulously. “You a kill a baby?”
One of the hardest parts of parenting is deciding when to let your children come to their own conclusions and when to steer them down a certain path, in the name of transmitting values. There are times, in other words, when you parent with a light touch and times you are more heavy-handed. When my son was struggling with his belief in god, for example, I stepped back, though I am a committed atheist myself and have strong feelings about it. But when what’s at stake is the expectation of gender equality, I find I can’t quite take the same hands-off approach. Here my fists are leaden. The goal of so much of my parenting, I have come to realize, is to raise my three sons in such a way that they do not grow up to be mindless reinforcers of the patriarchy. This takes more conscious effort and is more difficult, even in 2016, than I ever imagined.
We talk a lot these days about raising feminist boys. When they are younger this takes the form of encouraging our sons to express their emotions, to not act the gentleman, to know it’s okay to wear sparkly shoes and, at the same time, for their sisters to be doctors. When the context of teaching feminism shifts from the playground of the early years to the more adult world of the tween and teenage years, the lessons imparted must evolve accordingly.
Now I am not just telling my sons, Free To Be You and Me style, that it’s okay to cry, to nurse a baby doll. Now I am projecting into their futures, telling them: If a girl does not want you to touch her, you do not—no matter what she is doing, no matter what she is wearing—touch her. You do not, under any circumstances, insist that your wife (if you happen to marry a woman) take your last name. You consider her career and career goals as vitally important as yours. If you choose to have children, you participate fully in the care of those children, as well as in the chores associated with them.
My son calls these pronouncements “speeches,” as in, here we go again, mom’s off on another one of her “feminist” pontifications (“You are soooooo feminist, Mom”). And yet, when the opportunity arises, I make them just the same. Because I do not want there to be any doubt down the line, not a single shred, that this is what he and his brothers were raised to believe (“Yes, kid, we should all be feminists”). And because it is my responsibility as a parent to show him that, despite our progress, the world is still an inherently sexist place in which he will need to be vigilant about his male privilege.
And now I am adding to the list of speeches I will continue to make, this one: A woman is in charge of her own reproductive destiny.
I told my son, sitting on his bed, that for the whole of human history the majority of men have been able to control their bodies but that women have not been afforded this privilege in anything like the same way, particularly with regard to reproduction. I told him that a woman’s ability to decide whether to keep a pregnancy or not is absolutely essential to her equality, often to her fundamental well-being. I explained that there are many reasons a woman might decide not to remain pregnant: her physical or mental health, for instance, her finances, her age.
I explained precisely how a pregnancy develops—when you mention the contents of a womb to a child, he inevitably pictures a babe in arms—and that abortions, for the most part, happen very early on. I said that, ideally, the couple who is responsible for the conception, if it is a couple, would make the decision together. I acknowledged that for some people an embryo, a fetus is, in fact, a “life” and that for some people it is not. But I made clear that, in the final analysis, whatever he himself came to believe on that issue, a woman still has the right to do with her body what she deems in her own best interest.
My son listened; he took it all in and then swiftly moved on to something else, as ten year olds are wont to do. He didn’t have any questions, not right then. I could see this was but the first discussion of many.
I remember the first discussion I had with my mother about abortion. She was picking me up at the airport, I was a teenager, coming home from some trip or other, old enough at any rate to have been let loose in the world without her. We were in the car, talking about having kids, and she said to me, matter of factly, laying out her reasons, that she had terminated a pregnancy when my older sister was still a baby. In the minute, what captivated me most was the idea that if not for that abortion I myself wouldn’t exist: I was born two years later. In hindsight, however, what I took away from the conversation, and what I will pass on to my own children, is the conviction that while abortion is never a choice to be made lightly, it must always be just that: a choice.
Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She is the mother of four children, the oldest of which is quite sure he is being raised by a rabid feminist. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.