The Mom Who Had an Abortion at 8 Months, Then a Surprise Pregnancy

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Erika has been pregnant three times. Nearly two years ago exactly, she shared the experience of her second pregnancy in a profound interview with Jia Tolentino, then of Jezebel. After having an abortion at 32 weeks pregnant, Erika and her husband, Garin, decided they needed to get out of baby-filled Brooklyn; when an opportunity to move came up, they took it. Since then, the two have founded an abortion-rights organization, endured what they thought was a miscarriage, and joyfully welcomed a daughter into their lives. Erika describes parenting after two pregnancy losses, what makes her enraged to this day, and how you can help improve abortion access.

On shifting views about motherhood. When I was very little, in the stage where I wanted to be my mom, I wanted to be a mom because she was one. I always had a lot of dolls; I was always pushing around a baby carriage and trying to model her. Once I got a little older and more aware of heterosexual dynamics and the reality of parenthood, I was no longer very interested.

Then I started dating my husband, who’s made of lovable qualities. Just the best stuff. I felt like I had this opportunity to spend the rest of my life with my ultimate crush, and I thought there should be more of him in the world. Motherhood suddenly became very important to me — I felt like I had the best shot at being a good mom with him as the dad.

Then, a few years into our relationship, I had a seizure that ended up being a health emergency. It turned out I had a cluster of blood vessels the size of a golf ball in my head. I was put on anti-seizure medication until we could take care of it surgically. My options were: leave this thing in my head and stay on the medication (which would have made pregnancy very dangerous) for the rest of my life, or surgically remove the mass from my brain and theoretically get pregnant in a year. All of a sudden, at 32, the question of motherhood was presented as urgent. And I knew I did want the opportunity to at least try.

So I did have the surgery. And almost a year later, we started trying.

On her first pregnancy. Our problem has never been getting pregnant. We’re lucky; that’s never been one of our struggles. I got pregnant right away, about a month after we started trying. It was shocking — I thought I’d have more time to get used to the idea. It was surreal. I’d never been pregnant before. It felt like something grown-ups do. Part of me just wanted to go into a room and scream with my best friend.

But we were tentatively excited. It felt like we’d lucked out. We went in at eight weeks to confirm the pregnancy, and then again at ten weeks. That time, there was no heartbeat. It felt like being hit by a bus. We went from the movie version of pregnancy — you marry the love of your life, you throw up a lot, you’re excited — to sitting in a room, your doctor’s face crumpling.

But our doctor pointed out that I’d gotten pregnant quickly and nothing indicated I wouldn’t be able to get pregnant again. She said, “As soon as you guys feel mentally ready to try again, have some drinks and try to reset.” Still, I’d flipped from an ignorant pregnant person to a knowing pregnant person. Parents who get lucky and have healthy pregnancies and babies — they can hear stories and empathize with people’s struggles. But you just don’t really know until it happens to you. You’re in a different club then.

On her second pregnancy. I got pregnant the very next month. The first time I felt like, Oh my god, I’m going to have a baby. The second time, I felt like, I’m restarting the pregnancy clock. We’ll see how it goes.

The first 13 weeks were great. I did the first round of testing at 13 or 14 weeks — genetic screening, blood work, a CVS, a 3-D ultrasound. Everything looked great, totally normal. I’d been reading the internet pretty regularly, all the “what fruit is your baby this week?” sites. If you make it to 14 weeks, you have a pretty good shot of making it to the end. That’s conventional wisdom. And our frame of reference was a loss at ten weeks, so at 14 weeks, we felt like we were out of the woods. The doctor called to tell us we were having a boy. I started getting excited.

About a week later, my OB called. She never calls, so I knew it was something serious. She wanted to know if I was somewhere I could talk; she told me a more recent test had come back abnormal and was concerning. The results were a marker for spina bifida. I’ll never forget what she said: “I am so sorry.”

They wanted to get me to a high-risk OB immediately to do a more in-depth scan. They did a full growth scan and didn’t see spina bifida. In these cases, they said, the abnormal results are just associated with bad news — but there was nothing specific. So they said we could just keep going and monitoring closely with the high-risk doctor. As the weeks stacked up, we encountered more and more complications. They found bilateral clubfeet; the hands were always tightly clenched. There was very little movement. Still, there was growth. It was on the low side of normal, but it was technically normal.

At 30 weeks, we went in and growth had just completely fallen off a cliff. There’d been no growth at all since the previous appointment. And my amniotic fluid was high, alarmingly high. This told our doctors that the baby was not swallowing. Swallowing is how fetuses practice breathing for the outside. If they can’t swallow, they can’t breathe. This, combined with the muscular issues, told our doctors that there was a very serious condition here, potentially so rare there’s not a genetic marker identified for it yet. We were looking at a situation where — if I didn’t have a stillbirth or dangerous premature labor, if I managed to carry to term — the baby would live a few minutes before choking to death.

Soon after, my husband spoke to a genetic counselor at the OB’s office. She explained that if we decided to terminate, they would not be able to help us because of the law in New York State. That was the first time we had heard of this.

On realizing what she’d never thought about. It’s embarrassing to me now, but we had never considered the idea of terminating a pregnancy we wanted. It’s just not something that, as a culture, we really discuss all that much. In my mind, even being a fiercely pro-choice person, the woman who gets an abortion is someone who doesn’t want to be pregnant. The idea of terminating a wanted pregnancy just wasn’t on my radar.

But, now it was. We made arrangements to travel to Colorado to terminate my pregnancy. As a very lucky white woman, it took me until I was 35 to learn that the system ultimately does not care about my well-being, which is how it felt, setting up the procedure. This is of course a privileged reaction — many people in this country get that message really early on.

It took two weeks to get the logistics in order. Because of my complicated medical history, all the doctors needed to get on the same page about my care. This meant my high-risk OB and my brain surgeon in New York and Dr. Hern in Colorado worked very hard to determine what would be best for me, which they had to do while taking the law into account. That the law played a part in my plan of care fills me with rage to this day. I will not be over that until we fix the abortion law in New York State.

On having an abortion at 32 weeks. For the two weeks it took to plan the abortion, I looked, of course, very pregnant. It was close to Mother’s Day, so when people wished me a happy first Mother’s Day, I’d just smile and say thank you. At the time I lived in Greenpoint, which is like the romper room. Walking to and from the train was like walking through a war zone of babies. I was crying constantly.

The plan was that we would fly to Colorado, get a shot to stop the fetus’s heart, then give me a bunch of drugs to prevent me from going into labor on the plane, fly back to New York, then be admitted to the hospital in New York for labor and delivery.

So I had to fly to Colorado, then fly right back. After the shot, Dr. Hern told me, “If TSA gives you guff, tell them you’re six months pregnant with twins.” At the airport, everyone was talking to me, wishing me a happy Mother’s Day. I think I was a little bit in shock. It was sort of an out-of-body experience. My husband really held up the ceiling on this one — leading me around, taking care of everything.

We got back very late on a Wednesday night, and the hospital in New York couldn’t take me until Thursday night. Labor and delivery lasted a full 30 hours. Afterward, I checked out of life for a while.

On making changes and what happened in a Whole Foods. A month afterward, we quit our jobs, sold everything, packed up our car, and got out of New York. I can’t stress enough how Brooklyn is a hellscape for anyone who’s lost a pregnancy. Sure, there are babies in every place. But in Brooklyn, we’re on top of each other. We just felt like we needed to get out. We had an opportunity to take on a big project and do some physical labor for a while, which sounded like the perfect medicine.

So we moved to Baltimore and did some work on an old house, which my mom had left to me. It was basically crumbling, but we decided to go down and renovate it. We spent months working on the house, turning it into something beautiful.

The termination had been in May; in July, I felt strange, nauseous. I took a test and somehow, was pregnant again. I was like …. what’s happening. A month later, we went to Utah for a wedding, where I had a miscarriage in a Whole Foods. It was a mess; my husband had to buy me all new clothes. I was in the bathroom, at Whole Foods, for a few hours. I felt like it might be my body’s way of saying it had been too soon.

On a very surprising doctor’s visit. When we got back, I wanted to see a fertility specialist, since I’d had three losses. Finally, in October of that year I got in to see the specialist. We sat down with a nurse and told her our whole history. She explained that I’d just need a physical exam and then they’d get to work figuring out what might be going on. An intern did an ultrasound and she became very confused and called the doctor over. He took over the wand and said, “There’s a baby in there.” He said it looked like I was about four months along. Everyone in the room knew our history. Everyone started crying.

We couldn’t believe it. I was like, well, what the fuck was that miscarriage? The doctor’s best guess was that I’d lost a ghost twin. Like, what even is the human body.

When I went to the doctor the next day, my pregnancy was dated 16 weeks. The baby was doing flips, waving at us; the scan took about two minutes. It was like everything at once: You’re pregnant, it’s healthy, you’re having a girl.

On her third pregnancy. I was so worried — I’d had some cocktails, we were living on a construction site. I hadn’t taken vitamins. The doctors were like, “She looks good; try not to stress.” We had a wonderful doctor. She was also a geneticist, and very concerned with the last pregnancy and making sure it wasn’t happening again. It was too late for a CVS, so I got an amnio, which looked good. Every scan felt like the opposite of last time. She just kept looking good.

We didn’t really tell anyone beyond our closest family and friends. We didn’t buy anything. I didn’t have a baby shower. We only bought stuff once I was 36 weeks pregnant and even then, it was only the bare minimum. We were lucky — our doctor was very in it with us, emotionally. She was happy to discuss all of the possible complications, to answer our endless questions.

On going into labor at an Italian restaurant. I was 40 weeks and three days along. Once I started timing my contractions, they were just a minute apart. But I’d been told that labor takes forever, so I wanted to go home first. There, I immediately crumpled to the ground and threw up my whole dinner. Luckily, we lived five minutes from the hospital — for once, it was like it is in a movie. We left the car in the drop-off section, we were hustled in by the security guards. I was rushed up to labor and delivery, to the triage hallway. But I was fully in labor, so they quickly turned the triage area into a delivery room. Three quick pushes. My baby was born 20 minutes later. We left dinner at 8:30 p.m., went home, and she was born at 9:45 p.m..

In a weird way, it felt like I was pregnant for two years, with her. Like everything that had happened before led to her.

On early parenthood. This baby is so amazing, she almost seems fake, like a Westworld baby. We were so focused on having a healthy baby. We didn’t dare ask for an adorable baby with a good personality. I teeter between two default modes: an acute state of blissful, radical gratitude and guilt, when I forget to be grateful because I’m so tired.

Since this is the first time I’ve been a parent, it’s hard for me to know how much my past shaped my experience with having a new baby. I only know this version. I don’t know if other parents, ones with a less traumatic experience, live with the same level of anxiety that I and other mothers in my support network go through. It’s hard for me to tell, comparatively, what a difference it’s made.

I live in pretty much constant terror of something happening to this baby. I think it’s partly due to this insane amount of love I have for her, which I’m sure is universal, among all parents. But I also think it’s because I’ve been through this terrible loss, it’s always very close to me. I seem to have no ability to take in tragedy happening to children in general.

In my mind, I don’t have a dead child. I didn’t lose a child. I lost a very wanted pregnancy. I believe I lost more than a fetus, less than a baby. I don’t think there’s language to describe what it is I feel that I lost. I do know that it’s radically different from if I were to lose my daughter.

On abortion. Every situation is entirely unique, and the reality is, until you’re faced with the situation, you don’t know what you would do. The problem is, by asserting that you’d make a certain choice, you’re perceived as passing judgment on the woman who makes a different choice.

But something that’s interesting to consider — women who decide to carry doomed pregnancies to term, only so a baby suffers and dies, are not judged. A case could be made for judging that choice. But we don’t — we allow those women their experience of grief because it ended in a birth, and in this country, we’re birth-crazy.

There’s a real fight  over abortion in this country right now. And in our state of New York. I think people assume they’re safe until something horrible happens to them or someone they love. If people are interested in allowing women to continue making complicated decisions, you have to get off the bench.

If you have money, contribute to abortion funds. Call Governor Cuomo and tell him we must decriminalize abortion in New York State, to make it fully comply with Roe v. Wade. Find your state senator and then call and tell them you’re not okay with our state forcing women to carry doomed pregnancies or pregnancies that threaten their health.

Contact our State Senate Majority Leader, John Flanagan of Long Island, and tell him you demand a vote on the Reproductive Health Act (editor’s note: Erika and her husband, Garin, founded the linked organization), which would modernize our law and allow patients in situations like mine to end their pregnancies in-state. For people who cannot afford to fly across the country and pay out of pocket for a procedure that can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000, the protections set forth in the RHA are critical.

Everyone finds a different way to grieve. For us, it is doing everything within our limited power to change New York’s cruel and unconstitutional abortion law.

Our baby daughter inspires us to stay the course too. She’s absolutely joyful and totally without shame. Ultimately, we are fighting against a structure that is built to squash that.

Currently, we bring her around to all the work we do as abortion advocates. She’s around the talk pretty much all the time — it’s possible some of the message will get to her, perhaps earlier than other kids. But I think I’ll wait to tell her everything until she’s old enough to take in her parents’ suffering without internalizing it. We have a very sympathetic baby — the only time she cries in public is when other babies are crying.

I hope we’re raising a little person who feels committed to continuing the work of empowering and supporting women across the world. I hope that’s work she’ll want to take up, too. But she can do whatever she wants.

She Had an Abortion at 8 Months, Then a Surprise Pregnancy