I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I’ll always remember where it was: in the backyard, by the garden, on a sunny day. “Your mom almost aborted you,” my younger stepsister blurted out. It was a deliberate, but not completely comprehended, attempt to be hurtful. Just a young teen, I remember being dazed and wanting to say something angry back. But I also knew she was too young and couldn’t possibly understand the weight of her words.
In America today there are few issues more divisive than abortion. Some people fight tirelessly for a woman’s right to access the procedure while others kill to try to have it banned. In the debate over the issue, I’ve heard voices from both sides, but few have mirrored my own experience. For me, abortion is both difficult to talk about and hard to escape, since I grew up wondering if my mom, who found herself unexpectedly pregnant with me at 22, would have been happier if she’d had one.
In my Irish-Catholic family, much has gone unsaid. I confess that, more than a decade later, I still have never directly asked my mother whether my stepsister’s remark is true, or even why she chose to give birth to me. But honestly, it doesn’t matter if it was true—either way, I grew up feeling like a “mistake.” I bore witness to the ways in which my mom struggled as a young single parent to take care of me and herself, and I still bear the emotional repercussions. All of this adds up to one unshakable reality for me: While I am grateful to be alive, it is because of this personal history that I support a woman’s right to choose, since I’m not convinced my mom’s choice was the best one—for her or for me.
When my mom got pregnant, she dropped out of college and briefly tried to hide from the world. She isn’t devout, but her traditional Catholic upbringing had instilled in her a belief that there was a specific way “people did things”—and that she had fallen short. I know she tried hard to make it work with my birth father; they were even engaged for a short while. But I also know he left her before I was born and not long after died in a drunk driving accident.
Sometime in my first year, my mother realized she couldn’t raise me alone and moved back in with my grandparents. During this period, she took on two and sometimes three jobs at a time while also helping out with my grandparents’ business. I remember her assortment of odd gigs like half-recalled dreams. When she couldn’t find childcare, I would spend afternoons with her at the florist and at movie theater concession stands, toddling around sticky wooden floors at local town haunts while she worked a slew of bartending jobs. The scent of beer-soaked wood and stale cigarette smoke permeated the rooms, while in the background, the friendly, familiar faces of patrons came to look like family. Some of my happiest early memories are of crouching under the florist’s table and collecting damaged flowers into small bouquets, or gathering coins to try and win a Beanie Baby from the claw machine at the candy shop next door. At the movie theater, I was allowed to watch films from a seat high up in the projector booth, surrounded by the clattering machines.
For years, my mom barely had time for me, or herself, as she pushed to keep both of us fed and clothed. She scrimped and saved, and sometimes all we could afford was ramen dressed up with veggies she gleaned from her shift at the local farmstand. And yet, despite the love and care her actions showed, we were never close in the way some mothers and daughters can be. Whether this was because she was too busy or she just didn’t know how to be close to me, I’m still not sure—but it has led to an insatiable craving for emotional closeness with the other people in my life, which often pushes them away.
My mother rarely spoke directly about her feelings involving her untimely pregnancy, my father, or those first months of my life. But throughout my childhood, I knew on an unspoken level how difficult my existence was for her. This made me try to become small, to become less of an issue, often preferring to stay in my room and read or draw over going out. One of the hardest moments of my childhood was watching my mother pass up relocation for a much better and more stable job because the benefits package didn’t cover my Lyme Disease treatment. The promise of more money, a better home, and a better life went up in dust. I knew she was crestfallen, but she put on a courageous front and kept moving forward.
Recently, I was struck by a desire to try to talk with my mom about that early period of my life. I wondered what would happen—I wondered if we would get emotional, which was a disturbing thought. What if she wanted to hug me? I was repulsed by the idea, because I wouldn’t know how to react to or even comprehend that kind of emotional vulnerability between us. Then I realized how sad this lack of connection was. I never brought it up.
While she didn’t speak about it often, I knew that having a “traditional” family was important to my mom. I remember her flipping through a copy of Brides magazine, planning what she hoped her wedding would be like someday. Then, when I was 11 and she was 33, her dream came true: She married my stepfather. I gained a stepsister 7 years younger than me, and the following year we were joined by my half sister.
But my mother’s hardships didn’t end with this dose of normalcy. I witnessed her struggle to help support us throughout my teen years; after I moved out at 19, she held down a full time and part time job while taking late-night online courses. My mom’s life was, and still is, difficult because of her decision to have a child before she was ready. No matter how much she excelled at a position, or stayed later hours without extra pay, others—those with degrees and connections—reaped most of the praise and promotions.
My mom, wanting a better future for me, insisted I go to college. But after my first year, financial concerns pushed me out: She worried that I, and we, wouldn’t be able to pay off the student loans after I graduated. This ultimately lead to me heading out on my own in the way my mom did—but unlike my mom, I’ve been able to forge my own career, on my own terms. While my life isn’t always stable, I am able to pursue a life close to the one I envisioned. Working as a freelance writer, I can negotiate my needs and turn down assignments—which is something I can afford as a young person without children.
I was probably around 14 or 15 the day my stepsister made that hurtful remark. She was being pulled back and forth between her parents. Her mother, bitter, weaponized her to strike out at our new family. While my own mother and I never discussed it, it’s likely my stepsister came to her with the questions I had never dared ask: Where had I come from? Where was my dad?
I’m not sure how my mom’s life would be different if she hadn’t gotten pregnant with me when she did. Yet I wonder for her and for myself what could have been. Unlike what some lawmakers would hope, I don’t find my views on abortion changed by the wonderful privilege of being alive. More than anything, I know what it’s like to feel like a burden—a child that wasn’t supposed to be, born to parents who weren’t ready.
This knowledge and the pain attached to it is woven into every fiber of my being. Yes, I’m glad to be alive, but I’ll always carry that weight, and I’d never wish the same on anyone else.
Caitlin Murphy is a writer and consultant who focuses primarily on sexuality-related issues, but is curious about everything: especially good food and the outdoors. Sometimes based out of Philadelphia, other times elsewhere.