Abortion AMA: How Do I Talk To My Own Mom About Her Abortion? 'OITNB''s Alysia Reiner Shares Her Story
Welcome to Bustle's Abortion AMA column, where reproductive rights advocate and Romper editor Danielle Campoamor will speak to experts and medical professionals to answer people's questions about abortion in a way that is educational, unvarnished, and judgement free. Ask us anything.
When I was in high school, my father revealed to me that my mother once had an abortion, hoping the information would somehow make me think less of her. His plan backfired and, if anything, made me respect my mother even more. But I still had questions about my mother's abortion that I didn't feel comfortable asking until I was 23 and preparing to terminate my own pregnancy.
Actress, activist, and mother Alysia Reiner, who plays Natalie "Fig" Figueroa on Orange is the New Black, had the opposite experience — she can't remember a time when she didn't know about the abortion that her mother, Gail Davis, had at age 19. "Gail made the choice to tell me incredibly early," Reiner tells Bustle. "I knew it was something that was very important to Gail; to tell me that it was every woman's right and it was a right that we had now and that we should continue to have." For Reiner, a discussion about abortion was part of her sexual education, and since her mom was a lawyer, their discussions often centered around a woman's legal rights.
Fifty-nine percent of women who have abortions are moms, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and a report published by the National Abortion Federation (NAF) found that 66 percent of women who've had an abortion "plan to have children when they are older, financially able to provide necessities for them, and/or in a supportive relationship with a partner so their children will have two parents." In other words, moms — and people who later become moms — have abortions, so there are a lot of mothers out there with abortion stories.
That doesn't mean talking to your mom about her own abortion experience is easy. "Having this conversation with your mom can be very difficult," Meredith Shirey, a marriage and family therapist practicing in New York City who specializes in relationship issues and family conflict, tells Bustle. "You might be pulling back a curtain on some things you weren’t expecting."
According to Shirey, you should ask yourself three questions before bringing up this conversation with a parent: What do I want out of this conversation? What is my relationship with my parent like? Am I prepared to answer any "why" questions that stem from this conversation?
For Reiner, learning the full story of her mother's pre-Roe v. Wade abortion was a sad but ultimately galvanizing experience. "I felt it was important to let her know that abortion should continue to be legal in our country, because [my abortion was] very difficult," Davis tells Bustle. "I felt that this was a learning experience for her, to learn about my experience." Davis was a 19-year-old college student when she found out she was pregnant. While she had a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, she wanted to finish school, have a career, and didn't want to be a mom at that time. She spoke to friends and friends of friends, looking for someone who could give her an abortion, and through the grapevine located an individual who provided illegal surgical abortions on their kitchen table.
"That’s what I was really contemplating," says Davis. "And then I told another boy who I was going out with, who was Charles, Alysia’s dad, who I had recently met, and I told him finally about the situation because I was very conflicted about what I should do. Should I have this illegal abortion on someone’s kitchen table? And he convinced me, which I really am so thankful for, to go home and tell my parents and ask them for help."
Davis' parents were supportive and, after consulting a family physician, took her to Mexico to have an illegal abortion. She still gets emotional when sharing her story, especially with her daughter, and those big feelings and the reason behind them are not lost on Reiner as she hears her mom relive her experience. "It was so powerful, and it made me want to fight for those rights for women," Reiner tells Bustle. "It's so deeply upsetting. Young people have no clue what it was like [to have an abortion at that time], and it was horrific."
Becoming emotional while and/or after sharing your abortion story is typical, according to Shirey, and one reason why it's important, as the person listening to the storyteller, that you pay attention to verbal and physical cues. "If you find that you’re getting one word answers from the person, or they’re becoming very vague or they seem uncomfortable, check in with them," she says. "Say, 'Hey, is this an OK conversation to have? Is it OK that I asked this question? Would you rather not answer that? Give [your parent] permission to say no."
It's also best to give your mom a head's up in advance, so she can assess whether or not she wants to share this information with you, and how much information she wants to share. "It might not be something that they were prepared for," says Shirey. "If you spring this on them or don't necessarily give them time to say 'yes' or 'no', or to even be mindful of where their boundaries are, it can create a lot of tension."
That's advice Reiner takes to heart now that she's a mom to her 9-year-old daughter, Liv, telling Bustle that she encourages all parents to never be afraid to put a deep conversation with their kids on hold. "Sometimes when Liv asks me questions I will say, 'I really want to talk about that, but we're not in a place where we can have that conversation as deeply as I want to or as thoughtfully as I want.' Or I'll say, 'I'm a little distracted right now' or, 'We're in public and I want to have the conversation in a safer place.' So don't be afraid to hit pause," she says.
You actually need to be respectful of your parent and their boundaries before the conversation begins. "Allow them to say no," says Shirey. "If you say you want to have this conversation, and your mom says she doesn't think it's a good idea, you pushing it isn’t going to be helpful." Remember also that at any time your mom can change her mind, even in the middle of the conversation, and it's up to you to respect that new boundary as soon as it is set.
Fawn Bolak, 27, from Denver, Colorado, realized early on that her mom had some self-imposed boundaries when discussing abortion with her daughter. Especially since, as it was for my mother, the conversation was forced on her by a third party. "I was at a family barbecue when I was 17, and one of my mom’s sisters said something to my mom like, 'Oh, you could have a 30-year-old child right now,' or something like that," Bolak tells Bustle. "So a couple days later I asked her what my aunt was talking about, and she said that when she was 16 she got pregnant and ended up getting an abortion. She really didn't tell me too much about the procedure, but talked about the emotions and the feelings behind why she made that decision."
The information was a shock to Bolak, she says, and made her re-examine how she viewed her mom and some of her internal biases and misconceptions about abortion and the people who have them. "Abortion wasn’t stigmatized in my own family, but it was still very stigmatized in my community," she says. "I felt very uncomfortable talking to my mom at that moment about the ins and outs of what that experience had looked like for her." Growing up in a small town in North Florida, Bolak didn't realize how much abortion shame and stigma she had incorporated into her own world-view. "I remember thinking at the time, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't know my mom was the kind of woman who gets an abortion.' Looking back, I think that's terrible, and I can't believe I thought like that, but none of us exist[s] in a vacuum."
Taking the time to step back after you talk with your mom and examining what was said and how you feel about it is also an important part of this process, according to Shirey. "If you have the experience of being very caught off guard by whatever your mom's answers are, ask yourself the following questions: What are going to be my next steps, do I want to have another conversation with my parent, do I want to try family counseling, and do I need to do my own self-care activities, whatever that might be?"
Bolak asked herself a few of those questions years later, when she was 22 and had a pregnancy scare. After realizing she could be pregnant, and weighing her options before ultimately finding out she wasn't, all she could think about was her mom. So she went back to her mom, again, and asked her to talk about her experience as a 16-year-old girl having an abortion. "The first time she told me she had an abortion, I was kind of shocked. Up until that point I knew what an abortion was, but I had this image in my mind as to who would need one and who would get one, and it wasn’t my mom," she says. "So it required a lot of reflection on my part until I talked to her about it again in my early 20s."
That reflection and their continued conversations about abortion have allowed Bolak and her mom to grow even closer than they were previously. "Me and my mom have a really awesome relationship and have always had an open line of communication," she says. "I feel a much stronger connection ... and I feel such a tighter bond with her because we’re able to talk openly about her experiences." And now that Bolak works as the Reproductive Rights Content Director for ProgressNow Colorado, a progressive advocacy organization, and is a co-founder of the Keep Abortion Safe project, an initiative that works to use digital platforms and storytelling to dispel the misinformation and judgment around abortion and reproductive health, being there for her mother the way her mother has always been there for her is something she cherishes. "It feels great to be able to be a support for my mom as she continues to be more vocal and refram[es] her own story, especially since she has done so many amazing, supportive things for me in my life," says Bolak. "To help her destigmatize her own story and pull apart the pieces that are shame and the pieces that are actually her own experience is really incredible, and I'm so happy to be there for her in that way."
Another thing to keep in mind as you're having this conversation is that being a mother is not the entirety of your mother's identity. "The thing that helped me the most was not looking at my mom as the image of who I thought she was, and just looking at her as the person who she is," says Bolak. "I had to strip away those expectations that I had on her as being 'my mother' and things I thought that my mother should be doing or shouldn’t be doing." Shirey agrees, and believes waiting until you're on equal footing with your parent is a vital part of setting up this conversation in a successful, healthy way.
"When you’re an adult, especially in our western culture, there’s kind of this expectation that the hierarchy that you have with your parents becomes less so, and you’re kind of on an equal playing field with your parent," says Shirey. "It’s more of an egalitarian relationship." Waiting for that egalitarian relationship to develop could play a big role in how the conversation with your mom plays out.
Ultimately, it's important to always ask yourself what you want to gain from the conversation, what your relationship with your parent is like, and what you want to divulge yourself. If you're asking your mom to share her abortion story because you're considering an abortion yourself, make sure your parent is an understanding person who will be open, honest, and will respect your boundaries, too. "If you know your mother is going to... keep in mind that she’s giving you this information as a means of guiding you or helping you make this decision, and it feels like it’s not coming from a place of coercion, it’s probably a good conversation to have and it might bring the relationship closer," says Shirey. And if you're having this conversation to feel closer to your mom, be cognizant of her boundaries and any outside influences that might make her feel uneasy sharing her story with you at first.
"Have a conversation about the conversation before you have it," Reiner advises, drawing from her own experience as a mother. "Set some boundaries and say, 'Hey, I’d like to hear this experience, this is what I need around it, why don't you share what you need around it and how we can create an environment that is safe and loving and nonjudgmental for both of us before we have the conversation."
And if you've examined your relationship with your mom and have realized that you two do not have a healthy connection that would facilitate this conversation, know that there are other people you can talk to. Whether it be a trusted friend, a maternal figure, or the National Abortion Federation's hotline, there are people who will answer your questions honestly, factually, and without judgement.
Looking back, I am deeply upset that my mother didn't have the chance to share her abortion story on her own terms and when she was ready. But I am grateful that, since then, she has opened up about her own experience. In doing so, not only has she become a trusted source of information, solidarity, and support, but she has become my best friend. One in four women will have an abortion in their lifetime. You probably love someone who has had an abortion. Most of us do. And, in many cases, abortion has helped our moms become the parents they are today.
Have questions about abortion? You can email them safely and anonymously to Abortion AMA at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll answer them. Together.