Abortion AMA: How Do I Tell My Family I Had An Abortion?
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.
My mother was one of the first people I called after I found out I was pregnant. I knew I was getting an abortion, I knew she would be supportive, and I knew her love would be unwavering. I waited until after my procedure, however, to tell my father. He was a physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive parent, but I wanted him to know. I wanted to tell my family I had an abortion — my entire family — because it was a vital life decision I wasn't ashamed to have made. But, looking back, I still could have used some help navigating this conversation — and figuring out who I even needed to have the conversation with in the first place.
Asking yourself, "'Is this something that I have to talk to this person about?'" can help you do that, says Venus Mahmoodi, Ph.D., a psychologist affiliated with the New York Women's Mental Health Consortium. You're under no obligation, legal or otherwise, to do so, so choosing to disclose personal medical information to other people is simply that: a choice. "You shouldn't have to convince anyone — no one should have to convince anyone — that they made the best decision for themselves," Randi Coun, LCSW, Senior Director of Social Services at Planned Parenthood of New York City, tells Bustle. "It's about being secure in your decision, and telling people in your life that you feel are going to be supportive ... Because for most people, there are people in their lives who will be supportive, and maybe that's not a family member, maybe that's a good friend or a partner or a school counselor or a social worker or a therapist."
But interpersonal relationships are tricky, and sharing personal information with people you're close to and who have known you your whole life can feel like a necessity. I wanted to share my abortion story with family members who have cared for me in one capacity or another because I wanted them to know I was capable of assessing my life, evaluating my future, and coming to a major life decision on my own. And, according to Coun, I'm not alone in that desire. "We see a lot of women who feel very empowered about being able to make this decision for themselves and feel incredibly grateful that they have the option and the choice," Coun says. "We certainly see women who are very concerned that they will be judged for making this decision, too, and that has a lot to do with their community."
If you do decide to share your decision with family, Mahmoodi says, "You need to have a sense of the expectations of what you want to get out of this conversation. Do you want to feel supported? Is this person going to be able to help you? What is the expectation as to how this person is going to react?"
Politics has made discussing abortion with family members difficult, she notes, so it's good to think about that going in. "Something like abortion is interesting because someone can be pro-choice, but if they know their daughter or their sister or someone very close to them had the procedure, they might not react [the way we assume they'll react]. They might be more emotionally invested," she says. That's why Mahmoodi suggests using "emotion" words, like "feel," so you can get at the experience of having an abortion, instead of turning the conversation into a back-and-forth, political, intense experience.
In short, leave the politics out of it. Because, again, it's not your job to convince your family member that you made the right decision. "If you start arguing about facts and statistics — and sometimes there are misunderstandings about what procedures look like and misconceptions — that just creates a more volatile situation," Mahmoodi says. "By just validating their emotions but sticking to your guns, it is possible to validate someone else and stay true to yourself."
It may also be helpful to prepare and practice a script before the actual conversation. According to Mahmoodi, we can become so emotionally overwhelmed when we're trying to talk about difficult topics, that we tend to forget what we want to say. That's why she often encourages her own patients to prepare and practice what they want to say to family members, sometimes as early as a month prior to the discussion itself. "We will create a script and practice it in session, or I will have people practice it at home, not to the point that it's robotic but so that it at least allows them to have a sense of what they want to say and how they want to say it," she says.
Coun also recommends that patients convey portions of their thought process when discussing their abortions with family members, but, again, not feel obligated to justify their choice. "We often recommend when telling someone that you make sure that they understand that you gave your decision a ton of thought, you considered all your options, and you really felt like this was the best decision for you," she says. It also doesn't hurt to let your family member know how important they are to you, and why you felt the need to disclose this information to them.
Part of my process in sharing my story with my family was accepting the likelihood that the the disclosure would provoke arguments and that some recipients of the information would make me feel less than supported. According to Mahmoodi, it's important to have coping mechanisms in place as you approach the discussion, especially if you don't foresee this family member being particularly understanding. "How can you manage the anxiety of actually saying something?" Mahmoodi recommends asking yourself. "Do you do diaphragmatic breathing? Some kind of distraction? ... Someone you can talk to beforehand?" All of these tactics can help mitigate any anxious feelings you may experience before the conversation starts. And, once it's over, it's important you find someone who you know will be encouraging and text or call that person to decompress and process your emotions.
Thankfully, through some trial, error, and a whole lot of personal growth, I now know that I do not owe my abortion story to anyone. The details of my procedure, my experience, and my feelings are mine and mine alone, and it's empowering to be able to say that I've arrived at a place where not only do I feel confident in my decision, but I proudly own my decision. Regardless of how others react when I tell them I had an abortion, I know I made the best decision for me.
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