The Best Thing That Ever Happened
Charlotte Adamis (she/her/hers)
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
You can bury doubt pretty deep. But at age 57, when I buy a $90 DNA test kit, I begin to unravel the truth about my own birth. A truth that my mother might’ve taken to her grave.
It’s April of 1990. My mother and I join thousands of protesters who have gathered in Washington DC to fight back against the Bush administration’s threat to a person’s right to choose.
I’m 29 and hugely pregnant with my firstborn son. Even though I’ve decided to march, I can’t stop thinking about my internal struggle: I don’t understand the choice my mother made as a 19 year-old, unmarried college student to go through with my own birth. She tells me it’s the best thing that ever happened to her. I know she loves me, but I also know that, 11 years ago, when I found out that I got pregnant as an 18 year-old, unmarried college student, I never thought that having a baby could be the best thing that ever happened to me.
Not for one fucking second.
In 1960, abortions were illegal (but available to privileged white women like my mother). Though my grandparents begged her to terminate the pregnancy, my mother decided that having a child was better than returning to college. Despite her uncertainty, she revealed the pregnancy to her steady beau Dennis, and he didn’t think twice. He merely said, “Then I’ll marry you.” Three weeks later, my mother’s parents gave the young couple a showy, white wedding in their Westchester County backyard. Only a select handful of the 100 guests knew the truth. My mother’s pregnancy was well concealed under the floor-length satin gown.
It’s December of 1979, and I’m finishing my first semester at Oberlin College when I get the bad news. When my mother got pregnant with me, she wasn’t entirely sure about who the father was. But I am 100 percent positive that my boyfriend, Chris, an unemployed mandolin player who drinks too much, is the father of this baby.
My first pregnancy is a secret too. I don’t tell my mother. I should’ve known better. In my dorm room, I call Chris. We decide we won’t repeat history. I’m not ready for motherhood, and I know he isn’t ready for fatherhood.
As my mother and I march down Pennsylvania Avenue, I think about the parallel lines my mother’s life and my life run along, to diverge at the last moment. We were both miserable at college. My mother chose to leave school, and I chose to transfer to a new school in Boston. My mother chose to marry a boy she didn’t love, and I eventually shacked up with Chris, a boy I only thought I loved. My mother divorced Dennis and ended up a single, full-time mother. I chose to terminate my pregnancy and pursue my own life.
Maybe that’s what hangs me up. Our stories aren’t totally parallel. My mother chose to have me.
I ask my mother about her own access to birth control during my conception. She admits she could’ve gotten a diaphragm.
“But you didn’t?” I ask.
“Only girls who were having sex went to get diaphragms.”
“But you were having sex.” “I know,” my mother sighs, sheepishly. “Nice girls weren’t supposed to have sex before marriage.”
My mother never told anyone she was sexually active. Not her closest girlfriends. Definitely not her mother.
And she definitely didn’t tell Dennis that she’d had sex with another man.
By the time I started having sex, the landscape had changed entirely. Not only had abortions become legal, but I saw myself as free to choose in ways my mother never could. I was free to choose to have a baby or not, to marry or not. Free to have casual, pre-marital sex— and to talk about it. And unlike my mother, my girlfriends and I also had easy and unstigmatized access to a variety of birth control methods—though, honestly? All of them sucked. And sometimes they failed.
Like the diaphragm I never put in when, one fall weekend, Chris drove to Ohio to see me.
The same diaphragm my mother drove me to get fitted for when I was 17 after she met the guy I’d lost my virginity to, a rock and roller with a penis necklace.
Chris and I had been dating for months, but we still hadn’t gone “all the way.”
Not because we hadn’t tried. We had tried and failed every time. And yet rather than blame it on the amount of Jack Daniels my lover consumed, I thought his inability to sustain an erection long enough to have intercourse had everything to do with me.
So, when it finally happened with Chris that night at the Oberlin Inn, in a room we couldn’t afford, I couldn’t find the courage to say, “Stop! I need to put in my diaphragm!” It was right there, too, on the bed stand.
That was the night I got pregnant.
The night my mother got pregnant, she had gone to a girlfriend’s pizza party. It was the end of her sophomore year, and she was back home for a brief stint before her plan to head to Greenwich Village and what was supposed to be the summer of her life.
And it might have been. But my mother drank too much, accepted a ride home from a boy she’d never met before, and had sex in the back seat of his baby blue 1949 Plymouth convertible. She never saw that boy again.
A boy who, based on the results of the $90 DNA test kit I’m staring at, is likely my father. Not Dennis.
It’s 2019, almost 30 years after my mother and I first marched in Washington to protest the Bush administration’s threat to a person’s right to choose, and I take the evidence I’ve been collecting to my mother.
I tell her that I’m pretty sure that Dennis is not my biological father.
“I never even considered you weren’t Dennis’s,” my mother says. She tells me the story of the boy in the convertible. “It was only that one time.”
“Mom,” I say back. “It only takes one time.”
But I’m guessing that the 19-year-old girl who decided to have a baby, convinced herself that the father had to be Dennis, the boy she was dating. Not the one-night stand.
“Do you even remember his name?” I ask.
She doesn’t. And she doesn’t want to. It’s a mystery I’ll have to pursue on my own.
But maybe that’s what my mother has been trying to tell me all along when she says I was the best thing that ever happened to her. She’s telling me that choice doesn’t have to mean the same thing to every woman. Even to a mother and her daughter, no matter how closely their Stories for Choice have been intertwined. No matter how strongly they both believe in choice as they march on Washington to defend a person’s right to choose.
My mother marches because she is at peace with the choice she made.
I march because I am too.
january 22, 2022
(the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade)
7 PM, EST on Zoom
Stories for Choice: Radically True Storytelling for Reproductive Justice
Free with a suggested donation of $25
produced by TMI Project and Joan Lonergan