A story about my abortion, my miscarriage, and my birth.
In honor of the recent 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I’m sharing an essay and poem I wrote, which originally appeared in the anthology Arrival Stories: Women Share Their Experiences of Becoming Mothers, beautifully collected by Amy Schumer and Christy Turlington Burns.
Thank you to Annie Chagnot and Penguin Random House for allowing me to reprint this work here.
The essay and poem follow all three outcomes someone with a uterus might face when it comes to pregnancy: having an abortion, a miscarriage, or a child. Here is my story about experiencing all three and the power I believe we uniquely hold in the conversation about who gets to decide where and when life begins or ends.
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There it was. In broad daylight, on a Sunday, in the bathroom, resting on top of my husband’s face towel, which was probably not really something he used for his face. I stared down at it, a mixture of electrified thrill and complete terror surging through my entire body. My pants were still down around my ankles and a glass of warm piss sat on the counter next to me, something I would later mistake for a glass of water in the middle of the night and take a sip from. If you’re curious what room temp urine tastes like, it’s quite shocking and surreal, like the feeling you get the exact moment you learn you’re pregnant. There it was, staring back up at me with its two beady pink lines: a pregnancy test that was positive.
For the longest time, my thoughts around conceiving—both making a baby and wrapping my head around making one—were tethered to the instability I experienced growing up as a child actress in the entertainment business, a career which started at the age of ten. And though I’ve had a writing career equally as tenured, having written many books over the years, my career as an actress was what was most important about me to other people. As an adult, there was always a constant, nagging fear that the lack of normalcy in my childhood would manifest as some unchecked resentment toward any child of mine who would likely have the freedoms I did not. Plus, it’s no secret that Hollywood has a rich history of punishing women who don’t stay the traditional desirability course: women who are outspoken, women who dare to age gracefully, women of color, in general, and women who have sworn off the identity of ingénues to became (gasp!) mothers. There was Dana Plato, star of the beloved ’70s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, who was fired from the show after getting pregnant out of wedlock, an event so traumatic some would say it led to her death at the devastatingly young age of thirty-four. There are the stories of abused and drugged young Judy Garlands, and the stories of Michelle Pfeiffers taking time off to raise kids only to return to an industry that had replaced them with younger, less motherly Michelle Pfeiffers. These types of truths about my profession created heavy psychic weight behind every personal decision I made, or tried to avoid making altogether. The road to accepting and wanting a future of motherhood was, without question, fraught.
Years earlier in 2008, I had fallen madly in love with my then boyfriend David Cross (now husband), and we moved in together after dating for just five months. There was definitely lag time between nights of unprotected sex after East Village bar crawls and finally getting on birth control. The lag time wasn’t one I had given much thought to—I was in my twenties and my life was in a holding pattern of irresponsible choices. I believed myself invincible to the realities of what consequences could, and did, come my way.
A few days after moving in with David, I left to go on tour with my writing partner and best friend of fifteen years, the poet Derrick Brown, and our mutual friend, the photographer Matt Wignall. We were headed for a show in Oklahoma, Derrick on his Motorcycle and me and Matt in a U-Haul (it’s a long story) when I began to feel ill. The drive was long with many stops in between, and at every new truck stop or Cracker Barrel, the pain in my lower abdomen worsened. By the time we reached the land of rolling hills and fried okra, it was clear that Derrick would be performing without me and that I might need to go to the hospital. We dropped Derrick off at the venue at sunset and I stumbled out of the passenger seat to lie facedown in a nearby patch of grass that had been baked all day by the sun. The warm earth felt so good on my stomach, and I pressed my body into it as another rolling, brutal cramp broke over me. Derrick looked down at me, a box of books and merchandise in his hands, worried. “Don’t die on me, buddy,” He said, half joking. I gave him a thumbs-up and groaned into the hot dirt.
By the time Matt got me to the hotel and up to the room, I was pale and drenched in sweat. We both agreed that if I didn’t turn a corner soon, I needed to go to an emergency room. When I got up from the bed to use the bathroom, a new sensation flooded over me, as if something other than pee wanted to come out of me—wanted to be released from my body immediately. I sat on the toilet and gripped the sides of the seat. What is happening to me? I thought. And then another voice chimed in. Push. So I pushed. I trembled and groaned. Push, Amber. Push, I told myself. Matt knocked on the door to see if I was okay. I wheezed out a “Yes,” just as an electric current shot down my legs, followed by an audible plop in the water beneath me. I leaned back against the toilet seat and cried big, ugly, heaving sobs as the cramps began to dissipate. My god, I thought, what the fuck was that? Weak, I got up and peered at what looked like a small fist of blood floating in the water, surrounded by long strands of what I could only imagine were pieces of my body’s tissue. I didn’t know what it was, what to do with it—show it to Matt? Gross—so I flushed and crawled back into bed, thoroughly exhausted. I told Matt I was going to be okay, but he stayed there with me well into the night just to make sure.
I was perhaps too young, or too naive, to know then that what happened to me that day was likely a miscarriage. I didn’t come to understand this until many years later when my doctor asked about prior medical history and I flippantly recalled a coo-coo-bananas time ten years ago when my vagina shit out a mini cupcake of blood in an Oklahoma Days Inn toilet. She said it could’ve been a miscarriage, but unless I had gotten tested at a hospital right after it had happened, there was just no way to know for sure.
But I know for sure. I know it was a miscarriage.
The day after my miscarriage, I got out of bed, achy and still tired, and proceeded to pack my bags as if it was just another hangover. No biggie! Back to bourbon and poetry nights on the road! I joked to friends about that strange day in Oklahoma, making light of it whenever I could. Like most women, we know it’s better to just keep moving, past the truth and pain of our experience. But as I got older, the consequences of the disconnect between my body and unprocessed childhood trauma would not be so easy to bounce back from.
Years later, I found myself at the end of a very long existential rope and in crisis about the trajectory of my life. David and I had just gotten married, yet I was more unsure about my career than ever. I was stuck, completely paralyzed between the identity of being an actress for hire and the woman who longed to become more than just that—a woman who wanted to direct movies, write lots of books, and produce television shows. Could I be all of these things? And also a mother? The answer in my mind at that time was no.
Things got more difficult when David and I found out I was pregnant, and I made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. I made the appointment for January 2nd, telling myself it would be a New Year’s resolution of some kind, something to drastically change this holding pattern of mine, this negligent, self-involved, half-ass way of living.
When I woke up from the procedure, the nurse gave me a Jell-O cup and some Advil. The doctor told me everything had gone well and I was released after the anesthesia wore off. I clutched the discharge papers to my chest and limped toward the elevator, feeling like a Molotov cocktail of relief and brokenness. Outside the building, an older man stood at a respectful distance from the entrance and handed me a pamphlet that loudly screamed, “CHOOSE LIFE!” I took the pamphlet from his hands and told him, “I just did.”
For many years that followed the miscarriage in Oklahoma and the terminated pregnancy in New York City, I took that resolution seriously, dedicating much of my time to healing and growing. I started therapy and worked through many of the traumas of my past. I began to feel more like the authentic version of who I was always meant to become. I directed a film, published books, and still acted when there was an opportunity to play something I loved. I felt comfortable in my own skin, and I knew I was ready to become a mom.
After nine long months of indigestion, exhaustion, and daily, uncharacteristic cravings for Oreo cookies, I was ready to welcome our baby into the world. The day of my scheduled C-section delivery, I waddled into the hospital with David at an ungodly hour and checked myself in. A few hours later, after a bevy of IVs had been inserted in my hands and blood had been drawn, I was brought into the operating room by my two doctors, Lee and Karen. David wasn’t allowed to come in for the initial part of the surgery—apparently partners often faint or get sick to their stomachs after watching the person they love opened up like a common Ziploc bag full of stewed tomatoes—so I went in alone while he anxiously waited outside the door. Lee had me sit on an operating table where a very large bright light loomed overhead. My legs dangled over the edge and Karen told me to round my lower back by leaning forward, making room for the insertion of the epidural needle in my lower spine. I couldn’t stop shaking, with equal parts fear and excitement. Karen came close and grabbed ahold of my hands tightly. She pointed at her forehead and directed me in her strong New York accent to put my forehead against hers, so I did. She whispered a reminder: Women have been doing this since the beginning of mankind. We are powerful—more powerful than we know.
The epidural had kicked in and I was lying flat on my back with a sheet separating me from my lower body, which I could no longer feel. David came in and sat by my side. I asked him to make inappropriate jokes while the sound of suctioned blood and the smell of burning flesh wafted around us. All he could muster was a sad joke about a merlot cart coming by to serve wine. That’s how bad I knew it all was. In between requests by Lee for scalpels and busy nurses running around with medical instruments, I flashed through a series of memories that had led up to this moment. My abnormal childhood. Going to work after school while other kids got to play. Awful auditions with perverted directors. Starving myself for a week before an award show. Blood in the toilet in Oklahoma. Holding patterns. Drinking too much. Crying in therapy. Taking the East River ferry home alone after having my abortion. My husband’s devastated face. More crying in therapy. My husband’s joyous face, in this moment as I give birth. My life. My future, finally here.
And then, there it was. In broad operating room light. On a Wednesday. Lifted up by my doctor over a blue curtain, right in front of my very eyes: my daughter, born. My daughter, so small and real and alive; a tender new heart pulsing outside of my body, free, fully her own.
“Oh,” I cried out when I saw her.
“There you are. There you are.”
Marlow Alice Cross had finally arrived. And so had I.
The Song of the Three Bodies, Singing A poem for my miscarriage, my abortion, and my daughter, Marlow 1. Imagine the body giving in to another one leaving it, and a brain that didn’t know it did. Imagine what haunts a ghost, what premonition still lingers in the space between knowing and believing. Imagine what keeps the body separated from its shadow at night, what sound taught the wolves never to obey. Imagine what you didn’t want but were given anyway. It is a song only you were meant to hear. A pain for only you to feel, far after the fact. It is a story you can never give back, a living you will find a way to get through. So forgive me, body, for not hearing. Forgive me, as a woman they taught my bones never to listen to my blood. When I was younger, I was taught to bullseye the target of my teens, to arrow down the softest parts of my hunter. I was taught to carnage my instinct, stand out by never standing down. And now all I can do, all I can dream about is who the clouds were sent for. Who’s haunting the ghosts will walk through walls for. Why a shadow returns with or without its sun. All I can think about is what the Earth must’ve seen that day that I could not. Forgive me, body, for not seeing. Forgive me, as a woman they taught my heart never to watch out for my pulse. Imagine with me now, the red glass that broke inside me like a lightbulb’s flood slipping to its final shatter, still lit. Imagine the light you caused, the damage you did to the dark that day you surrendered from me. Remember what a shard can do. Open you to a window that can never be closed. Open you to the dawning of what you can and can’t control. Open you to palms outstretched. Letting go. 2. In the operating room, I stared up into a fluorescent hell and said the only prayer I’d ever believe is true. When I’m ready to love you, come back to me. When I’m ready to know you, come back to my body. My eyes closed to blackness and I met you there, in the nothing between us, a flame curtailed between our suffering. I met you there in the quiet dark of all the bad spells I have bound to myself. I met you there, outside of my body but still within. I met you there, alone and afraid, but never unsure. You were the ricochet of my youthful unruliness, the reins my rough edges could not reel in. When I’m ready to love you, come back to me. When I’m ready to know you, come back to my body. My eyes closed and I pictured you: small as a saffron seed growing auburn inside of me. I saw you as a gift I would someday open with different hands. I saw you strong, loud, living in a world full of love given by a mother who could offer it unconditionally. When it was done, and my eyes cracked open to a room full of kerosene women dowsed in their guilt’s flames, I could feel your absence, but never your abandonment. I could feel your absence, but never your abandonment. I could feel your absence, but never your abandonment. Because I met you there, in the something between us, in the only prayer I’d ever believe is true. You’ll come back to me, as I to you. You’ll know me, and my body will one day know you. 3. You arrived as a rebirth’s overture. The sonic boom of my heart’s aching flutter. You arrived as the reason behind, the reason for, the reason of, the only reason. You arrived as a tilt toward hysterical bliss, an ellipsis from crack in my hips, a dawn awoken from the ancients stationed in my ribs. You arrived, the answer. The cure. The fear. The dread. The sorrow. The shock. The joy. The joy. The joy. The joy. The joy. You arrived, my surrender’s proclamation. My crowned tidal. You arrived, my radiant, wild, fearless child, holy-charged, the only church for which I bow to an altar. You arrived and I knew beyond the blackouts in Texas bars, and lost car keys in Kentucky trash cans, and fistfights and breakups, beyond the one who was never worthy of us and the other one who was never ready for us, beyond the letdowns and give-ups, the give-ins and dropouts, you arrived and I know. I know you were always here. You were always home.
Thank you for sharing this raw, searing memory. It should be required reading for anti-choice zealots.
This essay, damn.