That Damn Pendulum

I recently binge watched the first few episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel (on which this bold new mini-series is based) was published over thirty years ago, in 1985, right smack in the middle of President Reagan’s two terms. Roe v. Wade was already the law of the land. The feminist movement of the 1970s (and earlier) had some well-entrenched successes by 1985, although the pendulum was already beginning to swing back to more “traditional family values,” something resembling the 1950s’ Father Knows BestCan you just FEEL the patriarchy in that title?

I’d had an abortion the summer I was 18. The father wanted nothing to do with me; I was the girlfriend “on the side.” His legitimate girlfriend was white, wealthy, and older than me. She was already attending medical school when I was a freshman in college and her boyfriend – the guy who got me pregnant – was a senior. I was barely 18, for goodness sake, with no desire to take on the immense responsibility of motherhood, much less without a supportive partner.

I had a choice and I was extremely grateful for that choice. I marched with NOW and NARAL for the continuation of a woman’s right to choose. Nationwide legal abortion was less than a decade old. In other words, enough time had not passed for botched-up back-alley abortions to become a distant enough memory. Although I appreciated the enormity of my luck and life’s timing, marching was still necessary. We’d earned the right to choose, but it felt as if this right could be taken from us again.

I had already read The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 when I became pregnant for the second time. The father offered to marry me. It wasn’t a proposal, as such. It was more of a, “If you want to go through with this, I’m going to do the “right” thing and not leave you stranded with this baby to raise on your own. I am not that man.” But I wasn’t that woman. And we weren’t in the kind of love with one another that involved till death do us part. We were old friends who’d fallen into bed with each other after a Prince concert. We were careful, but my Goddess was I fertile! I had a second abortion.

I knew I was not ready to take on the role of Mom. The picture I had of motherhood was that it was non-stop, 24/7, mind-numbing, albeit soul-gratifying, work. No thank you. I wasn’t done working on me. Even at 27 I still felt not quite fully formed. How could I take on the monumental task of shaping an innocent, extremely needy human being when I was still molding myself?

This is not to say that women younger than I was then should not take that plunge. Who am I to judge another woman’s willingness or readiness to step into motherhood? Who is anyone other than that woman herself? This choice is supremely personal, unique to each woman and her circumstances, and her dreams.

Even though I was sure about my choice to abort, I mourned the loss of what could have been – the fantasy picture of a cooing baby in my arms, and all the other Hallmark, sit-com, religious, women’s magazine, advertising images of mother and child I’d been fed since I could hold a doll. Plus babies have an innate irresistibility.

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It was once considered weird to challenge the “norm,” to put off child-bearing and rearing in order to finish school, or get a degree, or start a career or stay in one. Opting out of motherhood completely was considered downright bizarre and suspicious (“Oh, is she one of those women? You know, the kind that hates men?”)

Women were choosing to not become mothers because they simply did not want to. The same way some chose to not become teachers or ballerinas or nurses or secretaries – professions considered more “suitable” for women, begging the question: “Considered by whom?!” A growing number of women were committed to not adding one more human to an already over-populated planet. Other women had other valid reasons for opting outChoosing to not have children slowly became a legitimate choice. Control over our own “biology” was a hard earned victory, and gave us dominion over our bodies and our lives.

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Make no mistake; the pendulum is swinging again. The Handmaid’s Tale has an eerie feel of reality to it. The attacks Planned Parenthood has been defending against for years; the way health care is being addressed and assessed, mostly by privileged white males; the fact that pregnancy and previous sexual assault and breast cancer are on the list of “pre-existing conditions”….

This is no accident. This is an attack on women, an attack on our health and on our ability to choose our own destinies. This is the evidence that misogyny is alive and well in our country where all men are created equal, but women are less than. Again. Or perhaps still. This is just the beginning. But make no mistake; the pendulum – if left unchecked – swings of its own accord. Is it so far-fetched to think that abortion might once again become a crime? Or that women will be prohibited from owning property or having jobs or being able to vote? Or that females who are unable or unwilling to bear children will be relegated to hard labor (not of the giving birth kind) or worse?

Is The Handmaid’s Tale too far removed from reality to ignore its dire warnings? Certainly not. The only thing we need to do to allow such oppressive values to reign again is to not pay attention to what is happening right in front of our noses. And if haven’t read or seen this ominous story, buy the book here or check out the series on Hulu. (There’s also a movie version with Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson.)

This is not the time to do and say nothing to protect the rights we fought so hard for. Tomorrow could easily be too late.

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