What I Wish I Knew About the Responsibilities of Having a Uterus
I am standing in the bathroom of an Airbnb with my skirt around my ankles holding a piece of toilet paper with orangey-peach streaks of blood. I track my cycles; I know I shouldn’t be bleeding yet and I can tell something is different. My stomach twists and I try and convince myself that I know what I’m doing. Please. I think to myself. Please not this. Not right now. Sitting up in bed, alone, with an aching uterus, I read the Rumi poem “A Star Without a Name” that ends with the lines:
That's how you came here, like a star
without a name. Move across the night sky
with those anonymous lights.
Two weeks later it’s four in the morning and I am standing in the bathroom of my own home with my pajama leggings, still warm with sleep, around my ankles. I am closing my eyes, holding a pregnancy test with a plus sign in my outstretched hand. You look at it. I tell my partner.
Where I Am Responsible for the Birth Control
Let me begin by saying that my partner is a loving, fair, gentle, and very good person. Let me also say that during any given sexual interaction, I carry most of the weight of making sure we do not conceive. The first time we hooked up, giddy with the newness of each other’s bodies, was probably the only time he took on the full responsibility. He pulled out a condom from his nightstand without saying another word. I was impressed and relieved he took control of the situation because I certainly didn’t have a plan.
Thinking back, I often wonder if that was one of the most pleasurable evenings my partner and I ever spent together: partially because it was so new, but partially because I didn’t yet carry the responsibilities of being the person with the uterus, the person who can get pregnant, the person who must be vigilant of the consequences of sex.
When our relationship became more solidified and sex was more routine, I learned how to chart my cycles to identify my fertile window and communicated when unprotected sex was “safe” and when it was “unsafe.” This was both empowering for me personally, but a difficult and long process that I completed mostly alone. I read books and blogs, I consulted teachers, I documented my cervical fluid and body temperatures, and I thought about my body and whether or not it was “fertile” dozens of times every day.
And then it would happen: we would snuggle up together for an intimate evening, and while I wanted to be thinking about the softness of his skin and the taste of his mouth, my mind was whirling with questions about whether or not pre-ejaculate fluid contained semen, or if my body temperature spiked today or yesterday, or if the science behind the fertility awareness method would actually keep me from getting pregnant. On and on this went for years until one evening, unsure of exactly where I was in my cycle and fed up with the responsibility of it all, I told my partner to please be inside of me, no condom needed. Then, after eight weeks of nausea, fear, sadness, and shame, I had an abortion.
Where I Am Supposed to Do the Right Thing
As a married woman, a woman with a job, a woman who has support and love in her life, I am somehow expected to continue a pregnancy without a second thought. I am supposed to have an innate maternal instinct that “kicks in” the moment a fertilized egg burrows into my uterine wall. Any other choice is seen by many people as wrong. In August 2017, I peed on a piece of plastic in the middle of the night and instantly became a person who had to make a life-changing choice. My partner and I went back and forth for an agonizing week on whether or not we felt ready to start a family. We trusted family and friends with this information, and while many of them gave us incredible support and love, a few did not.
One friend, in particular, did not want me to have an abortion and made it very clear to me several times. I told them I was pregnant while we were out foraging for wild blackberries, hoping we could have a private, honest, and intimate conversation about what I was feeling and why I was planning on ending the pregnancy. Instead, I received some sympathy, some sadness, and some reasons why I should continue the pregnancy, which included: “we will help you with whatever you need,” and “we really want to meet this person.” I don’t remember asking for their opinion about what I should do.
This friend asked me why I made that choice and if I would please reconsider. Not once did my partner have to defend his reasons for not wanting to start a family. Not once did anyone ask him why he had co-chosen an abortion over a baby. Both the physical and the emotional weight of the decision was completely mine to hold. I was not doing the “right thing” and, as the person with the uterus, I was to be judged for it.
Where I Realize the Gendered Differences in my Life
Knowing what I knew about birth control, gender roles, patriarchy, capitalism, etc. I should have been more prepared for the responses to my abortion, but it’s always surprising for me to gain and re-gain awareness about the inequalities presented to me because of my uterus. My own first response to both birth control and abortion was to assume they were entirely my responsibility. I was never overtly taught this, but somewhere in my mind was the very clear idea that if I was to be sexually active with a partner with a penis, then I was to be responsible for not getting pregnant. I needed to decide which birth control option was best, I needed to plan for it, I needed to learn about it, I needed to pay for it, I needed to deal with the side effects of it, I needed to understand the efficacy rates and the risks.
Additionally, years into my marriage—as an aware, empowered, feminist—I was holding a positive pregnancy test and bracing for the impact of others’ opinions, while my partner did not have to worry about the social ramifications of his thoughts, actions, and beliefs around abortion. No one was mad at him for helping to create a fertilized egg that we then decided to not carry to term. I was having the abortion, and I received the anger and sadness from those who disapproved when all I wanted was understanding and support.
There are some who categorize this unpaid, unacknowledged, and disrespected work I have done and continue to do on a daily basis as reproductive labor. Because of my gender, my biology, and my relationship, I am put at a disadvantage both with my time and energy, and from a cultural/social standpoint. It is expected that I will take on the work of preventing pregnancy when that is the intention of the couple, and it is assumed that an unexpected pregnancy is my problem and my choice to deal with.
The experience of having an abortion was already difficult and emotional for reasons that had nothing to do with culture and gender roles, but those difficulties I actually found to be quite meaningful and allowed me the experience of growth and change. At it’s core, I think abortion (and sex/preventing pregnancy) are important parts of human existence, and their complexity is something we can honor and respect. When being a person with a uterus means being a person with all the responsibility for these events however, there is an imbalance. Although my realization of this imbalance was difficult, I am finding small ways to pull myself, and those around me, back into balance through the classes I teach. I recognize the other areas of my life in which I am privileged, while holding the awareness of my oppression and difference in other areas. It is messy being a human, and it is especially messy being a human in community with other humans, but it doesn’t always have to be imbalanced…I hope.
You may also like:
ASHLEY HARTMAN ANNIS - WRITER & EDUCATOR
Ashley Hartman Annis (she/her) is a fertility awareness educator & abortion/birth/postpartum doula-in-the-making. She is the creator of many zines & workbooks about menstrual cycle charting, birth control, and reproductive health.