In many ways, it would have just been easier for my mom if she had terminated my pregnancy.
After graduating from high school, my mom briefly tried dental college with the hopes of being a hygienist, and then worked at the phone company, but neither suited her. Along the way, she had twice been affianced to her high-school sweetheart. Both times the relationship dissolved before they made it to the altar. At age twenty-three, in the summer of America’s bicentennial, she found herself unemployed, single, and depressed, still living in the room she had shared with two sisters growing up, in a small row house in Philadelphia.
Those sisters had moved out, started lives of their own, and they had taken their older brother and their mother along with them. This left my mom alone with her dad, my grandfather, a retired alcoholic.
Perhaps I misspoke when I described my mom as unemployed: her job, for which she received room and board, was to take care of the old guy, his nerves shot from years of drinking himself to the point of hallucination, from an intense drug regimen that included Thorazine, from stays in institutions where he received shock treatment for his anxiety and depression and rage. My grandfather was not a kind man, though he could be clever. Even in the midst of delirium he might feign injury, and then when his wife came close to help, he’d get her in a headlock. He was tricksy.
When he spiraled into drink, day turned to night with the shades closed against the prying eyes of the neighbors, and nighttimes became bright with the blue glare of the television and rang with his ranting and raving. His diurnal rhythms deteriorated; he might be up at three in the morning or three in the afternoon demanding scrambled eggs, a carton of smokes, and a fifth of whiskey. My mom couldn’t leave him alone for fear he’d pass out with a cigarette in his mouth and burn the house down.
But eventually, when he couldn’t get out of bed and needed her to carry him to the bathroom, she said no. She didn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps, enabling his destructive behavior, a slave to a man enslaved by his appetites. But in the face of my mom’s defiance, my grandfather found his footing and lunged at her. Mom retreated down the stairs and he tripped behind her, and then lay crumpled in a sodden heap on the landing, moaning about how he had hurt himself and couldn’t walk.
Fearing a ruse, my mom grabbed whatever change was by the door and got the hell out of there. In the fallout that followed she spent time with an old friend, also in his early twenties, who would take her mind off her family problems and her life’s confusion with joyrides on his motorcycle and parties, lots of parties. It was the seventies, after all.
But this relationship also fell apart, when my mom found out she was pregnant. The boyfriend, too young, he thought, to be a father, offered her money for an abortion, and then disappeared. My mom’s mother, still mad that she had left her father at the foot of the steps — he had indeed broken his ankle in the tumble, and had to crawl to the phone and beg for his wife’s help — said she was good for nothing, a shame. My mom’s sister, a Catholic nun, suggested my mom escape to some home for wayward women where she could have the baby in secret and then give it up for adoption. She too, the kindly sister, felt tarnished by my mother’s pregnancy.
My mom refused.
“You changed my life,” my mom told me once. “I knew once I got pregnant with you that it wasn’t just my life anymore. I had to protect you. To keep you safe from those people.”
Those people — that’s a polite way of putting it. In the months of her pregnancy, she learned how to drive. She reconnected with her high-school sweetheart, whom she later married. He raised me as his son. She lived with her sister and mother — she couldn’t afford not to, in the beginning— but she dreamed and planned a life of her own, away from them. She wanted me, and later my brother too, to have the kind of childhood that she didn’t, one that felt safe from the threat of violence and the sting of verbal abuse.
My mom and I disagree on many things, I think. One of them is the idea that another person can change your life; that I, specifically, changed hers. Only you can change your life. Accidents or unforeseen events, like an unplanned pregnancy, happen, but how you deal with it — how you respond and react — is up to you.
So my thanks to you, Mom, for deciding to keep me, and raise me as best you knew how. Thanks for being strong enough, and motivated enough, to draw a better hand than the crappy one you were dealt. And while I don’t call as much as you would like, and never do much for Mother’s Day (like I forgot to even send a card, it occurs to me now), know that I’m grateful for your moxie and spirit, and that I love you for it.
And might I just add that I especially appreciate you not getting an abortion? It’s nice to be here. I have you to thank for that, and so much more.
We’re celebrating Mother’s Day by celebrating leaning in to motherhood, and by recognizing the extraordinary women that are our own mothers. We hope that it will inspire you to thank your own mother, or the mother who most inspires you. Find more letters and stories about leaning into motherhood here. And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org.