Why My Parents Chose Life

Only once, during my teenage years, did I ever ask my mother whether she had considered having an abortion.

A photograph of the author as a young child, with close-cropped blond hair and wearing a green-and-white henley, on the lap of his mother, sitting in front of a blue and white heart-shaped cake with three lit candles in it
The author and his mother (Courtesy of Matthew Walther; The Atlantic)

About the author: Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal. He is writing a biography of John Henry Newman.

I was born on February 22, 1990, the year with the highest incidence of abortion in American history, to two unmarried 18-year-old parents. My father had spent much of the previous summer in California and had planned to attend Michigan State University on a partial scholarship. My mother’s aspirations were unfixed but, I think, equally unremarkable. She told me recently that she drove half an hour to buy the pregnancy test for fear of being recognized at the local pharmacy. Family legend has it that she broke the news to my father at an exurban McDonald’s, though she thinks it must have been somewhere more private.

This announcement was not well received by my grandparents, who had understood that the couple in question were on the outs. My mother recalls a miserable family vacation during which she was forbidden to mention the pregnancy to her cousins; later she would complete her first and only semester of college when she was seven months pregnant. My father was kicked out of the house.

As I’ve written before, only once, during my teenage years, did I ever ask my mother whether she had considered having an abortion. Between her sobs, she made clear that it had never been entertained.

This is not a pious tract. My parents were not saints; they were ordinary young people who were no longer allowed to be young. My father especially was immature, far less willing to relinquish his childhood than my mother. But even she must have resented the fact that her friends from high school were enjoying newfound adult freedoms without the constraints necessarily imposed by her responsibility for another human being. She would have responsibility without freedom.

The author as a baby, held by his father
The author as a baby, held by his father

Thank goodness her parents came around very quickly—well before I was born, in fact. Until I was 2 years old, my mother and I lived at my maternal grandparents’ house. For a time, my father’s involvement was intermittent (he was always there for birthdays, including the one I spent in the sleeper unit of a semitruck bound with him for Wooster, Ohio). Eventually he and my mother did get married, though, and they would have four more children in almost as many years, my sister and two brothers, and one stillborn girl.

Neither I nor my siblings realized that our early childhood was one of grinding poverty. To my mother, who had grown up in the solid union middle class, it must have been obvious. There was a hole in the floor of my father’s truck that he explained away as a contrivance for spitting out tobacco juice. For years my mother drove an ancient Lincoln dubbed the “French Fry–mobile” (an allusion either to the car’s rusty exterior or to the remains of ancient Happy Meals occasionally visible in the hidden recesses of the leather seats).

To be a 20-something mother of four children under the age of 6 required toughness. The amount of public condescension and private (and sometimes not-so-private) scorn that she mostly refused to put up with is something that I have begun to understand only as an adult. For my part, I was always proud of the fact that my parents were younger than those of my friends, that my mother was beautiful and clever and my father strong and proud and very good at Donkey Kong Country, that they knew who Dr. Dre and Kid Rock were.

I am now old enough that some of my friends have parents who are advanced in age—some, indeed, have already buried a mother or a father. For me the deaths of my parents remain what they were in childhood: a remote prospect, like the expiration of the Beatles’ copyright or Super Bowl C. By the time my parents are likely to die, I shall be an old man myself and my children comfortably middle-aged.

Winifred Flosshilde Walther was stillborn two years ago, on my 30th birthday. Winnie—as we have always referred to her—was 19 or 20 weeks old. We were all in love with her, especially our two older girls—in love with her butterfly kicks and in-utero Axel jumps, with her face on the midwife’s portable ultrasound unit, with her name, which struck us as fitting somehow. For some reason the movements had ceased, and a week or so earlier her heartbeat had become undetectable.

I remember that day not as a continuous series of events leading up to the eventual delivery, but as a jumble of apparently meaningless discrete images, some of them almost absurdly banal: ice cream on a tray; a very small bathtub; something about the death certificate; holding her and being afraid to put on her clothes, afraid that I would destroy her tiny body, and eventually handing her to the midwife; my wife screaming “Let me have it!” along with Kate Bush; our bed at home; her suggesting that I leave the house because her mother was there (“It is your birthday!”); friends, one rather gallantly coming all the way from Detroit, dragging me out for Fury-Wilder part deux.

We buried Winnie four days later, on Ash Wednesday. Her obsequies were performed according to the Rite of Final Commendation for an Infant. Once again, my memories are impressionistic—snow falling on black cassocks, the tableau of mourners (fixed in my mind’s eye for some reason is the impossible image of us gathered around a pillar of flame), the Pater Noster, and, above all, the absence of our other children.

I still look occasionally at the pictures we took before we placed Winnie in her cigar-box coffin lined with images of the saints: the little white hat; the dress; the perfect body; the wrinkled, brown, curiously sagelike face seeming to hint at the answer to a riddle, the one posed by her existence. I keep them in a hidden folder on my iPhone.

In telling these stories my purpose is not, I trust, opaque. As the country awaits the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, I wanted to reflect upon my experience and that of my parents, who divorced in 2007 and are, like most members of my extended family, lapsed Catholics. Neither was especially devout as a teenager, and my mother’s was certainly what one would call an “unexpected pregnancy.” Hence the question that suggests itself effortlessly: Why?

I, for one, do not regret the brute fact of my existence. And I have every reason to think that if I had been stillborn, my parents would not have celebrated the chance at “freedom.” They would, I believe, have mourned just as my wife and I did for Winnie, who at the time of her death could have been legally aborted in all 50 states.

The story of my birth is not unique. Nor is it hopeless. I pray that soon there will be many more like it.