Abortion doula diaries: Do all women feel sadness?

I worked at the hospital this morning as an abortion doula. There was only one patient today.

After my first post about being an abortion doula, I’ve been thinking a lot about the responses I received. Some where the to-be-expected anti-choice comments about how what I do, or what I call myself, is a contradiction. Some were simply well-meaning comments about how needed this work is, or how great I am for being with women during such a difficult time.

Abortion gets so much attention as a political issue in this society that it often totally obscures people’s actual experience.

Today was a reminder of how those assumptions are often totally incorrect.

As I mentioned in my first post, it’s not uncommon for the procedure to be emotional for women. But it’s not always for the reason that one might think. People assume that abortions are about sadness.

Not for everyone.

For example, the woman I supported today was most nervous about the pain she might feel during the procedure. We talked about it beforehand, I tried to reassure her. Once the procedure had started, she began to cry, and proceeded to cry through until the end.

She held my hand tightly, I caressed her shoulder and tried to say reassuring things (you’re doing great, don’t forget to breathe) throughout. For most people, the procedure only takes 10-15 minutes.

If I hadn’t continued to sit with her for the 45 minutes she was in recovery after the procedure, I would never have known why she was crying. I could have laid all sorts of assumptions on her about her experience, about the reason for her tears.

Instead, I got to sit with her after the medication wore off, and she told me that while the procedure did hurt, what was hardest for her were the noises of the machines. They scared her she said, and made her nervous. (The noises we heard were the pulse/blood pressure monitor beeping and a little bit of suction during the procedure.)

She didn’t talk about sadness around the abortion at all.

Doing this work feels in striking contrast to the political theatre that is abortion policy these days. I spent a good portion of my weekend working on an article about the new House GOP anti-abortion agenda. When we talk about things on a policy level, they lose their human component altogether.

Anti-abortion legislation contains little compassion for the women who choose the procedure every day. Instead, it seeks to make things harder for her–make it impossible for her to pay for the procedure, require unnecessary exams and waiting periods. The list goes on. Those bills, the debates, the discussions about who should have access to what procedure are so far removed from where I was this morning that it’s appalling.

Of the ten or so women that I’ve supported so far, most of them experienced some kind of emotion during their procedure. But almost all of them experienced emotions other than sadness about the actual abortion.

One woman was distraught because of the mistreatment she faces at home from her family.

Another, like the woman today, was scared about the pain and the procedure itself.

A third, a younger woman, was mostly curious about my work, and the work of the counselor with me. She asked a lot of questions about our jobs and expressed interest in doing this work herself.

Of course, among these, there was at least one woman I worked with who did feel sadness about the procedure itself.

We need to constantly check our assumptions about what women having abortions experience. I’m glad I can be there to provide support, even if support might mean giving career advice or assuaging someone’s fears about the procedure itself.


12 thoughts on “Abortion doula diaries: Do all women feel sadness?

  1. Gwen February 8, 2011 / 1:56 pm

    I am currently working as a birth doula and am very interested in supporting women during abortion as well. Thank you for sharing your compassion and presence.

  2. Liz February 8, 2011 / 1:56 pm

    For me, the overwhelming emotion I felt was relief. There was no sadness or fear. I moved through the motions, the steps, the process with familiarity because I previously worked in a clinic. The only new step for me was being the patient. After my abortion, I walked out of the clinic happy. The weeks leading up to my abortion were about tears and pain, anguish and hostility over something I did not want in my body. My abortion brought me relief from all of that. The change in my attitude and even my health was immediate; to the extent that my partner commented on it right away.

    Like you wrote, not all women are sad or feel regret. That was not my experience at all.

  3. biodork February 8, 2011 / 2:13 pm

    Your job sounds incredibly fulfilling. Thanks for supporting women during their abortions.

  4. Brice February 8, 2011 / 3:02 pm

    Such an important topic to discuss. I work in reproductive healthcare, and for a woman to have a support person through the entire process is incredibly beneficial. The topic is so loaded – I meet women who haven’t told anyone of their situation, and go it alone. The emotions are complex, and every woman’s story is different. Wonderful, important work you’re doing. All stories deserve to be heard.

  5. Jane February 9, 2011 / 3:16 pm

    Thank you so much for doing this work.

  6. Laura February 9, 2011 / 5:40 pm

    I wish there had been someone around 25 years ago when I went through an abortion, one of the worst experiences in my life because I had no support & was terrified.

  7. anon February 9, 2011 / 5:58 pm

    My strongest memory from my abortion is the nurse who sat beside me and held my hand the whole time. I am forever grateful to her. I was so frightened, and I elected to take pain medications that had me in an altered state (which I was warned about, but it was still disorienting). Her hand was the only thing that seemed meaningful and solid in my world.

    And, somehow, I needed her–a stranger–to comfort me more than I needed my mother. I needed a stranger’s affection and comfort and complete lack of judgement and total understanding.

    You are fulfilling a great service. Never let them tell you otherwise.

  8. Ruth February 10, 2011 / 12:42 am

    Thank you for what you do. When I had my abortion I didn’t realize how important the support of others would be. My doctor was a wonderful woman who was supportive and recommended that I make sure my partner was available when I had finished the procedure as I elected to have a medical abortion. I heeded her advice, even though I thought I would be OK by myself, and I’m glad I did. I was lucky that my partner was there to support me because when I started to feel overwhelmed by what was going on, I had another person to help me come back to reality and remind me that I was actually in control.

    I’m sure the woman who you accompany through this situation are grateful to you in a way they can never express. I admire what you do and feel strengthened and hopeful about the world knowing that there are people like you.

  9. Emma February 10, 2011 / 12:06 pm

    At 8 weeks, I was told by my doctor that my pregnancy wasn’t viable. Although the fetus still had a heartbeat, it wasn’t growing properly and a miscarriage at a later date was probably inevitable. Rather than wait, my doctor performed a D&C. I wanted to have a baby, but I made the choice to have the procedure and get the miscarriage process over with. It took place at a hospital, under general anesthesia and was an outpatient procedure. But I still had people tell me this was not an abortion because I’d “wanted it.” I was amazed that these people still don’t see or understand all the shades of gray.

  10. V March 14, 2011 / 8:17 pm

    Thank you for this post.

    I am always so frustrated when all we read about are women devastated and damaged after having an abortion.

    I had an abortion; it was not a burden financially, physically or emotionally. I had no pain and no trauma. It was absolutely the right choice for who I was at the time and I have no regrets.

    I do not think that, being who I am today, I would choose to have an abortion under almost any circumstance… but that does not mean that I regret my choice before.

  11. amy March 28, 2011 / 11:12 am

    I was 18 or 19 when I had an abortion. I did not know that day was the anniversary of Wade vs. Row and in Dallas it seems that people go to abortion clinics and protest on this day. I was even on the news. I don’t think anyone saw me and my boyfriend at the time, but who knows. So I did experience much fear (pro-life protesters are loud and scary) and pain, I did not experience any sadness or regret. Twenty years later I still have no regrets, but I have experienced guilt for not being sad. It seems that most of the women I know who have had an abortion feel a lot of sadness about the “child they will never know” and a deep sense of loss. I thought I was supposed to feel this way too and that I was some kind of sociopath for not having those feelings. I feel very relieved after reading this article. Thank you.

  12. MadamaAmbi July 6, 2011 / 12:46 pm

    I can relate to the woman’s fear of the pain and how the noises exacerbated her fear level. I’m super-sensitive to pain and always discuss this before any procedure–if a practitioner can’t offer me pain medication (and usually a higher dosage than “most people” need), I won’t go forward with that practioner.

    Here’s a suggestion re the sounds of the machines–how about noise-cancelling earphones? I’m sure she’s not the only one who would rather not hear what’s going on.

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