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I Hope You Dance

In 1979, I was twenty-five, a few years out of college, living alone in a tiny rent-stabilized apartment in New York City, when I became pregnant. I was taking classes at the New School for Social Research, drafting stories and essays, landing occasional free-lance assignments, waiting tables. I hadn’t been sexually active, but I’d gotten a diaphragm—in case. Then I met my future husband. After dating for about two months, I had my gynecologist insert an IUD in my uterus. To my shock, a few months later, despite my responsible precautions, I was pregnant.


The man I met and later married was sixteen years older than me. Though he’d been divorced already for seven years, he was still very much involved with his four children. I had missed my period a few days before he left for a three-week trip to Germany. He left before the pregnancy was confirmed. I didn’t hear from him again until he returned.


****


In 1964, my 30-year-old mother was pregnant again, with her fifth child. Our suburban split-level was pretty much at capacity. Three bedrooms—parents in one, two girls in the second, two boys in the third. But it was my mother’s capacity that was really the issue. I have only photos to show what was oblivious to me at nine, preoccupied with homework and the taunts of a mean girl at school: she’d begun to look pale and drawn, troubled around the eyes. There’s fatigue and something else. Our “Aunt” Lynette, a friend of my late grandmother’s, came to take care of us for a few days while Mom went away somewhere. Sometime, much later, I heard the words spoken: “nervous breakdown.”


My mom and dad had always wanted six children. That was the family lore. Dad had three siblings, Mom just one. In their youthful passion, they imagined themselves with a horde of little ones. But Mom’s streak of four children had ended with a child with developmental disabilities. I remember, when very small, watching her at the changing table trying to diaper a screaming infant. I knew this baby was “hard.” Hard is how it landed on me when, late in her life, my mother told me that despite her dream of six children, she had wanted to stop when she got to four.


****


As soon as I was pregnant, “morning sickness” crippled me all day. I had a small editing job. I was calling in sick. It was before cell phones; I had no way of communicating with the man in Germany, who was not communicating with me. I had to make a decision. It was way too soon to know if this was the man who would become my partner in life. He’d told me he didn’t want more children. I could end up a single mother on a part-time income, with none of the benefits of full-time employment or marriage.


****


In 1963, Women’s Liberation had come along. Betty Friedan published her book, The Feminine Mystique, documenting the malaise and desperation of the American housewife, who had been “freed by science and labor-saving appliances from drudgery,” but was not a happy person. By 1971, Gloria Steinem was publishing Ms. Magazine. In a 1969 essay, she had written, “Once upon a time...a Liberated Woman was somebody who had sex before marriage and a job afterward.” I’m pretty sure my mother had once felt herself to be that “Liberated Woman.”


She’d been a ballet dancer, something of a prodigy, if I interpret correctly things she told me: her close relationship to her ballet teacher, teaching classes herself by nine years old. In sepia-colored photos, she poses in relevéand arabesque, dressed in glittering costumes my grandmother sewed for her. Grace pours through her into her fingertips. “The hands are the most important,” she’d say. Scouts came to her studio when she was nineteen. “They stood in the back and just watched me.” And afterward, proffered her an invitation to join a small dance company.


My plucky young mother, steeped during her youth in images of the individualist Katharine Hepburn-type of the movies and magazines, was a mischief-maker, she said, a smoker at fifteen. She was sixteen in 1949, when she met my father where he ushered in a movie theater. She married at twenty, as he was going off to the Air Force. In photos she sent him, she’s posed provocatively in fashionable clothes. Love letters they exchanged read like sexting today. I was born when she was twenty-one. She had turned down the offer to dance. She wanted to be married, to have a baby. Still, she held a job at the telephone company, Bell Labs, made her own money. She was a determined and self-assured person.


In a reel of home movies of an early version of our family, my mother, svelte and tidy, dressed in the cutest short-shorts, her hair fashionably bobbed, trips along with us four children waddling behind. Those images say everything to me about what she thought she would make of family life: her children, little ducks in a row, well-behaved and taken care of, with a mother, poised, manicured, and self-possessed. She would have thought she could do both: rear a robust family and maintain her personhood of style and allure.

****

I huddled in my apartment, going out only when necessary, dirty hair shoved under a babushka—I couldn’t stand to get in the shower. I thought about my choice. It was stark, and also necessary. Every day I waited, the fetal cells were growing. If I wasn’t going to tell people I was pregnant, I couldn’t explain my debilitated state.

****

In 1967, my parents went house hunting. My mother was pregnant with her sixth child. From their choice of model homes going up in our brand-new development, she picked the ranch style—all rooms on one floor—clearly preparing for daily life that kept her constantly on the run.


I was in fifth grade. I remember the endless stream of laundry—folding was one of my chief chores. Shopping—Mom and Dad did this together on weekends while I grudgingly “sat” with the kids in the car. Cooking—she alone in the kitchen while I did my homework at the dining room table—and the clean-up afterward. Picking up after small children, changing diapers, making lunches, getting kids into outer gear on cold days. The Friday rituals of dusting and vacuuming, and for all that, the last-second frantic clearing of clutter when someone would suddenly be expected to arrive.


We both knew the work my mother did was maintenance. “What am I doing with my life?” she asked me many times.

****

Living alone in New York City, I was trying to distance myself from that family life. I felt an urgency to carve out a space for independence, to begin a life of professional and personal growth. My parents’ choices had made their impact on me: I did not want many children; I didn’t want any children until I had my life up and running, had done the independent things I wanted to do. My life before college had been completely child centered. Children had determined how we spent our time and managed our limited resources. They cramped our options for extracurricular activities and vacations. They drained our finances. I wanted to learn to play piano, for instance. There was no money for lessons. We never went anywhere you couldn’t travel to by car. When I left for college, my youngest brother was just going into kindergarten. My homelife had been filled with caring for children. I was done.


****


While my father had learned to access his power through his work, my mother doubted she had any at all. She could not locate her identity beyond her critical identity as mother of us children. She fought any notion that she was simply “his wife,” but when “more” eluded her, she fell into crisis.


Her anxieties ran deep. She would share with me her fear and dread of panic attacks that plagued her most often during the night—sheer terror and the inability to breathe. She’d wake looking bruised. She went to doctors, took medications. I often heard her say, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” One day she confided with visible relief that some doctor—a therapist?—encouraged her to think differently about her struggles. Not everything was depression; some things were anger, fear, avoidance, etc. She said it helped to have a strategy for sorting out what was understandable—even mundane—from the incomprehensible.


****


I had an abortion. It was the only viable option for me. I was not ready to have a child, regardless the father’s opinion or the fact that he was light years away in Germany. I did not believe abortion to be a moral decision in such an early stage of a pregnancy. It was an unwanted, but in the end, not a difficult choice. Not having had the option for choice would have been the most difficult thing I could imagine. I was nineteen when Roe v. Wade was decided. It gave me the right to make my own decisions about childbearing. It was the air I breathed. It was my oxygen.


****


Both my parents identified as Catholic. My father’s immigrant parents were Italian. In their small apartment in Brooklyn, rosaries and pictures of the Madonna and the Sacred Heart of Jesus were ubiquitous. My father attended a Catholic school. Surely, they went to mass every week. In my mother’s parents’ German-English home there was no Christian iconography. Though she was baptized, my mother never mentioned any relationship to church in her girlhood affairs. But as a couple, in my family, there was no separation between Church and State. We were practicing Catholics. Mass every Sunday, no meat on Fridays (though my mother couldn’t stomach fish), Baptism, Communion, Confession, Confirmation. That was my father’s doing. It’s possible my mother just went along. I knew my prayers from going to church. I don’t remember my mother ever saying bedtime prayers with me.


If my father dictated this course of action, did he also determined there would be no contraception in their sex lives? My mother must have told me they did not use contraception. They used the “rhythm method.” All else was against the dictates of the Church.


My mother would never have considered abortion, but she might well have prayed for contraception. She was thirty-four when she gave birth to her last child. After the sixth, was my mother’s answer abstinence? How many years were there between her last born and menopause? Was it menopause that set her free?


****


I had to bear my decision alone. I shared with only one friend, who went along with me to the procedure. I could not share my decision with my parents, not before, and not after. My parents’ morality weighed on me. I was ashamed to tell my Catholic parents I was pregnant before being married. Their golden girl, the first person in either family lineage to graduate from college. I hid my distress from them, to not have to blatantly overrule their objections. I knew I could not count on their support. I fantasized that my mother would have been okay with my decision, when most likely it would have torn her apart.


****


I was furious with my to-be husband for abandoning me in my moment of crisis. But in hindsight, I know what was happening. He was taking space from me to come to terms with his own feelings about having another child in his life. He returned, ready for my decision, whatever it might be. Though it seemed callous, he had in effect left me the space to make the decision that was right for me.


In all ways to look at the calculus, the decision was mine. The law permitted that I could take my life into my own hands. I might have been persuaded by one argument or another, but I had that power over my life. Other women I knew were using their power to determine their future. Women like the one my mother might have been.


****


In 1995, I was in graduate school, still chasing my dreams. I was forty. I’d been married to the man from my twenties, the one who wanted no more children, for many years. He’d become reconciled to my need not to be childless. I knew I wanted one biological child, maybe adopt others if circumstances permit. I was ready. Later that year, my daughter was born.


****


When the Supreme Court handed down the decision that affirmed the right to abortion in 1973, my mother was well past her childbearing years. Abortion had not been an option for her, though she did not desire her last two pregnancies. She was trapped in a situation that she made the best of. She loved all her children.


But her quiet despair was as much a teacher to me as anything that I wanted something more in my life. And she was clear with me on that point. I should strive for the fullest life possible, with family, she hoped, but also with whatever created meaning and fulfillment for me. In 2000, she handed me a recording by songwriter Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope You Dance.” She’d found the perfect message in a song. It was for me and my daughter, she said:


I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance…

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance…


My mother held a lifeline out for me to grasp. But “I hope you dance”—was exactly what I would have hoped for my mother. I could not, still cannot fathom that she would give up her promise as a dancer, even though motherhood gave her certain joy.


****


When I think about how my life might have turned out if I hadn’t had the abortion, I get chills. Not so much because I imagine myself as a single parent on a sketchy income. I know my parents would have given any help I needed and made it all right. Not so much because it would have derailed, at least for some time, my dreams of doing work that I loved. I had come too far in my convictions in the face of my mother’s dilemmas to think that I would abandon my intention to find fulfilling work. It's not even because I know I would have loved the child I would have borne. It’s because I can’t imagine not having lived the life I’ve led, with the man I love, in the places I’ve lived, in the work I’ve done, and with this child of mine, who is the most precious part of my existence. I see the life I have made for myself, and it is good.


After our daughter’s birth, in the hospital, my husband could hardly let her out of his arms. Between his holding and my nursing, my parents complained it was hard to get a turn! Driving home, I sat in the back seat beside her carseat carrier. My husband searched for my eyes in the rear-view mirror. “I love her,” he said. More than anything, so do I.


BIO

Cheryl Anne Latuner’s nonfiction has appeared in publications such as Literary Mama, Brevity, and Writing Fire: An Anthology Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words. Her first memoir was Baby at My Breast, Reflections of a Nursing Mother. She is at work on a new memoir on home and place, No Long Island Girl. She lives in Northampton, MA. cherylannelatuner.com


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