A single knitting needle

bathtub sketchThe significance of the knitting needle did not dawn on me at first. I found it under the bath tub, buried in a mound of dust balls, while I was cleaning the flat we has just moved into, in Windsor, England, in 1962.

The flat was part of a semi-detached house dating from the 1870s. The bathroom could have been original. The floor was covered in black and white checkered linoleum, worn white in front of the chipped hand basin. Above the claw-foot tub was a rusty gas-fired contraption that roared to life when you turned on the faucet. The toilet was down the hall, in a more recent addition to the building.

That knitting needle haunted me, as gradually  I came to realize it was probably the instrument of an attempted abortion. I longed to know the story of the woman who had pushed it through the crack between the tub rim and the wall. Did she survive?

The conservative New Zealand society in which I grew up had such deep silences around anything to do with sexuality that I was nineteen before I even encountered the word “abortion.” It was in a letter from my mother. “Look it up,” she wrote, her stock response to any question having to do with the body. Mum’s news was that a girl I knew in high school was dead: a move to the city, an affair with a married man, a botched back street abortion, septicemia, the police phoning her parents, saying contemptuously Come and get your kid.

I too have known the desperation of an unwanted pregnancy. I went into marriage in 1960 with what today would seem unbelievable ignorance about sex. The kind ladies at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Christchurch fitted me with a diaphragm and instructed me in how to use it. But the contraceptive methods of those days had a high failure rate. Within a month of the wedding I was pregnant. My new husband was furious with me for stymying his plans to go abroad and make his name in science. I was terrified of the alien life form taking over my body. I tried to recall from novels I’d read how female characters sought to make missed periods come. Scalding hot baths—I tried that. Long, long walks—tried that too, into the seedier parts of the city. If I were to find an abortionist, it would be here. But I had no idea how to find one, and no-one to ask. Besides, I didn’t want to die, like my high school friend.

In time my resistance eased. I was, after all, a respectably married woman. I began to look forward to having a baby. My husband and I postponed the date for our departure to England, and informed the shipping company that we would be traveling with an infant. When our daughter was stillborn, I was devastated, both by the loss, and by the thought that I was being punished for not wanting her in the first place. I buried my grief and guilt deep inside and got on with my life. It took me twenty-five years before I could speak about what had happened, and finally begin to mourn.

In California in the early 1970s I made the acquaintance of a lawyer who had filed an amicus curiae brief in Roe vs. Wade. Together we celebrated that important Supreme Court decision, which affirmed a woman’s right to control her own body. Today I am dismayed that so many people seem to have forgotten, or maybe never knew, what the options were for women when abortion was illegal. The decision to end a pregnancy is never easy. But I, for one, don’t want to go back to the days of the knitting needle hidden under the bathtub.

11 Responses to “A single knitting needle”

  • Tansy Chapman:

    Thanking so much for posting this Maureen. Where is the empathy, love and support needed by women, often underaged girls, who are faced with heart rending decisions? There is so much suffering connected with unwanted pregnancies for both women and children, and often for the fathers. Making abortion a crime will not make it go away. Sex education, birth control and a deeper understanding of the role of poverty and violence toward women are factors that are much more likely to reduce unplanned births. Many women do decide to keep their babies, thanks in part to the lessening of shame around births out of wedlock, but it is a huge decision that only they can make. Taking away that right, can only lead to more shame and suffering.
    We older women need to offer our wisdom, encouragement and support.

  • Martha Buck:

    Thanks again, Maureen, for sharing your story and your wisdom.

  • I was struck by the husband getting furious at the wife’s spoiling of his plans, as if he’d had nothing to do with it…which was how it was in those days, always the female’s fault.

  • Sue Arnold:

    Thanks Maureen. I too have a story. One never forgets. We must have choices.

  • Thank you for the courage to speak for so many, that they may feel a little less alone in their loss.

  • Linda:

    Maureen ~ Your story telling always moves me, and this one is so powerful and timely. Thank you.

  • Patty Joslyn:

    I appreciate how pointed! and poignant this piece is..xo

  • Kate:

    Oh Maureen, how beautiful of you to share this heart wrenching story with us.

  • Jeanette Boyer:

    With all the current attacks on Planned Parenthood, what had seemed a tormented period in the past has a sad timeliness. Thanks for reminding us, Maureen, of the turmoil we continue to face with unwanted pregnancies.

  • Karen:

    Maureen – this is a chilling and beautiful essay. Do you realize that it’s “Pregnancy Loss Awareness Month”? I think that your words will comfort and inspire those who are in very difficult places with unplanned pregnancy and/or loss of pregnancy.

  • Devreaux Baker:

    very haunting piece, Maureen! So powerful and evocative of the time and that sense of desperation.

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