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Sarah Buttenwieser Headshot

Family Shaping

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Between the birth of my aunt and the birth of my mother five years later, my grandmother almost had twin boys. They were, I was told, stillborn. I am pretty sure the pregnancy did not go full-term, but little narrative was offered and even fewer facts. Even now, I can see white metal kitchen cupboards and the red cushions on the kitchen chairs at my grandparents' old house, the stately wooden dining table and the portrait of my grandmother and her girls -- my aunt and mother as children. The place and the information are intertwined with my child-self's perception of these things. What I remember: the loss was terribly sad to my grandmother, her face stiff with the attempt to be honest and not teary at once during the one time she mentioned it aloud to me. Mixed up in memories, that was the first time I grasped the reality that had my grandmother given birth to thriving twin boys, chances are she wouldn't have gone on to give birth to my mother. I remember this realization came as if the house itself told it me. Without my mother, the one who slept in a blue room and had a collection of tiny china teacups she never liked but that her mother wanted her to cherish, there would have been no me. I can practically smell the realization, like the musty, less traveled stairwells and hallways in the gracious house.

So, I paced those long hallways and opened drawers and cupboards to learn what was inside and I felt grateful that my grandmother lost that pregnancy. I felt ashamed that I was glad. The gladness wasn't at her grief or her loss; it was about being alive.

Throughout my own reproductive life, I've thought about this when the notion of "family planning" comes up. I forged a path through life, some of it plotted and tried for, and some of it... not.

For many of us, miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions, and 'oops' babies determine our families as much or more as anything else. The woman on birth control forever discontinues her pills only to discover that she can't get pregnant; the woman using a diaphragm gets pregnant anyway. Some pregnancies end by design; others end by what finally feels like happenstance. Adopted children are often coveted and waited for and oops babies all at once. How do you pin words to this messiness that is family making: plotting, planning, dreaming and the realm we might just call chance? Perhaps families are... the stuff that happens.

Mine is -- that's for sure. What if I'd had a baby at barely 18? It's not just my life that would be different -- the three boys I did give birth to wouldn't be on earth and the daughter we adopted would be elsewhere -- but another family wouldn't be what it is, either -- the former boyfriend's. It goes on like that. We all live with our stories, our truths, and our histories forged over time and design and happenstance. The issues cannot be extricated from the stories.

I'm bothered that we're so reluctant to share our stories with one another. We talk about the easy births or the badge of honor ones. We fall silent when issues like abortion -- 40 years legal this month -- come up. There's a strong cultural bias toward the neatly planned and orderly families that are possibly much more mythic than we want to believe. Many of us have family stories like my grandmother's or ours, some sort of jumble between the intentional and the messier, more chaotic version of what finally came to be. Our stories -- they are often sad and happy and bittersweet. I think we all gather strength as humans when whispered fragments can be given amplification, when all of our stories find their way into the world if we want them to.

When I think about my life and my family, the planned and the unplanned, there's no question that without the messiness, I would not have arrived here. I love my four children, and feel certain each one of them was meant for me. That's not necessarily the whole truth -- but I place meaning around it in ways that work for me. I'm grateful I had the ability to say no to pregnancies and yes to pregnancies. I'm grateful that our daughter's mother chose us to be parents to our daughter and sad that she has to nurse a grief that may be akin to a bruise that never quite heals, her own sore and tender spot. Although 40 years out, reproductive freedom is far from ours, I still believe it's worth working towards. If some parts of our stories are easier to voice than others, so be it. I want to find a way to share these stories, because I'm certain that the telling gives us chance to make them our own, whatever they are. If we stop telling, I believe we'll lose more than our stories.