My daughter was a toddler, taking a bath with her baby brother, when she pointed to his penis and said, "Why does he have a tail? His front butt doesn't look like mine." Yes, I did get permission to share this story. They both think it's hilarious.
What's not funny, in retrospect, is how little I had taught my daughter about the proper anatomical names of body parts, consent, and reproductive functions. I've spent years trying to correct the course on this, to the point where "it's MY body!" is now cleverly weaponized to evade routine hygiene tasks, getting dressed, or completing chores.
There is one last piece, though, that I feel hypocritical admitting: I haven't yet spoken to my kids about abortion — even though I've had one. Even though I deeply care about reproductive rights! And abortion access is in immediate jeopardy for much of the country soon, likely remaining out of reach for perhaps my children's entire reproductive lives.
As it stands, it's as if the legislative landmark Roe v Wade doesn't exist for many parts of the country already. A draft majority opinion obtained by POLITICO reveals the Supreme Court intends to strike down Roe entirely later this summer. As I write this watching my 9-month-old sleep peacefully and think about my older kids at school, I can't take my mind off how grateful I am for my own abortion, so many years ago. And I'm not alone. Six in ten women who have abortions are already parents, and half of them have two or more children.
A year and a half ago, some natural questions emerged when I told my kids I was pregnant and that they would have a little brother or sister soon. We bought a book recommended by a friend, It's So Amazing! by Robie H. Harris, which covers the entire gamut of puberty, sex, sexuality, pregnancy, and the many ways in which families are made. When we sat down to look through it together, my kids were fascinated. But the one brief page on abortion sparked something in me. Had I dropped the ball on including it in our age-appropriate, ongoing conversations?
Like any millennial mom, I turned to the internet seeking answers. I was ecstatic to stumble upon What's An Abortion Anyway?, a "medically accurate, non-judgmental, and gender-inclusive resource for young folks about abortion care," author Carly Manes told me in an interview. Manes and illustrator Mar, who goes by the artist name Emulsify, are both full-spectrum doulas who drew on their work as part of the book's development.
Assuaging my fears about waiting too late, Carly emphasized that the age-appropriate time for discussing abortion can be “when a young person starts asking questions; when the adult thinks it's time to introduce the topic; when it naturally comes up from school or in the news; or when a parent is going to have one."
I also spoke to sexual health educator Amy Lang of Birds & Bees & Kids, who explained that the reality is that the chances are high your child will grow up to either have an abortion, know someone who had an abortion, or be involved in an abortion if they can't get pregnant. One in four women will have one by the age of 45.
Discussing abortion with our children in a neutral, scientifically sound manner helps inoculate them against misleading rhetoric that stigmatizes it and helps raise them to be empathetic humans. Manes stresses that we often underestimate how smart kids are. "If they are already asking questions about a topic, then they are old enough to learn in a way that is tailored to their age."
With children under ten, I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to overwhelm them or confuse them. Manes describes her book as being really open and leaving space for deeper conversation if a young person is at that place.
I felt relieved. OK, so I hadn't completely missed a window. But I could start preparing now. And, as it turns out, the conversation can be an extension of how I approach everything else. Both Lang and Manes underscore how honesty in an age-appropriate manner from early on is directly related to how much our kids can trust us later in their life.
In considering when they might be ready to learn about my abortion, Lang suggests not until they are teens and reiterates the importance of accurate language. Children are concrete thinkers who can be easily swayed by the propaganda from the anti-abortion movement, which seeks to capitalize on this. And of course, as Lang presses, the most important thing you can do to prevent unintended pregnancy is talk about birth control and sex educate them. Families do their children (and all who can become pregnant) a disservice by not straightforwardly speaking about abortion as part of a larger conversation regarding bodily autonomy, consent, sexuality, and sex education.
Unsurprisingly, respect and trust were the two most common refrains in my discussions. Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs, a writer, organizer, and antiracist parenting educator, agrees with Manes and Lang about how vital it is that we demonstrate a willingness to be radically honest with our kids, at their level.
"One of the main building blocks to having these types of conversations is the foundation of an open, trusting relationship with your child," she said in an interview. "If you've avoided the topic and now have older kids who have never discussed abortion with you, it's important to first ask questions, because they may be getting an array of information from their peers and other sources."
As for Manes' book, I am keeping it around as a bookshelf resource to facilitate and complement discussions, when they arise. She also hit on something that elucidated why I feel so strongly about getting it right. No matter if we personally would ever get an abortion, we all get to "make decisions about our own bodies. We should be in control of our bodies—what happens, who has access, what we do with them,” she says. “No matter what others decide, we should show up with love and respect based on their decision for themselves.”
Many years later, after my abortion, when that home pregnancy test surprised me with that bright double line, I was overcome with joy. All pregnant people deserve this fundamental right to self-determination to make the best decisions for themselves, their families, and their futures. Now I have the language and tools to help my kids develop their understanding of these basic tenets I value.
When the Supreme Court guts Roe, I feel confident that my children will be, when they are ready, prepared with the knowledge and understanding of abortion as a human rights issue to navigate the harrowing landscape that awaits. As our children age, these conversations can develop and help us build a coalition with them as caring, engaged citizens. St. Bernard-Jacobs says, "Parents and caregivers play a role in educating them about the disparities in reproductive health and also the facts about abortion. I think of the power that older kids hold when interacting with their peers. They have immense power to organize and advocate."
On a walk around the neighborhood recently, my daughter asked a question that made me think, is this the opening? Is she ready to discuss it? Maybe. Maybe not. Before I could follow my thought, she was back to humming, "We Don't Talk About Bruno." I don't worry about being prepared anymore; I know when they're ready, I will be, too.
Molly Wadzeck Kraus is a freelance writer and mother of three. Born and raised in Waco, Texas, she moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she worked in animal rescue and welfare for many years. She writes essays and poems about feminism, mental health, parenting, pop culture, and politics. She is usually late because she stopped to pet a dog. She tweets at @mwadzeckkraus.