When was the last time you read a book that was truly incendiary? That offered a viewpoint you had genuinely never heard before?
In this digital age, so few untackled taboos remain. From sexuality to periods to menopause, the realities of womanhood are increasingly debated in the open, the pins of misplaced propriety being gradually knocked down one by one. And yet, how often have you heard a woman speak of being denied an abortion, forced to carry a child she’s not sure she can provide for, unable to access adequate healthcare when that child is born unwell?
Were you to imagine such a story, where would it be set? Zimbabwe? Poland? Were you to picture this woman, who would she be? I can’t imagine you’d conjure American Christa Parravani, bestselling author, liberal New York native, Columbia graduate, university professor and mother of two children, and then three. For Parravani is that woman, her third child, a son named Keats, the baby she initially sought to terminate. And now, in Loved and Wanted, she is turning the page on a taboo of motherhood over which few have dared to tread.
“The majority of women who seek reproductive healthcare in the USA are already mothers,” Parravani tells me today, “and they’re doing it because they are concerned about providing for the children that they already have. There’s this idea, and it’s a completely false idea, that women are using abortion as birth control. It’s just not true. There are so many ways in which we are lied to about reproductive healthcare, it’s astonishing, and the reality is that so many women make the choice to continue a pregnancy, or not, because they want to be able to provide stable homes for the children that they already have.
“Women who are denied reproductive healthcare are much more likely to be homeless, unemployed, tethered to abusive partners, to have children who are failing school, who are incarcerated, who go hungry, who are unable to thrive. The impact that reproductive health care has on families is long-lasting. And I don’t think that’s something that has been discussed enough.”
In Parravani’s own case, her family had uprooted from California in order for her to accept an assistant professor’s position teaching creative non-fiction at West Virginia University. The decision, she says, was financially motivated. Childcare for their two young daughters was extortionate in LA, her husband, Jarhead author Anthony Swofford, had been struggling to find work, and West Virginia offered a lifeline. She was 40, and broke. Soon, she discovered, she was also pregnant with a third child the family could ill-afford. Abortion, she says, seemed the logical option.
“I was utterly shocked about what the logistical realities of that were. In the state of West Virginia, there was a 48-hour waiting period in order to see a doctor after the initial consultation, then you have to go back to have follow-up checks. You have to have a verbal warning about all of the bad things that could happen to you if you decide to choose an abortion. And you have to do all that at a clinic that, for me, was four hours away from our house. When you have two children already that require childcare and you have no family or people to help you and you have no time off from work, you’re not going to have access to that clinic. It’s just not going to happen. And lawmakers know that, and they design the laws to be hard for people to stop them from being able to seek a termination.”
In the book, Parravani recounts, in shocking detail, the lengths she goes to find a sympathetic doctor – and the barriers she repeatedly hits. “Unfortunately, stopping people from seeking a termination of pregnancy doesn’t end the hardships that are the catalyst for the decision in the first place. I remained pregnant, I remained unable to pay for my child. I have now taken on extra work in order to be able to provide for him, and it has been incredibly hard – much harder than I even thought it would be, especially with the pandemic and the total lack of childcare for anyone.
“But the other part of the problem for me was that the attitude, the view of reproductive health care as a thing that you should not have access to, is something that causes a great deal of shame. You feel like the thing that you’re seeking, which is totally legal by any standards, is just awfully wrong. And that really broke my confidence in myself as a mother.”
Parravani’s response was to write, she says, in order to open up a conversation about “what it means to have your agency taken from you. What it means as you go on in your life as a parent, to be able to adequately care for your children mentally after you’ve been through that. It’s a hard world. We need to give mothers as much confidence as possible to be able to bring our children up. I felt that was taken from me, but there’s no quantifiable way to talk about that.”
This is America
In a further blow, Parravani suffered a difficult birth which left her son with a broken clavicle. He was also born with a sever lip and tongue tie which left him unable to feed. Both conditions were overlooked by multiple doctors.
“His healthcare in the state of West Virginia was completely inadequate,” she says, shaking her head. “After several months of research, I found that states which limit access to reproductive healthcare have the worst outcomes for infants and children. The laws that were stopping me from making decisions were actually harmful to my children. When you limit access to reproductive healthcare, you limit the funds for infant care, because there are fewer midwives, fewer beds in the maternity ward, fewer doctors paid to take care of women in the first place. It’s a logical argument. And I don’t know why it’s an argument that we’re not actually having.”
So, the book, Parravani felt, was vital. But what she could not have foreseen when she began writing it was how omnipotent it would become. For beyond the logistics of reproductive health, and the highly relatable but no-less confronting handling of gender roles within a marriage, the book discusses the wider issues of living in a so-called red state, a conservative, Republican society very much different from Parravani’s native New York or adopted home, California.
Parravani’s pregnancy occurred in 2017, a year after West Virginia had played a key role in handing Donald Trump the presidency, aided along the way by the actions of a then little-known group called the Proud Boys. Throughout the book, issues of race, of equality, of feeling like a duck out of political water are dissected with a forensic eye for detail.
“As I wrote about that time and what it was like to live in West Virginia,” she says now, “it wasn’t something that was on the national stage. We weren’t talking about the Proud Boys, even when I was writing the book. It happened later after I handed in, and we’ve since seen absolute unrest, a complete transformation of our ideas about the ways in which race relations are problematic in this country. I’m so glad that we’re having this reckoning. But at the time I was writing this book I thought, ‘will anybody believe me?’
“So, I do feel like this book is a record of American politics in the time of the Trump administration in a way that I did not intend it to be. I was just talking through what it meant to live during that time, because I did feel like the hate, the contamination, the poverty, all of these things are cyclical and lead to a system that cannot support its people. All of these problems are interrelated and I was trying to pull them apart, one by one, to understand what it meant to be a citizen of this country and have it be so broken. It just turns out that it was pretty timely!”
Today, Parravani, now happily living across the state border in Pittsburgh, is experiencing both optimism and fear – her joy at the Democrats’ victory tempered by the Trump campaign’s continuing refusal to concede. Kamala Harris’ ascent into the political spotlight, she says, has had a brilliant impact on her eldest daughter, who now veers between wanting to be an astronaut or to aspire to the presidency herself.
In her own way, Parravani says, this idea of showing her children what a better, fairer world could look like was a decisive motivator in her choosing to write the book in the first place. Few could argue. But does she, I ask tentatively, worry about her son’s reaction to the text when he’s old enough to engage with it?
“It’s not something that I have an answer for yet,” she says, pausing to organise her thoughts. “I can say the title for the book comes from the question that I kept asking myself throughout the writing process, which is, what will I tell my son about this book? I know at some point in our lives together, this is going to be a question that will be asked of me, and I’m going to tell him that he’s loved and wanted. And I don’t think that we ought to have such a stringent view of choice that we should tell a mother that she can’t both want access to reproductive healthcare, and not love and want her child. Choices are complex, and I feel like there’s a way in which we don’t allow mothers to address that.
“I also feel as if just being given the choice gives somebody the confidence to be able to say, ‘Yes, I can do this for myself,’ or not. I don’t know what choice I would’ve exercised had I been given the choice, because I wasn’t given the choice. I can’t tell you. I do know that had I been given the choice, I would have had a stronger voice to advocate for my son’s health care when he wound up not being born well. I think I would have not been diminished in the ways that I had been diminished already at that point. And that’s a crime.”
She shrugs, goes quiet for a moment, then smiles. “I have three children, two daughters and a son. I want my daughters to know that I did everything in my power to advocate for their choice and their healthcare. And I hope that my son will understand that he grew up in a house of women who deserve to have equal opportunities, who deserve to be women who stand on their own two feet. And I hope that then, when the time comes, he will say, ‘Yeah, mom, thank you. I’m glad that you did that.’”
Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children and Motherhood by Christa Parravani is out now, published by Manilla Press (£11.99). Buy your copy here