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Carolyn Hax: The burden of being an ‘unwanted child’


Hi, Carolyn:

Is it ever okay to tell a teen that if their parent(s) had a say, then he would have been aborted? How about if a teen thinks his deceased parent (three years ago) was wonderful and his mother is the enemy, whereas the truth is the father wanted to abort the child when he found out about the pregnancy?

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I know of at least three people who were told their parents would have had an abortion if it had been legal/the mother wanted to put her head in the oven when she found out she was pregnant/the child was conceived despite birth control and wasn’t wanted. Is this normal?

Unwanted child

“Put her head in the oven”? Have you been loitering outside the Parenting Hall of Fame?

You’re using a loaded term here. Not “aborted,” “enemy” or “unwanted.” It’s “normal.” That’s the hot potato.

I, too, know of people who were unplanned babies, failed-birth-control babies, oops-we-meant-to-stop-at-two babies, I-grudgingly-agreed-to-one-more-and-guess-what-we-had-twins babies, I-considered-abortion babies. Family planning is an excellent and necessary idea that can still take you only so far, because every element of it — modern medicine, our bodies, human nature — has well-established limitations.

In other words, there are planned babies, unplanned babies and babies who were planned against. Normal, all.

But that hardly means these babies fall into neat categories of loved, tolerated and resented, respectively. Mature people adapt to and embrace the detours from their plans. Immature ones can watch their plans unfold perfectly and still act like entitled, malcontent pills. People of all kinds fall head-over-heels for their babies (or don’t, for their own reasons), no matter what dramas led to their birth. And babies, as always, get the parents they get, without one burble of say in the matter.

So if you’re a loved and nurtured teenager whose parent admits to your being a failure of birth control — perhaps in a larger discussion of why you, ah, shouldn’t have sex with your girlfriend unless you’re ready to be a dad? — you’ll likely have a good laugh at your origins and write it into the story you tell of your largely functional but pratfall-rich childhood. “Normal” fits here, too.

If you’re a teenager, on the other hand, who has been treated since birth as a regret and an imposition, then being told the truth of your accidental origin will just be the cruel cherry on top. Here, normalcy takes a hike (and can you blame it?).

It isn’t what a parent tells you, it’s why. And it isn’t what the parent wanted before you existed, it’s what the parent felt when he held you, heard you cry out at night, came to support you — or berate you, or live vicariously through you — at your every excruciating AA Little League game. The dad who doesn’t want the zygote can be over the moon for the child. Don’t succumb to the temptation of making your origin your destiny.

Don’t read too much into your childhood, either, for that matter, and whether your parents were or weren’t over the moon. Your parents decide whether you exist and whether they’ll do right by you, but they don’t get to decide whether you matter. That’s something every one of us, pampered or buffeted, gets to decide for ourselves.

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