Editor’s Note: Matt Villano (@MattVillano) is a writer and editor based in California. His work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN and elsewhere. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
I became a father at age 34, the culmination of a lifelong dream to become a dad. But I could have become a father at age 19 – and that would have been one of the worst mistakes of my life.
That early experience started the way these things usually do. We were privileged and careless. We thought we were invincible. We thought stuff like that didn’t happen to us. We were wrong.
I told her immediately: “Your body, your choice.” I meant it with all my heart; I truly believed it wasn’t my call. She struggled. She was raised a “good” Christian. She didn’t want to be a mom at 18. She had plans. She had dreams. Those came first.
We went to Planned Parenthood. Only my best friend knew. I had money from a job at a fast-food restaurant and I paid. I stood in the waiting room – the seats were full of brown and Black and White faces from all over the city. I read People magazine while we waited. She was crying when she went in. One hour felt like 10. She was stoic when she came out.
We didn’t say much to each other for the days and weeks that followed. I just tried to be there, comforting her when she needed comforting, getting food when she needed food. We drank. She smoked – my housemates had a big grow of cannabis in the basement. None of it helped.
We grew apart. She turned back to Jesus, I to literary journalism. There wasn’t any drama when we split. Just acknowledgment: That was messed up. Goodbye.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to raise a baby while attending university. Sometimes I wonder what she’s doing now, if she’s OK, how she remembers it all. For years I felt guilty for putting this woman in the worst possible situation imaginable. Mostly I just think: THANK GOODNESS. Thank goodness she had a choice.
Thank goodness we did not become parents before we could legally drink.
Of course, that could all change in our country before Labor Day. According to an initial draft majority opinion leaked to the press last week, the Supreme Court will vote to strike down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed federal constitutional protections of privacy rights. Roe included in those privacy rights the right for a woman to make health care decisions concerning her own body.
The recent opinion draft also repudiated a 1992 decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which strengthened Roe by extending 14th Amendment protections of equality.
This means the Court is almost certainly prepared to let states decide whether to restrict or ban abortion. It means our state governments soon may have the authority to tell women what they can and can’t do. It means that in the near future, foolish kids like I was – and a whole host of others have been – may not have a choice to follow the same path I did.
For me, 15 years after that visit to Planned Parenthood, my path eventually circled back to fatherhood.
When I was ready for the responsibility, when I actually wanted it, I was lucky enough to play a part in creating three daughters who are exhilarating, exasperating and just about everything in between. I jumped into the “dad experience” without hesitation, managing everything from drop-offs and pickups to dance class and playdates. I’ve supported my girls through sexuality soul-searches, spelling bee championships, therapy sessions, trampoline park birthday parties, doctor appointments, Zoom school, friendship dramas and more.
No, life with these kids isn’t always rainbows, unicorns and likeable Instagram pics. Making things more complicated, their mother and I recently divorced and that transition has been tough for everyone.
The slog is part of the journey. I welcome it. I signed up for it. I find comfort in the imperfection, in knowing I’m finally formed enough as a human to show up for my kids whenever and however they need. A big part of the reason I embrace this dynamic is because I chose it. If I had been forced to accept the dynamic, it wouldn’t be the same. Neither would I. Neither would they.
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My oldest daughter will be 13 in a few weeks, and, like most kids in junior high school, she’s learning about sex. When I broke the news to her about the leaked opinion, she was flat-out furious at the thought of not having control over her own body. Almost without thinking, she began spewing rhetorical questions such as: “Don’t I have rights?” “Don’t I get a say?” “Who in the government cares about me?”
To be honest, her outrage was beautiful. And reassuring.
Beyond validating her feelings, I didn’t have any good answers in the moment – I try to keep it real with my kids, and authentic replies to questions like those are complicated, existential, and (given the current state of our nation) frustrating.
Instead, I vowed to fight like hell to make sure she and her sisters have the same choices they would have had when I was their age.
My girls deserve the right to choose when they become parents. We all do.