One night, years ago when I was a student in college, I sat at a table at a bar with five other students, drinking beer and discussing the great mysteries of life. It was the beginning of the summer, and I was getting acquainted with new faces as the town shifted seasonally from college students to horse racing fans and the bustling service industry that supported them in Saratoga Springs. I only knew one of the other women well, but the beer was flowing freely and so was the conversation literotica. The talk turned to concern for a friend who everyone at the table knew had recently found out she was pregnant and was recovering from an abortion. It was my first encounter with anyone I knew having to make that fateful choice. One by one, the women around the table told their stories about the abortions they’d had, until four stories were told. On the outside I tried to appear as dispassionate as they did, but on the inside I was shocked that four out of the six of us at that table had made the decision to have sex and then faced those very serious consequences. I decided that very night my “magical thinking” about sex had to change.
What kind of magical thinking? The kind that made me think that unexpected pregnancy was a rare event for people my age and in my group of peers, and that it could never happen to me. The kind of thinking that allowed me to push aside logic, reason, and sometimes condoms in the heat of the moment and tell myself that the person I was with couldn’t possibly have any sexually transmitted diseases even though I was too embarrassed to ask him about it directly. The kind that made me think, when I finally was ready to have children, that I was lucky that I had made it to that point in my life without having had any close calls, any near misses, or any long-term health problems from my sexual activity.
Nothing permanently alters a woman’s life course faster than an unexpected pregnancy, and half of the pregnancies annually in the United States are unplanned. Over my lifetime I have never heard a woman speak about becoming pregnant as if it didn’t affect her life in some lasting way. Discovering you are pregnant is a life-changing event, whether you planned it or not. Motherhood is not something that should be entered into lightly, on a whim, or by accident. Mothers who experience pregnancy losses through miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion carry those memories with them always. Mothers who are raising children make life choices day by day, for years on end, affected by, and affecting, those who are in their care for a lifetime. Health is precious, sometimes fragile, and worth guarding. Just ask a person who has contracted herpes, or someone who has AIDS. Sometimes something happens that cannot be undone. You can experience, move through, and process it, but not make it as though it never happened at all. You come through it changed; different in some way than you were before it occurred.
Sex is a complicated, grown-up experience with the possibility of serious consequences. The fact that it is exciting, mysterious, can feel great, has an air of danger sometimes, and is driven by strong emotions, hormones, and the biological urge to procreate can make it intoxicatingly easy to throw caution out the window and let magical thinking take over. And, magical thinking works great, until it doesn’t. Of the millions of women who got pregnant during the past year, hundreds of thousands of them have stories of how magical thinking stopped working its magic for them.
The United States has a horrible record of educating young women about their bodies and about sex. Whether you were blessed to have open communications about health and sexuality, or you were taught shame and abstinence, if you are sexually active the responsibility lies with you to learn factual information to navigate your experiences safely and in a healthy way. Even if you think you know everything you need to know, double-check your facts through a reputable source of information, like the Planned Parenthood website or Medline Plus.
If you are sexually active you need to accept the responsibilities that go along with your choice. If you are not ready to do that, it’s okay to “just say no” and abstain until you feel ready as a way to keep control over your own life. Lots of people do abstain for a variety of reasons, so you would not be alone in that choice. If that road is not for you, and you are not ready to have kids yet, or if you are just enjoying being with someone without any long-term plans, make sure you are protecting yourself from pregnancy and always protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases. Don’t let magical thinking change the course of your very real life.