Bystanders in Love
Last month, I received notable mention for my submission to the New York Times Modern Love College Essay contest. I thought it might be an important contribution to a discussion about feminism, choice, control, and equality in love, so here it is.
Along the entire walk to the campus health center, I swore to myself that I was not going to take the pill.
I had it all under control. Three days earlier, the boy I had been crushing on had — after much flirting, hinting, prodding and finally open-faced demands — asked me out on a date. A real date.
I was responsible. I was thoughtful. I was informed. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, my decision about this boy was going to be; but in the meantime, I was taking advantage of the opportunity my university had provided me (free of charge) to schedule a reproductive health consultation. I was not going to contract an STD. I was not going to get pregnant.
But still, I was not going to take the pill. My mother, a doctor with no fondness for Big Pharma, had told me over again: “There are real health consequences for putting these hormones in your body. Trust me, don’t do it.”
Seven minutes later, I found myself speaking with a harried-looking middle-aged woman who had — apparently — not gone to medical school to talk with young women about the pitfalls and pains of birth control. But I asked, so she laid out the options.
“A diaphragm has to be fitted. Honestly, most places don’t even carry them anymore because there is such low demand.”
“Condoms are as effective as you are at using them. Even then, though, there is still a risk of pregnancy.”
“Most girls your age are getting the implant. It lasts up to three years.”
“Isn’t there anything that doesn’t have hormones?”
“They’re not as effective.”
“Yes, but my mother — “
“Look.” Now she was annoyed. “Women have been taking the pill for generations. There are some side effects and risks, but that’s true of anything. It’s not your mother’s choice, you know. It’s yours.”
I resented the implication, so clear in the purse of her lips, that my mother was a helicopter parent, offering me health advice in service of her own agenda. But still, she had hit on what I wanted.
I wanted a choice. And I wanted that choice to be mine.
The pill hasn’t really lived up to the intended use of its creator, Margaret Sanger. An ardent eugenicist, Sanger invented birth control in order to “stop the multiplication of the unfit.” She wanted to reduce births among the lower classes.
Sanger never intended for the pill to be used by white, upper-middle class women like me. She never meant for the pill to enable women’s economic independence or sexual freedom. She didn’t think the pill would give women choices. But, ask any feminist, and she will smile: “That’s when the revolution really began. When we could control our own bodies.”
The first time I took the pill, I was alone in a CVS parking lot. My boyfriend and I were still in the early days of our relationship, where questions like “why did you tell all your friends we were dating but then refuse to hold my hand in public?” were mostly said internally.
I didn’t tell him about going to the clinic. He was two years older than I, and I was dreading the conversation I knew would scare him away. Former boyfriends? No. You’re the first. Well — the first real one. If I was on birth control, I thought, maybe he wouldn’t notice.
Then the headaches began. Even after reading the massively long list of potential side effects, I didn’t think it might be the pill until four weeks later. I was sitting in class when abdominal pain hit me like a one-two punch.
I remember staring up at the blue sky, praying some distinguished professor wouldn’t stumble across me as I lay on the pavement, wondering if I was going to have to call someone to drive me to my dorm. Or the hospital.
I thought about calling the boy. It was his fault, I thought bitterly, that I was in pain. But that might be unfair. Four weeks of awkward lunch dates was too early to depend on someone.
The subsequent discovery of an incredibly large menstrual blood clot (and some very disturbing WebMD forum searches involving “blood clot” and “the pill”) was enough to scare me off birth control. My boyfriend never even knew I had started.
For a while, I forgot about the pill. I suppose I was busy with the business of falling in love.
You know the way it goes. I was never an early riser, and my boyfriend would try to incentivize me to wake up by bringing me coffee — which quickly expanded to muffins, toast, toast with peanut butter, open curtains, kisses, painful jabs, anything to get me to open my eyes. Eventually, I would.
We had late night conversations about past loves and current fears, with just the right combination of idealism and pragmatism to plan for, one day, getting our own apartment and making breakfast in a real kitchen. We’d stay together, even after he graduated. “Not forever,” he said. “Just a really, really long time.”
In June, my boyfriend got a job overseas. Then my doctor told me I had an ovarian syndrome that might one day make it difficult for me to get pregnant, but currently made my cycle very irregular, so would I want to consider a low-dose estrogen pill?
This time, I did tell my boyfriend. He didn’t really understand what it meant to be told you had a reduced chance of having children. He did understand the perils of unpredictable periods.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. “It’s your choice.”
I remember looking at that little pill packet. How could something so small be so powerful?
I thought about all the women who’s lives had improved because of the pill. Women who don’t have to risk dying in childbirth. Women who are protected from abusive partners. Women who don’t have to leave their careers.
I was one of those women. Right?
In exchange for taking one pill a day, I was getting a choice. I was being empowered. My body would belong to me.
So, I took the pill.
Back when we were just talking, my boyfriend had told me he thought it was unfair that women had to pay the financial cost of family planning. It was one of the things that had endeared me to him. What a feminist, I thought. So in touch with women’s issues. “If you had to buy birth control,” he told me, “I’d pay for half.”
After shelling out the first of many $20 co-payments for my pill packet, I joked over Skype that he owed me a Venmo payment.
He hedged. “Well, you know, I am paying more for WiFi over here to Skype you. So let’s just call it even.”
The truth was that my boyfriend couldn’t have borne half the cost of birth control, even if he had wanted to. Over the next year, he watched over video-chat as my health deteriorated.
First, on vacation in Dubrovnik, I nearly passed out walking the city walls. But that could’ve been from the heat. Then I started feeling fatigued, my mood depressed. But, well, I was tired and stressed from school. Then the weight gain. But I had been exercising less, because of the fatigue.
Finally, I started getting stomachaches. They got worse and worse. I couldn’t fall asleep, eating and moving was painful. I left my room as little as possible, binge-watching Netflix as a form of pain management. Several doctors’ visits later, they told me it was an ulcer.
One Saturday morning in April, I woke up and threw my pills out the window.
I don’t know why, or what about that day in particular made me do it. But I knew my relationship with the pill was over. For good.
When I tell other women about my experience with the pill, they tend to frown. Maybe I was taking the wrong type of pill. Maybe my body was reacting differently, needed time to adjust. Certainly, none of those things had ever happened to them. Many of them had started taking the pill for medical reasons, to help with painful periods or acne. But they had heard stories, so they shrug. “It’s up to you,” they say.
I can’t prove that the pill caused my ulcer, or my fatigue, or even my weight gain. All of those symptoms, among other things, are listed as potential side effects of birth control. But still — who’s to say it really was that little pink pill?
What I do know is that forty-eight hours after I stopped hormonal birth control, my body experienced something I can only describe as joy. Heavy storm-clouds lifted from my limbs, and I ran around the student-house smiling and laughing with people I hadn’t spoken to in months, feeling excited and radiant and wonderful about being alive.
I told my boyfriend a few weeks later. I said I was happy.
He felt bad. “I think I should have seen the pill was bad for you.”
“What could you have done?” I asked reasonably. “It was my choice.”
My boyfriend and I broke up in December. He was one of the good ones, as far as first loves go. He tried to understand. He believed in feminism. He supported equal rights. He loved me. But there is no male birth control. So all of the choices had to be mine.
Choice can be a blessing. But for me, the uncontested belief that it was my choice, and my choice alone, turned my loved ones into bystanders and left me stranded in lonely decisions. I couldn’t include my mother, because it was my choice. I couldn’t include my friends, because it was my choice. I couldn’t include my boyfriend, because it was my choice.
My boyfriend and I could never really be equal partners in a conversation about love and sex and relationships. He was always just a bystander; albeit a bystander in love. Any would-be lover, even if they love you, can ultimately only ask, “What are you going to do?”
Because it’s your choice.