Lucille Clifton, “the lost baby poem”
by Charlotte Shane
the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned
It feels reductive to refer to this as a poem about abortion when it’s mostly a poem about responsibility, integrity, and the impossibility of navigating life without eliminating many options by selecting one. But Clifton herself objected to the erasure of abortion in discussions of this poem and its power is entirely dependent on the narrator’s agency. Without the element of choice, these lines mean nothing.
I too am someone who said “no” to the beginnings of a baby, as did my own mother, as did many of my friends — many more, I imagine, than I know about, not because they’re ashamed or traumatized but because that abnegation didn’t linger in their mental or emotional lives. Perhaps this is the fate of most successful decisions. They bleed into the background of our everyday reality, because what they enabled was normalcy or equilibrium. Because they improved our lives by not jeopardizing or disrupting our lives, but no more.
The majority of women choosing to end their pregnancies are already mothers and of those who aren’t, more will be, someday. The people outside either category are as burdened with obligations as any human, with the need to create and sustain a life that seems worth living. The most beautiful aspect of “the lost baby poem,” for me, is how it allows sadness to exist without regret. Or rather, it makes space for regret without the simultaneous wish to have made a different choice.
This poem is something like a prayer, and a promise. Let me live a life of strength and usefulness. Let me care for those who have been entrusted to me. Let me accept the consequences if I do not. I hope it’s something we will all be brave enough to ask for, non-mothers and mothers alike.