I work at an abortion clinic. Let me tell you how this affects my interaction with people.
First, some context. I live Fredericton, a city with a population of 60,000. Because it is a provincial capital, there is a great deal of government activity here, and it is also a university town. Those things equal a fair amount of progressiveness. However, Fredericton is one of only three actual cities in a very poor province that is made up of mostly rural areas. The overarching mood here is socially conservative. Fredericton, despite having a disproportionately large LGTBQ population and a very active social justice activist community, has at the very least a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to…well, everything. Most of the “fine old Fredericton families” (or FOFFs as they are known) are social conservatives, in a steadfastly Conservative riding. The people here who have the power do not rock the boat. Nobody is particularly argumentative; they just don’t talk about that kind of thing. “That kind of thing” ranges from sex to religion to politics and pretty much everything in between. It’s the kind of place where people have enthusiastic, hour-long conversations about the weather.
I was not born in Fredericton, but I’ve lived here for twelve years and I went to high school and university here. I hold an awkward position: to most of my friends, who came from other provinces to go to university, I am a “townie,” but to the FOFFs, I am forever “from away”.
My partner is from a FOFF and goes to law school. Outside of our families (which I will get to later), most of the people I meet are either from the aforementioned community of social justice activists – who think that my job and reproductive justice activism are pretty cool – or people in the law/FOFF/old white man community who, regardless of what they think on the topic (if they actually have an opinion), probably don’t want to know what I do for a living anyway. It’s kind of a weird blend.
I have found that for those of us who work in abortion care, in any capacity, there are very distinct spheres that we have to inhabit. As I found when I started doing this work, and especially the activism side of it, it is easy to get immersed in it to the point where every conversation you have and everything you write is about abortion, and you read every news article and press release in the context of the abortion “debate.” It is, to put it mildly, absorbing. I am very privileged to have safe spaces to have those conversations, both online and in my real life. And then outside of that bubble is where the normal people live, the people who don’t talk/think about abortion every single minute of the day.
Outside of the bubble, the first challenge is revealing your involvement. Now that I am an adult, I have to adjust to the fact then when you meet people socially, the first thing they generally ask is “what do you do?” Luckily I have a second, very neutral job that I can fall back on if I don’t feel comfortable whipping out the a-word. Most people don’t have that luxury. It is for that reason that 99% of the time I say that I work in an abortion clinic even if I don’t feel that it will go over well. I want to de-stigmatize it, and I am proud of it. And I definitely want to stand in solidarity with my colleagues in the movement who have no choice but to tell.
You never really know what someone’s reaction is going to be, of course. As I said, most of the social conservatives in this neck of the woods do not want to rock the boat, so usually if someone doesn’t approve I will get a strained-but-still-polite segue back into something safe, like the weather. It’s awkward, but it could be a lot worse.
In fact, I think the worst reaction I got was when a guy who I had just met through a mutual friend immediately started in on me about how male partners get no say in the decision to abort or continue a pregnancy. This was before I was fully aware of and familiar with Men’s Rights Activist tactics, and I was blindsided by his attack. We spent the entire evening in the kitchen at this house party, arguing around and around in circles. It ended with me in (angry) tears. I still don’t know how I could have anticipated and avoided that interaction.
What I find more difficult than those who outright disagree with my work are those people whom I like, but who are uncomfortable with what I do. I was told by a good friend that two other friends with whom we were spending a lot of time were uncomfortable with my job and didn’t like that I talked about it. I would characterize both of these women as pro-choice, and probably feminist (although one was more of the “I’m not a feminist, but…” variety). I had no idea. To this day neither of them has raised the issue with me. At first I thought about toning it down a little and not talking about abortion so much, but that thought made me bristle; why should they get to vent about their jobs in a friendly context, and I couldn’t? Certainly if either of them brought up the fact that they were uncomfortable, we could talk about it and I would be willing to make a compromise. But I guess that was too difficult for them.
In terms of my (immediate) family, I am again privileged that they are all pro-choice and totally supportive of what I do. I have an aunt and uncle who are of the FOFF let’s-talk-about-the-weather variety, but they are quite religious and I never expected to have deep meaningful conversations about my life with them anyway. The rest of my family live outside of this province and only seek to know that I am doing well. I have two lovely aunts in Nova Scotia who love to hear me on the radio and read my interviews, but I don’t think they have a clue what I’m actually talking about.
My partner’s family is a different story. His parents are progressive enough and his mother in particular encourages my activist efforts and is very engaged in the feminist movement. His grandparents, however, have never asked what I do. They know that I work. They must know that I am a feminist, although I try to simply stay quiet at family dinners (once you put the vegetarian thing out there, I find grandparents need a few years to recover before they can process the next act of progressiveness. My grandmother went to her grave not understanding that vegetarian “nonsense”, as well as wondering, when my sister moved to Korea, why anyone would want to go “over there,” and didn’t she know there was a war on?). However, I can only imagine what they would think about the abortion stuff. Who knows, maybe they would be totally supportive. But I don’t think it’s worth the hassle to try to find out. In this instance, I am going to go the Fredericton route and try not to rock the boat.