Abstinence Got Me Pregnant

“Are there any side effects to going off the pill,” I asked Dr. Frankenweiller, my ob-gyn.

“Yes,” he replied, “Pregnancy.”

And he was right. One month to the day after going off the pill I was pregnant. I blame it on deciding to practice abstinence.

Let me backtrack.

My father ruined any shot I had at teen pregnancy the night senior second baseman Mike Sheridan came to call at our home and my dad answered the door conveniently cleaning his Magnum .45. 

I was Homecoming Queen of Upland High School in 1983 and I couldn’t get a date.

There wasn’t any boy brave enough to attempt to steal my virginity, they were all pretty sure my dad wasn’t afraid of going to jail.

So it wasn’t until college, when I fell in love with my first boyfriend freshman year, that I relinquished my virginity behind a couch amidst a sea of Cheez-It crumbs in an off-campus apartment while my boyfriend’s roommates farted and belched like cannon-fire in adjacent rooms.

“So this is sex?” I thought. “This is what everyone’s talking about? It’s so lame!”

First time sex is, by definition, awkward.

We did not use contraception the first time we had sex because up until that very last second I was abstinent.

Despite all of the kissing and petting and steaming up of car windows in that first month of our relationship, I hadn’t made up my mind to have intercourse.

I expected to be more premeditated and rational about it. Picking a date together and a place — I’d really hoped for a fern draped cave just off the Blue Lagoon. So when the time came, somewhat unexpectedly, I wasn’t prepared.

And let me say this, my boyfriend was in love with me.

He was responsible as far as any 20-year old young man can be, but protection wasn’t as high on his list in the heat of the moment because he couldn’t get pregnant.


You’re welcome. So, when their hormones take over the consequences seem much further removed.

I quickly began taking the birth control pill, conceding that I was not going to be abstinent as much as I thought I should be, and thankfully we did not get pregnant from our first time.

Which brings me to my point.

I believe sex should NOT BE a MORAL ISSUE, it should be a PRACTICAL ISSUE.

Contraceptives to avoid STDs and pregnancy. Waiting for a lover who cares about you to mitigate heart break (although I suspect a little heart break in a lifetime is unavoidable).

That 19-year old girl behind the couch believed sex was a moral issue.

I thought if I had sex before marriage I was a slut, a whore and would be JUDGED BY GOD. Hence I took no precautions and hoped I would be able to abstain.

I fell madly in love and try as I might to keep our relationship vertical, I failed — as do a vast majority of perfectly intelligent young men and women.

I think making sex a MORAL ISSUE, with abstinence as its mascot, encourages furtive behavior.

Oh, there are names I could fling about (Ted Haggard – abstinence proponent who has sex with male prostitutes while snorting meth), but I’ll try to keep the politics personal.

I used the birth control pill for the next five years in my first relationship.

When that relationship ended I became a bit of a serial monogamist. At the end of a third unsuccessful relationship I took stock and realized that at 25 I had no idea what I was doing with men.

My heart had been broken and I’d broken a couple of hearts. I decided to take a big step back, a leave of absence as it were. In a word, I decided to be abstinent once again.

I had that conversation with my ob-gyn and despite his warnings that a side-effect of discontinuing use of the birth control pill was pregnancy, I stopped taking it anyhow.

I did very well until …

One of the young men whose heart I’d broken wouldn’t give up. He loved me in a wild, passionate, willing-to-make-a-fool-of-himself way.

I’d find roses on my windshield after work. Poetry on my answering machine. Declarations of love on bended knee in the mildewy busboy’s station at the restaurant where we both worked.

Then one night he appeared at my door bearing a Christmas gift. I told him I couldn’t take his Christmas gift.

It came in a blue Tiffany’s box. I told him he was crazy, that he couldn’t afford that on a food expediter’s salary (he’d been demoted from waiter).

I opened it and inside was a small, simple silver heart.  He’d bought one for me and one just like it for his 10-year old sister.

I think you may suspect what happened next.

Suffice to say in the heat of the moment we hoped the rhythm method would work. Two weeks later I was pregnant. I would say “we” were pregnant, but it really was only me. 

I was and am still pro-choice. I knew I had options. I considered them all, including marriage, which this young man sweetly offered. But I never had to make a choice because the morning the United States began its bombing of Iraq in the First Gulf War I began to miscarry. I was surprised at the sense of loss I felt for this unwanted pregnancy, but was also grateful to be spared making a choice that might haunt me the rest of my days.

I think ABSTINENCE ONLY flies in the face of nature and the biological imperative.

People who choose abstinence as a self-protective measure have my admiration, because I was incapable. But making abstinence a moral imperative just breeds shame, self-loathing and, more often than not, failure to live up to the ideal.

When I was 36 and 38 I gave birth to my two beautiful daughters.

They came at just the right time, with exactly the right partner, my husband Henry. That wouldn’t have been possible without birth control.

I hope both of my daughters will wait until a ripe old age (35?) before they engage in sexual activity and I hope they will only give themselves to men who cherish them, but when they’re in high school I’ll be taking them to Planned Parenthood.

No shame. No blame. Knowledge is power.

38 thoughts on “Abstinence Got Me Pregnant”

  1. I love love love this. There’s no sense hiding your head in the sand when it comes to anything to do with teenagers, health, drinking, sex, or really anything else. The side effect of pretending something isn’t happening is never pretty. Sharing on my Facebook page.

    1. hi Mara – thanks so much — I’m sure a lot of people won’t agree, best to be practical about something as impractical as sex.

  2. Loved it. I was always very careful. Being the product of 2 kids still in high school. Dad bailed early and it was just me and Mom. That was something I never wanted to have repeated if I could control it. I really like the idea of making it a practical issue instead of a moral issue. Unfortunately as soon as the bible made it a major issue it was screwed into being a moral issue. Pun intended. My mother lives with us so I am hoping my kids will get a good reinforcement of practical!

    1. Hi John — don’t get me started on religion. Don’t do it! I’m backing away slowly from the topic. So glad you’re here!

    1. It’s always good to know one’s limitations. If only chocolate were more tempting for teens than sex, kind of like it is to middle-aged women.

  3. hehehe Sorry about the specific moral device I mentioned. Safely backing away. Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact…..

  4. I hope to be more candid about it than my parents were! Abstinence education always scares me.

  5. Hi. I really enjoy reading you. I think you are incredibly talented and funny:) But, I am probably going tone the lone voice in the wilderness in disagreeing with you on this one. Pro- life, mother of 7, 2 adopted that I am so grateful to their birth mothers. Abstinence is possible. But when the whole world says it isn’t, it makes it seem impossible. Kind of like raising a large family these days. In and of itself is not difficult..(well maybe the laundry part) but raising a large family in a culture that doesn’t support or embrace a large family is what makes it difficult…

    1. Hi Annette — I feel like you got cut off, there might have been more you meant to write? Listen, I know my headline is provocative. But I hope in my content you can see that I don’t think abstinence should be the ONLY CHOICE. I admire people who can abstain because sex brings with it major responsibility, physical, emotional and spiritual. But I also want to support Planned Parenthood and birth control as practical measures to ensure safety from STDs and unwanted pregnancy for those of us who didn’t and don’t choose to abstain. I really think my main point is that by making sex a moral issue, rather than a practical issue, we create a lot of furtive and self-destructive behavior.

      Sex, Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, even having large families, etc etc. Are all very polarizing topics, but it all boils down to people and their stories. If we could talk together in a non-charged atmosphere and share our personal stories we may find we have more common ground than we think.

  6. I love this post! Well written, funny, and insightful.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that being on the pill or otherwise having easy access to birth control in heat of the moment situations is not in any way antithetical to abstinence. You can be on the pill and have all the not-sex in the world.

    Our culture’s tendency to stigmatize birth control ala the Limbaugh-Fluke debacle (“Oh, she’s on the pill! She must be having tons and tons of premarital sex!)creates the false notion that having a fail safe in case the whole abstinence thing doesn’t work is akin to deciding to have sex and does everyone, particularly practitioners of abstinence, a disservice.

    1. The Rush Limbaugh thing is what got my knickers in a twist. And yes, just because you’re on a form of birth control doesn’t mean you’ll be falling into hedges with gardeners. But if you and the gardner consent whose business is it??

  7. I agree…abstinence as birth control flies in the face of that biological imperative known as “propagation of the species”. It’s great in theory but in practice? Well, it only works if you can truly abstain and I think all those teen mom shows have clearly illustrated the failure rate of such thinking.

    1. Hi Izzy — also, who can blame them? I know teen sex is fraught with peril (the biggest peril being having your heart broken), but I can’t judge teens who fail to abstain when hormones are raging. I think when my girls hit 16 I won’t just be taking them to Planned Parenthood, I’ll also have my dad move in for a couple of years.

  8. I agree with every word, Shannon – sex really IS a practical issue. I think removing the guilt encourages people both young and old to make better decisions about when, how, and with whom they have sex.

    My parents educated me about sex and it’s possible consequences, in a straightforward and practical way when I was growing up. They told me sex was normal and not something to be ashamed of, but that you have to protect yourself emotionally and physically by using protection and doing it with someone you love and trust. Looking back, I really like our family ‘philosophy’ about sex ed!

    1. Amelia your parents sound so wonderful. I love that they instilled in you the sex is normal. It’s not some sinful compulsion. Years after my religious upbringing I still have to shake off those old voices that judge me and make me want to rebel.

  9. I’m really not looking forward to that time in our lives when we have to talk to my children about this….

    I always appreciate the fact that you are so open and just real about things like this…real life issues that we all deal with but don’t necessarily talk about…

    1. There isn’t a thick enough filter between my brain and my typing fingers. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not so much.

  10. Hmmm, I liked your post though I only partially agree with you.
    Dealing with the two dominant positions regarding sex and teens, I find that neither satisfy me as a parent. I don’t like the idea of teaching abstinence in such a way that I think because I told my kids to “just say no” I’ve done my job. You know, because that’s worked so well with everything else in their lives. (Parent will now list all the things they warn their children against or for and remember their children doing the opposite! Insert parental eye roll here.)
    Nor is the idea that we should throw condoms and birth control pills at our children because, you know those kids have no control and they are just going to “do it” anyway. I don’t find either of these positions to be parenting at all.
    What it sounds like you’ve done, and what I do, is to teach my children how to make good decisions and prepare them for consequences either way. Yes, I have an agenda I am trying to get across. Do I want my children to be abstinent, yes! I want to protect my children from the heartache, potential guilt, bad decisions, being pressured and of course pregnancy or disease. There are many good reasons to wait to have sex and youth, pregnancy & disease are big ones.
    Regarding pro-choice/pro-life, I have always disliked the monikers given to this argument because they are charged with intent and lack accuracy. Having sex has consequences. I believe that if you aren’t ready to deal with the consequences of any behavior, you should not participate in it. Just as the consequence of choosing not to go to work might be losing your job, the potential consequence of having sex is pregnancy or disease (or heartbreak, or…). I think we should be honest with our kids and let them know all the choices and the potential outcomes of those choices. If my son or daughter choose to have sex, they will at least know what they are getting in to. Will I be disappointed? Perhaps. Will I condemn them? Absolutely not. I will continue to love and help them make the best decisions they can. This isn’t about condemnation; it’s about helping this next generation be the best they possibly can be!
    We need a new name for this position. Something clever for a reasonable and well informed plan to help our kids become the best they can be.

    1. Bridgette – we seem to feel basically the same way. I really wish I could spare my kids the heartache I suffered over the years, but I wouldn’t change a thing that happened to me as I basically like the person it’s brought me to today. Parenting is a humbling business.

  11. Perfectly written…. I wish mom’s with teenage daughter’s all over the world would read this post. People should just realize once and for all the power of knowledge and the power of sex, they are both nothing to F*#k with. My cousin has young daughter’s and lives in complete denial about how attractive and boy crazy they truly are….. communication could dismiss so many unwanted pregnancy they will probably face soon.

  12. A little late to this conversation, but thought I’d chime in anyway…

    I agree that sex is a practical issue, but don’t think we can ever remove morality from it because it touches on so many highly-charged areas — intimacy, pleasure, heartbreak, procreation, marriage, family, health, psycho-sexual issues, etc.

    What Bridgette said above really resonates with me. I think there’s a third way that doesn’t involve encouraging contraceptives, but also doesn’t pretend that it’s enough to say, “just don’t do it!” Abstinence is possible, even for young people, but it’s a mistake to make it about rules and not about relationship, responsibility, and respect. We can teach children that what we say with our bodies is just as important to our happiness as anything else, and that we’re not just bodies with raging desires, but minds, hearts, and spirits, too — all of which needs to be integrated if we want to be truly happy and healthy.

    I was raised to always be prepared to accept the consequences of my actions. I was very aware of this as a teen and young adult and it made me think twice about what I did. I think we underestimate kids when we think they’re not capable of this, or when we don’t allow them to reap consequences for their choices, even if those consequences are significant.

    Contraception minimizes, but doesn’t eliminate, one of the potential consequences of sex. (I know way too many people who’ve gotten pregnant on the pill over the years — and even a couple who got pregnant after their husbands had vasectomies.) Once you say yes to sex, you’re always risking pregnancy, STDs, and other life-altering consequences; there’s no way around it. I think we do a disservice when we make it seem like the consequences of sex can be totally controlled. Contraception is an option to avoid pregnancy, but it’s no magic bullet, and as you’ve written so well about before, it doesn’t protect the heart and soul.

    1. Hi Zoe — thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my post. I love the idea of a third way and I think we may be closer in our beliefs than it may seem. I like your version of sexual morality. I would love to borrow your 3 R’s: relationship, responsibility and respect. I’m glad “religion” isn’t one of those R’s and that’s what I was referring to when I said (or hope I at least implied) that I don’t think we should try to control our children’s sexuality through dogma and shaming, rather through the relationship we have with our children and the respect we have for them.

      I had a difficult time with abstinence as a young woman for many reasons. Certainly one of the reasons was that I was of child bearing age and my hormones were at full tilt. But what further made abstinence difficult for me was the fact that I was a confused young woman who didn’t have healthy relationship role models to draw from and that I was rebelling against the dogma and shame I’d been raised with. This is why Abstinence Only incenses me, because I was actually fairly mature, but my learning curve during those years was sharp. Birth control allowed me to make mistakes without inflicting those mistakes on any children I might’ve had without birth control as an option.

  13. You are welcome to use the 3 Rs 🙂

    And I hope you don’t mind if I respond to your response…

    I suppose I could be considered religious, but not in the way the term is often used. For me, religion is primarily about relationship — with God, with others, and with myself. Dogma has a place because definitions and distinctions are important — without them you have no stated core set of beliefs, which is what defines any community. But the rules that often stem from dogma are never the reason to do/not do something, they’re not what it’s all about. And they’re often used in shallow, black & white ways that do nothing to help people grow and make good choices. Shaming and guilting people into behavior can be damaging and it always makes me sad when religion is used this way.

    I was fortunate to be raised without shame and guilt, and with a healthy view of the body. I still made some mistakes, and acted out of wounds, but I always had a keen sense of responsibility about any consequences that might come from my actions. I give the credit to my mother who was able to instill in me a strong sense of integrity and responsibility from a young age. I hope to do this for my own children.

    I can appreciate what you experienced and that the Abstinence Only message would never have worked for you. I don’t think that approach works with a lot of people. But I also think that birth control can give a false sense of protection and foster an attitude of not taking responsibility for the potential consequences of sex. (I also have some opinions about the health risks of some contraceptives.)

    Thanks for the conversation — you are gracious in your responses to readers.

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