My Parents' Obsession With Purity Nearly Ruined Us. Years Later, I Found Their Secret In A Box Of Their Things.

"'I’m so angry,' my second sister said, visibly shaking. 'I’m not kidding, I’m mad.' Our parents had been cruelest to her."
The author is pictured at age 12, around the time that all the chastity drama began in her family.
Photo Courtesy Of.Victoria Waddle
The author is pictured at age 12, around the time that all the chastity drama began in her family.

My first sexual intercourse, just before I started college, was unplanned. It would have been largely forgettable if we’d used birth control.

Looking back, it’s hard to admit to my own foolishness. I’d had the same boyfriend for 18 months. While our Catholic upbringings were a factor in this long period of chastity, my unpreparedness was also due to my mother’s admonition that a girl using birth control is sinning by anticipating sex.

Five years before, my parents relentlessly belittled my older sisters after finding out that they were sexually active. Our household exploded in screaming and lectures on the “type of girl no decent man wanted.” Drawers were regularly searched.

“I’d feel better if you weren’t using birth control and got pregnant,” our mother yelled. “At least your intentions would be good.”

My sisters gave our mother’s advice all the consideration it deserved, but as a slowly maturing 12 year old, I took it seriously. Desperately wanting to please my parents, I took their words as a viable ethical position.

By the time I was 17, my parents’ dysfunctional marriage had become a vicious, albeit silent, war. My philandering father often stayed out all night. My mother lost so much weight that her co-workers thought she had cancer. Yet she would stand in the doorway when Mitch dropped me off from dates, making sure I didn’t linger in the car parked in the driveway. She had begun emptying my drawers.

I matriculated at the University of California, Los Angeles, a few months after my 18th birthday and about a month after I first had intercourse. I ended up on a waiting list for student housing. Since I lived too far away to commute, I stayed for the first quarter in the home of well-to-do family friends, taking a public bus to school.

The family’s eldest daughter, Laura, was a high school senior. Grateful that she’d agreed to share her room with me, I was also indebted to her for her understanding of moral ambiguity. “I’m on the pill,” she said. “You can think about whether sex is right or wrong, but use birth control while you decide.”

Meanwhile, my irregular periods were usually about 45 days apart, but I hadn’t menstruated in over two months. A few nights later, Laura crept into the kitchen to empty and wash a glass mayonnaise jar. The following morning, I peed in the jar, placed it in a brown paper bag and carried it on the bus, perfectly upright, hoping it looked like a bag lunch and that it wouldn’t leak or break.

I waited two days for the negative results. I’d set up a simple cipher for the conversation with Mitch because I’d have to call him on a very public pay phone. He was a sophomore at a college across town, far enough that there would be a charge for “local long distance.” I brought a coin purse full of quarters and dimes.

When Mitch answered the phone, I said, “I’m not going to the mountains.”

“Wait,” he said. I could hear him moving across the room, pulling the phone cord into the hallway.

“What?” he finally asked.

“I’m not going to the mountains.”

“Are you pregnant?”

“I’m NOT pregnant,” I exclaimed in frustration, my three minutes coming to a close, the automated operator’s voice giving me my first warning.

A girl standing in front of a vending machine turned to look at me. “Congratulations,” she said. I think she meant it. When she left, I got some chocolate chip cookies with change left over from the phone call. That was the beginning of my freshman 10, the anxiety pounds.

I didn’t have a period until the academic quarter was over, and I’d moved into the dorms. As if all three missing periods had accumulated until the dam burst, I woke in the middle of the night slick with blood. Fearful of disturbing my new roommate, I found a towel without turning on the light and puttered to the restroom. At that hour, no one was in the hallway to see my blood-soaked pyjamas. I cleaned up under one in a row of showerheads separated by white curtains.

Multiple thoughts occurred to me: This could have been a miscarriage; I’d failed my mother’s strict chastity standard; Mitch and I were gambling with our futures.

And still, I hesitated to act. Mitch was unwilling to buy condoms because it was embarrassing. His interest in a girl he’d met at work blossomed, and he sometimes treated me with cruelty, a thing that mimicked my father’s behaviour. Despite the dysfunction of our relationship and my guilt when I came home and caught my mother searching my bathroom cabinets, Mitch and I occasionally ended up in bed when one or the other of our roommates went home for the weekend. I missed another period.

Sin or not, I was pressing my luck. Now that I was on campus, the student health clinic was within walking distance. I made an appointment for the birth control lecture, a requirement before being prescribed the pill.

At the student health centre, I filled out a long, invasive questionnaire about my sexual activity. I found it humiliating, as if an unseen judge was now my in loco parentis. Having never developed boundaries, I answered honestly.

After completing the survey, I sat with a group of girls watching a film. One memorable scene had a woman talking about how she was never without her “condominium” — an embossed leather pendant pouch, worn like a necklace, which she squeezed open, and from which she pulled a wrapped condom. Tooled leather had been wildly popular a decade earlier, but this effort to make birth control hip felt flat. All the girls snickered, shook their heads — and put up with it. Because at the end of the film, we got what we came for: permission.

Though I finally had monthly pill packs in hand, I’d been instructed not to start them until the end of my next period, which showed no sign of arriving soon.

Mitch’s parents were going away for a weekend, so we were meeting at their house for our next date. Five days before, I figured I’d waited long enough. With no way of knowing when my next period would start, but certain that we would have sex that weekend, I started taking the pill. I figured it would make my periods regular, and my constant state of anxiety about the possibility of pregnancy would disappear.

When I met Mitch at his parents’ house, we had a typical afternoon. A meal, sex, some TV. I started to feel cramps low in my abdomen. They quickly increased in strength. I went to the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and doubled over. A mass of blood flowed out, heavy, full of clots, pocked with fibrous strings.

I wanted to tell Mitch I might have miscarried a pregnancy. That it was in the toilet and I wasn’t sure what to do. But Mitch didn’t like talking about the female body, waving off what he felt had an “ick” factor. All I could manage to say was that I’d passed a lot of blood. He stared a moment, shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the TV. I returned to the bathroom and flushed the toilet.

Decades later, I still think back on that moment, my denial of reality. It was clear that Mitch’s affection for me had waned. My convenience as a sex partner was my primary appeal to him. He wasn’t someone I could have an honest conversation with, much less a baby, and I knew it. But I persisted in my hope that he would love me again, and imagined a future together. He was, after all, in the model of my father.

It’d be a lie to say that day haunts me. And I imagine if someone asked Mitch about it, he wouldn’t be able to recall it. But I do think of it periodically, knowing that if I did accidentally terminate a pregnancy, I altered the course of my life.

The author is shown in a recent photo at a library where she worked.
Photo Courtesy Of Victoria Waddle
The author is shown in a recent photo at a library where she worked.

My parents died during the COVID-19 pandemic. My father had been declining for a few years. That, combined with my mother’s increasing dementia, brought my sisters and me into caregiving roles. With our father’s death, we were packing up what remained at their assisted-living apartment and moving our mom to more intensive care. I found a box of papers in the back of the closet. During the first move we’d pulled these papers from a safe bolted to the concrete floor, boxed them, and took them with us. Now, I was flipping through them.

“Mom and Dad’s wedding certificate,” I said. None of us had ever seen it. My sisters peered over my shoulders. “April 18, 1954.” Four months before my oldest sister was born.

We’d always been told our parents were married in September 1953.

All of us were coming to the same realisation at once. That was why they’d been married in the rectory rather than the church, our mother in a blue tailored suit.

“I’m so angry,” my second sister said, visibly shaking. “I’m not kidding, I’m mad.” Our parents had been cruelest to her, telling her that, having slept with her boyfriend, he would then bring his friends over to have sex with her in front of him.

There was no way to talk with our mother about this. Deep into her dementia journey, she was forgetting our names. Our sister conversation pinged. Was this purely hypocrisy? Did our parents think they were doing us a favour, hoping to shame us into not doing what they did? The only lesson I’d learned was how to lack agency.

An old joke of my mother’s came back.

“You can eat an apple for birth control.”

“Before or after?”

“Instead of.”

The author participates in a photo event during "Banned Books Week," holding some banned and challenged library books.
Photo Courtesy Of Victoria Waddle
The author participates in a photo event during "Banned Books Week," holding some banned and challenged library books.

My sexual decisions were not my parents’ to make. Nor did they belong to the university with its lecture, invasive questionnaire, and film. And though the country should have progressed on the matter in the decades since then, the U.S. is now hurling toward a dystopian invasion of women’s privacy and negation of their autonomy.

My adult career choices always had me working with teens, first as a teacher and later as a high school librarian. When I read “Girls & Sex” by Peggy Orenstein to see if it was a fit for our library collection, I wasn’t surprised to learn that research shows teens who take purity pledges are more likely to get pregnant than those who don’t.

Along with other informative sex ed titles, I featured the book in my library and reviewed it on my school library blog because I am certain of this: Shame is no more an effective method of birth control than it ever was. Girls should know that the only permission they need is their own.

Victoria Waddle is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer and was included in “Best Short Stories From The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2016.” The author of “Acts of Contrition” and “The Mortality of Dogs and Humans,” her upcoming novel about a teen escaping a polygamist cult is set to launch in 2025. Formerly the managing editor of the journal Inlandia: A Literary Journey and a teacher librarian, she discusses both writing and library book censorship in her Substack newsletter, “Be a Cactus.”

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