The Informed Choice
a short story by Krishna Udayasankar
The doctor looked at her with an anxious, uncertain smile. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am.” Her voice was calm, belying the mild irritation she felt at being asked the question yet again. She tried to remind herself that the doctor was just being careful, even concerned.
The doctor however, seemed to require higher standards of conviction. “There’s still time to reconsider? …”
The statement seemed all the more incongruous given their surroundings. She felt an isolated patch of coldness against the back of her thigh, where the crisp, clean sheet had moved off the cushioned gurney. The sanitised odour of the place made her feel, for no patent reason, hungry.
“Would you ask me that if I were going to have a baby?” she snapped.
“If you were going to have a baby, it might be a little too late to ask if you were sure, wouldn’t it? I mean, we’re hardly twenty feet from the OT.”
As if on cue, the doors to the operating theatre opened. A whiff of something medical wafted towards her, and for a moment she wondered if her resolve would slacken. Her courage was now something outside her, something no longer in her control.
“Anger tempted, promising to distract, if not console. Grabbing at it, she went on, with some disdain, “Why do they do that, do you suppose?”
The doctor laughed softly. “Motherhood is something special. I’ve never heard anyone ask why, you know. I’ve heard people ask why not or when and all of that but not why. I guess it’s part of the natural progression of events, of life.”
She shook her head. “But that’s not right, is it? We speak of being rational creatures, we talk forever about informed choices, free will and consent and all of that. Yet such a life-changing event is left to ‘natural progression’? Hah!”
“And you? Is what you’re doing now an act of reason? Of informed choice?”
“The decision is rational, yes. People may agree or disagree with me, but that doesn’t make it irrational,” she was firm. With a smile, she added, “I think you understand that, don’t you? After all, you’ve agreed to do this.”
“Well, as you said, it’s your choice. Besides, this isn’t illegal here … though it certainly is unusual.” As though he needed to hear himself speak the words, the doctor softly said, “Optional Hysterectomy. Hmm …”
She considered the doctor with some degree of appreciation, while he stared into space, mulling over something. He suddenly turned to her. Slightly embarrassed, she pretended she had not been looking.
The doctor however did not notice. Instead, he asked her, “Why did you come to me?”
“Honestly?” she began, with a sheepish grin, “I was afraid that a female doctor wouldn’t understand; that she’d somehow be horrified …”
The doctor chuckled, and nodded. He considered the statement for a few moments, and then said, “So, was I the first male doctor you approached, or was I just the first one who agreed?”
She grinned, but seemed to hesitate.
Laughing softly, he waved it off.
Feeling a bit bolder at that, she said, “Why did you agree? I mean … you didn’t seem mortified or anything. Yes, you did counsel me against this, but only on logical, medical grounds; not …”
“I mean, you didn’t get on my case about the essence of being a woman and all that … I suppose that’s what I was really afraid of hearing, especially if I’d gone to a lady doctor.”
The doctor frowned, ever so slightly. “Tell me,” he began, “honestly – do you think your womb is all there is to being a woman?”
“No!” she was vehement. “Women are more than just baby-producing machines. I mean, that’s the whole point!”
“Which is precisely why I agreed to do this.”
She said, “You wouldn’t have agreed so easily if you’d been a woman.”
“Now you’re being judgmental. Why do women underestimate your own kind so?”
“Err … now who’s indulging in stereotypes?”
“Point taken. But also made. The fact remains; you’ve just reaffirmed the stereotype.”
She let out a deep breath and shrugged. “Perhaps you’re right. I suppose, deep inside, it’s not so much about other women, as it is about our own insecurities which we externalise.”
“Whoa! That’s heavy!”
“Come on, you know what I mean. I can criticise other women for being vain; I can rant about magazines and movies perpetuating unhealthy obsessions with appearance and fashion and pretend to be liberated. At the end of the day, someone tells me I look good, it feels good. How am I supposed to get past that?”
“Wait a minute,” the doctor countered. “You can’t argue externalities are both the cause and the consequence of your insecurities as a woman, you know.”
“Is that how it sounds?” she said. “I’m not sure I meant to put it that way, but now that you state it so clearly, I guess that’s precisely the point.” She added with sudden vigour. “How do you question a system, even critically view it, when you’re stuck within it? There’s no alternative frame of reference to use. It’s like having ideas, but not having a language to explain them with; do you see what I mean?”
“I think so. Is that feminist theory? This idea of not having language, as you call it …”
“It’s common sense. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive, you know.”
“I don’t get it. If this shared language is all that important, why did you come to me?”
“You mean, because you’re a man?”
“Yes. That alone disqualifies me, don’t you think? Won’t I completely lack the language to understand your choices?”
“But you did understand. You said yourself that motherhood was special …”
He seemed to want to argue the point further but let it go with a shake of his head. “And this? …” he eventually asked. “Is this your way of breaking free?”
“It’s a matter of principle, yes.”
The frown on his face deepened.
A silence fell over them for a while, till she said, seemingly out of nowhere, “I think I know why they say being a mother is so special. The only way to justify a mistake you’ve made is by being happy, so that you’d somehow believe that this was an act of reason, a conscious choice, all along.”
The doctor looked at her with a hint of emotion, something that she could neither identify nor fathom. Before either of them could say another word though, a nurse announced that it was time.
They wheeled her in.
As the doctor flashed her a reassuring smile before slipping the gloves on to his long, sensuous fingers, a fleeting thought rose at the back of her mind, that she would not have considered removing her breasts in a million years, despite all her talk about principle. Ashamed at her own vanity, she welcomed the dull, throbbing daze that now enveloped her. She smiled, or tried to, as she noticed the doctor looking at her with honest concern.
Her eyes closed.
When she woke up, she felt no different, except for the strange sense of knowing. She looked around, but the doctor was not there. A nurse told her that he was looking in on another patient and her newborn child. Not to worry, he would come by soon.
Her disappointment seemed childish, even to her. He was, after all, just another good-looking guy, and she had much more important things on her mind.
She sank back with a sigh on to the pillows, ignoring the deeper, unnamable regret that reached out to receive her. But she could not, would not, admit the unbreakable, unspeakable bond she now shared with the very women she had disdainfully rejected.
It was an informed choice, a rational decision, a decision that celebrated her freedom as a woman.
It was too painful to think otherwise.
Reprinted with the permission of the author, this short story appears in Body Boundaries: The EtiquetteSG Anthologies Volume 1, edited by Tania De Rozario, Zarina Muhammad and Krishna Udayasankar, published by The Literary Centre, Singapore (2014). On-line sale at Ethos Books. You can read a short introduction to the anthology here.
Krishna Udayasankar is the author of The Aryavarta Chronicles Book 1: Govinda – the first book in a series of novels that draw on the stories and scriptures at the heart of Indian myth and ancient history to present a socio-political tale of change and revolution. She is also the author of Objects of Affection, a collection of prose-poems. Krishna’s journey to becoming a writer took her through degrees in law from NLSIU, Bangalore and a PhD. in Strategic Management from Nanyang Business School, Singapore, where she currently works as a lecturer.