In the U.S., teen pregnancy rates have hit all-time lows. When I read this latest report, my mind went straight to two people: Gloria Malone, a blogger and young parent advocate who wrote this great post for MMM about sex, straight-talk, and teen moms.The other person was Donna Worrell. Donna was one of my best friends in elementary school. We went to different high schools and grew apart. But I always remember the day I heard the news that Donna, then just 16, was pregnant and on her way to becoming a teenage mother.
Donna and I have reconnected, thanks to Facebook, and I after seeing a new photo of her gorgeous and now incredibly grown-up daughter, I asked my old friend if she would like to share her story, her journey. I’m thankful that she said yes.
I was recently asked to talk about my journey through teenage motherhood. At first, I thought, “I have no story. What’s there to say?” I got pregnant, had a baby, and moved forward with my life. But on second thought, after I allowed myself to let go of my need to minimize both my struggles and accomplishments, I was able to admit that I do have a story worth telling: I went from being a high school honor student living in Montreal’s suburbia to being 16, black and pregnant.
Teens mothers sadden and frustrate the masses. Often this is due to real ideas about poverty, emotional instability, lack of education, broken families, and social welfare dependency. The very same problems that face adults are magnified when “babies are having babies.”
The fact is, the Teenager’s decision to have a baby is void of foresight. The still-developing teenage brain cannot even begin to image the life-altering reality of motherhood. I could have never predicted how that decision to have a baby would continue to affect me even 25 years later.
I was a hurt girl. I was so broken that I did not even have the good sense to find a boy who I believed liked me. I developed a relationship with an individual whose own self-hatred matched mine. Some days he was nice and that was good enough for me. Hell, my sister thought he was cute. That counted for something!
I slipped on those rose-colored glasses over my adolescent eyes. My view became distorted, warped. The glasses made issues and situations appear bigger, move faster, and often presented me with sunflowers, when before me actually stood weeds. These invisible, slanted specks actually enabled me to plan my pregnancy. Yes, I planned my teenage pregnancy! I chose to “get knocked up.” My vision for how it would all play out was: finish high school, have a baby, give love, and get love. I actually believed that this was magnificent idea, a smart plan. I figured that the worse part would be in the telling my parents.
I decided that I would break this news to them right away, straight to the jugular, quick and … painless?
No one could have ever prepared me for the contempt that came from the adults in my parents’ social circles. I could never tell if it was my actual pregnancy or the un-neighborly talk that would frequently bring my mother to tears. She never said anything unkind, never an angry word towards me, although her tears confirmed her anguish and disappointment. You see, my mother was the child of a teenage mother, and she knew all too well how this situation would play out for everyone involved. She understood the difficulties that I would face and, stifling the pain of her own experiences, my mother supported me.
After awhile, I grew immune to the sound of my mother‘s tears. I became immune to the unkind adults who would keep their daughters away from me, afraid that I somehow my “fastness” would rub off on their innocent girls. I was immune to the woman, who used to call on me to babysit her children, now hustling by, pretending not to see me that day in the park. I was immune to the venomous words and rough actions that spewed from the Black nurse assigned to care for me during the birth of my child. I understood that in her eyes I was a statistic, another little Black girl destined to poverty and despair. She was disgusted by me and in that moment, I was vulnerable, so I blocked her. I focused all of my energy on delivering my baby.
Most teenage girls don’t have babies because they are “fast.” On some level, there is a genuine need to feel like they matter. Something is broken and the baby represents the possibility of repair.
I left home shortly before my eighteenth birthday. I had finished high school on time and then enrolled in nursing school. By the time I was 21, I was the young mother of two children. Today I am an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, with a soft spot for the adolescent population and the mentally ill (go figure!), and have three beautiful children.
I’ve since apologized to my mother for making her cry. And I’ve apologized to my daughter for being her mother as a teenager. I believe that her life would have been very different if I had mothered her at my strongest, smartest, best self. My daughter often assures me that I did well, I was a good mom to her, no matter my age.
A couple of years ago at my son’s high school graduation, I experienced tears of joy for him, mixed with tears of sadness for the adolescent me. In that moment, I became my mother, weeping for the loss of my own childhood to teen pregnancy. I was surprised by my reaction that day, but those emotions consequently brought me to a place where I could apologize and forgive myself.
Today, I am using this guest blog post as a forum, a celebratory space for the teen mom who made it! With kindest regards, I say to those of you, who might be inclined to have preconceived notions: Don’t count every teen mother out. Here I stand, living proof that a woman’s life does not begin the moment that you meet her, nor does it end with the sound of her baby’s cry. Without regret, I believe that through this difficult journey came my deliverance.
The Youngster had been counting down the days until our little gathering last week. Talk about excitement. Well, I’m pleased to report that the night, sponsored by Scholastic and powered by EVEREADY®, was a shining hit with kiddie-winks and parents alike.
I made star-shaped snack and treats and set up the backyard with chairs and blankets and books. My son also helped me lay out the nifty flashlights in a bag along with our special glow-in-the-dark bookmarks and The Magic School Bus activity posters. Big thanks to EVEREADY® for providing the blue and red flashlights and to Scholastic for the fun “Reading Under the Stars” kit!
The kids, ranging in age from 3 to 7, had a blast. It was good to see them so ready to read and listen as stories were read to them. A Pet for Fly Guy was a clear favorite, especially with our sweet, little buddy Maddie, who asked me to read it a few times back-to-back.
Actually, I got so swept up in reading to the kids that I didn’t snap any pictures of us. I could have used the photo break after I was handed a neighbor’s book blindly and asked to read it. Uh … it was Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm. There were a few horrified, tiny faces as that tale unfolded. Yeah, not the best choice there. We cleansed our palates with some Curious George, and we were as right as rain all over again.
Each child left with books and posters and flashlights and good time had. The parents happily took home Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge pledges, books lists and log sheets. And we all felt pretty ready to stop the summer slide in its tracks.
Thanks again to Scholastic for sponsoring this fun summer event.
You can still join the challenge. Just register your kids here and start reading!
I learned a hard truth about mothering black boys long before I had one of my own.
It was November 11, 1987. I was a teenager living with my family in a quiet suburb in Montreal. We woke up that morning to news that a young man, just 19 years old, had been shot and killed by a constable in a police station parking lot. The teen, Anthony Griffin, was black and unarmed. The officer, white and middle aged, had a standard issue .38 revolver.
(Image: © Andre Chung/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com. Not Nicole Blades’ son.)
My father, a man always ready with an easy, squint-eyed smile, was grim as he told my older sister, brother and me about the killing. The familiar-sounding name of the dead man sent my father to the phones next: to make some calls, check in with friends, see if Anthony Griffin was one of ours, while holding his breath like my mother, praying that “no” would be the only reply. But my “cousin” (i.e., family without blood relation) Leo called and cut into their hopes: He knows Anthony Griffin. Knew him. They ran in the same, loose circle. Of course they did. Leo and Anthony were young black boys, hardly men, growing up in Montreal, still living at home with their long-ago naturalized Caribbean immigrant parents. They played basketball and hockey and went to clubs with their boys and called up girls on the basement telephone late, late at night. Leo was Anthony. They were the same guy.
Anthony Griffin’s last night on earth started as an argument with a cab driver in the city just before dawn. The cabbie claimed the kid was trying to jump the fare and called the police. Anthony was nervous, reported the newspapers, because of an outstanding warrant, and once the police cruiser he was in had reached the station, he bolted. The arresting officer, Constable Allan Gosset, said he yelled at Anthony’s back, twice ordering him to halt. And he did. Anthony stopped and turned around, with his hands up in surrender.
That’s when he was shot. One bullet to the forehead.
Officer Gosset, who had been on the force for 16 years, said he had only intended to scare the fleeing youth into surrendering and that the gun went off accidentally. Charged with criminal negligence, he was acquitted twice—for the initial charge and later homicide—by all-white juries. However, seven months after the shooting, a police commission found Gosset negligent and recommended his dismissal.
By then it didn’t matter. The outrage was already loose; years of patent discrimination and racial profiling by the police had mangled any trust and left Montreal’s black community breathing fire. This murder of an unarmed teen was the last sliver of disregard, the last dribble of spit to the face of a people consistently benched despite playing by the rules. They took their fury to the streets in organized, nonviolent protests holding placards that screamed out for justice. I should say we, because I was there, along with my family, chanting and marching and drawing hard, permanent lines in the cracked mosaic that spelled out: NO MORE.
I yelled and roared with the crowd as we coursed the downtown streets. I was partly caught up in the drink of adult anger and exasperation, but after the heat in my own pumping fists had simmered, I felt scared again, edging up to panic. The reality of it rushed around me and gripped my throat: I was wrong about my parents. They weren’t exaggerating about the Way Things Are in This World.
It took my Barbados-born father 20 years of living in Canada to see that even though the prejudice wasn’t in-your-face, it was still there, rubbing on your thick skin, wearing it down, slow and sure. He started to see the racism was institutionalized; it said yes, you may have a job and a house with a basement and yard, and a comfortable life, but there were limits for you as a black person. He started to see blatant bigotry as a beast running toward you in daylight, attacking you from the front—a far less lethal option than encountering the snake in the grass at night. Then Anthony Griffin was killed, and the alarm sounded even louder for my father. In his mind, this young boy’s execution was the clearest example of how assumptions and racism—even disguised—broil into something truly horrible: his own son could one day be killed simply for being black.
Anthony Griffin stayed with me.
He stayed with me until he didn’t. Until I grew older and a little colder and simply tired of seeing this erasure story—the one about the unarmed black boy dusted away like pesky lint—play out over and again through decades like some hopeless movie trope, only with slightly different details, different faces, families, cities, and courtrooms. It’s the same verdict, though, the same tragedy with no real change in sight. Black boys were less than; that was their worth. Instead of growing angrier, I accepted this, begrudgingly, as fact.
But then Oscar Grant.
Then Trayvon Martin.
In between Oscar Grant’s killing by a BART police officer in Oakland, California, and Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting by a neighborhood watch captain in Sandford, Florida, something changed. I became a mother—a mother to a baby boy.
Heartsick and angry, I watched the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story roll out. This was Anthony Griffin all over again, 26 years later. I felt raw, breathless, sad, and ultimately helpless. And seeing Trayvon’s mother—numb and broken, a grayness seeping out through her eyes—it buckled my knees. This story cannot be our thing, on loop. Our brown-faced children cannot continue to be shoved into early graves. This hunt must be called off. Mothers, fathers, and like-figures must infuse a newer message and reaffirm it so these endangered children believe it deep in their bones: You are worthy. You belong here. You matter.
I’ve told myself that I have time. My son is only five years old now. Soon—not tomorrow, but soon—I will have to have The Talk about what others assume about him, about his life, about his intentions as he browses through a store or strides down the night’s sidewalk. It won’t matter if he’s wearing a three-piece suit or hoodie and jeans as he walks fresh into the lives of certain strangers, he’ll still get the double-take: that long side look soaked in suspicion and dread, because he’s laughing too loud (and black), walking too slow (and black), driving too fast (and black). His being here (and black) will be a problem for some, and they will see it as their right to bring forth a solution, set a course correction to protect the lives that really matter. And, no, that does not include yours, black boy.
Still, I don’t want to fill him with dread and fatalism. Even though he’ll be inundated with countervailing messages about his lack of worth, I want this child to find his way to becoming a fully realized man—the husks of resentment and bitterness tumbling in the trail behind him, sloughed off like useless, old skin. Like my folks did for me, I want to show my son that while there are people who will likely see him as a threat, there are also others who will be ready to embrace him, revere him, and come prepared to wholly love him.
But I’m not ready for all of that. I’m not ready to blow stinging dust into this kid’s bright, kind eyes. Not yet.
I want our brown boys to have the space and time to be hopeful and undaunted, counting forward not down to the days to come when they can play basketball and hockey and go to the club with their boys and call up girls late, late in their parents’ basements.
I want them to have the passport to be black, and just be.
It’s the last week of school in my town, and I don’t think anybody quite believes it. Parents are basically feeling everything …
Pride: “We made it, team!”
A mix of all the emotions: “I’m so happy and sad and freaked out and then happy again.”
And for the parents of teens, a certain amount of joy. “Aww, yeah! __ more years and the house will be empty, y’all!”
For us, it’s more of a “where did the time go?” state of shock. I mean, The Youngster is stepping up to kindergarten this fall — the big time. In getting him (and us) ready for this big shift, for the past few months we’ve been talking about the new school and all new class buddies and the new teachers and the new, new. new. It’s a lot of new. So far he’s remains excited and intrigued about all of it.
We also started reading more books about kindergarten and taking on new adventures. We’ve always been a big reading family — ever since he was a tiny newborn we read books to him and with him (Oh, dear … eyes misting up. Alert! Eyes misting up! Think about dry toast, Blades!). The plan is to keep reading our way through the summer, adding all kinds of stories that may be new, different or challenging to our list. And with Ms. Mary Mack now a proud member of The Scholastic Circle, this also means joining Scholastic’s 8th annual Summer Reading Challenge.
It’s a totally free online reading program for the young’uns dedicated to stopping the “summer slide” and getting kids to read throughout the summer months when school is out. This year’s theme is “Reading Under the Stars,” and we’re hosting a little backyard neighborhood party, sponsored by Scholastic and powered by EVEREADY® (i.e., fun flashlights!), next month. But you can join the challenge right now. Just register your kids here and start reading. Once you’ve signed up, you can log your reading minutes, take weekly challenges to earn virtual rewards, and help set a new reading world record this summer. You can also check the handy map to see if your school (if participating) is racking up reading minutes.
“Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.” - From Christopher Myers’ NYT‘s Opinion piece, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.”
Here’s a great list of 25 books from MindShift to “Diversify Kids’ Reading Lists This Summer.”
“These books tackle themes like international adoption, bi-racial families and cultural history, to name a few. Not all of the authors are minorities, but every book features a protagonist of color that children can point to and say, ‘That’s me!’”
I will definitely be checking out the books on the list, for my own edification. Hand-claps for this list, MindShift! It’s an excellent start. And to that I say, all right, all right, all right!
So, what do you think: Are you joining the challenge? Let us know. Leave a comment below. Let’s make this summer one for the, uh, books. (Oh, yes … puns!)