See Roni’s blog asking advice for a young girl who is dealing with a crisis pregnancy. This is my contribution.
I’m fifty-six years old now and living a wonderful life, and one of the great lessons these five-plus decades of moving through the world has taught me is that life always makes sense when you look at it backwards.
I can’t count the number of fantastically positive things that have happened to me only because something that appeared at the time to be negative eventually placed me in a time and place where the good could find me, and although there’s not much comfort in the thought at the time the bad stuff is going on … if, indeed, there was ever a pause in the negative long enough to attempt a think ahead to better times … stringing events back along the thread from time to time does help when the shit hits the fan again, as it always does.
Without a doubt, one of the most significant of these circumstances … and the reason I’m writing to you … was getting pregnant at the age of seventeen. I was in my senior year of high school and looking forward to graduation, my first truly free summer, college — life in all it’s glory!
My pregnancy came as a shock to everyone, although it shouldn’t have. You’d think my boyfriend, at least, would have had a clue about possible outcomes of his in-goes, but the news took him completely off guard. (I probably should have paid more attention then to how dense he was, and less to his cute smile.)
My parents went ballistic; a response that was neither honest, nor helpful, since both had a pretty good idea what I’d been up to, but neither could be bothered to pay enough attention to engage … not even when I sought them out and asked for their involvement.
I was neither surprised nor prepared when the verification finally came, but rather detached. Although it was my body that was chucking up every morsel of food that came within a foot of me, beginning to thicken around the middle even without being able to eat more than crumbs, and my boobs that hurt every time I rolled over in bed, I somehow had managed to disconnect these inconveniences from any thoughts of a person actually having the temerity to start growing inside of me.
With the confirmation, however, it was time for me to snap out of my hormone-inhanced stupor and come to grips with the two-by-four that now smacked me upside the head … I was going to have a baby.
How in hell was I going to do that?
My father, in an attempt to take control of the situation, arranged a back-alley abortion for me in San Francisco’s China Town … a reputable butcher, I’m sure, and one coming highly recommended. (This was 1968, you see. Pre-Roe v Wade.)
My mother had called the Salvation Army home and booked a room for me in case the illegal abortion thing didn’t work out. I could be comfortably housed for the next 5 to 6 months, give birth somewhere they had handy, and they would arrange an immediate adoption.
Problem solved by both parents, not too much muss and little fuss, and I might even have a say on which road taken. After all, there was no reason to ruin my whole life just because of a little mistake, was there?
Once I faced the fact that I was carrying a child, I started falling in love with her — somehow I always knew she was a she. In my mind’s eye, I could see her at two and five and twelve and going to college and getting married. Sure, some of that had more to do with compensating for my own dreams that now looked to be rapidly losing potential, but much was a growing connection between me and this new person I was making.
War broke out on many fronts. Terrible, horrible, war, and I doubt I need to go into any detail on how this looked, sounded or felt. (Throwing up every 10 minutes did make it interesting, I suppose.)
I fought both my parents and made a deal with my boyfriend; we’d marry, but I wouldn’t ask anything from him but minimal financial support, his name and whatever legitimacy a ring would convey on our child. He took me at my word, and shortly after our wedding he went off with a girl who picked him up at our door and stayed with her for days. She was the first of many, and in fact when I went into labor with our second child I had to wake up another girlfriend to let him know that I was on the way to the hospital.
The six years I spent married to my kids’ dad were some of the most painful of my life, but options and choices were few and far between. I had made my bed, and now I had to stick there. With no skills and an interrupted education, there was no way I could support myself, much less myself and my kids, so we lived a miserable lie that none of us were happy with.
Life wasn’t awful … my kids were beautiful and healthy … but it was tough. We lived in a 12′ x 45′ trailer parked on my in-laws land for years, had unreliable and dangerous cars when we had any car at all, and so little money that a gallon of milk seemed a luxury and a steam iron was an impossible wish. This sort of life in a happy family with a man who loved me would have been an mildly inconvenient starting point, but as it was, it was little more than a stop-gap measure to keep a roof over our heads until the whole thing fell apart.
When the kids started school I saw an opening. At least with them a bit older, I’d be able to get back to school and work. One evening I ran into my husband’s girlfriend du jour and told her to take him and keep him. (She did … well for a few years, anyway.) I divorced my husband, went to night school and got three jobs … one was necessary just to pay for babysitters for when I went to the others.
Throughout my twenties, I struggled to make ends meet. While working to get through college and put food on the table I had jobs as a dental assistant, a cocktail waitress, a bar tender, a worker in a walnut factory, and many other thankless and low paying endeavors. I took what I could get, some full time, some part time, and I juggled and juggled and juggled and made do and compensated and compromised.
For a few years my schedule involved getting up at 5:00 to get housework done, the kids showered, dressed and fed and off to school and me to my M-F, 8-5 job. After work, I’d pick the kids up from the sitter, feed them dinner, and when my night sitter arrived I would go to either my Tues/Thurs 7 – 11 dental surgery job or my Wed/Fri/Sat 8 – 3 am waitress job. Sundays I did laundry, mowed my lawn, and so on.
As a single mom, everything fell to me, and there were times when I was so tired and so discouraged that there seemed no end in sight, no light flickered at the end of any tunnels. I was poor and exhausted and the last drabs of my youth had long dribbled away.
Into my thirties, things started picking up. Carefully laid plans began to mature and some bits of luck fell my way, as well. My kids were now teens, so they became babysitters rather than needing them. They did well in school, had loads of friends and were good company for me.
When I was 41, my kids were both grown and living independently, so I bought myself a backpack and an around-the-world ticket and took off for the trip I’d always dreamed of. I found myself a whole new life, then, and have been living it ever since.
Those first two kids of mine are now 38 and 36. I have a 6-year-old granddaughter, and if I had it to do over again, there are very few things I would change. All the hardships I faced made me strong, and who I am now has everything to do with the life I have behind me.
I am proud of my accomplishments and of raising two human beings as terrific as my kids are. (They really are amazing people, even if I do say so myself!)
I often wonder what life for all of us had been like if I’d chosen differently. The daughter I conceived at seventeen did not have an easy time. My son, 18 months younger, faced many challenges, as well. Had I not been the sort of person I am … doggedly determined with a tenacity not easily compromised, willing to work my ass off year after year with little reward, and able to live through much of my youth without parties or any social life at all … I doubt any of us would have turned out as well as we have.
I live on the other side of the planet from my older children and my granddaughter, and haven’t shared space with any of them in more than five years. Although we are in regular contact, the physical distance is a great sadness I feel most days.
At least in part, I’m sure, because I missed so much of my kids’ lives while they grew up while I was far too busy to do much more than the grueling tasks that kept us fed and sheltered, I now have two young children, both adopted. They are my joy, my life, my heart, and my little family brings happiness I’ve never known before.
So far, however, I have never been under the same roof with all four of my children together.
With a 32-year gap between my second and my third kids, I figure I’ve experienced the consequences of many of my decisions regarding my children and a range of parenting, but if you, April, were to ask me for advice on what you should do, I wouldn’t have any.
Life is hard, and it just got a lot harder for you. There are choices to be made, and only you can make them. There’s no way around this, and you must decide for yourself … and for your child.
All I have to offer is my story, and so far it is happy enough. My hope for you is that when you are fifty-six and looking backward down the thread that has followed you from now to then you will say the same. Anything more will be a bonus.