The other day I was looking at something I had written in an email. I wrote, "As a teenage welfare mother I know what it means to go hungry." As I have designed a blog called TeenParent, Ph.D., it is no secret that at the age of 15 I gave birth to my son and instead of giving him up for adoption as instructed, I kept him with me. Quite a few years have passed between then and now and yet, I wrote that sentence in the present tense. I am in no material sense of the words a "teenage welfare mother" today, so why would I use present tense?
I think that what I wrote, the words, were what some would call a "Freudian slip." It is something I revealed about myself inadvertently by using what might otherwise be called an odd word choice or a typographical mistake or a grammatical error. I suspect that I still see myself as that scared, scarred, poor, 15 year old to whom someone handed a baby and then sent her home.
There is a picture of me being wheeled out of St. Anne's holding what looks like a wad of blanket. A nun is pushing me and my grandparents are on one side of me and my youngest sister is on the other side of me carrying what looks like a wad of blanket, with ears. We are heading for my grandparents' car. My papaw (grandfather) is reaching into his pocket for the car keys and he is intently looking at the car. His body is turned away from the rest of us. My grandma is looking at the wad of blanket, and my sister, who had been skipping along beside the wheelchair is frozen in mid-air, looking down at me from her suspended position, both feet off the ground. I remember hearing her say, "look, this is my baby" and when she touched back down on the ground she moved the blanket to show me a large stuffed animal. I think it was a mouse; it might have been a rat. It was definitely a rodent.
In the picture, it looks like a hot day. The air pushes my hair back off of my face rather than a brushing it back. July 21st in Los Angeles (LA), California is going to be a hot day, but that year LA had a heat wave. The day I gave birth the temperature was recorded as the hottest day in Los Angeles history, 97 degrees. It didn't get much cooler in the days that followed. In the picture, I am looking down but not at the blanket. The only thing I remember clearly from that day is my sister comparing her stuffed rodent to the living, breathing human I was holding and thinking that I should probably ask her to trade with me.
Not all the time, but there are moments when I feel just like the girl in that picture looks. She is overwhelmed and helpless being pushed in directions others would have her go, unable to lift her eyes to look into the glare of reality. My denial was a large part of the many problems I made for myself in my son's first few years. I was a firm believer in fake it until you make it. That really doesn't work in parenting. I really had to be the mom. I really had to be the one who put the food on the table and the roof over our heads. Most of all, I had to really love this kid in ways that would make him feel loved for every second of his life. That was really hard to do.
When I went into labor I was given a "Saddle Block." This old school technique of anesthetizing women was no longer used on "real" mothers, but at St. Anne's they used it on those of us who were giving up our children. It was a way to separate us from the experience of delivering the child into the world. It worked but not in the way it was meant to do. There is no way to disguise the tugging and pulling maneuvers the nurse and doctor used to arrange me and my, now, numb lower body. There were no soundproof earplugs to drown out the sucking, squishing sounds that announce a new human to the world. Also, in the interest of further physical distance between birth mother and child, I was given shots to dry the milk in my breasts, so I wouldn't be bothered with the inconvenience of leakage or the pain of unspent milk. Finally, the doctor decided that he would put some extra stitches in while suturing my episiotomy so I would be, he said, winking at me over the top of his surgical mask, "good as new."
The physical pain of delivery, the saddle block itself, the shift in hormones as my body abruptly shifted from pregnant to not pregnant, and my son's colic all contributed to severe post-partum depression and agonizing migraines. Add to that the normal lack of sleep most parents crawl through in those early days and months, and life becomes a surreal torture that must be escaped by whatever means possible. My own mother was a nurse working night shifts so she could get the pay differential. So, the one small blessing was that when my son finally got his days and nights mixed up, she and I both got some rest.
The first month of my son’s life was one continuous, failing, desperate attempt to make everyone stop crying. We all suffered; my sisters and brother somehow managed to make it through the day at school and get some rest at night, but if we were to look back at the report cards for that semester, I think we would find that each one of us was performing far below our potentials.
My son could not tolerate formula of any kind. I could not breast feed because no one really knew the side effects of what they had shot into me to dry the milk, and the pediatrician felt that trying to force milk was unwise. We were both uncertain of my ability to keep this baby alive and adding potentially poisoned breast milk to the long list of ways in which this child could die at my hands was not something either of us wanted to do. As a result of awkward and impatient bottle-feeding my son suffered terrible ear infections. I had no idea all those sinus thingies were in his head and that they all connected to one another. After a month of watching this child break out in hives, shiver uncontrollably, projectile vomit, and shoot shit into a diaper so hard that I could feel it under my hand, I decided to make up my own concoction of whole milk and water with just a touch of powdered baby cereal. I then cut a slightly larger hole in the nipple and worked diligently at holding him in a position that made the liquid flow down his throat and not up through his ears (please do not take this as advice). It wasn't Rocket Science; it was much harder than that.
This is one of the memories I hold onto when I start to feel like that waif in a wheelchair. I believed in myself and I did what I believed to be in the best interest of my child. I did many wrong things. I followed a lot of bad advice, I ran away when I should have fought to stay, but when all is said and done, I did not kill that child, I loved him as hard and as best I could, and in looking back I can see that in those moments when I accepted my glaring reality, I was a good mother, a smart woman, and a strong person.
The reason I chose to blog on this particular topic was because it is what I know. And, it is what I do not want anyone else to know. It is the shame of the waif in the wheelchair looking down but not at the evidence of her immorality and ignorance, as if the pregnant belly had somehow hidden it up to this point. This sense of shame prods me to write about what I know. I do not like the way shame feels. I have felt it far too often in my life; I try my best to avoid situations in which I might do or say something "shameful." It is ironic (yes, it is) that writing about what makes me feel shame ultimately makes me feel serene. Perhaps it purges the shame; it may be an Aristotelian catharsis, wherein I am the playwright, the play and the audience, all at the same time aware and reaching for the cathartic end, and, at the same time, unaware of the outcome. Crafting my performance, inhabiting the role and then dropping it, I crawl out from underneath the weight of my shame, as a snake does his own shed skin, time and again. It always surprises me when I feel better.
My hope is that those other, past tense, teen parents out there who understand what I am describing because they know it too, will share their stories. Tell us how you did it. Tell us how you raised a kid or more than one without killing one, losing one, having one in jail or on drugs. Tell us how when everyone else in your world told you that you were not old enough, good enough, or smart enough, you figured out how to raise a human being who is a contributing member of society, and, in the process, made yourself successful, happy, contented, and justifiably proud of your child and yourself.