Drowning From The Inside Out: The Stigma Surrounding Early Pregnancy

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Written by Amy Lopez

There is an unspoken rule in Hispanic households: if you’re feeling something, hold it in. Don’t let yourself be seen as weak. It is not going to make anything better if all you are doing is pouting.

That’s how I used to feel.

How I still feel sometimes.

I was valedictorian of my high school in Southern California. I also won the Gates Millennium Scholarship my senior year—the only person in my class to receive it.

I was entering my freshmen year at University of Southern California with an academic scholarship that would leave me debt-free by the time I graduated.

I had everything figured out. Or so I thought. The second semester of my sophomore year at USC, I found out I was pregnant. I was 19 years old.

It was not the great shock for me that society and media make it out to be. I had missed my period for about two months, something that was out of the norm for me. There was no, “How could this have happened?” moment for me. Sure, there was a chance that when I went to the clinic, the test would come out negative, but when it read positive, there was not much surprise.

Nor was I shocked by the reactions I got from people.

I was not a stranger to teenage or unplanned pregnancies.

Coming from a low-income community, unplanned pregnancies were talked about at my high school and occurred occasionally. Plus, being the daughter of one who gave birth to my oldest brother at the age of 17 and then to me at the age of 20, I was not foreign to the topic. But I had mixed feelings about it.

It was always the same story when it came to the unplanned pregnancies at my high school.

The girls stopped coming to school. They always said they were coming back but most never did. Perhaps they lacked the support from school staff. Maybe they were unsure of how to balance their new role with the ever-present demands of school. Often, their boyfriends started working and the girls would spend their time at home, becoming accustomed to maternal life and all it entailed.

It’s what my mother had done. She’d given up her peak years to take care of my three brothers and me. It was not until we were significantly older that she finally decided to go back to school to become a teacher, a goal she continues to pursue to this day. Still, it was her hiatus that always bothered me. Why couldn’t she have still gone to school and taken care of us? Why did she wait so long? When I got pregnant and heard the reactions, I realized why: It was easier.

No longer was I the wunderkind valedictorian who was going to take over the world.

People heard I was pregnant and it was almost as if they were giving out eulogies rather than congratulations or morale boosters. “She’s so young,” they’d say. “She had such a bright future. She worked so hard in high school. It’s a shame.”

Fueled in part by doubt and adversity, I was inspired and motivated to finish school. I was determined to continue. I could not let people be right. I was not doomed to fail.

Every day I went to school, and my anxiety increased as my belly grew. I began to realize that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was exhausted. I would drive to school, park, and walk to class in a sleep-deprived state. I was not in the best state health wise. I was tired and scared that I would not have the strength to carry this load. Not just going to school and graduating on time, but parenthood itself.

This is where it began. What it really feels like to be a young parent. In addition to the typical worries of students my age, I began to wonder if was going to be a good parent. The feeling would eat at me. I had so much homework as it was, how was I going to balance a child as well? What was I getting myself into?

In most communities, venting brings one response: “Well… you should’ve used protection,” or “You had a choice.” And this is true.

As young parents, we do have a choice to make. A difficult choice to make that has been debated at federal levels for decades. For some, abortion is a simple procedure. For other, an anguishing option. But there are many of us that immediately feel a connection to what is already growing inside of us.

Here’s the kicker: while one decision is politically debated about whether or not it’s a personal choice, the other is a life-long commitment that is forever viewed as the wrong personal choice. The choice to parent young.

Because as young parents we could have “been smarter about contraception” or made an alternative choice instead of creating struggles. This is what the media tells us. This is what society tells us. It creates a feeling of drowning from the inside out.

It is making a sound choice about our parenting and our plans, only to have someone tell us “you’re so young. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

It is sharing my pregnancy news with family and former close friends and hearing, “When are you quitting school?”

It is going to school, raising my son and being asked by family members why I’m so focused on my homework. Why is my son crying while I’m on my laptop trying to finish a news package for my journalism class? Why did I even choose to go into journalism? What kind of earning can you make in that field?

It is being told by numerous people that you’ll have help at a moment’s notice, but always being denied help when you need it most.

It’s taking finals while trying to put your child to sleep.

You try to come up for air and realize that the baby years will pass. School will end soon. All the while, you’re still treading water. The drowning feeling never goes away. But you learn to adapt.

School finishes and work begins. Instead of having class hours to work around, you now need a full 9-hour babysitter for your children, and daycare isn’t cheap.

Even when you have reached “adulthood,’’ you have already been a parent for years. It sets you apart from the parents who had their children at a socially appropriate age. You never really fit in anywhere.

You fall into a specific category, constantly trying to make sure you don’t drown from the steady influx of stigma. It is difficult to parent under the scrutiny of everyone around you, when you are doing the best you can.

The suffocating stigma must end. We have a right to parent with dignity.

 

 

 

 

A Memory, Nostaglia, & Foolish Games

1 - Sac City LRC

Sacramento City College, 1998.

The day I truly took interest in him, the quad was blanketed with leaves, leftover remnants of the previous night’s wind storm. I was caught up in a momentary fit of nostalgia (autumn evenings do that to me), and was walking briskly across the campus over the red and yellow pathway. He was ahead of me, backpack slung over one shoulder, novel in one hand. He glanced back toward me and grinned. “You’re in Fryer-Smith’s class, aren’t you, kiddo?”

“Yes, I am.” I answered a little too formally. He asked my name. I already knew his.         His name was Joey.

“Yeah…I thought that was you. You usually have your face buried in a book.” I smiled, pleased that he’d taken note.

I was 18 years old with a toddler and had recently completed high school on independent studies, meaning that I’d basically spent the past two years of my life in solitude as I balanced motherhood and schoolwork. Social life was minimal. Dating life was non-existent.

That first semester of junior college was like a re-birth for me. I emerged from the cocoon that was my high-school experience, wrought with memories of personal rebellion, social missteps, and school failure. Suddenly I found myself in an environment where I was free to completely re-invent myself. My reputation didn’t follow me, and neither did my previous school record.

Now, here I was blossoming into a 4.0 student and social butterfly. Every day was a dizzyingly entertaining mix of new faces and ideas. I was in love with my budding identity. And along with my academic success and new-found social sweetheart status, came a refreshingly improved dating scene.

I was completely unprepared for that. Whereas in high school, the majority of my boyfriends had been poster kids for the “bad-boy prototype,” the guys who pursued me now were of a different nature entirely. They came to me with their minds full of goals and ambitions, and hands full of sonnets. I swear to you, that first semester I spent nearly as much time swooning as I did studying.

But as the days grew cooler and shorter, I found myself spending the majority of my time with Joey. We were as different as could be. He was returning to college after years of living the quintessential California dream. Coastal living, surfing, and reveling in the glory of uninhibited youth. He was nearly 10 years older than I was. I was fresh out of 12th grade, with all the responsibilities of an adult, but none of the experience. Despite this, we shared a love of literature, philosophy, writing and coffee. For months, we met for late night discussions in the library during which we mulled over the writings of Nietzsche & Darwin. We attended a baroque quintet concert at the Crocker Art Museum, and convened for afternoon reading sessions along the Sacramento River. He introduced me to Kerouac’s On the Road, and I tried to convince him to consider reading the works of Peter S. Beagle (I’ve always had a soft spot for fantasy). I knew I was in over my head when he invited me to dinner with his family. We dined at a Thai food restaurant (I had never had Thai before), and afterward had dessert at the family home in Davis. I met his brother and his brother’s longtime girlfriend. His father was a lawyer, and that night I learned of Joey’s plans to transfer to UC Berkeley to pursue a law degree (Which he eventually did, followed by a graduate degree from a prestigious east coast school). Everyone was friendly, and overall the night was lovely. But my youth and inexperience were obvious to all, and it showed in the overly kind way that they humored me. It was the first time I felt unequipped in the world of adulthood (though it wouldn’t be the last).

The week before finals, he invited me over to his house for dinner and a movie. No one was home that evening but us, and I stayed late into the night. I talked about my son that night, perhaps a little too much, because in the end I think it highlighted the fact that no matter how bright, charismatic, and “datable” I was, I was the mother to a very young child. I was a package deal. And though I was largely inexperienced in the dating scene, I knew that this fact alone was a deal breaker for most.

I saw him once more after that, and the interaction was cordial and brief. The evening of our class final was a rainy one, and when I walked to the parking lot that night, I didn’t even bother pulling out my umbrella. I sat in my car for a while, watching the windshield wipers push away the water drops as quickly as they fell. Jewel’s Foolish Games was playing on the radio. And though I felt the tell-tale euphoria that every student experiences after finals are completed, I also had the sinking feeling that something very important to me had ended. It’s funny the small details we remember.

You’re always the mysterious one with
Dark eyes and careless hair,
You were fashionably sensitive
But too cool to care.

I tell this story now because I think of it as one of my life’s many lessons. A story to tell my children later during a discussion of relationships and infatuations. Soon after the “Joey Semester,” I came across a poem by Veronica A. Shoffstall that I’ve retuned to time and time again over the years. It continues to move me to this day.

This morning, as I slipped on my peacoat while taking in a long sip of coffee and simultaneously searching the counter for my keys, my mom shared with me that she’d recently come in contact with a former beau with whom she’d once been intensely obsessed with. He’d shown only a casual interest in her, and at the time she was crushed. Now, decades later, she’s realized how profoundly different they are in all the ways that truly matter. She mused about the potential misery she’d avoided on account of his indifference.

And that’s the way life runs it’s course. In the present, we can never truly grasp the reasons why we face the trials we are given & the rejections we are subjected to. If we’re lucky, we’re blessed with the hindsight that brings everything into perspective. But often, we’re not. And in the latter case, I choose to hold tight to the belief that there is always a higher plan, even if we can’t make sense of it. And if that plan is never revealed, at least it makes for an interesting story to tell, years later when time has graciously dulled our feelings, and the only things remaining are a few recollections, scattered across our memory like leaves on a walkway…

 You Learn

 Veronica A. Shoffstall

After awhile you learn
the subtle difference between
holding a hand and chaining a soul
and you learn that love doesn’t mean possession
and company doesn’t mean security.
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises and you begin to accept
your defeats with your head up and your eyes ahead
with the grace of an adult not the grief of a child.
And you learn to build your roads today
because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
and futures have ways of falling down in mid-flight.
After awhile you learn that even sunshine
burns if you get too much so you plant your
own garden and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure
that you really are strong
and you really do have worth
and you learn
and you learn…

Why Teach

Preschool me. 1985.

Preschool me. 1985.

“You can be anything you want to be…”

We’ve all heard it. We may have uttered it to someone else at some point in time. It’s an incredibly overused clique. A phase we say in an effort to uphold the fairytale of the American Dream. It’s a well meaning thought, but at one point I stopped believing it.

I was around the age of 14 when I decided I no longer subscribed to the  “everything you want to be” promise. My grades in 9th & 10th grade were horrendous. As in, a 0.5 GPA horrendous. I was unfocused, unmotivated, and unlikely to graduate. Some of my teachers had given up on me, as did many other adults in my life. I could see it in the sideways glances they gave me every time I arrived late to class. I could read it on their faces, hear it in the tone they used when speaking to me. But there were a few, who continued to treat me as if I had potential. One of them, Mrs. Callahan, was my literature teacher during freshman year. I think she saw through my act. She might have had a hunch that, even though I feigned disinterest in class as we decoded verses of Romeo & Juliet, I went home at night and poured over the pages of that tragedy, rewriting passages that spoke to me in the lined pages of my spiral notebooks. Though I failed to turn in my assignments, I’m sure I did well on my tests. Maybe it was because of that that Mrs. Callahan treated me as if I had a chance, but I think there was probably more to it than test scores. She took time to check in with me, and to offer after school help, which I sometimes took her up on. I remember how her validation made me feel, during that tumultuous time in my youth. It made me feel respected, and worth the trouble.

Fast forward three years: I was a mother and a Senior in high school. I was on independent studies. My grades increased dramatically, as did my focus. I was a determined student who began expressing my desire to go to college, despite my circumstances. Still, very few took me seriously. But my home studies teacher did. Mr. Coombs worked patiently with me as I inched my way toward graduation. He advised me to enroll in Jr. College, then transfer to a University. He beamed in the audience as I received my high school diploma. And I took his advice. I went on to Sacramento City College and eventually transferred to a University.

My path into early childhood education (ECE) was not an intentional course when I first set out on it. I enrolled in a few child development classes so that I could become a better parent. My original plan was to take the pre-requisites needed for a nursing program. But I soon discovered that early childhood education was what interested me most. So I continued with it, and eventually applied for an early childhood program director permit with the California Commission on Teaching Credentialing. I pursed both an undergraduate and graduate degree in ECE. At age 26, I landed my first job in a school district, and have been teaching ever since. 

Lately, due to various factors including the uncertainty of funding for early childhood teacher salaries in my district, I have been considering pursuing a multiple subject (K-8) credential. Over the summer, I met with many of my past advisors to discuss my options. I was taken aback by some of the responses I received.

“Don’t waste your time on that. If you’re going to go back to school, get into another field.”

“With your level of expertise, I’d consider administration. You’re too bright to remain in the classroom.”

“Have you thought about teaching higher ed, or public policy? You should.”

I mulled over these responses for several weeks, wondering how we, as a society, got to this point. This place where teaching at the PreK-12 level is considered a second-class profession, something that is undesirable and unrewarding. I thought of the hundreds of students I’ve taught over the years, and the families who continue to return to my classrooms to visit and update me on their progress. I thought of Mrs. Callahan, and Mr. Coombs, and Mrs. Garcia, my 1st grade teacher who surprised me by attending my graduation party when I completed my M.A.

And though I’ve entertained the idea of teaching college students, pursuing a career in policy, or joining the ranks of administrators, I ultimately listened to my heart, and applied for a credentialing program. 

My loyalties do not lie with test developers, or administrators, or policy makers who have never stepped foot into a classroom. I’ve pledged to serve families, and the students they are raising. I’m ever so grateful for the educators in my life whose belief in my abilities fueled the drive to complete my goals. 

I can be anything I want to be. 

 I choose to be a teacher.