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.

 

 

 

 

On Your 17th Birthday

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Sunday, January 26th, 11:22pm

Oh hey there, Son!

Did I tell you I found my high school transcripts the other day? Well, If I didn’t, it’s because I was a little embarrassed.  And shocked, really, to see that I had a 0.50 at the end of sophomore year. Yep. You read that right. Nearly 3.2  grade points lower than your GPA was in 9th grade. One of the many reasons why I am so darn proud of you, you hard-working, motivated student, you. And, of course, you know the story…along came little you, and I was inspired to turn my slacker ways around and begin putting a little effort into my studies. Because I knew you were depending on me.

By the way, I want you to know, Elijah, I was not the only parent of yours who stepped up when you came to existence. Your dad did the same. Since day one, he worked for you. Even at the young age of 17, he diligently showed up for work at the restaurant down the street, so that he would be able to contribute to your needs. Not that that was a particularly easy task, as the job was tedious and boring at times and didn’t particularly pay well. But day in and day out, he worked-in that job and in many others….and continues to work to this day for your little sister, your step-mom, and of course, you. I read a quote the other day, in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan…you may remember it: “There are many different kinds of bravery. There`s the bravery of thinking of others before one`s self. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.”  Putting aside one’s needs for the sake of another is no small feat. Yet your dad was able to put much aside in his efforts to be a good father to you. I want you to know that.

And so, you grew, and we grew, and suddenly I was in college, where I found out I was a pretty good student after-all. A 4.0 student to be exact, and I was getting rather confident. Except when it came to my math skills. I don’t know why, but I had a hang up with math. I thought I wasn’t cut out for it. So when it came time for me to take statistics to fulfill transfer requirements for the CSU system, I was a little freaked out. The first day of class, you were having a rough time saying good-bye to me as it was also your first day at the college’s preschool. Separation anxiety was in full effect. I lingered a little too long to comfort you, and was late getting to class. The instructor gave me the eye as I hurriedly seated myself while mumbling my excuse about having to drop my son off and I’m sorry it won’t happen again. But it was too late. I knew she wasn’t impressed. I was red in the face, and feeling quite intimidated as I flipped through the syllabus that day. “How in the world am I going to pass this course?” I wondered.

I vocalized my concerns to a gentleman I had befriended in another one of my classes…an older man by the name of Wayne. Wayne was smart and generous and well versed in the ways of the world. He listened to my concerns and offered to help tutor me, as he had taken the exact same course the semester before. But more importantly, he advised me not to doubt my ability to ace the class, if I so desired it. “But I’m not GOOD at math stuff!” I protested. “We’ll see, ” he responded. As it turns out, I didn’t need much tutoring…I took some of Wayne’s notes early on, and studied them furiously during class breaks and late in the evening long after you were asleep. And to my surprise. It all began to make sense. Not only did it make sense…I found that I loved it. Loved it. I began looking for statistics in everything I read. In the newspaper, in the magazine articles, and in the peer-reviewed research that was assigned reading in my other classes. I ate that stuff up. And I aced the class. I remember when the final scores were posted, and afterward we all stood in the hall comparing our standings…I had the second to highest grade in a class of 38 students. And I never had a complex about math again.

Statistics. I thought a lot about them back then…about who I was destined to be, and more importantly, what was in store for you. At the time, I was hyper-aware of what the statistics said you’d become, being that you were the son of teen parents. The cautionary tale went something like this: likely to be retained a grade, likely to drop out of school, highly likely to become incarcerated. That, my son, is what the statistics said.

But you’ve written your own story, haven’t you? I cannot take full credit for the young man you’ve become. You’ve been blessed with a community of people who have loved, encouraged, and supported you along the way. Your accomplishments are a reflection of all of them, and of your parents…but in the end, it all comes down to you. You’ve done this for yourself. And you’re not done yet.

For you, childhood is waning. You are doing amazingly well in all your courses. You are well read, thoughtful, and organized. You’re a dedicated baseball player, and a responsible sibling to your brothers and sisters. I’m so very proud of you.

And soon, you’ll be choosing majors, and schools, and careers…you’ll learn to juggle jobs and friendships, finances and hobbies…and there is much for you to learn.

But most importantly, I want you to remember that your success is not only for you.  As you climb the ranks, and make your way into adulthood, be ever-mindful of those around you who may need encouragement, or information, or support or advocacy. Life’s most humbling moments can often be witnessed in the little ways in which we help one another—in simple ways such as offering tutoring or notes, an encouraging word, a kind gesture, a friendship.

You, Elijah, were given the gift of a sharp mind, quick wit, and a compassionate heart. The three don’t always go hand in hand. And this is why I’m convinced that,

Someday…somewhere… someone may sit on their couch, late in the night, listening to the clock tick-tock away (as I’m doing now) and writing about the ways in which you impacted their life. You may never know the full scope of your actions. Or perhaps you will. But either way, it will have been worth it.

Rest now, little one. The world awaits you when you wake. And there is so much for you to do…

With Love,

Mom

P.S. Mr. Wayne Maytum, if you ever get around to reading this…thank you, sir, for believing in me. The image of your warm smile stays forever in my memory.

Aside

Weathering the Storm; Education, Empowerment & other thoughts on a Weekday Evening

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The makings of literacy. My mother & I. (1983)

I was sitting there on a Monday night, sipping coffee like it’s nobodies business, trying to maximize what little time was left in the day when I came across a Daily Show interview with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai. Instantly taken by the youthful hopefulness of her responses, despite the heavy nature of the conversation, I closed out the evening by watching the interview in it’s entirety.  If you have not yet heard about this young woman, there’s a good chance you will in the near future.  Malala began blogging for the BBC when she was just 11 years old. In her writings, she told of her life under Taliban rule, and denounced their attacks on the schools, teachers and students of northwest  Pakistan. As a direct result of her activism, Malala was shot in the head and neck during an assassination attempt while on a bus with her classmates as they returned home from  school. She survived the attack, and has become an international advocate for women’s educational rights. I went to bed that night thinking about Malala, the motives behind her fierce determination, and the idea that it’s not necessarily a political agenda that makes her voice so threatening to the Taliban, but the fact that she’s pressing for girls to be educated in a country where women are afforded few freedoms, and are subjected to astonishing rates of violence and institutional discrimination. I remembered the way my grandfather proudly wore a “Knowledge is Power” shirt for as long as I can remember while I was growing up, though I didn’t quite grasp the significance of that power until early adulthood. Clearly, Malala understands it, as she has literally risked her life in order to contribute to the chorus of voices demanding educational equality in that region of the world.

The following evening, I lay on the floor of my son’s bedroom, feet propped up on the edge of the bunk bed, with book in hand. My 6th grader’s required reading for this month is Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. As usual, I’ve been coerced into a group read-aloud, as my little ones have grown accustomed to bedtime chapter books in place of standard bedtime reads such as Goodnight Moon.  Anyhow, I wasn’t about to get off easy with a simple board book, because on this particular evening, the author of the day was Mildred Taylor, not Dr. Seuss.  My toddler’s eyes fluttered closed as I read from a passage describing how it was once necessary for some children to walk miles each day in order to get to school.  Whereas the children in Roll of Thunder would depart from the house while it was still dark in order to arrive in the classroom by sunrise, my kids can easily leave the house 10 minutes before the start of school-on foot- and still have time to chat with their friends before the tardy bell rings. We talked a bit about the dedication it took for children to make that kind of daily trek- in many cases, without shoes- just to take part in their right to an education. I told them about the black students in Little Rock, Arkansas who had to be escorted by the national guard into their classrooms because they were under threat from  violent protesters who seethed at the idea of integration in schools. I reflected on just how precious our right to an education is, and the lengths we’ll go to get one.

Educational empowerment was the theme of a discussion my children and I had weeks ago when—out of nowhere— my 8-year-old posed this question: “Mom, what was the happiest moment of your life?”Clearly, the births of my four beautiful children are in the top five of my life’s happiest highlights. But narrowing “happiness” down into one single moment is tricky.  I thought long and hard. And a memory surfaced…

It was Autumn. I was 25 years old and had recently been accepted into grad school at Sacramento State University, Sacramento. It was my first day of courses. Perhaps it was the cool fall breeze that seemed to carry with it an air of nostalgia and possibility. Maybe was the way the carpet of red & orange leaves covered the campus walkways like a gloriously seasonal variation of the yellow brick road. It might have been the smell of the new textbooks I cradled in one arm, or the pumpkin latte I held with my free hand. But as I bustled along with the crowd of other students, backpacks slung over shoulders and syllabi in hand, I realized I was insanely happy. I kid you not, I was literally trembling with energy to the point that I had to keep my teeth from involuntarily chattering.  In all my life, I have never felt so radiantly alive. It was a mixture of pride, freedom, wonder, and hopefulness beyond measurement. Less than a decade before, many people openly told me I’d never complete high school, yet there I was on the cusp of obtaining a Master’s degree.  I love that memory. And when I get lost in the recollection of it, I feel as if I catch a small glimpse of the passion present in the spirit of Malala, the Little Rock Nine, and countless other young people who have  fought for their right to an education.

As of present, the Western world has co-opted Malala’s message for educational equality and paraded her across every major news outlet, and all the while public schools across The United States are struggling under the pressure of shrinking funds and a battle against educational privatization. It bothers me that the talking heads will sing the praises of education when it serves their agenda, but regularly ignore the fact that we have a serious crisis on our hands as services such as school counselors, libraries, physical education, and enrichment curriculum are being slashed as educators struggle to compensate for the losses. Yesterday, the district I work for in Sacramento, California, announced that our superintendent, Jonathan Raymond will be resigning from his position come December, in part due to the difficult nature of the last few years in which the state of California made drastic cuts to education spending , and declining enrollment prompted many school closures and teacher layoffs.  Meanwhile, the district’s child development program that I teach for has run out of funds for the year, and I am left trying to find ways to maximize supplies while keeping the quality of my classroom curriculum high. It’s going to take a small miracle.

There are few things more empowering than an education. My dad used to encourage my sisters and I with this mantra, “Once you get your education, no one can take it from you.” There are few things in life in which  that is the case. Homes can be lost, health deteriorated, loved ones grown apart….but an education, once earned, remains. And maybe that’s what drives us to pursue it with such relentlessness, despite the odds.  Whether it’s a young mother in search of a better life for herself and her child, or a girl in Pakistan with a dream of liberation, young people across the globe face major obstacles when it comes to achieving their goals. Many of us in the States feel suffocated under the weight of inadequate funds, school closures, lack of resources, ever-changing standards, and the cost of higher education. Around the world, the barrier between a student and their education may be as small and deadly and as a bullet.

Here at home I fight my own small battles- as a teacher, the parent of three school-age children, and a community member who is truly concerned with the state of public education. It is, at times, daunting. As I walked up to my classroom this morning,  I heard my dad’s voice, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.”

 In the face of the current educational climate, I can only hope to be a warm front in this brutal chill.

Bundle up, young ones, we’ve got a storm to brave.