The Judgment, Challenges and Cycle of Teenage Pregnancy

 

When I was a teenager, I thought I knew it all. I was an honor student with a bright future ahead of me. I had the three major universities in Arizona offering me scholarships for college by the time I was a sophomore in high school, and I even got an offer to study marine biology in Australia. By the time I was 15, I got my first job at IBM Corporation while my friends got their jobs at McDonald’s or other fast food restaurants.

Everyone in my family, especially my mother, had high hopes for me. I was the intelligent daughter; the good daughter. I wasn’t like the girls around me who were getting pregnant. Everywhere I looked, girls had bellies protruding, and I remember saying to myself, “They’re crazy! I will never do something so stupid!”

Then I met him: Ruben. The boy who made my heart throb with his long hair, Danzig T-shirts and tight jeans. He looked nothing like the thugs who flooded Carl Hayden Community High School (If you watched the movie Spare Parts, you have an idea of the type of students who inhabit that high school). Better yet, Ruben and I shared something in common. We both came from broken homes with tons of dysfunction, so it wasn’t surprising when we fell in love and turned to each other for what we felt missing in our lives. I was 13 going on 14 when we met, and he was 15.

Where I was the honor student who had my future all planned out, he could care less about school. In fact, by the time he was a senior, and I a sophomore, he dropped out of school. That didn’t sway me though from sticking by his side. I thought he was the man for me. I loved him and he got me. He understood my anger at my parents, and he gave me the attention I wanted.

My dad was 16 when he altered his birth certificate to go to Vietnam, and when he returned, the war had destroyed him. For years after he and my mom married, he did okay, but like many other vets, he succumbed to his demons and tried to numb himself through heroin. Once he did so, his life changed for the worst, and he lived a life immersed in drugs, crime and behind bars. He went to prison when I was 8, and was in and out of there until he died in 2005, shackled to a bed.

That left my mother a single parent of four children and struggling constantly to make ends meet. My mother was and still is a brilliant woman who worked for the Arizona Department of Education, but she didn’t have a college degree and didn’t make a lot of money, so she had to work extra jobs and travel a lot, which left us kids alone to fend for ourselves. Of course back then, I didn’t see her as working hard to take care of four kids; I saw her as not being there and never having time for me, which made me angry with her too.

Ruben understood that because he had his own family problems. Therefore, we turned to each other—two angry kids with anger toward our parents and the world. Because of our anger, Ruben and I talked about running away and starting a family, but when I turned 15, I was in a serious motorcycle accident and almost lost my leg. That accident not only cancelled our plans, but it opened my eyes to a lot of things, especially how much my mother did for us kids. I no longer thought of running away, and I realized I should probably rethink having a family so soon.

Well, that would have been great, except I didn’t pay attention to what I should have, and at 16, I found out I would be having that family early after all--right at the time several local companies had finished sponsoring my study abroad trip to Australia, and during a time when I was still overcoming my motorcycle accident.

My mom had worked so hard to get my trip covered, and she had barely kept her sanity during the year when I had five reconstructive surgeries on my leg. I was still on crutches the day I learned of my pregnancy, and I didn’t know how to tell her. Luckily for me, my older sister helped me do it. Even after all these years, I can still see her face and pinpoint the exact moment when her heart broke.

That was in 1991, when the teenage pregnancy rates spiked across the U.S.

Living the Judgment

Once the word was out, my home phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Luckily, we didn’t have cell phones or social media then, or things would have been much worse. Regardless, news travelled fast. My relatives in northern Arizona found out and it seemed the whole family called my mom to give their condolences.

When my mom went to talk to the principal at Carl Hayden, he said, “That’s so disappointing. She had such a bright future ahead of her.” He said those words to my mom as if I wasn’t in the room, and during the rest of that week, I had to listen as people comforted my mom and said things like, “You tried your best. She was a great kid. She was so smart.”

The shame I felt at that time began to turn to anger. At my high school, half the girls were pregnant or had kids, and many of them didn’t know who the father of their babies were. I told myself, “At least I love the father of my baby and he and I are in this together. I am not dead, and I will show them that I can do this.”

Admittedly, doing was harder than saying, especially with all the looks and comments that kept coming my way. Even though half the girls in my high school were pregnant or had kids, everyone viewed me differently because I was an honor student, and for my entire high school career, I belonged to a small group of students who took the same AP classes together. In fact, many parents of this group who learned of my pregnancy felt I was “a bad influence” on their children once they learned of my condition, and they requested I not be allowed to be a part of the National Honor Society. When I learned this, I broke down and cried.

I was already scared about becoming a mother. I wouldn’t even consider abortion or adoption. Additionally, my mom was so hurt with me that I couldn’t talk to her about my feelings, and I felt like I would break from all the stares and all the judgment. I had no one to say, “You’re going to make it, Brandy. You’ll be okay.” Instead, people told me my life was over, and for a spell, I believed it.

The People Who Care

Although I lived in the second worst neighborhood in Phoenix and attended one of the worst high schools in the city, I had some amazing teachers. The teachers in our school had to have the patience of saints to teach in our neighborhood. They weren’t just teachers. They were counselors and friends, and in some cases, they filled the role of parents sad to say. Although many teachers were disappointed with my actions, a few of them stood by my side when no one else would.

Two of these teachers, Mrs. Braden and Mrs. Robinson, along with a few of my previous teachers, decided to attend the school board meeting that would determine if I could be a part of the National Honor Society. I didn’t even know about the meeting until after it happened, and my teachers told me about the parents who requested I not be a part of the organization. When I heard what they did for me, however, that knowledge overtook the anger and pain I felt at the people who wanted to rob me of something I worked hard for all my life.

It was after that conversation, and when those two teachers told me I would get through this and would make it, that I decided I would do just that.

I couldn’t stop the stares, the comments, or the judgments, but with people like Mrs. Braden and Mrs. Robinson by my side, I knew I had a chance. Because of them, I did get inducted into the National Honor Society, and by the time I turned 17, to my mother’s dismay, I got emancipated, married my first love and moved into my first apartment with my new family.

During my senior year, I went to school part-time and worked at the Phoenix Police Department part-time for school credit. Things started to fall into place even though things got tough.

As I attended school full-time, Ruben worked at a bank. I figured all would be great, and when one teacher told me that all Hispanic girls get pregnant, drop out of school, and go on welfare, I worked even harder to prove people like him wrong. Also, my mom told me I was on my own. If I wanted a baby, I had to be grown up and take care of it, so I decided I would show them all that I could do so. In my heart, I knew l would go to college, come back and laugh all of these people in the face.

The Dream Sounded Better Than the Reality

Although I managed to graduate with honors from high school, unfortunately, everything my mother told me would happen by having a baby young and marrying young came to pass. Of course, I thought at the time she was trying to make my life miserable as all teenagers do; however, now I know she wanted to keep me from suffering the same fate she did as a single mother without a college education.

When I originally told my mother I wanted to get married, she begged me not to. She told me things wouldn’t last. When I told her I would move out, she told me things would be too hard. She had it right. My marriage lasted less than two years, and things got exceptionally hard.

After I graduated from high school, I immediately started college at Arizona State University and worked part-time while Ruben worked full time. I had a five-year scholarship, so I wasn’t about to let that go. However, when the studying and homework came to be too much, Ruben asked me to quit school. I wouldn’t do it; so, we fought about it. I tried explaining that my education would help us in the long run, but he felt we needed to work on things now.

It also didn’t help that both of our families’ problems came in between us, and when he turned 21, he started going out with his friends while I sat at home with our daughter. I was 19 and couldn’t do the same.

Sadly, our marriage went down hill, and when I found out Ruben was cheating on me with a girl from work, I kicked him out, filed for divorce the next week, and luckily because I was an ASU student, I got my paperwork completed for free.

It took six months for my divorce to be final, and during that time, Ruben stopped helping me with our daughter. He was in a new relationship with a young woman whose parents had money and so he had to keep up with her. The cheating and divorce were two things, but I never expected Ruben would give up on his daughter as well. I filed for full custody, and he didn’t even show up to the court hearing, so I received it.

As a result, I was left to struggle without help. My mom helped somewhat, but she had her own problems. I had a full-time course schedule and I only worked part-time at a bank. I tried to get food stamps to help me stay in school, but I got denied because I had purchased a new Honda Civic in cash with the money from my motor cycle accident. It didn’t matter that the car was a basic model and cost only $13,000. It also didn’t matter that I lived way beyond the poverty level and wanted to stay in school.

So, during my sophomore year at Arizona State, I had no choice but to quit and go to work full-time at Bank One. I hated knowing I had to give up my dreams, but that job led to a better job at Norwest Bank, which eventually became Wells Fargo. By the time I turned 21, I had moved up to a personal banker position.

Because of my career in banking, which I started at 18, I always had insurance for my daughter, stability, and not long after my divorce at the age of 19, I bought my first house. It was a HUD home and not in the best of neighborhoods, but my daughter, who was two at the time, had a yard and place to call her own.

The Turning Point

Because I lived day to day, and sometimes wondered how I would feed my daughter from one moment to the next, I never stopped to think about returning to school. I figured all the things people told me when I got pregnant turned out to be true, and my destiny included a never-ending struggle. Thus, I focused on was how to get from one day to the next.

At the same time, I remembered my teachers and all the things they taught me, and so I decided to make the best of things and spent my early 20s improving myself and working hard at the bank. Throughout my time there, I received many awards and learned many things.

Slowly, but surely, things fell into place, and when I met my husband now, Esau, my life changed for the better. I had pretty much resigned myself to the idea that I would remain single forever. I did not want my daughter to have a stepdad, and I sure didn’t want to go through the things I went through in my late teens. Esau showed me though that not all men are the same. At the same time, I didn’t settle for someone because I didn’t want to be alone, or I wanted a father for my child--something many young mothers tend to not want and want.

When I introduced Esau to Ariana for the first time, she was four years old. From that moment, my husband fell in love and has raised my daughter as his own. If anyone calls her his stepdaughter, he will correct them. Granted, Esau had a much different life than I did. He grew up in the small town of Sonora, Texas. He used to be All West Texas everything, and he had the hands of a hard worker. He grew up poor, but he had a good life, and when I listened to his stories, I dreamed of what that would be like. So when we talked about leaving Phoenix to move to West Texas, I imagined that life for our kids. By then, we had our son, Jacob, and had married.

When we moved here 13 years ago, I was 27. We came to San Angelo, and not even a year after our move, Esau got a job in the oil field. As a result, I got to leave my almost 10-year career in banking to return to school. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my husband and my kids’ support. Ariana was 10, and Jacob was 4 when we moved here, but they knew momma had to go to school.

The day I started school at a different ASU, I remembered my teachers from high school and how they fought for me. I also remembered that teacher who said all Hispanic girls would drop out and end up on welfare, and all the judgment I experienced. Those things made me work hard and become an overachiever.

Instead of getting just a bachelor’s degree as I had planned, I went all the way and got my master’s degree in English. I would have gone further, but then my daughter, who was 16 by the time I finished my master’s program, decided to repeat my life despite all the things Esau and I did to ensure she wouldn’t do so; and despite me going to school to show my kids that an education will take them where they want to go.

Like my own mother, my heart broke.

A Repeated Cycle

I told my daughter I didn’t regret having her at 16 because she brought a purpose to my life; however, I did regret having to put her through me growing up, which is something kids of young parents have to cope with. Sadly, my daughter now faces the same situation. At 23, she has three kids: my grandson, Ayden, who is about to turn 6, and my twin granddaughters, Alana and Leila, who are about to be 4.

Ariana was 16 like me when she got pregnant with Ayden, and I was 33 when I learned this news. When I found out, all my struggles and the things I fought so hard to change for my children came flashing back through my mind. I felt like the statistic once more, and I hated knowing my daughter would experience that same judgment.

Although I broke down and wanted to yell, I couldn’t because I knew too well what she would be feeling. I knew her fear and that getting angry wouldn’t solve anything. My husband, however, who had never experienced teenage pregnancy, was broken. Ariana had always been his baby girl, and he couldn’t believe at 16, his baby would become a mother.

For months, we felt as if we had done something wrong. We kept asking ourselves, “What did we do?” Maybe we didn’t pay enough attention. Maybe we didn’t talk to her enough, but that wasn’t the case. When Ariana turned 11, I educated her on sex and babies. She even took a child development course and had to take care of one of those fake babies. Esau, although he comes for an old school mindset, also talked to her about sex and told her if she thought about it to come to us and we would buy her condoms and put her on birth control. We tried hard to leave the lines of communication open.

However, like me, she thought she was in love, and when she fell for the wrong person, nothing we said mattered.

When this boy walked into our home, I knew this boy was bad news, just as my mom must have known when she met Ruben. We didn’t understand what our daughter saw in this boy with a bad attitude and demeanor. The more we got to know him, the more we knew we had things right. The one difference though included the boy’s parents. After we learned about the pregnancy, they came to talk to us, and after having a long talk, we felt like we weren’t alone in this process. We still weren’t crazy about our daughter’s choice, but at least the parents would be as involved as us.

So from there, I contacted Ariana’s counselor at Central, and we scheduled a meeting. The counselor helped us get her set up on the Success by 6 Program, and when Ariana was placed on bed rest, she got set up on the Homebound Program.

I was astounded at the level of assistance that the Central High School counselor and the Homebound teachers provided. My Homebound teachers, when I had to go on bed rest for early labor, didn’t even come to my home. I had to learn everything on my own. However, here, the teachers were amazing, and with their support and help, Ariana graduated from school on time.

Like me, Ariana also moved out with her family into an apartment. Not too long after, as Ruben and I did, the couple began having their problems, and Esau and I knew it would be a matter of time before the two separated. Instead, we were hit with another surprise. At the age of 19, Ariana found herself pregnant again.

This time, I got angry. The first time, I remembered what I went through and didn’t want to put my daughter through that, but this next time, I couldn’t hold back. I yelled at Ariana and we got into a fight, and a few hours later, she ended up in the emergency room. I remember crying hard because if she miscarried, it would be my fault. Imagine my surprise when a few hours later, Ariana called me to tell me she was having twins.

Because the girls were premature, and because Ariana and the father couldn’t sustain on their own with three children, they moved back home with us. I’m putting this mildly, and for my daughter’s sake, I won’t say why, but unfortunately, the father didn’t last long. The twins were only three months when he left and Esau and I became co-parents.

Since that time, the father paid child support during the first year after the twins’ birth, but after that, he has only paid a little here and there. The courts recently awarded child support to my daughter, but after one check, the father was laid off; so once more, the responsibility falls to my daughter.

The father is in the kids' lives, but he tells Ariana she only cares about the money. He thinks love is enough, but like Ruben, he doesn’t realize love means ensuring his children are well-taken care of in every way, including financially.

If it wasn’t for my husband and I working hard to help raise our grandkids, our daughter would be like the many single mothers here in Texas. She would be living in extreme poverty on welfare, and she would be like I was those many years ago, wondering how she would feed and care for her children.

Luckily, because we work together as a team, these kids live a good life and won’t feel the full effects of a single-parent home; but despite our help, our daughter will always struggle as young mom’s do, and as I did.

Granted, I returned to school and followed my dreams of being a writer, but I owe that to the people who have supported me like my husband, my mother, and the teachers who cared for me all those years ago. I also had a mentor at Arizona State University whose words stayed with me over the years. He said, “Life always has its ups and downs, but you’re smart. You can do this, and one day you will.” He told me this the day I cried in his office because I had to give up my scholarship and quit school. When I walked out that day, I promised him I would always try to make my way back to college.

Because I had that support, I determined my daughter would have the same, and my husband and I have provided that. However, after writing two stories, one about Healthy Families in San Angelo, and one on the Pregnancy Help Center, I realized that there are so many young girls out there experiencing all the things I did, but worse. Texas ranks #1 for repeat births, so many of these girls have more than one child, and they don’t have the support we both had and have. As a result, they may be making poor choices in their relationships with men, or feeling as if they have no future.

These agencies provide a great support system, but I have learned many people never knew about them. Somehow, they fell through the cracks. Additionally, at the end of the day, they may need something more than what an agency provides. They need someone to tell them they are good enough and they will make it. They need someone to tell them that life will be hard, but with the right resources, they can do better for themselves and their kids. They need to know that there are women like them and like me who have made it. Despite all my challenges, and let me say that I have barely touched on them here, my family has moved up from poverty to the middle class. I fought for my dreams, and I have been blessed with people to fight with me.

All it takes is for these young mothers to want something more, to know about the resources out there for them, and to have someone by their side. That person doesn’t have to be family, but rather someone who will tell them they can instead of they can’t. Despite what they think, there are a lot of people out there who do care and want to help. It takes effort on their part as well though. Nothing is handed to them for free.

Overall, teenage pregnancy isn’t likely to go away. Although the statistics have gone down, the battle is far from over. I tried to break the cycle of pregnancy by changing my life, but I learned that no matter what, a child, whose parents were teenage mothers and fathers, is 60 percent more likely to repeat that same choice and get pregnant or get a girl pregnant. That means San Angelo will see a lot of young parents for generations to come if we can’t break the cycle.  

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