To my 16-year-old mother, with love:
I desperately wanted to become a mother—for five years. My life was a continuous cycle of doctor visits, hormones, and disappointing pee sticks. There were lots and lots of tears (and loss). The word continually that rose to the surface in my mind during that time was “barren,” accompanied by the image of a brown and dry wasteland.
But I am very, very lucky. My miracle finally happened nine years ago. His name is James, and he’s the most amazing human I have ever met.
My own arrival into the world was very different. It was not planned or celebrated. For my mother, it was catastrophic.
Within 36 hours of her 16th birthday, my mother went into labor. My father was also 16. It was 1974 and barely a year after Roe v. Wade. Although times were changing, babies conceived out of wedlock were still bastards, and teenage mothers of bastards were still shamed and hidden away. When I read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I learned the word that I now associate with my teenage mother: “ignominious.”
While she refused to acknowledge her pregnancy, even to herself, I was hidden under the loose smock-style tops that were in vogue at the time—for five months. My grandmother was only 39 when she learned her daughter was pregnant. As a working divorcée with five kids, she already had her hands full.
So my mother was pulled from school and kept indoors except for doctor’s visits. All of my grandparents as well as my parents agreed adoption would be best—best to keep things as hush-hush as possible.
When she went into labor at New Jersey’s Mt. Holly Memorial Hospital, my mother did not make a sound. The hospital policy at the time only allowed spouses in the room with laboring mothers. My parents weren’t married. No parents, no friends, no siblings were permitted. Afraid to make a peep, she silently labored surrounded by reproachful nurses (Tsk tsk! Look at the baby having a baby!) for more than a day. Then she underwent an emergency C-section. I cannot imagine what she went through—alone.
I think back on my own youth. The beauty of my new womanly body was wasted on me in my own insecurity and self-criticism. But my mother never even had a chance to enjoy the beauty of her “flowering.” The bloom was plucked too soon. At that time of life ordinarily filled with promise and possibility, pregnancy left her with deep, purple stretch marks and a C-section scar that more closely resembled a dissection. I have always thought she was beautiful, but I have also always known how much her scars bothered her.
My family did not give me up for adoption. When I arrived home from the hospital, my 8-year-old aunt who had still not known my mother was pregnant said, “She’s cute. Can we keep her?” Within six weeks my parents were married. My mother finished school through the local alternative program that involved crocheting and papers produced from Cliff’s notes. My father got his GED and a job. Until I was 9, I grew up in a house surrounded aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and even great-grandparents. My upbringing was a team effort.
My grandmother played both mother and grandmother. Parent-teacher conferences were confusing. We simply weren’t a “non-nuclear family” in a cool Brady Bunch kind of way. There was residual scandal.
As a grown woman looking back on my childhood, I realize that our mother-daughter canoe trips, Disney World adventure, funnel cakes on the Ocean City boardwalk, and lazy beach days were as good for her as much as they were for me. She was often like a child herself, smiling and laughing in her stubborn determination to ensure that I had a childhood. (I was the Pearl to her Hester.) I remember watching her do her hair and makeup and put on pretty dresses with perfectly matched shoes, proudly thinking that none of the other kids had mothers as young and beautiful as mine.
No lie, being mothered by a mother who does not yet know how to take care of herself was a bit of a roller coaster. It’s a steep learning curve, but the love was always there. In many ways, we grew up together. And so, I have measured the passage of time in comparison to my role in my mother’s life:
When I turned 16, I tried to imagine how different my life would have been if I was responsible for sustaining a small, fragile human. No slumber parties. No hanging out with friends talking about boys. No sleeping in. (I cracked my egg-baby sex-ed project.)
When I was busy applying to colleges at 17, I realized that my mother’s future planning was limited not only by views of professions for women at the time, but also by her obligations to me. Also, “marrying well” with an impending divorce, stretch marks, and a baby in tow was not particularly promising.
At 19, I plucked gray hairs from my mother’s head while she drove me back to my university dorm. At 35, she looked too young for gray hairs. (Little did I know mine would come at 25.)
When I reached the legal drinking age of 21, I could have been mother to a 5-year-old who could already write in full sentences. Instead, I went on a road trip to the Yukon with some guy I had met on spring break.
When I turned 32, after years of trying, I had not yet become a mother. It was impossible to imagine having a 16-year-old son or daughter, let alone becoming a grandmother at that age. I felt like my life was still just beginning.
At 40, I thought about my grandmother and how she might have felt when I was born. Did she envision her own child’s future shrinking, as mine was only beginning?
My mother and I have joked about wearing orthopedic shoes together—about growing old together. In many ways, we grew up together. She has been my mother, sister, and friend. I’m a very, very lucky woman to be her daughter. And I’m so very proud of my 16 year-old-mother.