If I had a dime for every time I made contact with judgmental eyes, hearing their snide comments, or someone deciding to talk at me instead of to me about my “circumstances”, I would be a billionaire. I find it peculiar when people reach a certain age and disregard their indiscretions during their younger years. It is comical how people can judge without looking in the mirror. To the individuals who feel that shaming a young parent instead of sharing your wisdom is a best practice, please keep in mind that for most teenagers, becoming a young parent was not a goal they strive to reach.
Long before MTV created the show sixteen and pregnant, this was my story. Overly confident was my disposition once I discovered that I was pregnant; coupled with the fact my friends were also having babies. Little did I know that my life was going to change for the worse before getting better; starting with the sobering reality early in my pregnancy that I would be raising this baby on my own. I gave birth to a baby boy in the fall of 1989. By then any communication between my parents and I ultimately turned into a fight. When you are young sometimes you feel as if the world is against you and you have all of the answers, so I made the crazy decision to leave the state. Not having a strategy in mind, I collected my paycheck from McDonald’s, packed all the clothes I could carry, dressed my son, and bought a one-way bus ticket to New York. For a short time I stayed with relatives and needless to say it didn’t pan out. Consequently, my son and I became homeless and for the first time since giving birth, I was alone and afraid for my baby. With only two dollars in my pocket I boarded the A train going uptown and sat near the conductor’s box and tried to figure out my next step; that train ride lasted all night. Fortunately, I was being watched over by a conductor who detected something was wrong and quickly recognized my situation. He told me about a shelter on West 41st Street (Covenant House) and gave me some money for food. I don’t know his name, but I will always be thankful for his kindness.
Arriving at the shelter around 6:00 am, my son and I were quickly transferred to a facility for teen mothers called Mother and Child. During that time you automatically received public assistance when you entered the “system”. Honestly, I was embarrassed at first to receive public assistance due to the comments thrown at me by relatives who frowned upon my “circumstances”. Ringing in my ears was their haunting words, “you already have one baby, which opens the door for additional babies out of wedlock and will ultimately lead to depending on government assistance”. However, I quickly shook it off and instead of giving those words power, I decided to utilize it as a motivation tool even though the odds were against me, so at that point proving them wrong climbed to the top of my goal list. The first step was releasing myself from the shaming bondage of being a teen mother and letting determination take over; turning a negative into a positive became my mantra. The day flew by and fortunately my son and I did not have to share a room with anyone; lying in bed that night with my baby next to me I cried myself to sleep.
My eyes popped open before the 6:30am wake up. Apprehensive regarding leaving my son alone, I quickly bathed. After getting him ready, we went to breakfast. Greeted by loud chatter as I maneuvered through the sea of tables with my son tightly in my arms while scanning the room for a seat; I instantly identified the different cliques. After finding a high chair and an open table near the kitchen, I looked around the room at all of the teenage girls with their babies as I feed my son and wondered what life event brought them here.
After breakfast, I sat in the common area and planned my next step. My mind started racing as I thought about bettering my life. In my heart, I wanted to enroll in school and pick up a trade, but I needed to find a school near the facility. I really didn’t put much thought into the type of program, I just wanted to attend school. I asked one of the case managers for a phone book and started searching for schools. I found and enrolled in a cosmetology program at the now defunct Wilfred Academy. For a short time everything went well until cynics stated voicing their opinion. There were a few not so nice case managers there who looked down on girls like me. They were my naysayers, but I didn’t let them deter me instead it made my determination grow even more. Another young lady from the shelter also attended Wilfred and planned on moving to an adult shelter; she asked if I wanted to leave with her. Without any hesitations, I step out on faith and left the mother and child program.
Arriving at the assessment center on Catherine Street was a shock; kids were running around unsupervised, babies crying, and foul language filled the air like cigarette smoke. I wondered if I had made the right decision to leave the Mother and Child program. Despite the intake case managers’ best efforts to serve everyone in a timely manner they were overwhelmed and the people were aggressive. It seemed as if people were pouring in by the minute. We spent the night in the assessment center and unlike the subway, my son had to sleep on my lap due to the limited seating. My number was finally called at 10:30am the next morning, but it would take over thirteen hours for us to reach The Roger Williams Tier Two Women’s Shelter (midtown). We arrived around midnight and went through the intake process, needless to say that it was after 2am when we finally got settled. The room had two beds, a kitchenette, bathroom, mini refrigerator, telephone, stove, and television. Searching for permanent housing was one of the main rules in the shelter. I met grown women who were there for over a year and appeared to be content with their situation. Not wanting to get comfortable, I set a goal to be out of the shelter and in my own apartment within five months. That goal was reached in exactly five months and I also completed school shortly after. Nonetheless, another road block materialized; I was only able to obtain part-time employment in a salon that catered to pimps and prostitutes.
Unable to pay all of my living expenses I still needed to depend on public assistance a little longer and I hated it. After voicing my frustration to a friend, she advised me to enroll in college. She shared her experience and felt that enrolling would bring better opportunities. Finding myself elated and nervous at the same time because unlike Wilfred Academy, a high school diploma or GED was one of the enrollment requirements. Making the decision to drop-out of high school came back to haunt me; I felt defeated and wanted to give up. However, my friend encouraged me to contact her admissions representative anyway. As luck would have it, the college had a GED program; this was another life changing moment. Enrolling at Monroe College was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I received my GED and went on to receive an associates and bachelor’s degree. Through their Career Services I was hired at a law firm and was able to get off of public assistance.
Everything fell into place, but some years later, my son was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and it really shook me to my core. Needless to say, I did not give up and was able to keep moving forward. I decided to pursue a Master’s degree and ended up receiving not only one but two masters and went on to earn a doctorate degree. I also found a great career in higher education where I was able to assist adults with reaching their educational goals.
I hope this piece will inspire young parents who are uncertain about what their future may hold. Regardless of what curve balls life may have thrown your way, you always have an opportunity to change your circumstances. No, it is not going to be easy, but if it’s worth having, it’s worth fighting for. Your perseverance will serve as the foundation for your child’s future, so just keep striving for greatness.