Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Vanessa Says No Teen Mom Story #5 March 28, 2012

Vanessa Says No   

As a sixth grader, I felt incredibly good when I aced Friday’s spelling test for the sixth straight week. At recess on that same Friday, my new friend, Marcy, invited me for pizza and to spend the night.
            “I wish I could, Marcy, “but Friday nights my mom works the evening shift at the hospital and the deal is, I make dinner for the family an clean up afterwards.”
            “No problem,” Marcy said. “We’ll make it another time.”

            After I finished the dinner dishes, I disappeared into my room. Dad snoozed in front of the TV, his fifth beer still clutched in his hand. Jack, who was twelve, a year older than I, had just slammed out the door, headed for the mall with his grungy friends. Sara, a dreamy third grader with stringy hair, lay on the family room floor staring groggily into her constant companion, a hand-held Gameboy.
            Ready for some alone-time, I clicked on the boom box Mom had bought me for my eleventh birthday and settled stomach first onto my bed to write about this special day in my diary.
            “School’s good, I actually like it,” I finished up. “I hope we stay here for a long time.” Then I crawled under the covers, looking forward to finishing The Wanderer, the story of a girl about my age who learns lots about herself as she crosses the Atlantic Ocean in a small sailboat with uncles and cousins. But sleep snuck up on me before I could get her safely to shore. I heard to book fall to the floor as I dozed off. I let the radio play on, too sleepy to do anything about it.
            But consciousness returned quickly at the sound of my bedroom door opening. “Schleep yet, honey?” Dad mumbled as he closed the door firmly behind him. He clicked off my radio and the light.
            This wasn’t his first trip to my room in the evening when Mom was at work. Usually he sat on my bed, mellowed by too many beers, holding my hand and telling me how beautiful I was becoming. He always made me feel a little trembly inside. Even though I knew it wasn’t Dad, but the beer talking, his words made me feel proud. After a few minutes, he’d kiss me goodnight and disappear.
            But not this night. With the loud clunk of Dad’s belt buckle as his jeans hit the floor, I shot up, stunned. Without a word and before I knew what was happening, he climbed clumsily under my covers and pulled me roughly toward him as he slid his legs alongside my body. All I had on was a T-shirt. Dad’s breath, loud and raspy, stinking of beer and cigarettes, made me gasp. A tiny squeak was all I could manage to get out of my mouth before his rough hand clamped across my face. “Lie perfectly still. No noise,” he commanded. I obeyed.
            It was over quickly, painfully. Minutes later, as Dad left my bed and stumbled from my room, leaving his jeans crumpled on the floor, I heard Mom’s key in the front door.
             “You bastard,” I heard Mom scream. I lay in my bed, unable to stop sobbing, curled up in a little ball. “You’ve been drinking again, and where are your pants?”
            Then I heard Mom in the upstairs hall. Maybe she heard my sobs. She burst through my door, still open a little, and tripped over jeans that she had to know right away did not belong to me.
            I couldn’t move or say a word. I lay shivering and sobbing, still curled up. I felt as if I might throw up any minute.
            “What, for Christ’s sake, has happened?” Mom demanded, grabbing my shoulders and shaking me. I didn’t answer her, not then, and not later when the lawyer begged me, or when the therapist tried, more gently, to pry words out of me. No words would come.

            Dad didn’t spend the rest of that night, or any other night, in our house. Before the divorce was final, he left town and Mom sank into single parenthood. She began to work seven nights a week at the hospital. I made dinner every night now.
            School became a drag. I couldn’t concentrate for more than about two minutes at a time. I never aced a spelling test again. Marcy asked me to spend the night two more times before she gave up and lost interest in me.
            In a few months, Mom married Tony, a guy she met at the hospital when he came to get his leg sewed up from an accident he’d had on the air force base. I liked Tony, mostly because he made Mom happy. He made us feel more like a family again.
            It didn’t bother me much when Tony’s orders came and we left for Germany. A year later we followed him to Guam. Now Jack was in high school and had learned how to make friends fast. In a few days he was surrounded by a gang of chain-rattling-baggy-pants buys who thought they were real studs.
            Josh, one of Jack’s new friends, was at our house all the time. He was kind of cute, I thought, until he forced me to have sex with him on the couch in my own basement. He acted like he had a right, and the strange thing was, a part of me thought he did. I could have stopped him if I’d thought I had the right to say “no.”     
            Now when I look back, I realize that the experience with my dad had made me timid and passive. When a man asked something of me, I was helpless to refuse him, no matter how I felt inside. Right after that, the anxiety attacks began.

            When my PE teacher asked me to try out for the cheerleading squad, I refused. “You’re so athletic and graceful,” she said “Come give it a try.”
            I couldn’t think of a good reason not to. No one was more surprised than I when I made the squad. I was even more surprised when being a cheerleader opened the door to all kinds of friendships for me. By the time I entered tenth grade, I felt like the center of my group of friends. “Ask Vanessa,” she always knows what to do,” my friends would say.
            That year my friends began using drugs more than just now and then. It wasn’t possible to hang around with them and not know they were using, and using hard. Then one day I got called into the principal’s office. “I need your help, Vanessa. You and I both know who’s using drugs in this school, and I suspect you know where they’re coming from. But I need specific information to get this stopped. You going to help me?”
            “Squeal on my friends? I can’t do that,” I said, feeling my anxiety level rise.
            In ten days, the principal talked to me again, begging me to give him the evidence he needed to bust my friends. If he kept up the pressure, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer. The anxiety attacks were coming regularly now and there were days when I could hardly get myself to school. I’d wake up in a sweat and have to force myself to get dressed and out the door.

            My mom had complained about being tired for months. Finally she went to the doctor, and she wasn’t faking. She was diagnosed with lupus, a difficult to treat blood disease, and she had to quit work. We were badly in debt, mostly because of stupid spending in Germany where everything was expensive. Teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and without Mom’s income, we were in big trouble.
            Sometimes a bad thing becomes an opportunity. I tried to turn this bad thing into something good for me, and for my family. I decided that if I quit school and went to work, I could help out with the family finances and at the same time avoid confronting the principal who kept pumping me for information about my friends and their habits.
            Now I know that was a dumb decision, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. And for a while, things went well. I found a part-time job as a housekeeper on the air force base and a second one as a food demonstrator in a grocery store. I didn’t mind cleaning and I worked fast, so that I could have my afternoons free when I wasn’t scheduled to demo at the Blue and White.
            At night I partied. I loved going to clubs with my friends. That’s what I lived for. I wasn’t the only tenth grader who’d quit school that year. I began to hang out with other dropouts, now and then raiding family liquor cabinets, begging cigarettes where we could, and smoking a joint or two when we could get them for free.
            Max was older than I and in the air force. He liked to hang out at my favorite club, a dingy little place with great music and a tiny square of a dance floor. We loved to dance, covering every square of the creaky floor, whirling and swooping, laughing at each other’s bizarre movements. Max didn’t seem to have a care in the world, and neither did I when I was with him. We weren’t ever what you’d call “serious.” We hung out together for a couple of months, and then Max’s orders came to go to Texas.
            By the time I drove myself to the public heath clinic two weeks after Max left, I had a considerable investment in drugstore pregnancy kits. I took about 15 tests. Most of them were positive, but now and then one showed up negative, and that gave me hope. But after the clinic test, I had to face the fact that I was pregnant.
            Back in my battered tan Escort, I scrounged through the overflowing ashtray for a decent-sized butt and sucked in the calming smoke. My mind raced as I pulled out of the crowded parking lot heading I knew not where. Gotta quit smoking, I told myself. Gotta quit drinking, and eating junk, and partying all night. If I’m going to have a baby, I want a healthy one.
            Looking back on that sweltering afternoon that I spent driving rutted country roads, I know it was then that the change inside me began. Later that same day, after three long hours on my feet passing out pizza samples at the Blue and White, I dragged my aching back and legs home and stuck my head in the family room. “Hi guys. It’s been a long day. I’m headed to bed.”
            Only mom responded. “Sweet dreams, honey. Glad you’re home.”
            Despite exhaustion, sleep did not come quickly. I lay on my back, rubbing my hands over my flat stomach, still trying to accept the fact that I was to be a mother at seventeen. Alone in the dark, I tried to imagine how the next months would play out. Would my family accept my determination to have this child? Would I feel good enough to work? Could I make the money I would need to support my baby? I shouldn’t have quit school. Maybe I should go back. No. Need money. Will they let me stay here? Some kids get kicked out when they turn up pregnant. Finally, I drifted off to sleep.
            Not my mother, but my grandmother, far away in South Carolina, insisted that I have an abortion. This was the grandmother who herself had become pregnant at seventeen, before she married. “Don’t ruin your life by having a child so young,” she begged over he phone. “You’ll never forgive yourself.”
            I listened to her words, but there was no way I could end my unborn child’s life. Mom was disappointed when I told her, but supported me in my decision. “Only you can decide what you must do,” she said.
            Tony had a weird reaction. “You’re going to be a mother? Hard to imagine you in that role, Vanessa. Don’t expect us to baby-sit when you want to party.”
            Tony had no children of his own. I think he harbored some deep down feelings of jealousy that I was having a child that would not be his and Mom’s. The fact that she couldn’t have any more children had always been hard for him.
            As it turned out, Mom became attached at the hip to her first grandchild, and Tony couldn’t get enough of him either. Often they begged me to go out so they could have Kevin to themselves. Most of the time, I didn’t even want to go.
            I gave birth to eight-pound Kevin a few weeks before we moved again, this time to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Not long after we arrived, Max came up from Texas to meet his son. He acted like a proud father and I laughed at the obvious likeness between Kevin and his dad. But when Max wanted to establish a relationship—just see where it might go—I couldn’t.
            “I have an education to finish if I’m going to support this baby,” I explained.
            “We’ll support him together,” Max said.
            “I’m not ready for a permanent relationship. Not now. Probably not ever. I don’t do serious, long-term boyfriends, and I have never been able to see myself as married,” I told him
            Max went back to Texas alone and I enrolled in classes to get ready to take my GED tests. For a while, I had an office job at the Red Cross, but I couldn’t listen to people’s tragic stories day after day. I couldn’t fix them, and that depressed me. After a few months, I quit and went back to work at what I know best—cleaning on an air force base.
            As long as I live with my family, the $10.15 an hour I earn is enough to contribute to household expenses and support Kevin and me. I dream of the day when I’ll be able to live on my own with Kevin, but for now, I know it is best for him and for me, to stay with my family.
            I dream of becoming a paralegal, and perhaps, one day a lawyer who specializes in working with abused and neglected children. To that end, I will enter community college this fall.
            I don’t party the way I used to. I’m still fun to be with, but the club girl I once was went underground and emerged as a mom. Sometimes I go to movies with friends. Now and then I go out with a guy. But mostly, I hang out with Kevin.
            I’ve learned to say “no.” I couldn’t say it to my dad, or to Josh or Max when we were I Guam, but now I can say it to anyone. Getting pregnant was the jolt I needed to realize I had to set boundaries for myself.
            I call it my “aha” moment. That was when I realized hat I could no longer be a doormat for anyone. I wasn’t going to let men—or anybody—make me feel like I was nothing and that I had no rights to my own body.
            I will never again be passive or timid. I am now the woman I always had inside but that was locked up with fear. Now I am free.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

So Much, So Soon

So Much, So Soon

Gail’s Story

A third unexpected pregnancy has kept my college dreams on hold, but not for much longer. My financial aid is in place and I’m enrolled in the community college in our town for the summer session. By fall, my daughter Sallie, will be old enough to attend the college day care center with her sister, Marie, and their brother, Jack, will enter Head Start.  I will begin the fall semester with a summer’s worth of college credits under my belt.
            Education is important to me. During the times in my life when I attended regularly, I did well and loved school. I still go back to my old hometown to visit favorite high school teachers. They gave me the kid of attention and encouragement I hope someday to be to give to my own students. Becoming a teacher will set an example for my own children, and, I hope, make a difference in the lives of those I teach.
            I grew up in a sea of chaos with only small islands of stability here and there. I learned to live with things as they were because I had to, but I never learned to like it. When I can bring myself to see the humor in my family, I’ve been known to describe them as a Jerry Springer bunch, but it hasn’t always been a barrel of laughs.
            When I was three and my brother Daniel, six, our parents divorced. From the little I know about the divorce, both my parents had been involved with drugs and with other people outside their marriage. When they split, my brother and I no longer had a home, and our lives fell apart. Convicted on drug charges, my mom went to prison. Unable to care for us, my dad began working for his father on the family farm. He saw us occasionally, but he wasn’t an adult we could count on.
            If it hadn’t been for my dad’s parents, Ruth and Pete, Daniel and I would have ended up in foster care. “These kids need a real home,” Ruth said to Pete. “We’re the ones who can give it to them.” Grandpa, who never said much, nodded his head. Daniel and I moved into the farmhouse and for many years, our grandparents treated us as their children.
            Now that I have a family of my own, I understand how difficult it must have been for my grandparents to jump into the parenting process all over again, not too many years after they had finished raising their own three children. At a time in their lives when their family responsibilities were over, they were looking forward to having time to travel and relax. Taking the responsibility for two young children changed all that.
            My grandmother was an amazingly strong woman, who became the first stable influence in my life.  My grandma loved parades. She used to dress me and my look-alike cousin as twins and enter us in every parade she could find. We loved it. A political activist, always championing one cause or another, she used to take me around town with her, getting petitions signed or knocking on doors to promote her favorite candidate for office.
            Slot machines were her secret weakness. I’ve never seen her as excited as the time she came home from Central City, Colorado, with a fistful of money she’d won playing the slots. “We’re going to Disneyland on me,” she announced proudly. “We’re all going.”
            That meant my cousins and a couple of aunts—a rowdy group of twelve who invaded the Magic Kingdom with Grandma in the lead. Grandma wasn’t well at the time, but that didn’t stop her. She skipped the scary rides that the cousins and I loved, and instead took the gentle boat ride through A Small World over and over. I took that trip eight times with Grandma. It took me weeks to get the Small World song out of my head. When the Disney characters paraded through the kingdom, we were all there with Grandma, soaking up every wonderful moment.
            Grandpa Pete, on the other hand, worked twelve hours a day on the farm and believed in old-fashioned discipline. He wasn’t as easy to et close to as Grandma. But he loved tractors. He never missed a tractor show and most of the time, he took us along. I learned more than I ever needed to now about tractors as I watched him checking out the newest models, kicking tires, and discussing with his farmer friends the pros and cons of this high-powered engine or that air-conditioned cab.
            Grandpa’s farm has always been a central focus for our family. It has provided a good living, and jobs for family members, sons, sons-in-law, and for a time, for my husband, Tom. In recent years the value of the land has risen astronomically. It is in the middle of a fast-growing area of Colorado and is considered prime residential land. There is no one to take over the farming operation so perhaps one day he will be forced to sell, and we’ll no longer that the farm as the anchor for our family.
            Education has always been important to me.  I was happiest when the circumstances of my life allowed me to attend school. “You have so much potential,” my high school English teacher said to me one day when I was close to quitting school. “I you hang in there and finish your education, there will be many paths open to you,” she promised.
            After a year in prison and six years of outpatient drug rehabilitation, my mother found a job and began a new life in a town about twenty miles from the farm. One day my grandma said to me, “It’s important that you and your mother develop a good relationship while you are still young, or it may never happen. What do you think about going to live with her?”
            That is how I came to spend my junior high school years living with my mother. I enrolled in an alternative junior high school so that I could work part-time and help with expenses. I missed Grandma and I missed the farm and my old school where my grades had been very good.
            The first six months that I lived with my mother went smoothly. My mom and I were getting to know and appreciate each other in a way we never had before. But gradually, she began to use drugs again, and then her using lead to dealing. I was still young and impressionable, and I loved my mom. Without even thinking about it, I began using right along with her. Both of us knew from experience the consequences of getting involved with drugs, but consequences were not part of my vocabulary back then. Only the present mattered.
            My mom grew up in a household even more chaotic than my own. One of nine children, she bounced in and out of one foster home after another while her parents were in prison—her mother for welfare fraud and her father for incest. Before she had time to catch up with herself, she married my dad and became a teen parent.
            When I reached the ripe old age of thirteen, my mother made sure I had birth control. I guess she knew that it wouldn’t be long before I became sexually active, and in that assumption, she was right. I was still thirteen when she allowed my boyfriend to move into our house. We al did drugs together.
            By the middle of my ninth grade year, my boyfriend was gone, and my life with my mother had become a nightmare. I was barely able to make it to school and my job. My mom had an abusive boyfriend who lived with u. When she went into the hospital for neck surgery, he took everything she owned and left.
            She came home to an empty apartment, unable to work. Bad became worse when she couldn’t pay the rent, was evicted, and ended up living in her car. I had nowhere else to go, so I returned to my grandparents’ farm. They welcomed me home and I finished my last year of junior high school back at my old school among supportive teachers.
            Shortly after I returned to live at the farm, I met Tom through mutual friends. He was five years older than me, but we were immediately attracted to each other and began spending lots of time together. I was fifteen, but I didn’t feel, look, or act that young.
            I hadn’t been dating Tom for very long when I learned that my grandmother became ill. When she died of cancer when I was sixteen, I fell into a depression that sent me to bed for three weeks. I didn’t think I could go on with my life without her. I think she knew she was going to die, but she didn’t let on to any of us. When the end came, it was incredibly hard, impossible for me to believe. She had been my stability and support for so many years. Tom was a big help to me during this time.
            We became closer and closer, and during the summer between my ninth and tenth grade years, we married. I was sixteen and Tom was twenty-one. At that time in my life, it seemed the best thing for me to do. Looking back, I think Tom provided me with the support I had counted on my grandma to give me.
            By this time, my dad, who had been living close by, had been sent to prison on drug charges, leaving his house vacant. Tom and I moved in. I attended high school and worked as a waitress at a local restaurant. Tom worked on the farm with my grandfather. I completed tenth grade and began my junior year, but all was not well. Tom and I had started using crank and, little by little, had entangled ourselves in the drug scene. It’s hard to explain why this happened to us except to say that drugs are an easy way out, provide temporary pleasure, and are way too easy to obtain. I’d been around them since my childhood, often enough so that using came naturally to me.
            I have my son to thank for abruptly ending my drug use. I awoke one morning during my junior year so sick that I thought I might die before I got to the emergency room. Instead of dying, I learned that I was pregnant. At that moment I made the decision to quit drugs for good. Sick became sicker and shakier as I withdrew cold turkey. Drugs had become such a b part of my life that quitting was the hardest thing I’d ever done. But even when I felt the worst, I never wavered, even for a moment, from my decision to quit. I knew I wanted a healthy baby, not one damaged by my habits and lifestyle. Tom quit too, and drugs have not been a part of our lives since then.
            Perhaps I inherited strength from my grandmother that made it possible for me to get myself out of the druggie lifestyle. I don’t know. Wherever that strength came from, I’m thankful for it.
            From prison my dad didn’t hesitate to tell me what he thought about my pregnancy. “You’re way too young to have a child,” he told me. His attitude upset me so much that it was a year before I could speak to him again. I couldn’t continue to live in his house. Tom left his work on the farm and we moved to Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, where my mother was now living.
            My mom was a big help an support for me as I went through an extremely difficult pregnancy. The severe morning sickness that I experienced before I even knew I was pregnant went on for months. Then an ultrasound test showed a cyst on the baby’s brain. I began to hate myself, thinking that my drug use may have been the cause of it. “You have two weeks to decide whether or not to abort this child,” the doctor told Tom and me. Confronted with such an incredibly tough decision, Tom and I had to come down on the side of life. We decided to see this pregnancy through, whatever the outcome might be. Weekly ultrasounds monitored the cyst until it stopped growing.
            Eventually the morning sickness eased but at thirty weeks I went into labor. I was given medication and ordered to bed for the rest of my pregnancy. Six weeks later, Jack, a healthy six-pounder, arrived with no abnormalities.
            When Jack was six months old, we were surprised by a second pregnancy. I wasn’t as diligent as I should have been about taking birth control pills. Tom and I knew we wanted more children, so this time we managed the pregnancy more calmly. It was easier for me this time. Lucy arrived after quite a short labor that was without incident.
            When she was six months old, I was shocked to learn that I was pregnant again. Three children seemed like an overwhelming number, especially because by this time I had earned my GED and had college plans in place. I cried for thirty minutes outside the family planning office when I learned I was pregnant. I’d been so careful, making sure to get on birth control after Lucy’s arrival. What I didn’t know was the patch that I was using is not effective for women over a certain weight. That was information that was never shared with me until it was too late.
            Tom was as surprised as I was, but, as ever, remained supportive. He has always been someone for me to turn to, however hard the times. We agreed that a third child at this time was not what either or us would have chosen, but we also agreed that we’d find a way to manage.
            Sometimes it feels as if I’ve had a lifetime of experience, packed into a little over twenty years. A year ago, when my dad was killed in a car accident in Las Vegas, I drove to Nevada alone and pregnant, to retrieve his body. There was no one, not his son, his father, or ex-wife, who was willing or able to even go along with me. When I got home, I had the painful task of cleaning out his house, disposing of his things, and getting his house ready to sell.
            After that experience, I began to realize how often my family leans on me to do the tough things. To them, I appear to be the only responsible one around, the only one they can rely on. This isn’t self-praise on my part; it’s fact. I’m more responsible than my dad was and my brother is. Don’t ask me why or how this happened, because I don’t know. I’m not sorry I’m the responsible one, I just wish that once in a while, someone else might step up to the plate and help a little.
            My brother Daniel grew up to be a whole lot like my dad. Like my dad, he was put on a pedestal as the oldest and only male in the family. Neither of them could ever do anything wrong in the eyes of their parents, their mothers especially. They were seldom disciplined or made to assume responsibility as they grew up. They were both intelligent and come to understand, after a while, that it was easy for them to get away with behavior that others could not. Both of them had poor work habits, an attraction to drugs and alcohol, and both have done time in prison. While suffering the consequences of their actions has not been pleasant for them, prison time did nothing to change ether of them. Even today, Daniel talks about returning to his old lifestyle when he is released from prison.
            My mother still lives in Pine Bluffs, and now and then we see her. Tom and I gave her a small used car, hoping that would make it easier for her to visit us. She still has a tendency to disappear every now and then, and I sense that she may still be fighting the battle of the drugs.
            It’s interesting to reflect on the difference in personalities in my family. I can see it already in my two older children. Jack is restless and high-strung. Lucy, even at two, is an even-tempered, constant child. Sallie is a little young to draw conclusions about just yet.
            Because of the family I come from, and because of the behavior and events I’ve experienced, I have strong feelings about how I parent my children. Even though getting my own education is tremendously important to me, my children and their needs will always come first and I will adjust my schedule around what is best for them.
            Tom and I will have expectations of them, but no unrealistic one. We want to provide a continuing and loving presence in their lives. We want to be supportive without hovering. No doubt we still have lots to learn about parenting, but we’ll learn it together, one thing at a time, as the need arises.
            We’ve made certain that our family is now complete. Tom’s job provides us with a living and my pat-time income working nights and weekends as a waitress helps out. Life isn’t always easy, but we’re moving ahead and looking forward to the future.