If I had a dime for every time I made critical eye contact, listened to their sarcastic comments, or someone decided to talk to me about my “circumstances” instead, I’d be a billionaire. I find it peculiar when people reach a certain age and ignore their indiscretions during their youth. It’s funny how people can judge without looking in the mirror. For those who feel that shaming a young parent instead of sharing their wisdom is good practice, keep in mind that for most teens, becoming a young parent was not a goal they strive for.
Long before MTV created Sixteen and Pregnant, this was my story. Too trusting was my disposition once I found out I was pregnant; along with the fact that my friends were having babies too. Little did I know that my life was going to change for the worse before it got 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 me and my parents eventually turned into a fight. When you’re young, sometimes you feel like the world is against you and you have all the answers, so I made the crazy decision to leave the state. With no strategy in mind, I collected my McDonald’s paycheck, packed as many clothes as 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 work out. As a result, my son and I were left homeless, and for the first time since giving birth, I was alone and scared for my baby. With only two dollars in my pocket, I boarded the A train headed uptown, sat near the conductor’s box, and tried to figure out my next move; That train ride lasted all night. Fortunately, I was being watched by a driver who sensed 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 grateful for his kindness.
Arriving at the shelter around 6:00 am, my son and I were quickly transferred to a center for teenage mothers called Mother and Child. During that time you automatically received public assistance when you entered the “system.” Honestly, at first I was embarrassed to receive public assistance due to the comments that my relatives threw at me that they looked down on my “circumstances”. His haunting words rang in my ears, “You already have a baby, which opens the door to more babies out of wedlock and ultimately leads to reliance on government assistance.” However, I quickly dismissed it and instead of giving power to those words, I decided to use it as a motivational tool even though the odds were stacked against me, so at that point proving them wrong rose to the top of my mind. target list. The first step was to free myself from the shameful bondage of being a teenage mother and let determination take control; turning negatives into positives became my mantra. The day flew by and luckily my son and I didn’t have to share a room with anyone; Lying in bed that night with my baby by my side, I cried myself to sleep.
My eyes were opened before I woke up at 6:30 am. Worried about leaving my son alone, I quickly took a shower. After preparing it, we went to breakfast. Greeted by loud chatter as I maneuvered through the sea of tables with my son tightly in my arms as I searched for a seat across the room; 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 the teenage girls with their babies as I fed my son and wondered what life event brought them here.
After breakfast, I sat in the common area and planned my next move. My mind started racing as I thought about improving my life. In my heart, I wanted to enroll in school and choose a trade, but I needed to find a school close to the facility. I didn’t really think much about the type of program, I just wanted to go to school. I asked one of the case managers for a phone book and started looking for schools. I found and enrolled in a cosmetology program at the now defunct Wilfred Academy. For a short while all was well until the cynics had their say. There were some not-so-nice case managers who put girls like me down. They were my detractors, but I didn’t let them determine me, instead it made my determination grow even more. Another young woman from the shelter also cared for Wilfred and planned to move to an adult shelter; She asked me if I wanted to go with her. Without hesitation, I took a step of faith and left the mother-son program.
Arriving at the assessment center on Catherine Street was a shock; children ran around unsupervised, babies cried, and bad words filled the air like cigarette smoke. I was wondering if I had made the right decision by leaving the Mother and Son show. Despite the intake case managers’ best efforts to serve everyone in a timely manner, they were overwhelmed and people were aggressive. It seemed that people were pouring in minute by minute. We spent the night at the assessment center and, unlike the subway, my son had to sleep on my lap due to limited seating. They finally called my number at 10:30 am the next morning, but it would take us over thirteen hours to get to the Roger Williams Tier Two (midtown) women’s shelter. We arrived around midnight and went through the intake process, needless to say it was after 2am when we finally got settled in. The room had two beds, a kitchenette, a bathroom, a mini-fridge, a telephone, a stove, and a television. The search for permanent housing was one of the main rules of the shelter. I met adult women who were there for over a year and seemed happy with their situation. Not wanting to get comfortable, I made it a point to be out of the shelter and in my own apartment in five months. That goal was reached in exactly five months and I also finished school shortly after. however, another roadblock materialized; I was only able to get a part-time job at a salon that catered to pimps and prostitutes.
Unable to pay all of my living expenses, I still needed to rely on public assistance a little longer and hated it. After expressing my frustration to a friend, she advised me to enroll in college. He shared his experience and felt that signing up would bring better opportunities. I found 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. Luckily, the university had a GED program; this was another life changing moment. Enrolling in Monroe College was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I received my GED and later received an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. Through their Career Services I was hired at a law firm and was able to get off public assistance.
Everything fell into place, but a few years later my son was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and that really shocked me. Needless to say, I didn’t give up and was able to keep going. I decided to get a master’s degree and ended up getting not just one, but two master’s degrees and then a doctorate. I also found a great career in higher education where I was able to help adults achieve their educational goals.
I hope this article will inspire young parents who are not sure what the future holds. No matter what curves life may have thrown at you, you always have the opportunity to change your circumstances. No, it’s 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 keep striving for greatness.