Some of us live in the stereotypical bubble society has created for us and never think to question why. It’s hard not to when the world is pushing down on you from all sides, molding you into what they believe is your rightful place, what they believe is your worth. I’m not alone in the struggle for relevance, for understanding. There are a number of human pockets where the ‘accept everyone’ movement hasn’t quite touched. There are few groups of people who are still acceptably looked down on and mocked by the general populace; you know, the kinds of people who Twitter isn’t going to start a hashtag movement over.
Teen mothers are one of those groups.
The moment that test strip read positive I was set on a downward spiral of harrowing statistics and vulgar T.V. programs that felt like damnation. I read articles, I watched video segments, and my inner strength crumbled. I was only sixteen; I didn’t have much to start with, anyway. Was that me, I wondered. Was I destined to live only as a disappointing number that others shook their heads at in disgust and abject cruelty?
Where others received kindness, understanding, and support as they stepped out into the best years of their lives, I was dismissed and diminished. I was a lost cause, a cautionary tale, and I let myself go. I gave up. Who was I to stand against so many negative statistics that claimed I would be lucky to graduate from high school, let alone attend college? I gave up on my dreams because, according to the rest of the world, I no longer deserved them. I was just another dumb slut who couldn’t keep her legs closed even when calling girls ‘sluts’ had become taboo. I’d lost all other aspects of my identity and feminism didn’t seem to apply to girls like me. I let myself be pressured into a marriage, that even at 16, I knew was a bad idea, but I felt I didn’t have any other choice.
I look back at some of those pictures and can’t help but laugh a little. It’s a dry, hollow sort of laugh, full of dark memories and loneliness. It was like we were playing house, everyone smiling at our little make-believe wedding, and even I can see the terror in my smile. I was five months pregnant, the cut of my dress hiding the small bump just beneath, and in several photos I’m unconsciously holding the new weight almost out of desperation, like it was grounding me to reality. Today I consider that young, frightened girl, all those years she struggled through a marriage she considered to be the punishment she deserved, and I can hardly believe she was me. Sometimes it’s hard to see how truly broken we were until we put ourselves back together again. Now I can examine the cracks and scars in awe and feel incredibly blessed to be here at all. Many aren’t.
Something drove me though, something stronger than I might ever have imagined pushed me through school, into college and out of that marriage. I felt so weak, so despondent and small then, but there must have been a part of me that knew how to fight, that knew losing myself completely in the face of a broken and breaking marriage wasn’t an option. Support was a painful thing of the past. I was alone in a part of the country where the only person I knew for hundreds of miles was my husband, and where I had nothing and no one to buffer the unkindness of others. I learned quickly that the world doesn’t shape itself to us, and that we can’t sit and wait for people to accommodate our needs. In other words: dreams don’t build themselves. My professors didn’t care that I had a two year old at home with the flu, they didn’t care that I barely slept or ate and I eventually learned to stop expecting them to. I stopped expecting my ex-husband to be what I wanted him to be, I stopped expecting my classmates, friends and family to respect and support me, and came to understand that I was on my own. It was a strangely empowering feeling.
I remember sitting in the cramped little living room of our tiny home, designed exactly how my husband had wanted it, and realizing that my life was my own. Mine and mine alone. I could decide what I wanted to do with it. Statistics and cruelty hadn’t held me underwater, I had. Everything that had happened to me, the situation I was in, my pain, sorrow, depression and loneliness was a product of my own choices. So I decided to make new ones.
I made the hardest decision of my life by leaving. I didn’t have a job and I had just enough in my personal savings (which I’d hidden from my husband) to fly myself home. But I left for me, because my future had turned into nothing more than an accessory in someone else’s. I left for my ex-husband, because I couldn’t be the wife he wanted and I no longer wanted to try. I left for my daughter, because depression is a selfish thing and I knew that alone, I would be a much better mother than when I was trapped in something I hated. I wanted to teach my daughter strength, I wanted to teach her personal accountability, and that if we expect great things out of life, we have to reach out and take them.
But I was on another harrowing path, one split down the middle by divorce and the ever criticized single mother. Sometimes it felt like I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Single mothers are another one of those fun groups that everyone feels comfortable judging and harping on (Thought Catalog has produced a number of popular articles on the subject). But I was prepared this time around. I knew that no one was going to feel sorry for me, that employers were going to hesitate before hiring me, that men would avoid anything remotely serious with me, and that I was fighting an uphill battle in a storm. I was tarnished goods lugging around a massive trailer of baggage that people could see a mile away. And I was beyond caring. If I learned anything through those early years right after my divorce, it’s that if you really want something, giving up is just not an option. For every job that turned me down, I tried for five others. I pushed aside all the years of degradation, unkindness, emotional abuse, all my insecurities, and I fought tooth and nail for the job I wanted until I got it. I didn’t settle for less this time. I didn’t cave into what society told me I ‘deserved,’ because I’d finally come to understand that I deserved whatever the hell I earned, and that just because I fell down, didn’t mean that I couldn’t get back up.
I worked hard, harder than I had in college, harder than I have ever worked on anything in my entire life. I finally allowed myself to rely on my parents a little, letting go of my pride, and I pushed myself through long hours, and difficult engineering certifications. Until, one day, it was like I’d woken up from a terrible nightmare and found myself in the sort of life I’d only dreamed of. It’s wasn’t anything particularly special from the outside, maybe, but to me… it was everything. It was a house of my own. It was all of the things in it that I had bought, made and earned. It was stepping into my daughter’s carefully decorated room, seeing her drawings plastered on the walls and her overflowing bin of toys, then looking into her smiling, beautiful face. It was staying up late at night , watching whatever I wanted on my T.V in my living room, with a glass of wine, and feeling true comfort and relaxation –something I’d never really felt before. It was starting fun traditions with my daughter, like Breakfast for Dinner Tuesdays, and Movie Theater Friday’s, and being the kind of mother I’d always wanted to be. It was going into work and having people treat me with the sort of respect that only comes from being earned, and having a job that I could be proud of. It was looking at all of it, appreciating every small, hard-won part of it, and knowing that I could have so much more.
I sit here now, on the precipice of another chapter in my life, and consider who I am and what I want to be:
I want to be the kind of person who never gives up, who can look at the frightened girl who’d grown up far too fast, and never forget where she came from. I want to show compassion to the neglected, to the fringes of polite society, because I know what it’s like to be cast aside and reduced. I want to spend my life with an open mind and heart, and be the type of person that takes the time to understand the people and things around her before forming opinions. I want to hang onto my ‘healthy’ sense of humor, onto my awkward silliness that lightens the metaphysical load. I want to be someone who is stronger than everyone tells her she is and who understands that she is only what she allows herself to become. I want to be someone my daughter can be proud of, someone she can look up to and say, with pride, ‘That’s my mother, and she had me when she was 17.’ But most of all, I want to be whatever I decide I am.
This isn’t meant to be a success story, we all have our crosses to bear, our struggles to overcome… and I’m not done here yet. I’ve got plenty more to do, to say, to be, and I challenge everyone to ignore what the world tells you that you are, and be what you want to be. Sit down, figure it out, and stop holding yourself underwater. Decide who you want to be and fight for it. Never stop fighting for it.