Jillian Holley was alone.
The house was quiet. It was 6:30 in the morning and the only sound was the television in the living room where her mother snoozed on the couch.
In her room, 16-year-old Jillian looked at herself in the mirror. Her Catholic school uniform skirt was on and her button-down shirt was untucked. She could see the protruding belly she’d been hiding by cutting school and avoiding her mother.
A sophomore, Jillian was 5 1/2 months pregnant. Recently, she’d failed gym for not participating and the school had wanted to know why. She’d broken down and told them the truth.
Now or never. Either she tell her parents or the school would.
Walking slowly out to the living room, Jillian made fists around her uniform shirt.
“Mom,” she yelled, startling her mother awake. “I’m pregnant.” Then, she ripped her shirt up, exposing her stomach and ran out of the house.
Now, Jillian is 29-years-old. She’s wearing a multi-colored knit cap and has an accent that reveals her childhood in Astoria, Queens. Her brother loved education and always behaved. Jillian was the more rebellious sibling, running away, smoking pot, and drinking to fit in with the cooler crowd.
In 1998, she’d been dating her boyfriend, a drug dealer and classmate two years her senior for a little under a year when she missed her period.
Terrified, she called her boyfriend. He told her to keep the baby. He’d get a job and support them.
“Everybody in his family had been young mothers so he didn’t think it was a big deal,” she says. Jillian’s father was a different story. He almost put a hit out on her boyfriend.
“My kid’s father is black,” she says, before clarifying that her father is old-fashioned and racist. She hadn’t yet introduced her boyfriend to her family for that very reason and now she was pregnant with his child. “As far as he was concerned, I was not his daughter,” Jillian says. “He didn’t talk to me for two months. I was still living with them and my mom wasn’t speaking to me either. It was silent and uncomfortable. My dad would watch his program in the living room and I’d be in my room, crying.”
She was kicked out of St. John’s Prep and told that she was a complete disgrace. Jillian says they tried to make it seem like her less-than-stellar grades were the reason for her expulsion, but snide remarks about her pregnancy convinced her otherwise.
With no parents and no schooling, Jillian sought information on pregnancy from computers in the public library or books.
Online, she learned to apply for state medicaid at Choices Medical Center so she didn’t have to pay too much for pre-natal care. She also started looking for a high school with a day care for her child.
Jillian discovered and enrolled in Unity High School, an alternative campus with day care on site. She wanted to finish school without having to get her GED.
Throughout everything, Jillian says she never lost sight of wanting a future. Her whole life, she’d dreamed about becoming a nurse because her father’s mom had told her amazing stories about nursing. When Jillian’s maternal grandmother got older, Jillian says she was particularly disturbed by how badly her grandma was treated at her nursing home. She wanted to positively affect people’s lives. She knew it’d be hard, but she also knew it was possible.
Her parents were also starting to come around. Her mother taught her how to sterilize bottles and change a diaper. Her father, reeling from the unexpected death of his brother, realized the importance of family and reached out to forgive his pregnant daughter.
“He’s a tough guy but the only person that could make him soft was me,” Jillian says. “I was still his daughter.”
Conversely, things with her boyfriend were heading south. Jillian says he became mentally and physically abusive, controlling every aspect of her life. After she graduated from high school, Jillian worked at her dad’s union as a clerical rep and her boyfriend worked at the Department of Health’s offices. Jillian says she would also pick up extra work at Avon or with Mary Kay, selling cosmetics.
“It was hard because I felt like he didn’t want me to succeed,” she says.
When Jillian was 17, her daughter, Destiny, was born.
At the hospital, as Jillian was going into labor with her boyfriend beside her, the nurse came in and made a face at the young couple.
“I’ll never forget her face as long as I live,” Jillian says. “She saw us and she said, ‘You guys should have been playing with Barbie and Ken and not with each other.’”
Already in pain from birth, Jillian says the comment destroyed her.
The other medical professionals in the room seemed to have a similar feeling of distaste for Jillian and her boyfriend. As a result, Destiny was born with an injury to her shoulder because the doctor pulled her out of her mother by her arm. As a baby, she had to have physical therapy.
“They thought, ‘Whatever, who cares how we deliver this baby? These kids are not going to know any better’,” she says.
The couple sued the hospital for medical malpractice, with the help of a lawyer who didn’t charge them any fees until the verdict, and won. Destiny’s arm is slightly bent, but she can move it and the injury isn’t too noticeable, Jillian says. The lawsuit money went into a college fund for Destiny.
In 2006, Jillian and her boyfriend finally got married after Jillian became pregnant with their son, Mikey.
“We were in love, we were having our second kid,” Jillian explains as to why they decided to tie the knot after all that time. But their marriage didn’t make the relationship any better. As Jillian was having a C-section with her son, her ex took off for Las Vegas with his friends.
Jillian was at home with two kids now because her husband had suddenly realized he’d missed out on being a twenty-something with no responsibilities and started acting out. His emotional abuse became physical and he started hitting Jillian.
“My mother said when I was with him, ‘everything I knew about my daughter was gone for 11 years,’” Jillian says, echoing a familiar saying about people in abusive relationships. “I was timid. I didn’t want to speak up. He ran everything.”
In 2008, he was arrested for domestic violence. That was the end of their relationship.
“I thought, he’s got a daughter and she’s seeing that it’s okay for men to treat her like this. He’s got a son who looks up to him,” she says. “I felt like a failure because Destiny was old enough to remember. How could I have allowed her to see this?”
After 12 years together, the couple divorced. They split time with the kids, who are with him one week and with her the next.
I ask some more about Destiny and her son, who is named Mikey. Excitedly, Jillian shows me a picture of them on her phone. They’re sitting on a bus seat, smiling big. Destiny has tiny, wire glasses. Mikey’s grin is his entire little face. They’re both darker-skinned than Jillian but Destiny has all of her features. It’s cute. Jillian tells me that Destiny is a dancer at Broadway Dance Center and has told her she wants to be a nurse like her mom is studying to be.
We talk a bit about the MTV reality show ‘Teen Mom,’ which Jillian says shouldn’t even be broadcast. She feels it glamorizes the real-life hardships she endured, though she emphasizes that she doesn’t think Destiny should feel shame about her birth. She did recently tell her to stop bragging to her teachers about her mom’s young age.
“Destiny shouldn’t be ashamed, but she has asked about it because she’s done the math,” she says. “I tell her, ‘Do I want the same life for you? No. Do I want you to be a 17-year-old mom? No.’”
“Has she asked if you regret it?” I ask and Jillian says Destiny has asked that.
“I don’t have any regrets but I wish things had been a little different,” Jillian says. “I know a lot of people wish their lives were a little different. But, I love my kids and if things were different then I never would have had her and having Destiny gave me the push to stop being irresponsible. It made me grow up a lot,” she smiles. “Her name is ‘Destiny’ for a reason.”
“Have you explained to your daughter that the way her father treated you wasn’t right?” I ask, hoping she has.
Jillian nods emphatically, “Oh yes. I’m very explicit about that with her,” she says. “But you know, she came home the other day and said, ‘Mommy, there’s a boy in my class and I think he’s cute’,” Jillian’s eyes grow wide with worry. “I said ‘Really? Don’t even start. Let’s not.'”