When I was 17, I had it all figured out. I had a plan.
I was going to get a scholarship. I had good grades, I was athletic, I took AP classes, I took every extracurricular I could squeeze into my schedule. I also lived in a rented room, had a job, was dead broke and it was all slowly killing me. It didn’t matter, though, because I was finally getting the hell out of dodge.
I’d had a plan since I was 12. I had to get out of the tiny, dying Connecticut town I’d grown up in any way I could, and if the word “Connecticut” makes you think of polo shirts, yachts and BMWs, allow me to correct you: The part of Connecticut I came from is nothing like that.
I grew up in a solidly blue- collar mill town that lost the majority of its industry by the mid- 1980s and has been on the decline ever since.
I wanted out, but I was a broke- ass emancipated minor, so getting out meant I needed a scholarship. I snuck college materials out of the guidance counselor’s office and pored over them like they were hardcore porn. I made lists. I studied. I worked.
I had a plan.
Then I had a bad pap smear.
My grandmother took Diethylstilbestrol (DES) during her pregnancies. My grandmother fought cervical cancer, uterine cancer, then breast cancer (twice), all of which may or may not have been related to her DES use.
My mother had pre- cancerous cells on her cervix by 19, potentially because of her prenatal exposure to DES.
My pap smear results indicated HSIL (high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions), or CIN 2, which means that about two- thirds of my cervical cells appeared abnormal. It’s the middle ground of bad pap smear test results: fixable, but not good news.
I’d been raised to expect it; although no one really knew what would happen with the third generation of DES kids, no one expected it to be good. I just wasn’t expecting it quite so soon.
My state-issued doctor looked at my test results, listened to my family history, and advised me to keep getting pap smears.
“No action right now,” she said. “You’re too young. It probably won’t turn into anything. We’ll just keep an eye on it.”
(She was wrong. By the time I was 24, it had progressed to something, and I had a hysterectomy to prevent it from turning into something far worse.)
“You should consider having your children sooner rather than later,” she told me. I remember how casual she was about that. “If you’re going to have them, I wouldn’t put my career first if I were you,” she said.
She shrugged, closed my file, and breezed out of the room, taking my breath with her.
I had intended to put my career first.
I’d had a plan.
I was going to be a journalist with a tiny apartment somewhere in A Very Large City, probably New York or Chicago, or maybe Boston, near the offices of whatever publication I worked for. LA, even, maybe, whatever, it didn’t matter, because I’d be gone most of the year, traveling to cover international stories.
I’d live out of suitcases and in clothes than never needed to be ironed. I’d slouch casually through through foreign crowds and airports. I’d cover riots, revolutions, humanitarian efforts. I’d see the world and I’d document it: I was going to see the world. I was going to try to change the world.
Except: I wanted children. After growing up with three siblings, the idea of never having children seemed foreign. I’d always imagined that at some vague, future point -- maybe when I was in my late 30s or my early 40s -- I’d have a few children. As the oldest child in a working home day care, slinging a baby was in my genes.
So I did the most logical thing I could come up with: I paid a friend to buy me a bottle of whiskey from his parents’ liquor store, got hammered and spent the weekend crying and writing lists.
I didn’t keep any of them, but I half-remember one reading something like, “Reasons To Justify My Mother’s Belief I’m A Useless Slut”.
Obviously, not one of my shining moments.
But I left that weekend with a moment of clarity that has lasted me my entire life.
During that drunken weekend, it struck me: My mother wasn’t ever going to decide I was good enough. I’d tried to be perfect for her and it hadn’t worked out. I’d never gotten anywhere close. Why keep trying? Why not say fuck it, and do what I wanted to do?
She’d never wanted me to be a globe-trotting journalist, so it isn’t as though the original plan was going to please her, either.
I let go of my mother’s expectations; a revolutionary concept to me, having spent far too much time trying to conform to a demanding parent’s impossible ideal.
That was a piece of real luck. Most people don’t get fucked over enough to realize that playing within the false rules set up by others doesn’t work for them until they are too trapped to really dig their asses out. It’s how we get caught in jobs and patterns we hate -- by trying to live within someone else’s expectations.
Maybe, I thought, I need to come up with a new plan.
I stopped looking at the traditional life track -- high school to college, college to marriage, marriage to children -- as the template. I decided to take what suddenly seemed like the strangest yet safest route: to listen to a blase doctor and “not put my career first.”
I chose to get pregnant as a teenager.
My daughter was no surprise, no accident. There was no condom mishap; I sat down with my best friend/ boyfriend, explained my situation, and told him what I wanted. We made a deal, shook hands and got to work.
It didn’t take long. Eighteen days before I turned 18, I gave birth to my daughter, and while it hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been what everyone told me it would be, either.
We did not go on welfare. We did not end up in a trailer park. I never resented my beautiful daughter for “missing my childhood”; I don’t feel like I missed a damn thing.
We’ve traveled all over the country, then spent four years living in England before finally settling in Baltimore. I took classes when I could, and finished my education without mounds of debt. I traveled occasionally, working as a translator, and later, when I felt the need to spend a year performing civilian work in Afghanistan, my daughter and husband supported that decision -- despite this being one of the least traditionally sensible choices I’ve ever made.
That was the final part of fulfilling my childhood dreams: living out of a bag, photographing places far from home, and collecting stories to bring back.
Despite all the naysayers, the after-school specials, the soap operas and Oxygen’s One Woman’s Struggle bullshit, I didn’t miss a thing. More importantly, I was able to give all of this to my daughter: You can do anything; life can throw you a curveball but it’s really no big deal, you just get flexible with your plans.
Now we live in a tiny old house in Baltimore. My daughter reads constantly, goes to a hippie school, fills notebooks with sketches and character outlines. She works summers in my studio and we both spend our evenings writing.
She’s 17 now: tall, witty, fiercely independent, kind. My husband and I watch her and we wonder if she’ll ever need to make the same choices I made at her age. She seems so impossibly young.
As my baby girl considers colleges, I remember that excitement: The whole world is out there, just waiting for her. I’d like her to have a simple path through life, but that isn’t always the right one, and while I hope she never gets that awful call from the doctor’s office, if she does, we’ll support her regardless what side of convention her decision falls on.
She’s been raised to trust her own mind. We trust her mind, too.