Due to a half-decade involvement with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program (which, if you're interested in being of service to at-risk kids, is an awesome program you should check out in your area), I happen to have some teen girl friends. The teen girls I know are much nicer than I generally imagine teen girls to be, and they rarely show evidence of finding me as blatantly embarrassing as they rightfully should.
I'm close to one in particular. She's 15 now; we were matched when she was 11, and when I called her on Sunday to check in after several months of not talking, she told me that she's pregnant.
I was saddened but not really surprised; the deck was pretty stacked against this kid, for reasons I can't go into without disclosing too much of her personal story. "OF COURSE she's pregnant," was my unguarded mental reaction. I felt disappointment, but not anger. She's already pregnant; I guess I didn't see the point in making her feel like shit about it, too.
A lot of people are interested in teens when it comes to sexuality, contraception and abortion. What they're learning about sex, when and how they're doing it, their attitudes and behaviors surrounding safe sex -- all these things are key points in the ongoing political debates in these arenas.
I just had questions about my friend. I wanted to understand what had happened, besides the obvious. I wanted to know how she'd felt when she found out, what her plan was, if she was scared. I wanted to know what kind of help she needed. So I invited her over the next day, knowing I would be at home with the baby for the holiday. I texted her directions. "I'll feed you," I wrote.
We're a little awkward at first. She is meeting my baby for the first time, and I am not sure where to start. We watch him crawl on the floor between us before I finally broach the topic.
"Look, we're not officially matched anymore, so there's no caseworker in our business," I start. "Your mom doesn't have to be in our business, we don't have any kind of official relationship anymore. I want you to know that you can say whatever you want to say to me, and you don't have to say anything, but if you want to talk to me, I'm here for you, and I want to help however I can."
It's not my best work, speech-wise. But the story comes spilling out -- the missed period, the pregnancy tests, the phone call to her mother where she had to say the words, "There's a chance I might be pregnant." This, we both agree, is the scariest thing we can think of.
But despite the fear, she was never upset to be having a baby, never considered another option. "I don't believe in abortion, honey," she recounts sassily telling an overinterested neighbor who wanted to talk about her options. She plans to transfer to a local school that has a daycare center so she can still graduate after she gives birth next year. She'll stay at home, and her mother will help.
Mostly, her relief is palpable. Her life before the pregnancy had been complicated -- she had to lie about her boyfriend, his age (he is 21), their sexual relationship, where she was and who she was with. Now, at least, everything was out in the open. Her boyfriend had been allowed around the house lately. It was easier.
I remember a time when I ran up a huge long-distance phone bill talking to my Internet friends, worrying about it constantly until I broke down and confessed to my mother between sobs one evening. I remember the release of finally coming clean, of having the world not end, and how amazed I was when my mother was nice to me afterward. I think about the way in which I was slinking and secretive as a teenager, how it might have felt to have that all blown up. I can see the liberation in it.
She tells me the date last year when she first started having sex with her boyfriend -- she remembers because it was the day she lost her virginity and also because it happens to have been my birthday. Her mother wants to know now why she never came to her, says she would have gotten her any kind of protection she wanted.
"When have you ever known me to communicate?" she asks and it's almost laughably true. I think of the times I have seen her clench her jaw tightly over some expression of emotion, a single escaped tear the only giveaway. I know the kid's been through a lot of shit, but I have never known the specifics, because she's not talking. This approach of avoidance and repression is what landed me in recovery at 25, but all I can do is give her the space to talk. Before I see her, I always pray for the guidance to say the right things to facilitate that.
We'd spoken briefly about sex before, when she'd first started dating the older guy. I'd tried to talk to her about condoms, and she'd assured me she knew all about it and, besides, she was a virgin anyway. It was true then.
Like her mom, I wish she had come to me when that changed, but it is what it is. I've never understood that expression before, but it seems completely right in this situation. Here, finally, is something that just is what it is. Something old is dead and something new is born and the only way to go from this point is forward.
"I know it's not easy," I tell her. "I lost my virginity when I was 13, and I didn't always insist on condoms either. I guess I'm just lucky I didn't get pregnant." I can't really explain what I was thinking back then any better than she can now.
After the baby goes down for his nap, we order lunch from the diner and watch "What to Expect When You're Expecting" on demand, kind of as a joke, but we both cry at different points. After she leaves, I throw up, and I don't know if it's the diner lunch or the emotional overload.
She texts me that she got home "safe and well." She follows it up: "When are we hanging out again?"