Mid-Life Teen Mama Trauma
By Nina Packebush
Last night a text came in from my girlfriend’s ex-wife saying that their 13-year-old daughter was in the ER with difficulty breathing.
Of course my girlfriend went into Mama Panic Mode and prepared to head straight to the hospital 30 minutes away. She went into our bedroom to grab her shoes and wallet.
I followed and, as I opened my drawer and pulled out a clean, long sleeved shirt to hide my tattoos, I reminded her to change her clothes. I made sure my jeans were reasonably clean, free of holes, decently fitting and that my Chuck Taylors were the newer ones, rather than the tattered, dirty ones.
My girlfriend was wearing Friday-night-in-a-partnership comfortable clothes, meaning she was a little sloppy. The colorful Vans she chose weren’t the right shoes for an almost 50-year-old woman.
She turned to me with confused irritation. “I’m not changing my clothes. We need to go. It’s just the hospital.”
It’s just the hospital.
I looked back at her with anxiety building; my mind trying to figure out the best course of action. She was stressed and frantic, but she looked sloppy–cute queer sloppy for sure, but certainly not respectable and well-kept. I didn’t want to insult her or tell her what to do, but I was genuinely confused. The hospital hasn’t been just a hospital to me since I was eighteen-years-old and went in for my first OB appointment. I was assigned a social worker and was counseled about the wisdom of giving up my baby for adoption. When I shyly told them that wasn’t an option I was assigned a nurse to visit my home after the birth of my baby. I didn’t realize until after the fact that the purpose of this nurse visit was to determine if my home was safe for my baby and to observe my parenting. As I navigated doctor appointments, playground politics, ER visits, and even everyday trips to the grocery store I learned that I wasn’t the right kind of parent. I looked away when people stared.
I learned to laugh when the pediatrician joked, “So you know how this happened, so it won’t happen again, right?” while he weighed and examined my infant at his first well-baby check-up.
I pretended not to care when people asked me if my son was my little brother. I quietly answered when complete strangers asked me how old I was and “Is the dad still around?” It didn’t take me long to learn that presentation mattered. Words mattered. Image mattered. A lot. And it especially mattered in the presence of authority.
I’m a queer mama with three children; 28, 24, 17, and I’m co-raising my eight-year-old grandson with my middle daughter, who also happens to be a teen mama. I have spent my entire parenting life as too young while navigating different levels of broke, poor, or lower-middle-class, and most of the last thirteen years queer single parenting. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is a 49-year-old mama of a 13-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son. Her son is essentially the same age as my grandson. My girlfriend has spent the majority of her thirteen years as a parent partnered in a solid lesbian relationship, living a solid middle class life.
My girlfriend and her ex-wife had been diligent and intentional on every step of their parenting journey. They had picked out sperm donors and paid for insemination. They had a house, financial security, and a stable relationship before they started their family. My family began on one of several drunken nights collecting sperm the old fashioned way from my spandex-wearing, wispy mustache toting, heavy metal boyfriend. My pregnancy brought tears, canceled abortion appointments, subsidized medical care, and not one second of preplanning. Her journey into motherhood included celebrations, fulfilled dreams, and genuine happiness. Our parenting experience was night and day.
I was quiet on the way to the hospital that night. I rubbed her neck and I reassured her that everything would be fine, but that brief exchange standing in front of our dresser was heavy in my mind. Of course I had always felt that teen mama was an integral part of my identity, but until that moment when I stood face to face with my girlfriend, I hadn’t fully realized just how deeply that identity and experience had shaped me. I’m 47 years old, in the beginning phase of menopause, have adult children, and am a doting granny, but I’m still a teenage mother. Teen Mama will be an identity that I carry for the rest of my life, right alongside the scars and tools for survival that the experience gave me.
When we got to the hospital nobody looked twice at my girlfriend. She was a mama who had rushed out the door to be with her kid. She was the right age, the right socio-economic background, her kid had private insurance. While I sat alone in the waiting room that night I noticed a sign that read, this is a safe place to leave your newborn. In my exhaustion and stress I had to fight back the tears. I know what it’s like to be young, pregnant, and afraid. I can imagine the scenarios that would drive someone to make the choice to drop their infant off with strangers. Yes, adult women sometimes drop infants off, but the average age of a mother relinquishing her baby to an Infant Safe Space is nineteen. I took a picture of the sign, and when I got home I showed it to my daughter.
She shuddered, “This makes me so sad. I can’t even imagine…but I can.”
And that’s the thing, we can both imagine because we have both felt the shame, confusion, marginalization, and loneliness that being a teen mama is. We have both faced judgment and we have both had our parenting questioned for no other reason than we were too young, despite the fact that we are damn good moms.
I said to my daughter, “You know I can imagine being eighty years old and still reaching for the long sleeve shirt and clean shoes before going to the doctor, the ER, the hospital.” She nodded. She knew exactly what I was talking about.
Becoming a mama before I became an adult shaped who I am, and although there are a lot of scars associated with that, those scars make me who I am today. Those scars are evidence that I’m damn strong. Those scars have left me with a deep empathy for other people and an ability to creatively survive and thrive. I’m a queer. I’m a writer. I’m a granny. I’m a wanna-be-urban farmerand an unschooler. I’m a lot of things, but mostly I’m a teen mama and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even a good credit score and the ability to go the hospital in rumpled sweats and a tank top.
Nina Packebush is a rad, queer, zinester granny living in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in a variety of alternative publications and websites including Hip Mama Magazine, Mutha Magazine, The Icarus Project, Literary Kitchen, and the anthology My Baby Rides the Short Bus. Nina is currently working on a young adult novel. You can find more of her writing and some of her audio at: thegrannychronicles.com