He was absolutely adorable. Looking around the room, taking it all in. Making eye contact with everyone, waiting for a response, smiling when he got attention. Eyes widening if someone made a face or waved. Standing up on his momma’s thighs, strengthening his leg muscles. Getting tired and having to collapse into her lap. Leaning into her chest, while she nuzzled his forehead. Back up again once he got his strength back. Four months old? Five months old? Still a little guy who hadn’t even rolled over yet, but checking it all out. Totally involved.
Mom was so young. So very young. Sixteen, seventeen? I’m old, so maybe I’m not a good judge, but she was so young. A teenager, with her baby, at the doctor’s office. All alone. She had come on the County transportation van. Just her and the baby.
He fussed a little, so she stood up and walked him around the room. Her jeans were twice too big. Probably her maternity jeans, but teens bodies bounce right back after pregnancy. A little girl with a little baby, in huge jeans.
I had my 13 year old son there for a physical. Every time this baby cooed, my 13 year old got a look of bliss on his face. Happiness. Calm. Eventually, he said, “Baby noises are the best, next to puppies.” And he was right. A baby cooing and babbling, practicing for speech, is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. So we talked about fields where he could work with babies. The whole time, I couldn’t take my eyes off the teenage mom and the baby.
She had a clipboard with a questionnaire on it beside her, and I found myself hoping that she hadn’t been able to fill it out with the bouncing baby on her lap. I found myself hoping that she would see my kindness and would hand him off to me for a minute so that she could fill out the form. My youngest is 13…..I’ve held my employee’s kids, but it sure seemed to me that it had been a long time since I had snuggled a baby.
The electricity went out. No joke. We were all sitting there in the dark. Everything was electric…the scales, the blood pressure machines, the computers. We all got delayed. I stood ready. Ready to help young mom with precious baby. Just in case the long van ride and the delay in the office became too much. But, it didn’t. She handled it, like a pro.
Where were her parents? Where was the father? The father’s parents? A sibling? An aunt? Not one person in her life could be bothered to accompany her while her baby got shots? But, you know what? I don’t get to judge. For all I know, she had offers and refused help, wanting to take care of things herself.
Truth: While the public transportation vans are a wonderful thing, when a client calls them and tells them that they have an appointment at three o’clock, the van picks them up when they can….even if that is at one o’clock. And, you have to wait until the appointment is done, and then call them for pick up. They don’t come back at 3:30, figuring an appointment should take half an hour. You call them when you are done, and wait until they can come back and get you. Even if that is an hour and a half later.
So, I watched this mom and her baby, who arrived just as I did. When we got called back before her, I knew that she had arrived way early for a later appointment. And I knew that she would have to call and wait for a ride, with a baby who most likely was getting shots. It hurt my heart a little bit, simply because I’ve been that mom carrying a screaming baby to the car after shots. The difference was, I was thirty and thirty-five when that happened, with a lot of experience under my belt. I got to go get in my car, drive straight home, put my baby in their comfiest outfit, give them a dose of Tylenol, and snuggle or rock them until they were soothed. I never had to try to soothe a screaming baby for an hour in a waiting room while the rest of the people watched and judged me.
It’s at about this point that some people will think, “Hey, if her life is hard and she has to take county transportation, maybe she should have waited. Maybe she should have made better decisions.” I totally get that, and probably had those thoughts myself twenty years ago. But now, after all of these years of life and experience, after all of those years of doing home visits and getting to see people from all walks of life, I don’t think those things anymore. I don’t think, “Well clearly, that girl has a baby at this young age because she ‘got busy,’ didn’t use birth control and didn’t care.”
Now, I look around this sick, sad world, and I wonder what might have happened to her. I wonder if maybe she wasn’t given a choice in “waiting.” I wonder if the baby’s daddy is maybe six to ten years older than her; a grown man who charmed his way into a young girls heart with promises, only to disappear the minute the plus sign popped up on the pregnancy test. I wonder if she didn’t have a dad of her own, and therefore starting looking for love young. I wonder if maybe the baby’s dad is still in the picture, and she is going to realize a few years down the road that she has managed to saddle herself with a virtual waste of protoplasm.
I am reminded when I see a young girl with a baby of the saying, “With age and experience comes wisdom.” Yes, indeed. When you are a sixteen year old girl crushing hard on a young man who looks at you and says, “If you won’t do it, that girl will….” it is so hard to say no. Flash forward thirty-two years, and that same girl at forty-eight is like, “Are you having an affair? Get out! I’ll be just fine without you – probably better off!” Because. At sixteen everything is a crisis, while at forty-eight, it takes too much energy to get too worked up. At sixteen you believe that you’ll still be best friends fifty years later, while at forty-eight you have to think for a minute to remember who your best friend was in high school. At sixteen you believe that life is a forward upward trajectory, meant to be filled with happiness, while at forty-eight you know that you take the good with the bad. At sixteen you believe that everything can be fixed, while at forty-eight you know that some things just aren’t worth fixing. At sixteen you believe that nothing bad can happen to you, and at forty-eight you’ve watched many, many bad things happen to good people, and you know that you are just waiting your turn.
For the older readers of this blog, while you are laughing at my “wisdom” at forty-eight, I don’t blame you. I have already noticed/figured out that it is almost impossible to shock someone in their seventies and eighties. They have seen it all, been there, and done that. When we younger people are going on and on about a barn exploding and a pig flying fifty feet into the air, the seventy year old gentleman is likely to say, “Yeah, saw that in ‘Nam in ’66. We had barbeque.”
The younger readers probably think that being so mellow sounds boring. Not for me at least. There is a certain kind of happiness in knowing that no matter what happens, you can carry on. When you are sixteen going through a break-up, it is just crushing. All consuming. You feel like your heart is broken forever. At forty-eight, assuming you’ve been to this rodeo a few times, a break-up is disappointing, but maybe doesn’t require a fourteen day fast in a dark room.
So, I see this young lady doing a great job at being a mom, and I see this baby who looks advanced for his age, and I hope, really hope, that this all turns out well. But, I also want to pull her aside and talk with her for thirty minutes to tell her things that she hasn’t considered yet.
I want to tell her that there may come a day when she has correctly arranged for transportation, but they won’t come on time. Or won’t come at all. When that happens, someone is going to write in her baby’s chart that she was a “no show.” If that happens more than once, she will get a reputation for being unreliable, and in some people’s minds, that may make her neglectful. Too many young parents don’t understand that missing appointments and not getting your child the medical care that they need can be reason for a call to Children and Youth Services. Because she relies on others for transportation, she is at significant risk of getting a “label,” and getting judged for her parenting skills.
I want her to know that if dad isn’t in the picture, she’ll most likely find herself lonely, and longing for a replacement dad, both for her and her son. It will, unfortunately, be a crapshoot – a clone of the first dad, or a guy who will do better. I have seen some amazing step-parents do some amazing things. People who are willing to say, “This is my son/daughter who just happened to be born a few years before we met.” If she picks right, and finds a partner who loves her and that boy, her life will become easier and happier. If she picks wrong, next year she’ll be taking a toddler and a baby to the pediatrician on the County transportation van, all by herself.
Let’s also be extremely real here. In this area in which we live, where the economy tanked in the 1980’s and never came back, where businesses close twice as often as one opens up, where it snows and rains a lot, where dilapidated buildings sit and rot for decades, never to be sold or cleaned up….in this area, drug use is rampant. I used to judge, but not anymore. How hard is it to understand that people with no hope, no future, and no plans who look at ugly everyday may feel the need to self-medicate? I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying its real. I look at this young lady, and others like her, and I know that there is going to come a day when the kid is screaming, the diapers have run out before the next check comes in, the dad doesn’t show up for visitation again…..and some neighbor, relative or boyfriend is going to offer her something to take the edge off. How hard will it be to say no? If she says yes, we have one more addicted failure of a mom, and a neglected child who is in danger. We have plenty of those around here, and we sure don’t need anymore.
We have so many programs; WIC, Early Head Start, Head Start, Early Intervention – so many programs to address the needs of young children. Unfortunately, we often forget that those programs, whatever they provide, require the parent to implement it. It doesn’t matter if a program provides coupons for free milk and fresh veggies if the parent doesn’t go get them, or leaves them in a refrigerator to rot, rather than fix them/serve them to the child. It doesn’t matter if we give cash assistance, if the parent uses the money for drugs. It doesn’t matter if we provide them with diapers, if the parent is too high or too mentally ill to change the diaper. The child cannot benefit if the parent cannot implement.
Based on all of that, I say, let’s focus on the parent. Over the last ten years we’ve added programs to schools to provide breakfast. We’ve increased Head Start from four days a week to five, and extended the hours those kids are there by almost double. We’ve started Pre-K counts. All programs to “help” kids, all away from the parents. What if we put that much money and effort into the parents, who are truly the ones who are supposed to be responsible?
I wish that I had touched that moms’ arm and said, “He is adorable, and you are doing a great job with him.” Why? Because life is hard. I wish I had slipped her a business card and told her to call me, but I was afraid it would be misconstrued – that she would think that I thought something was “wrong” with the little guy, or that I was soliciting business.
As sappy as this is, because I see so much sadness, I wish that a young lady like that could sit down with someone like me. I would ask her about her life. I would ascertain whether dad was still in the picture. I would try to figure out how much support she had. I would tell her that I could see that she was a nurturing individual, with huge potential for working as a caregiver or in child care. If she would allow me, I would help her to look into programs for getting a certified nurse’s aide certificate, or look at nursing school or child development.
The naysayers are at it again; I can hear you. She needs to make those decisions herself! She needs to be self-motivated to improve her life! Oh folks, when that young girl thinks for even a moment, “Maybe I should go to school and have a career,” all she can see is her lack of transportation, lack of child care, and inability to pay for schooling. She doesn’t know how to access programs that may help her take a step up.
Like all of us, what that young lady needs is hope. Something to have pride in. If we want to help the child, we need to help the parent keep their act together. Let’s start something new, and bold. Let’s quit putting band aids on hemorrhages, and produce a tourniquet. I see a mentoring program – where pediatricians refer their young parents to meet with professionals who have the ability to see potential. My agency would love to be involved, if someone wants to join us in this venture.