Helen walked into my feminism, literature, and culture class a few years ago and announced immediately, “I’m a single mom.” Fiercely proud and strong in demeanor, she also came across as childlike with her petite figure, round baby face, bright blue eyes, and high-pitched powdery voice. This was Helen’s story: she had gotten pregnant in high school; her drug-addicted and mentally ill parents threw her out of the house; high school teachers and advisors vilified her. The boyfriend-father vanished and barely helped out financially. Helen went to live with relatives who had plenty of children already and couldn’t help support her or pay college tuition. Helen studied hard, made her way to university, where she raised her little girl, Anna, in a campus apartment. Campus life was good to Helen: she used the highly rated day care center and didn’t need a car--which she could not afford. Helen told her story with great pride, and many of her responses to our class readings circled back to single parenting issues. For Helen’s final project, she wrote a book entitled, For My Daughter, about how pregnant teens deserve to make the choice to become mothers and to be treated respectfully by society in return—not judged, not bullied, nor ‘othered’. It was full of love for her daughter. All of her work in class was solid—she labored intensively over homework projects and the reading content. She was an ideal student. Helen got an A.
I honored Helen’s position and choice. She was doing all she could as a single and, essentially, orphaned mom—Helen held a job and was earning a BA, and she appeared to be a present, loving parent. In class, on Facebook and to me privately she recounted parenting stories of art, sewing, and baking projects, book reading, and taking her daughter to the beach and parks. I’d see Helen and her daughter around campus—on their own or with a group of college student friends who lavished attention on little Anna. Anna bubbled and smiled, and appeared secure and happy. Clearly, Helen was doing a good parenting job.
So when Helen posted a plea for help to get through her last semester on GoFundMe, as she explained that she’d run out of scholarship and loans, and her salary alone would not be enough to cover tuition and campus residency, I wanted to help. Mother and child would have to leave their apartment soon if she didn’t come up with the funds. They would be homeless. So I donated and passed the link around on social media. Helen raised all she needed and will graduate this spring. Additionally, she was admitted to a graduate program, which she plans to attend this fall.
But then, the other day, I saw her post a photograph on Facebook that took me aback: a sonogram photo of a new baby on the way.
I felt myself judging her. I wanted to say to Helen, but didn’t: Pregnant again? You still have a young child. Your career and income stream are not set yet, and you are carrying loans. Is this fair to the child you already have, and now there will be a second?
My reaction to the pregnancy surprised me. I fully supported Helen all along the way up until now. I understood the decision to keep and raise her first baby. A teen might make a mistake and get pregnant and that could be forgiven. Why call it a “mistake” at all? Isn’t this a sexist view coming out of a history of patriarchy in which men own children and women’s bodies? Why is it anyone’s business how a young woman uses her body sexually or if she decides to parent and with whom? I reasoned that this should all be Helen’s choice, and society should not penalize her—especially as Helen clearly made every effort to get a solid education and to parent well.
We all know of the waning of the traditional heterosexual nuclear family. Families and come in all shapes and sizes these days: LGBT parents, mixed-race families, blended families, and children are born through complex variations of reproductive methods and biological/non-biological gendered parenting combinations. Over forty-percent of children are raised by unmarried parents. The possibilities in this brave new baby creation and childrearing world are endless, and the traditional heterosexual family unit doesn’t have a lock on love or good parenting.
Still, the sonogram photograph disturbed me. I wasn’t sure why, especially given my feminist view of mothering. I told a female friend this story and she asked, “Perhaps you feel betrayed? You supported Helen.”
No, it’s not betrayal I feel, nor is it judgment, I realized. It is the older mother in me, wanting to protect Helen and her children.
Yet I also know that this is Helen’s body and life to live, not mine.