Parenting on a dare

I had a child at 16 because I wanted to prove the world wrong. I was going to raise an extraordinary daughter and still live my life the way I pleased.

Topics: Mother's Day 2012,

Parenting on a dare

My daughter was 4 days old on the day I decided to be her parent. My father was in the driver’s seat. I was a 16-year-old leaking milk in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon when I made the announcement: “Let’s go get her.”

“We’re going to get the baby,” my father said, and drove over a wall of traffic cones to cross over into the turn lane. And that was that: Me, my parents, my younger brother, all of us went on this reckless mission to pick up a newborn baby we’d left with my mother’s single friend until we figured out what the hell to do with her. I don’t know how my father got there without killing us all. We were all crying. We knew it was a stupid idea. We knew we could be seriously messing up at least two lives. We knew that there was a perfectly appropriate adoptive couple, of the right age and financial situation, with a mortgage, two cars and a nursery waiting for that baby. But somehow we all rushed into the friend’s condo, claimed our baby, and took her home, where she went to sleep in a tiny crib that had housed my baby dolls not that many years before.

We all made promises to that child. My brother, who was 10 at the time, promised to donate all of his allowance for the next eight years, and a new pair of Bugle Boy jeans if we’d keep her. (We still haven’t collected on that part of the deal, but I remind him every few years that coming through with at least the Bugle Boys is the right thing to do.) My parents promised to get me somehow to adulthood, by providing us both with a place to live and health insurance, giving me free childcare (from my stay-at-home mother) through high school and sending me on to college, as they had already planned to do.

My promise was the most complicated. On the morning my daughter was born, the doctor came in to talk to me. He knew my age. He knew there was an adoptive family waiting to take her (the bouquet they sent was on my nightstand). He knew I had not yet made the decision.

He told me that he was concerned with taking care of his patients’ minds as well as their bodies. He said that, of course, the best decision for my daughter would be to place her for adoption. But, he said, perhaps I was not strong enough to make that choice.

My response? Fuck you.

My doctor meant well, as did everyone else who had said more or less the same thing throughout my pregnancy. And I was the kind of girl that everyone believed would recognize that parenting my daughter as a teenager was not in the best interest of myself or my child.

But I took it as a dare. I had a 16-year-old’s immortality complex. Up until then, nothing had been hard. I had had a safe, middle-class childhood in which the only dangers were those I got myself into — by, say, taking the family car in the middle of the night, or having sex.

I hated my doctor for implying, or so I thought, that keeping my child would be a sentimental decision made out of emotional weakness. To me, this was my chance to prove just how tough I was. Like most ambitious teenagers, I still believed at that time that I could chose between, you know, being president, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (maybe poetry, maybe both) and maybe being a movie star or something in my youth. I was still going to do all that, and I was going to do it with a child. It was my chance to be extraordinary in the most literal sense, by breaking out of the ordinary college, career, dating, marriage, children trajectory that was expected of girls like me.

So my promise, to myself and my daughter, was that we were going to prove everyone wrong. I was going to raise a child who was every bit as smart, capable and badass as I thought I was. And I was going to do everything I would have done anyway, and do it just as well as, if not better than, I would have on my own. It was the Enjoli commercial, with baby.

My mother and I, both of us big talkers, would have long, ponderous discussions on why, exactly, teenage mothers often did badly. We didn’t know many of them at all, and none intimately. We came up with theories, some more crackpot than others. We took our cues from novels, from people around us, from pop psychology. Of course, there was the money thing and the education thing. But we wanted to understand the psychology of teen parenting. One of us — I’m not sure which one — came up with the idea that teenage mothers were often emotionally stunted at the age when they first became pregnant, because, as we decided, they hadn’t “gone through all their developmental stages.”

It was an arrogant pronouncement, one that certainly revealed that neither one of us had much experience with any situations that fell outside the range of typical family life, the kind of life we had just agreed that I was going to have.

I took it to mean that, at 16, I should act like a 16-year-old; at 18, like an 18-year-old; at 25, like a 25-year-old, and so on. The danger, as we saw it, was that if I gave up too much of my own identity into being a mother at a young age, I would resent my child and that would be a bad thing.

In other words, being a good mother, for me, was entirely dependent on how good I was at taking care of myself. I not only gave myself license to be selfish, but following my selfish instincts also became a moral imperative.

For the first two years of my daughter’s life, my parents insulated me from the usual consequences of teenage motherhood. There was no question that I was my daughter’s parent, but I certainly was not a single parent. My mother did the childcare from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; my father earned the income. My job was to do well in school and to enjoy my baby. And since my job was also to be a “normal” high school girl, I also went out with friends and to punk rock shows on the weekends after my daughter was asleep and to poetry club at the coffeehouse every two weeks. I was too busy to date much until the end of my senior year, but if I’d wanted to, I could have done that too.

Because it was so easy, I got bolder. The first major conflict between my parents’ generosity and my own ambitions came around the time I started to apply to college. My parents, who had both gone to state schools, had once been perfectly happy to send me to whatever private school I wanted to attend. They still agreed that I should go to college, but they wanted to keep me close to home where they could help out. I saw no reason why I should scale back my ambitions just because I had a child. I applied to all the same schools I would have anyway and finally chose a very expensive school 3,000 miles away from home.

My parents were horrified, but in the end, they didn’t stop me. I don’t think anyone could have. When they said it was too expensive, I asked for their tax returns and suggested ways they could meet the expected parental contribution. When they worried about how we would live, I called the dean of my school and came back with childcare, a two-bedroom apartment, and a meal plan for us both. Two years later, when they told me they could not afford to pay for that school, I took a year off and went back as an independent student. My daughter and I moved to Connecticut when I was 18, and, except for brief visits back, I have never gone home again.

Every few years, I try to write an essay with the working title “Without You.” It’s supposed to be a piece that follows the imaginary person in my head, the version of myself who has lived a parallel life without taking that dare and deciding to raise a child at 16. I’ve never been able to write that story. Part of it must be that having a child shapes every part of a person’s identity, so that it becomes impossible to imagine a self who has not been formed by taking care of that child. But the other reason I’ve never been able to write that story is that having a child didn’t change me enough.

This year, I will have been a mother for exactly half my life. I’ll turn 30 in less than a month; my daughter will turn 14 this summer. If you had asked me at 15 what I saw myself doing at 30, I would probably have said that I would be a writer living in New York. And, at 30, I live in Brooklyn and have made my living as a writer for nearly seven years. At 18, I was an English major at a college I loved. At 23, I moved to San Francisco to be near my boyfriend, a brilliant novelist whom I loved. At 25, I had my dream job as an editor at Salon (which, yes, I also love). And at 29, I moved to New York, where I am still doing work that I love. I’m not going to pretend that I couldn’t write another version of my life about all the ways I’ve failed to get and do what I want. But it’s difficult to believe that the bare outline of my life for the past 15 years would look any different if I’d had the freedom to construct it without taking my child into consideration.

I kept the first part of my promise to myself: Being a parent didn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do. The second part, is, of course, my promise to my daughter. Fifteen years after she was conceived, do I think I did right by her?

The worst part of being the parent of older children is that you see the effects of everything you have done. You know exactly how you have damaged your child, in the same way that you know exactly how your own parents have damaged you. It’s a cost/benefit analysis. I don’t always know what she thinks of me, but I know what kind of parent I am. I still have a nearly subhuman immunity to risk. After making the decision to raise a child at 16, few things compare. Nothing seems crazy to me. I am a warm parent. I love to talk to my daughter. But I’m also undisciplined. I’m messy. I’m selfish. We’ve never had enough money, enough space, enough time. When I fail — to clean the apartment, to meet a deadline, to find a job, to keep a lover — I have the same tendency to think fuck you. You try to raise a child on your own at 16 (at 22, 25, 29). It’s an excuse. People let me use it more often than they should.

I am in the strange situation of having known the couple who wanted to raise my child if I had not chosen to do so. I selected them, I sat in their living room, I toured the house and talked with them about their philosophy of child-rearing. We haven’t spoken in 15 years, but I’ve heard enough to have an idea of where they are now. I know that in her parallel life, my child would have grown up the daughter of a social worker and a real estate agent in the Northwest. She would live in a four-bedroom house; she would have a summer cottage in the mountains. She would have been allowed to have a dog, and it’s likely she’d have a brother and a sister. She wouldn’t have seen as much of the world. She may have grown up to be more like the girl I was at her age, a suburban teenager longing for adventure and danger and a more exciting life. She would have been more stable.

I don’t know that girl. She isn’t my daughter.

The girl who is my daughter has been told her whole life that we almost didn’t do it, that we almost lost our nerve. She knows as well as we do that was the sensible thing to do, and we haven’t tried to hide it. As she’s gotten older, she and I sometimes talk about what her life could have been like. She can’t really imagine it, of course, any more than I can. I have an odd little line that I trot out sometimes. When she says she was an “accident,” I tell her that she should feel that she is all the more a wanted child. We didn’t want a child, I say, we wanted you. She wasn’t convenient, she wasn’t planned, she profoundly changed all of our lives. And we did it anyway.

I say “we” because I am thinking of the four of us in that station wagon, running over traffic cones on our way to do something that everyone else knew was a terrible idea. And you know what? We were exactly, exactly right.

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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