Confessions of a teenage mom

My son and I grew up together, will grow old together--and saved each other.

By Tessa Souter
Published April 29, 1998 7:54PM (EDT)

When I had my son 25 years ago, at the age of 16, my father came to visit me
in the hospital and, dandling my precious 4-day-old on his lap, turned to me
and said: "But darling! Why on earth didn't you have an abortion?"

I might have been coerced into doing just that had I not run away from home. "Because I wanted a baby!" I said. Contrary to everyone's assumptions -- both then and now -- my son was not an accident. He was the product of a long and
complicated gestation period that started with a neglected childhood and
culminated in my falling prey to an older man who talked me into getting
pregnant when I was 15.

To be fair, I didn't mind. I'd been fantasizing about having a child since hitting puberty, perhaps due to a subconscious realization that I needed something or
someone constant in my life. I moved frequently throughout my childhood,
attending 16 schools between the ages of 4 and 15. My parents divorced
when I was 12 -- around the same time that I discovered that I was not my father's biological child -- and spent the next three years squabbling over whose responsibility it was to support me. And then along came Tony. He was nine years older than I and, unlike my parents, he cooked and bought clothes for me. And he wanted a baby. The month I became pregnant I was thrilled. I might have been a child, but I didn't feel like one. As far as I was concerned, I was a mother. At high school my confidantes and I pored over the pictures of
fetal development in biology class. There was no question of an abortion.

I ran away with Tony just before my 16th birthday. He turned violent
within two months. By then I was trapped: Aside from a secret
correspondence with my brother, I was completely cut off from anyone I knew,
living in a tiny Welsh village miles from anywhere. I had no one to speak to
about Tony's physical and sexual abuse. No one to visit me when, seven months pregnant, I was hospitalized for placental bleeding. I was lonely. I
missed my brother, my friends -- even my parents.

But once he was born, I had this wonderful new best friend -- my baby. While he was the cause of my entrapment, he was also my consolation. During my worst moments he was literally my raison d'être.

"You're going to spoil him!" all of my older friends warned, but I ignored them. I picked him up and cuddled him whenever he cried. He was my toy, my constant companion, my absolute universe. I gave him all the love I hadn't gotten at home. And in return he gave it back to me, at a time when I was still young enough for the gift to heal. Sometimes I think that was a big
responsibility for him; I suspect the reason he later became a model teen was
because on the rare occasions he was even half an hour late home I would
burst into tears of relief and cover him with kisses as soon as he came
through the door. But then, why not know how important you are to your
parents? It still rankles me that mine didn't even report me missing
when I ran away from home.

When I was 18, I left my abusive husband. We had been watching a TV program together in which a woman's husband hit her and she accidentally banged her head on the corner of a table and died. I turned to him and said: "What would you do if that happened to me?" His response: "I would take our son and go someplace where no one would ever find us." Wrong answer. The next day I called my mother (who my husband had always been slightly afraid of) and moved in with her while I looked for a more permanent place to live. Within six months my husband disappeared to avoid paying child support, and I became a single parent. It was that, far more than being young, that was the hardest thing.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It was the hippy era of cheap country cottages and living on the dole, and
that's what I did, studying part-time until I was able to go back to school on
a full grant and take my A levels (pre-university requirements) before I went
on to university. By the time I was 18 I had a wonderful boyfriend --
still one of my best friends -- who was an incredible emotional support for two
years. But even so, I missed, on my son's behalf, knowing that there was
someone else who loved him as much as I did. Dying was my greatest fear; it wasn't until he was at least 15 that I felt he was old enough to survive without me.

At 3, my son was
hyperactive and his speech was delayed -- an emotional response, doctors said, to
my husband's violence. From age 5 to 7, he had to attend a
special assessment unit instead of regular school. I felt the full, unshared
weight of his tribulations. I took a year off my studies to focus on getting
him up to speed. It was worth it -- by the time he went back to regular school
he had a reading level two years ahead of his new classmates -- but I wished I
could have shared the worry and responsibility with someone who cared as
deeply about him as I did.

For the first 19 years of
his existence all my life decisions revolved around my son. While my ex-husband was off doing whatever he was doing (I heard he became
part of a traveling alternative theater group), I was the one who nursed our
child through mumps, measles, chicken pox; who didn't go out on New Year's
Eve for eight years in a row because I couldn't afford baby-sitters; who
yearned to be out having fun with my friends instead of stuck at home; who
haggled over the price of clothes in thrift stores; who was assumed to be a
fallen woman. And there were missed opportunities; I might have pursued a
singing career, but as a young, unsophisticated single parent, the
practicalities involved would have been beyond me.

But what was good for my son turned out to be good for me. Living as much as
possible in one place so he didn't have to keep changing schools was
stabilizing for me too. I went to university partly because (unlike work) it
fit in with his school hours, but I loved it. I even got my first job
in journalism, at Parents magazine, because I was still young enough, at 30,
to be a lowly editorial assistant while having 15 years child-rearing

People love to pontificate on the evils of teen parenthood, but it worked
out for us in the end. I wasn't perfect. I could be irritable, selfish,
irresponsible. When I was 17 I occasionally left him asleep in his crib (with
the electricity switched off at the main to prevent a fire) so I could shop
at the village supermarket. I was only gone half an hour, but I shudder at the
thought now. And there were times that I thought I would go mad with cabin
fever, trapped in the house, too broke to afford a baby-sitter. I knew very
well what I was missing but I also felt that he was worth it. I used to tell
people that I wished I could have postponed having the same baby for a few
years. But I would not have changed anything -- the poverty, the occasional depression, the missed opportunities -- if it would have meant having a different child. My son has never had a moment's doubt that I adored him: Everything I did right as a mother just developed naturally out of that.

And it
wasn't all pain and poverty. We also had fun. We grew up together. We liked
the same TV shows and movies. When I was at school we did our homework in the
evenings at the same time. We were even published together -- my first major
article appeared in British Elle magazine the same month that he had one in
Sky. He worked as a music journalist for two years before going back to
school to get a degree in media studies. I am about to go back to school to
study music. We will literally grow old together -- when I am 76 he will be 60.
And looking around at friends of my age who are now facing the possibility of
never having children, I am constantly reminded of how lucky I am to have him.

I'm not advocating teen pregnancies or saying that abortion or adoption aren't
the right choices for other people. I'm aware that I was very lucky in many
ways. I lived in a country that had socialized medicine and a free
higher education system -- and it was still difficult. But it was probably no
harder for me than it would have been for a 39-year-old single parent. And
despite my younger brother's fears for me at the time -- that at 15 I was
throwing my life away -- I didn't entirely miss out on being young and free. By
the time my son was 14 and no longer needed baby-sitters, I was still only 30 --
and, at 41, my life's not over yet. As my brother says now: "At least you were
young enough to bounce back. It could have been worse. You could have got
pregnant at 25."

Tessa Souter

Tessa Souter frequently contributes to the Times, the Guardian, the Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers in London and writes a weekly column for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. She is at work on a novel.

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