I just found out today that my 17-year-old niece is six weeks pregnant. It was no secret that she was sexually active with her boyfriend of two years, but she was supposed to be on the pill, and she claims to have been using condoms the whole time as well. She has long talked about wanting to work with young children and about how she couldn't wait to be a mother. The chances of getting pregnant with both of those barriers in place are so minuscule that I wonder if there's not more to the story than she's letting on. She is claiming that, while she is neither religious nor opposed to abortion in general, that this pregnancy was an act of God, and she will not consider an abortion for herself. Coloring this viewpoint is the fact that her own mother was 17 when she got pregnant with her, and has always referred to my niece as her "miracle baby" because she too was on birth control of some kind when my niece was conceived.
My brother (her father) is absolutely furious with her and has threatened to kick her out of the house if she goes through with the pregnancy. I can't really say that I blame him; they are already a family of five living on a very tight budget in a very small house. Her mother would be the one to take care of the baby 90 percent of the time, as my niece intends to both finish high school and to somehow get a job. The father of the baby intends to provide support as well; he's a good kid, but he's only 16, and I suspect that he really doesn't have a clue what he's getting into. But it doesn't help that his parents are actually enthusiastic about this, for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend.
The reason I am writing to you is that my niece's mother has asked me to try to talk some sense into her. My niece and I have always been very close, as I am only 12 years older than she is, and she tends to value my opinion more than that of most people. While I do intend to talk with her, I'm not sure how I should approach this. I believe, from the bottom of my soul, that keeping the baby would be a catastrophic mistake, that would affect not only her own future but also the well-being of her parents and that of her two young brothers. I believe that she and her boyfriend will ultimately end up splitting apart because of this, and that she will eventually have to raise the child on her own and he will end up saddled with child support payments for the rest of his life, a scenario that is not fair to either of them. I believe that she will not be able to finish high school and that she certainly won't be able to find a job that will be enough to provide for this potential kid, and that she and the child will end up being a burden to either my brother or to the welfare system for a very, very long time. But I also believe that she is having this baby because she simply wants to have a baby, and not necessarily because she really thinks it was ordained by a god that she barely even believes in. I am one of the only adults in her life who might be able to influence her and I need to be able to say the right things to at least get her to think about the long-term consequences of her decision. I suspect that, due to her age, this may be impossible, but I need to at least try. Any thoughts on how to jump-start the reasoning part of the brain of a stubborn teenager?
Dear Anxious Aunt,
I started writing this column in 2001 with the understanding that other people's lives are a mystery over which we are radically and fundamentally powerless, that my knowledge of others is limited to what I myself have experienced, and that if I can be useful at all, it is only by sharing that experience.
My main operating principle has been not to proffer solutions, but to create an honest encounter.
Simply continuing to write out of one's own profound ignorance eventually gives one the aura of expertise. Protestations to the contrary can sound like false humility. As the column has gained popularity, holding to my initial precepts has at times been difficult. And indeed at the heart of it is an aesthetic paradox: As a writer, I must write with power and authority
I must write with power while knowing I have no power.
The pose of authority is a dramatic conceit that ought not be mistaken for actual authority. This is, after all, a fiction, an art, a play. It must be pursued with relish and surety to produce its effect. Yet it remains at its core a mystery.
In this play, a character enters the stage and delivers a soliloquy. Through this soliloquy, we glimpse other characters. We sense the problem. We wonder what will happen next.
At the same time that we are gathering facts, our aesthetic interest is aroused. We sense historical parallels between mother and daughter that hint at a psychological symmetry. Is this niece the child who was herself born to a teenage mother? If so, we sense the attraction of repeating her mother's story. We are reminded of the irresistible urge to replay our parents' lives -- with certain corrections.
Knowing what we do, our sense of powerlessness over others is magnified. For we ourselves are often driven by hungers we cannot see; we are most opaque to ourselves. Only until we see ourselves can the words of others make any sense to us.
So as I am writing on the Friday before my fateful birthday of Sept. 11, when things beyond all imagining happened that changed our history, I write with a humble sense that while I cannot know exactly what you should do, I do know that engagement with love is a nearly infallible direction.
I recoil from violence and coercion. Yet we must protect what is ours. We live in a world with limited resources.
When we feel acutely that we have no control over the actions of others, and yet their actions affect us, it is helpful to have a plan. That way we can say, OK, for now, we accept things as they are. But we have a plan. We insist that you agree to this plan.
The great thing about a plan is that it requires no action immediately. Thus it is easier for parties to agree to. It gives everyone time to prepare. (For that reason, it is wonderful that a birth generally takes nine months to complete.) A plan is a bargain in which each party gets some of what it wants. In this case the family might propose that for the first two years of the baby's life the teenage mother can live at home and finish high school. But then she and the father must find a nearby home of their own. That way the sacrifices of others are not open-ended. And you specify the ways in which during those two years she must contribute to the household.
So that is what I would do. I would accept the status quo: Even though she is in many ways still a child, she has made this adult decision that no one has the moral standing to reverse. She has decided to have this baby, this "miracle baby," this "act of God." We accept her premise; we could not disprove it anyway. She has claimed a certain territory. We cede that.
Ardent opposition will simply harden her.
But we negotiate. And in the course of negotiation we spell out the things that she perhaps does not yet see.
Don't try to talk sense into her. Just talk. Help her see how her life is about to be shaped by this. Help her grow up.
In going over the options carefully, without judgment, allow her to see some of the landscape that lies ahead. As she surveys her future, she may weaken in her determination to have the baby. If she can talk to others who have been teenage mothers or counseled teenage mothers, she may change her mind. At least, she will gain the facts she needs to prepare for motherhood.
If we were mystically inclined we might imagine this birth an event ordained for reasons beyond our ken, that your niece is a vessel for some important visit. There is nothing wrong with believing such things. But we open ourselves to ridicule if we insist on them. So do not insist on anything. Be neither harsh nor approving.
Beyond that, all I can suggest is that you proceed with love. I do not even know exactly what that means. I guess it means what it says: Proceed with love.
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