He seemed to have no fear. Not of the drug dealers, nor the police. Not of the rats or roaches or the drunks who roamed the hallways of Jennifer’s building.
She met him at summer camp, in the Mission Hill public housing development where they lived. By freshman year of high school, they were an item. Maybe it was because his father had just passed away. Or maybe because Jennifer’s baby sister, born sick and soon to die, kept her mother overnight at the hospital. Or maybe it was just because they were young and dumb and in love. No sense groping for explanations now. What’s done is done; sophomore year, Jennifer got pregnant.
Jennifer, now 29, paused the story long enough to warn her 12-year-old daughter to be home at 7:30 sharp.
The girl marched back into the house to check the time on a giant flat screen TV.
“I’m strict,” Jennifer told me. “I didn’t want to be that stereotype, of a young mother whose kids don’t know how to behave.”
I hadn’t seen Jennifer since I was her camp counselor two decades ago. But we shared news as if no time has passed. Finally, I asked about a girl who I’ll call Keisha.
“So,” I asked. “Have you seen her?”
Keisha had broken my heart. I’d helped her get a fellowship to do volunteer work with me in Africa. She cashed the check, but never showed up. At first, I got angry. Then sad. Then just curious: What was she really doing with her life?
Jennifer shook her head.
“I haven’t seen her in years,” Jennifer said. “But I heard she finally had a baby.”
That word — “finally” — sounded odd from a woman who’d just explained how hard it was to be a teenage mom; how she’d had to give up her scholarship to North Cambridge Catholic High School, where she’d just made the honor roll. How she’d had to work two jobs the year she’d had her baby, while earning her degree at Madison Park. She’d moved with her baby from her mother’s overcrowded apartment to her baby’s father’s mother’s overcrowded apartment, then back to her own mom’s place. Finally, she made the tough decision to go to a homeless shelter.
I would have felt exasperated had I been in touch with her back then: “You know how babies are made. Why didn’t you wait?”
But those are middle-class values talking, the ones that say you’re supposed to complete your education, get a job, a husband, and a home before having a baby; a process that can take so long that the biological clock runs out before it’s complete.
But for some women, babies come first. Backward as it might seem, there are good reasons for it, says sociologist Kathryn Edin, who chronicled the lives of 162 low-income single mothers in her book “Promises I Can Keep.”
College-bound girls double their lifetime earnings when they delay childbearing until their 30s. But women who work low-wage jobs have little to lose by giving birth early.
Those women value motherhood more, Edin said: If you work a thankless shift at Walmart, raising a child is “the most valuable thing you’re going to do.”
It’s also a rite of passage into adulthood. In the world of public housing, having a baby makes you eligible to establish your own household, even as a teenager. Yet the very policies that aim to help single mothers also unwittingly make marriage unaffordable. If your man moves in, your rent could go up. Your childcare voucher could disappear. With marriage, the generous benefits of the Earned Income Tax Credit, aimed at low-income working mothers, fade away.
You start out “wanting to tear your hair out” about teenage moms, Edin said. In the end, you understand their choices all too well.
In Boston, where some 40,000 are on a waiting list for public housing, a baby doesn’t guarantee an apartment. Even families with kids typically wait five years or more. But mothers in homeless shelters do get priority. Of the 18 people who received units in the Alice Taylor development last year, 12 were homeless moms. Of the 728 people who got apartments in public housing in Boston last year, 495 were highest priority cases, including those involving homelessness or domestic violence. Jennifer spent eight months in a shelter before she and her daughter’s father moved into a subsidized, two-bedroom townhouse in Mission Park, a beautiful mixed-income development.
They had another child — a son — before they split. Now she works in a specialty clinic and mentors young parents as a volunteer. Most important, she’s managed to give her kids better than she had.
“Walking over needles, shootings in broad daylight — my kids don’t know what that is,” she said. “And I don’t want them to know.”
We hugged. I told her how proud I was of her. Before I left, we called Nataly.
Of all the girls at camp, I had felt closest to Nataly. Her happy-go-lucky spirit masked an inner struggle with dyslexia. She’s a big woman now, covered with tattoos: A bumblebee and a butterfly symbolize her two daughters. RIP, for a dead friend. “Believe,” in cursive on her arm. “To remind myself to keep believing in myself,” she said. She fell short of her dream of enlisting in the army. But she says summer camp helped her.
“If it hadn’t been for you,” she said, “I would have been so much worse.”
She’s still struggling to get her GED and find a job. She’s had a tougher time than Jennifer. But when it comes to children, they made identical choices. Like Jennifer, Nataly got pregnant and dropped out of school. Like Jennifer, she moved to a homeless shelter. She got a unit in public housing less than a year later.
She ended up back where she started: Mission Hill. It’s been renovated into mixed-income townhouses now, but it still felt like moving backward. She misses the old brick buildings, with walls thick enough to muffle the sound of neighbors arguing. She insists that the drug dealing is worse now than when she was a kid.
But maybe she’s nostalgic — not so much for the old Mission Hill — but for childhood itself. As a mother, life is so much more stressful.
The day I visited, she showed me a photo I took of her as a child, with sunglasses sliding down her nose. Another photo in the pile was of her oldest daughter’s daddy; she hasn’t seen him in years.
“I keep it,” she told me, “just in case she ever asks.”
But her younger daughter’s father has stepped in as a loving presence around the house.
A few days later, I visited Shawna, who stood out as the only girl I’d tracked down from my group who’d lived by middle-class rules. A shy child, Shawna had been kept indoors by her mother, who stuffed their apartment with books, bronze peacocks, chubby ballerinas, as if she were trying to cram all the beauty in the world into that protected space.
I noticed a Bible on the coffee table, open to Psalm 91.
“For me, it reaffirms that God has you in his corner, no matter what,” Shawna said.
Shawna didn’t get pregnant and drop out of high school. Instead, she studied criminal justice at UMass Boston and became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college. But in this tough economy, her middle-class values have yet to give her a middle-class payout.
She’s still struggling to find a full-time job. She works as a unit coordinator in the same hospital where her mother is a nurse’s aide. In a city where even a studio apartment costs over $1,000 per month, Shawna still lives with her mother in public housing. She dreams of getting a master’s degree, and a place of her own.
These three stories show us something that we rarely tell kids: Having a baby as a teenager does not guarantee failure, any more than getting a college degree guarantees automatic success.
“You’re going to get a job soon,” I told Shawna, hoping I was telling the truth.