Pregnant at 19

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Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email gotbaby@thecut.com and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

Liz feels her story is pretty straightforward, compared to those of some women: She had sex, she explains, and got knocked up. But Liz was only 19 when she got pregnant for the first time, she and her boyfriend didn’t live together, and having a baby wasn’t exactly in her plans. She discusses surprising herself by changing her mind about having an abortion, how parenthood affected her young relationship, what it felt like to have more than one accidental pregnancy, and the only thing you should say to a pregnant woman.

On the reason she didn’t want a family. I never wanted kids. When I was 1​6​, I couldn’t think of anything more nightmarish than getting married and having children. I was a very ardent young feminist, and it seemed to me like you either got married and had kids, or ​you ​had a career. (That’s a very narrow point of view, but I was in high school.) ​T​he idea that I would give up my life for “some man” and have babies​? ​It baffled me. I was never going to get married​ — I was going to be a high-powered career woman who traveled and had lots of fancy parties.

Then I met Bruce and fell in love. That changed things, a lot. I was only 17, just out of high school​ (​I’d taken an equivalency test and finished after my junior year​)​ and he was 23, back in town for the summer. ​I was friends with some older guys who were a little younger than him, and that’s how we met, partying at the same house. I had an immediate crush on him; he had a leather jacket, a motorcycle, those ’80s bangs.

On finding out she was pregnant. I was 19. We’d gone on a trip and I’d been having weird cramps, so I went to the gynecologist when we got back. He took an ultrasound and was like, “By the way, did you know you’re pregnant?” I was on the Pill, and I didn’t suspect a thing. It was a complete shock.

I couldn’t believe I was that stupid, to get pregnant. I’d even worked at an OB-GYN for a few years, so I was extremely well versed in birth control, and it was very available to me. In my self-righteous, young-person mind, I didn’t get how anyone could ever get pregnant accidentally, because it’s so “easy” not to. But I had missed a few doses of the Pill, and when you do that, it really undermines how effective it is. Suddenly, I was on the other side of my strong opinions.

On surprising herself. Right away, I made an appointment to get an abortion. I thought for sure that’s what I would do. I didn’t think I’d ever have to tell anyone, besides Bruce. He said he loved me, and he was here for me, and he would do whatever he needed me to do. It was the best reaction you could hope for.

I made an appointment with the same doctor who’d told me I was pregnant. I had to go in for the first part, to have my cervix dilated before the actual procedure. I went in, and as we were getting ready I said, “I can’t do it.”

It wasn’t a conscious decision so much as every instinct in my body saying no. And I think it’s because I was so in love with Bruce. If it had been someone else — if it had been some dumb high-school guy who I got drunk and had sex with, then I would have gotten the abortion. ​But ​I was overwhelmed with the sense of love. It sounds so corny, but I just couldn’t. I remember the sense of disbelief while I was saying I wasn’t going to do it. Part of my brain was asking, What are you doing?

On telling family and friends. Bruce and I were in a long-distance relationship then, and he wasn’t at the appointment. I think he would have come if I’d asked him to, but I didn’t. When I told him what happened, I just said, “I couldn’t do it.” I was willing to take responsibility for ​my decision. I remember thinking, I will do this on my own, if I have to. But he was not at all into that. He was like, “I love you, and we’re in this together, and I’m ​going to love this baby. We’re ​going to be a family.” That was an easy thing to say in the moment ​it would turn out — though ​he was absolutely sincere, the actual experience was a lot harder than ​either of us could’ve imagined.

My very closest friends were surprised that I was going to have a baby, but they were nice about it, and supportive. I don’t know that anyone was “happy” in the way we think about being happy for people when they’re having babies — like when you have a friend in a solid relationship, financially secure, with their grown-up shit together. I certainly didn’t have any of that. No one thought ​me having a baby was a good idea, but people who cared about and loved me at least tried to be positive. Telling my family was hard. I wasn’t very close to either of my parents at the time.

I think I felt especially alone because we didn’t really have the internet then. I didn’t have cool friends with kids. The only other people I knew who were having kids had gotten married the day after graduation — and they weren’t living ​the kind of lives I wanted to live.

On being pregnant. I was just so scared. ​Bruce and I still weren’t living together. ​I was commuting 45 minutes each way, to a horrible job with gross male bosses who’d leer at my breasts, which were getting big​ger​ and full​er with every month​. ​It sucked​, but I needed the health insurance to cover the costs of prenatal care​. All I wanted was for Bruce and I to live together. All he wanted ​to do ​was to save money. It was impossible to do both. I ended up moving into a relative’s house to save money, which was not a great idea, in the end. It was a difficult living situation.

I felt powerless through it all​. B​eing young and pregnant ​meant a lot of societal judgment. I wasn’t in high school, but I wasn’t married, and the feeling was very much: If you’re young and pregnant, you’re stupid. That’s how we look at young parents. I don’t advocate for teenagers getting pregnant, but using teen pregnancy to determine how well a society is doing — that’s evidence of the stigma. I just wish I’d had someone to cheerlead for me, to tell me that I was strong enough to do it. Instead, I was lonely. Still, I never thought I made the wrong decision.

On the upside of a car accident. My maternity leave was only six weeks, so I had to go back to work when my daughter was 5 weeks old. With my commute I’d be gone 10, 12 hours — the whole breastfeeding thing didn’t last very long. ​So not only did I feel guilty about being away all day, but already I hadn’t been able to fulfill what I considered an important “good mom” goal.

Weirdly enough, I was ​helped by a car crash — which doesn’t seem like it would be a good thing, but the accident ended up changing things in a really good way. I was alone in the car​, ​no one was hurt​, t​his guy ran a red light and T-boned me​,​ and wrecked my car. There was no public transportation to my job, and I wasn’t old enough to rent a car, so I had no way of getting to work. I told my boss and for a few days it was fine, but then they fired me. It’s the only job I’ve ever been fired from, and it was wonderful. I was able to move to the place where Bruce had just gotten a job offer —​ at last we could live together — ​and be on unemployment for six months​, which meant I could spend the days with our daughter.​

On moving forward with her relationship. Living together and having our own place was huge. It felt like we could finally make our lives what we wanted them to be. Still, we had some rocky times. I was very determined that housework and child care should be equally shared, but I was doing most of both — even after I went back to work — and I was angry about it. There were some things Bruce just didn’t understand, because​,​ as a man, he didn’t get the same judgment I did as a young parent. ​I felt like I had to prove myself. And I had ​altered my entire future to do this instead — so I was very exacting about how I wanted it to be.​ I was hard on myself and on him, too. ​

This isn’t very romantic, but we got to this point where it seemed like we should either break up or get married. My family was really pressuring us to get married — they even said they would pay for the wedding. We were like, “Oh well, okay. Let’s do this.” We’re still together, but we’ve had a lot of ups and downs. I think if I were to give ​advice to ​a young woman ​having a baby​, it would be to really talk about what parenthood means to you and your partner and what the expectations are. I think we were like a lot of young couples and needed to learn how to communicate.​ Learning to be an adult and a partner and a parent all at the same time was pretty crazy.​

On motherhood and mortality. My daughter was wonderful, but she was challenging — she was very independent. She quit naps at a year old. She’d be up at six and ​not go back to sleep until nine at night, so it was fairly relentless. When she was 6 months old, I had to go back to work: I got a job at a bar and went to work at eight or nine at night. I never got much sleep, which in hindsight might have made everything harder.

Being a mom was really hard, but it was so rewarding​. It was also terrifying. It’s so, so scary, to think about losing your child. I thought I was stupid for getting pregnant on accident — now I think people who get pregnant on purpose are kind of insane. Why would you intentionally put yourself in this position? When I got pregnant again, all I could think about was, oh my god, what if something happens to my daughter. Now I’ll have to go on living. I couldn’t fathom it — that if something happened to one of my children I’d have to live with the pain for the sake of the other.

On having more kids. When I got pregnant ​the second time, our ​​daughter was 3. I was working three part-time jobs​, one of ​which was at a gynecologist’s office. My period was late​,​ so one day at work I snuck into the bathroom and did a pregnancy test. At that point, an abortion was not an option. I’m very pro-choice, but it was just a door that had closed for me. So then I had to call Bruce and tell him I was pregnant again. We hadn’t been planning on another child, but once it was happening, he was excited. ​Still, it was ​during the recession of ​the early ’90s​ — not the best time.

At this point, I did have some friends who were having their first kids. There was a little more camaraderie. And I was no longer an “unwed mother.” But we didn’t have any money, and there was a lot of stress around that. I did feel a lot more experienced and a lot more empowered. This time, I went to a birth center and ​had my prenatal care and delivery with midwives, who were all about providing me with ​the ​information​ I needed to make the best choices for myself​.

When ​our second ​daughter was 11 months old, I got pregnant with my son. The circumstances were also not great: I’d agreed to moving back in with relatives, which we were thinking of as a way to save money so Bruce could go back to school. There we were, with two young kids already. And I got pregnant again​!​ That was awful, having to tell people. My friends knew how unhappy I was with our living situation. They were like, What is wrong with you, do you not know how to not get pregnant? I’m not stupid! But ​a third method of birth control had failed me, and I was pregnant again.​ ​

On what you should say to pregnant women. None of the times I got pregnant were ideal. I never got to experience getting pregnant and just being happy about it. I never got to announce it to people and have them react with cheers. Something I feel really strongly about is that the only appropriate response to a woman telling you she’s having a baby is​,​ “Congratulations.​”​ That’s it. Just express happiness, no matter what you think.​ People thought I was dumb, when in truth, I was lucky — I’m happy and grateful for my children, unplanned as they were, and wish I’d never let other people’s judgment drag me down.

Pregnant at 19