The following perspective piece is excerpted from “Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families” by Nicole Lynn Lewis. The memoir recounts Lewis’s experience getting pregnant during her senior year of high school and starting college with a 3-month-old. She later founded Generation Hope, a nonprofit aimed at supporting teen parents and their children.
The two pink lines formed quickly and clearly. My period was two weeks late, and my breasts were sore. My other attempts to determine if I was pregnant — like trying out Bree’s theory that there are more bubbles in your pee when you’re expecting — didn’t seem reliable, so I went to Kmart and bought a test. Looking through the different types of tests, trying to avoid eye contact with other customers and the cashier, and rushing back to my parents’ station wagon in the nearly empty parking lot was an out-of-body experience.
It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, right after school. I’d paged Rakheim and told him to meet me at my house. He had swung his Cadillac into my parents’ driveway, gas emanating from the gigantic subwoofers installed in his trunk. It was odd to be there, together, at that time of day. The house was quiet. The bright afternoon sunlight made patterns on the walls and on the furniture in the family room behind us. He stood next to me, smelling familiar. The shampoo he used to wash his dreads that morning was still fragrant, and if I had dug my fingers into his scalp, I would probably have felt his roots were still damp. The smell of Newports, and Black & Milds too, always on his breath and seeped into the fabric of his clothes. He was a mixture of sweet and bitter, endearing and repelling. I held the small white plastic square in my hands, and the two of us watched the pink lines surface, light at first and then darker — like watching magic.
A hot, fleshy, intense aching. That’s what I felt. Like someone had shot me right where the baby was supposed to be. I exhaled slowly, letting my chest sit empty for a moment, almost as a punishment. I needed to feel the physical sting of what had just ripped through my heart. The painful clarity that I was now instantaneously different — inherently bad. Other. I was one of those girls, eroding the American family and American society and disappointing everyone who ever cared about me. It happened quickly and without question or hesitation — the transformation from good to bad girl, from right to wrong, from destined for greatness to destined for failure. The moment — even in its swiftness — sent a shock wave through me, defining me wholly and completely.
Without knowing it, I was feeling the impact of a president’s words and a country’s fears. It was 1998 — just three years after President Bill Clinton, in his State of the Union address, called teenage childbearing “our most serious social problem.” Not the peak of crime rates in the early 1990s, which had been on the rise since the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. Not the crack-cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s. Not the mass incarceration that exploded under President Ronald Reagan, decimating families and disproportionately affecting communities of color. No, young mothers were the greatest threat to our country. Those two pink lines meant that I was now an enemy of the state.
I assumed teen pregnancy was always an epidemic because from the time I was aware of these kinds of things, it was. There was no beginning to it, no emergence. It was understood and accepted as a perpetual plague. I would later learn that, like all things, there was a beginning. Teen pregnancy wasn’t on the public’s radar until the 1950s and 1960s, when teen childbearing reached its highest rates. Then, President Jimmy Carter and nearly every president after him identified it as a priority of their domestic agenda. But it was President Clinton’s proclamation that seemed to hurl it into overdrive. It didn’t matter that at the time, teen pregnancy rates were drastically lower than 25 years earlier— nearly 50 percent lower.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy was formed just one year after Clinton’s State of the Union address. Poll after poll showed that Americans viewed teen pregnancy as a growing problem despite its overall decline. Money was poured into ineffective, fear-based teen pregnancy prevention campaigns that focused on shaming and stigmatizing young women. Few addressed the complexities of teen pregnancy, the issues often in place in a young person’s life before a pregnancy, the negative assumptions about people of color that pervade our narrative and thinking on this issue, our own failures in working with families in poverty, or the basic premise that all young people should know they matter regardless of their decisions.
I remember our slender, blonde P.E. teacher showing some of the ads warning against becoming pregnant on a projector in our sex-ed class, along with photos of her own premature baby in an NICU incubator hooked up to tubes. She warned us that teenagers are more likely to have premature babies and asked if we wanted this same fate for our children. I don’t remember feeling an overwhelming aversion to sex when I watched her slip a new translucent slide on the humming projector. I do remember, however, feeling that she — like the ads — seemed completely disconnected from me and everyone I knew.
I suppose all of this was weighing on me as we stood so close in that bathroom, with the walls feeling tight around us and the reality of what I held in my hands rushing in all at once. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wanted to believe that I was watching someone else look at a positive test. A different Nicole. But there I was staring back, with the color drained from my face, both familiar and strangely unfamiliar. I dropped the test on the counter and stumbled back into a ray of sunshine from one of the windows in the family room. I felt its heat on my arm and face, and I could see Rakheim reaching for me through the glaring white.
This could not be happening. I was president of the gospel choir. I was an honor student. I was in AP classes. I had a stack of congratulatory college acceptance letters on my dresser upstairs. I had a plan for my life. I didn’t feel pregnant. Wouldn’t I feel something? Why couldn’t I feel anything?
I finally looked at Rakheim, now sitting across from me on the black couch. He was reclining on a cushion, twisting one of his dreads between his two fingers with an incredulous look on his face. He seemed boyish and awkward in his oversized Avirex jacket, baggy jeans, and untied camel-colored Timberland boots. He was not a father, and I was not a mother.
Rakheim still sat there on the couch, quiet, and I was still slumped in the chair. It was maddening.
I ran upstairs, threw myself on my bed, and let out waves of grief into my pillow. I cried so hard, it was difficult to breathe, and for a moment, I wondered if this would hurt the baby. My world — everything I’d built, everything my parents were expecting of me — was gone.
I felt Rakheim beside me with his hand on my back. It was the same hand that used to caress my skin, play with my hair and wipe my tears, but now it was heavy and strange.
“Shhhh, baby. We’re gonna be alright.” And then I heard the happiness in his voice. “We’re gonna have a baby. Is that bad?”
“Is it so bad? Yes. Yes, it’s bad, Rakheim. I have to go to college! I can’t be a mom!”
“You can do all that, boo. I’m gonna take care of you.” He smoothed my curls back and rested his hand on my head. “I always wanted you to have my baby.”
I felt sick. Maybe because of the baby and maybe because of him. I motioned toward the alarm clock by my bed. “You should go. My mom might come home early from work.”
Copyright 2021. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.