At TriConf I quickly found myself reflecting on what vulnerability I hide most and could possibly be transmuted into wisdom for others, as so many of my peers were able to share this weekend. It only took until dinner on Saturday to find the emotional soft spot:
“So, how many kids do you have?”
“Three daughters: one, four, and twelve”.
“Twelve? You started early!”
The words rake my ears like a used up joke. I still don’t quite know what to say about raising a daughter that came into the world when I was only sixteen. Should I hazard explaining the nuanced situation of my entire life backstory? Should I just change the subject? Too late. The conversational tennis ball has long passed me and the silence is deafening. In my mind I screed:
“YES, I was a teen parent. YES, I burped a baby at basketball games, pushed her stroller at football games, and put her to bed after finishing my homework. BUT, I was also a teen parent by choice. When I was pushing that stroller, it was a second chance to be with a girl who almost had a different life with a different person. The baby I now proudly call my daughter was the living fork in the road that brought my wife back into my life and guided the entire succession of events that led to this conversation!”
But the best I muster in reality is most often: “Yeah, something like that”. In the moment, I can never condense into words the notion that what they see as my great shame, is in fact my greatest fortune.
Being on the high-wire of parenthood with my wife when first trying to build a relationship meant everything was all-in-or-fold. Morgan stayed here instead of moving away because of the strain of the baby, but that meant we stayed together until I left for college. Once at college, I read the course manual with a critical eye toward what majors could support a family – three weeks later I wrote my first line of code. And perpetually since, my obligations give me focus and my family gives me support I would never have had otherwise.
The only regret I feel is that for a number of years, through college and early work life, I so dreaded this piece of conversation I would avoid talking about my wife and daughter. I rationalized by thinking perhaps their ignorance could be my bliss. You get so much scar tissue from the early years, from people you trust to even your own parents stigmatizing you, that it’s very easy to let the specter of other people’s judgment change your behavior, but I failed to acknowledge for too long that is the very definition of shame.
My more recent habit is in some ways worse. I will acknowledge the observation that I was a child with a baby, but often phrase my response in a way that presents my benevolent intent as extremely young step-father. This often quenches their insistence on regret, realizing that I had no hand in the biology of the situation, but it fails to offer resistance to the notion that my wife should be socially punished for the choices that only served to improve my life. No more.
Certainly, the human body is ready for parenthood far before the human is ready to be a parent, but there is no guarantee of failure for the young nor success for the old. No one is ready to be a parent. I believe everyone growing up today needs to learn to control themselves, be taught the facts and power of their bodies, and realize that sex always risks long-term real cost versus short-term perceived benefit. Nothing short of 24/7 gender segregation until age twenty will stop teen pregnancy, but seeing someone as trapped then – even gently – pushing them down for it will do nothing for that person who is doing everything for that child. You don’t know how their story began, so don’t try to write the ending.
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