Op Ed

An Open Letter to Rick Perry from the Daughter of A Teen Mom

I, like Texas senator Wendy Davis, was the daughter of a single mother… a mother who was a teenager, like Wendy Davis was when she became a mother. While I feel I’m doing pretty well at 30, I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone. I didn’t even have the worst experience possible, but let me tell you about it, Mr. Perry, since you clearly have no idea what the ramifications of unwanted pregnancy actually are.

After Texas Senator Wendy Davis’s legendary filibuster to prevent the passage of a restrictive anti-choice bill, Governor Rick Perry announced his decision to call another special session to vote on the issue again. In his press conference announcing it, he took the opportunity to bring up Davis’s own background:

In fact, even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances. She was the daughter of a single woman, she was a teenage mother herself. She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas senate. It is just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.

Rick Perry, I’d like to address this statement.

Dear Governor Perry,

First, I want to thank you. I clearly had something to say about this topic and if it weren’t for your shortsightedness and lack of empathy, I probably wouldn’t have been prompted to write this out. So thank you for prompting this opportunity to share some perspective with you.

I, like Texas senator Wendy Davis, was born to a single mother, a mother who was a teenager, like Wendy Davis was when she became a mother. While I feel I’m doing pretty well at 30, I wouldn’t wish my upbringing on anyone. I didn’t even have the worst experience possible, but let me tell you about it, Mr. Perry, since you clearly have no idea what the ramifications of unwanted pregnancy actually are.

I was born to a sixteen-year-old with problems of her own. I’ve had very little contact with her through the years, so I don’t know exactly what her experience was. Her mother was physically abused by her father, this I know, and addictive personalities ran in the family, from a history of alcoholism to the substance abuse that her brother would fall prey to. I know that she would go on to have three more children by two more fathers (including my mystery father – there is no name on my birth certificate and I’ve received varying answers on his identity over the years). If anyone “didn’t learn her lesson,” Mr. Perry, it was my mother on how birth control worked.

My mother didn’t raise me. I honestly don’t know where she went to, but I have no memories of her being around and very few photos with her from my toddler-hood. I was raised by her mother and her stepfather, a much gentler, kinder man than her father was reputed to be. He was wonderful. An older, first generation Italian-American and veteran of WWII, he was raised on a farm and taught me how to grow vegetables and pick peas and strawberries. He had two grown children of his own from his first marriage and their families loved me like I was blood. I still consider myself Italian (and who knows, I might be).

I want to pause here for a moment to acknowledge the following: I know that many children have it worse than I did. I was not raised in an impersonal group home. I was not physically or sexually abused. I did not go hungry, or cold in winter, or lack for a soft, safe place to sleep. I didn’t want for clothes or basic necessities (thanks to my grandmother’s amassing of credit card debt). I think this is why I feel it’s important to share my story with you, Mr. Perry. I am not on either end of the spectrum: I neither fell deep into the system as many children like me do, nor did I bootstrap myself up to a law degree and a six figure salary. I am average (but with a helping of the privilege afforded to me by my white skin). Middle of the road.

So get to the point: what was so terrible? My grandmother, abused by her first husband and by her father before that, was not a happy woman. She was certainly not happy to be raising another child just as her two were leaving the house. I can see now that she also had issues of her own and I’m sure she battled with depression and the demons of her past. She didn’t want me around, and she made it very clear that I understood that. That I didn’t feel wanted. That I felt like an inconvenience. I never felt loved by her. Having one mother who had abandoned me and another who was put upon by taking care of me had an indelible effect on my sense of self. In second grade, she decided to start taking me to therapy, but insisted on being in the sessions. She would speak for me, infuriating me, and causing my willful self to act out. I got an F on one assignment in third grade because I’d accidentally used one of the papers in a therapy session, writing out what a bitch my grandmother was on the back. One therapist grew so mad at me that she told me that I was going to end up pregnant, on the streets, and on drugs by the time I was sixteen (I didn’t). It wasn’t until I was in late middle school that a therapist finally stood up to her and refused to let her sit in, but the damage was done and I thought therapy was torture, not help.

Things really came to a head as I approached my senior year of high school. My lovely grandfather had been in and out of hospital and died shortly before my last year started. As wonderful and supportive as he had been to me, he was old and too tired to stand up to my grandmother’s behavior to me. He did his best to make me feel his love, but with no loving female figure, I began to exist in what I later learned was a survival mode. Because I was constantly seeking of love and acceptance, I would mold my personality to whatever I thought other people wanted me to be. I deprived myself of experiences, went out of my way to do things for others because I didn’t want to be an inconvenience to anyone. The key example of this is that I did not attend my grandfather’s funeral. His children were more than happy to fly me from Florida to New York for the service (they would have rather had me there than their stepmother), but I refused. I claimed that I needed to stay in school… I was needed in rehearsals for the play I was student directing. I wasn’t needed, I just didn’t want anyone to have to spend money on me. I didn’t see myself as worth it.

After his death (and the loss of his social security payments as they had never legally adopted me), things got worse. My grandmother had to take low-level jobs, making her unhappier, especially when she had a slip-n-fall at that job and had pain problems after. Due to her amassed debt, we lost our house –  the house I had grown up in – and we moved to a small two-bedroom apartment during the winter break of my senior year. Tensions grew… I was getting close to independence and would be going a thousand miles away for college. I was finally beginning to realize the effect her years of emotional abuse had upon me. A week before I was to leave, after a particularly nasty blow out, I called a friend to come get me. I was done with it. She hurled verbal abuse at him as he helped me take my bags to his little car. I remember him turning to me and telling me that he’d never really understood how bad she was to me before.

I took the Greyhound to college, a 24-hour trip. I had very little contact with her during the year. Over winter break, I used a new credit card to fly home, but stayed with three groups of friends. I visited her once, on Christmas Eve. She seemed nonplussed. While in class, a couple months later, she called me out of the blue. She had gotten fired after bad attendance due to her ongoing medical issues. She was having money troubles. I told her I couldn’t really do anything; I was a student living on loans and credit card debt. But I decided to give her another chance. When I went home for the summer, I would move back in and help pay her bills.

The same friend who took me out of that apartment picked me up at the Greyhound station that May, and took me back there. She wasn’t there. No one was; the apartment was empty. Both of us at a loss for what to do in this surreal situation, I slept at his house that night. The next day, I went to the apartment manager. My grandmother had moved. Three states away to live with her long-estranged sister. The manager gave me the forwarding number. My grandmother claimed that she told me that she was struggling and would have to leave. Not only did she leave, she had sold everything that I had left there – everything I couldn’t fit into my two huge suitcases. The most devastating loss: the wrought iron, four poster bed that I had wanted for so long and my grandfather had given me for my sixteenth birthday. I hung up on her, furious, wondering how one human could do that to another human.

I was homeless, Mr. Perry.

I didn’t fully realize the state I could have been in until years later, but she had left me homeless. The most clear example of how unwanted I was: I had no home.

I was lucky. I went back to my friend’s house and spent another night there. And another… and another… I don’t remember if I ever really explained to them what happened; I assume my friend did. I stayed there through the summer then went back to school. I returned to my friend’s house after that year, even though he now lived in his own apartment with his girlfriend. I didn’t go back to college for a third year, paralyzed by the mounting credit card debt I was amassing (repeating the pattern set by my grandmother). After a couple months of sitting around, depressed, my friend’s parents asked the only thing they’ve ever asked of me – to make a plan: for schooling or for finding a job.

I am lucky. I’m lucky that I didn’t end up one of the 550,000 youths under 24 who are homeless in this country. I’m lucky that I had people who kept a roof over my head and food in my belly and encouraged me to start supporting myself. I’m extraordinarily fortunate that I now consider these people my family and they consider me theirs. I’ve come around on the idea of therapy and it’s helped me tremendously in building up, block by block, this self-image and esteem that was knocked down for 18 years. I have a wonderful husband and a budding career and I’m finally, FINALLY, in a place where I think that maybe I can have a kid soon and NOT screw them up with all my issues. I’m in a good place at 30. But that doesn’t negate what I went through for the first half of my life.

I’m not under the illusion that my experience is universal and I’m certainly not trying to speak for every unwanted child. My point, Mr. Perry, is that there IS no universal experience where unplanned pregnancy is concerned. Every woman is unique: her life experiences, her current situation, her potential future. And every woman should be able to access all the resources that will help her decide what is right for her. While I’m happy to be here in the world today, if I could go back to 1981 and counsel my 15-year-old pregnant mother, I would strongly encourage her to think about what she wanted out of her life and take abortion into consideration. I’ve made the best out of my circumstances, but it wasn’t easy, and I had a lot of factors going for me, along with some considerable luck. The uphill climb is a thornier path for many others.

Mr. Perry, when you say that “it is just unfortunate that [Senator Davis] hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters,” you are invalidating the fact that she has learned from her own example – she’s just come to a different conclusion than you. She’s learned that she had to fight a very rough road, repeating rough patterns, and that what she has learned from that is that every woman has the right to make the choice of travelling that road or giving herself a different path. Please have empathy and respect her opinion… she does, after all, have more life experience with this issue.

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