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Painful Choices

Kyisha Whittico, Denise Jordan, Keon Whittico and Antonio Hill
Kyisha Whittico (left), her mother Denise Jordan, holding little Keon Whittico, and baby's father Antonio Hill. By Juana Arias, The Washington Post

By Katherine Boo
Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Oct. 19, 1997; Page A01

Fifth in a series of occasional articles

"New Jersey prom mom held on suspicion of murder," the newscaster is saying. "Plus, newborn found dead in Prince George's County storeroom." Denise Jordan snaps off the Channel 9 news. This sweltering summer evening, in the shades-drawn dark of a Benning Road apartment, such stories are best avoided. Tonight, 34-year-old Jordan understands too well the urge to make a baby disappear.

Shuffling into the living room is the source of Jordan's despair: a girl with bow lips, almond eyes and a T-shirt that says "Major Attitude," a quality this child singularly lacks. Jordan's 15-year-old daughter, Kyisha Whittico, holds in her arms her sickly 9-month-old son, Keon. In her belly, Jordan has just discovered, Kyisha holds five months' worth of another life.

There were clues, yes, Jordan can see that now: the Kotex box grown dusty, the T-shirts too big to pass as urban style. But some truths are too grim to accept until they literally protrude before your eyes.

You desk-jockeyed by day, french-fried by night. You sprayed a "Money House Blessing" potion around the apartment, knelt on lineoleum to pray. And finally you achieved what the federal government would consider a social policy triumph: You got off welfare, stayed off, and inched up the socioeconomic ladder. Just in time to see your own teenage mistakes rematerialize in the convex silhouette of your child, to see your whole family -- including your youngest, the bright 7-year-old girl now devouring this scene from under the dining room table -- stumble back down the ladder.

"I have considered myself a strong woman." Jordan releases the words slowly into the air. "But now I feel my spirit breaking."

Since President Clinton last year signed into law the most thorough overhaul of welfare in a half-century, the national eye has trained on welfare mothers hunched over push brooms or Xerox machines. Yet welfare reform's architects also aim at a social engineering more delicate than putting people to work. Believing that six decades of welfare entitlement encouraged family dissolution, they set out to legislate stronger family structures for America's poor. And teenage mothers like Kyisha are the vanguard of this re-engineering effort.

Welfare reform now intercedes aggressively in the lives of girls like Kyisha because they are, statistically speaking, where welfare begins. More than half of the adults on public assistance first gave birth as teenagers. A year ago, Kyisha and her babies could have moved in with a cousin or a friend and collected about $600 a month in cash and food stamps. The new law blocks this escape route. Now, to qualify for welfare, Kyisha and girls like her must live with their parents or guardians. If those grown-ups have an income the government deems sufficient -- if, say, they have worked their way into a $24,000 Labor Department clerkship, as Jordan has -- the families will get no public assistance.

Jordan's neighborhood pulses these days with 1960s' cultural idiom: funkified Joni Mitchell floating from apartment windows; tie-dye fluttering from the kiosk outside the Shrimp Boat restaurant. But the '60s notion that government spending can break the cycle of poverty, that's over. The welfare checks slipping through mail slots here now bear the label "Temporary Aid for Needy Families." Families is the key word. The theory is that strong family networks like those in some immigrant communities can provide a sturdier safety net than a government bureaucracy -- at minimal taxpayer expense. But for women like Jordan -- eyes on the middle-class prize, feet in a dream-eating inner-city culture -- the private support network replacing the government one is fragile.

The Washington Post followed Jordan for five months between her discovery of Kyisha's pregnancy in June and the baby's birth this month. Like working mothers of all classes, Jordan spent this time weighing the need to make money against the need to nurture babies, the desire for self-improvement against the ethic of parental sacrifice. But the context in which Jordan lives makes those hard choices even harder.

Should Jordan ask Kyisha, who has just completed ninth grade, to drop out of high school? That would obviate the need to spend $800 or more a month on day care -- Jordan takes home $1,300 monthly -- but would darken Kyisha's future even further, and the future of Kyisha's children. Should Jordan take a night job to pay for day care? That would give Kyisha a chance to finish school but would leave the babies alone every night with the silent child who is their mother. And what of Jordan's own dreams of making the management track at Labor, of realizing her potential? "I try to think logically about what I should do," Jordan says. "But what I end up with is panic."

In federal Washington, welfare reform's hierarchy of values is clear and clean: ennobling work above enervating welfare, long-term goals above short-term security, family values above selfishness. In Benning Road Washington, Jordan watches moral imperatives clash, forced to choose from a mess of bad options. Statistics can't show what it does to a woman to see her own future pitted against the future of her daughter, against the futures of two babies. They can't convey what it's like to be Jordan, the welfare success story now crouching in her narrow bathroom, faucet blasting, hoping the children won't hear her cry.

No Room for Tolerance
Maybe you feel like hurling a plate, thundering righteously down the hall. But small apartments discourage cathartic stomp-offs. So here are Kyisha and Jordan, on a sunny mid-July morning, sharing one room and nothing else but silence. In the month that has passed since Kyisha disclosed her pregnancy, they've been living as if ringed by electric perimeters, inhabiting increasingly separate worlds.

Jordan irons the dress she will wear to her job as a wage-hour assistant at Labor. Kyisha flops on her mother's bed watching "The Dating Game." She has never been on a date. Her body has swelled in the last few weeks, as if in relief from the months of hiding her condition. This morning she is killing time until her obstetrician's appointment.

Like many former welfare recipients, Jordan agreed with the politicians that the welfare system needed reforming. But she and Kyisha were stunned to learn at the welfare office on East Capitol Street that with Jordan's salary, they weren't eligible for assistance for Keon or the baby on its way.

This denial had exactly the effect policymakers intended: It diminished Jordan's already minimal tolerance of Kyisha's childbearing. Exhausted by the ordeal of caring for the premature Keon, Jordan immediately took the girl to a Pennsylvania Avenue abortion clinic. There, Jordan learned that new welfare statutes don't overrule old civil liberties. Having financial responsibility for a teenager is not the same as having authority over her. As the doctor explained the indelicacies of abortion at five months, Kyisha balked. "It hurts," the girl says of abortion, the less imminent pain of childbirth remote in her mind. And Kyisha, not Jordan, has the legal right to choose.

As they washed the dinner dishes together on subsequent evenings, Jordan made the case for putting the babies in foster care or up for adoption. But she found it difficult to counter Kyisha's reluctance when early summer offered regular news reports about chaos in the D.C. foster care system. And Kyisha wasn't about to give up her own flesh and blood for adoption. On her dresser perch two of her prized possessions: a teddy bear and her sonogram.

Jordan even marched into police headquarters in June, asking that they charge the babies' father with statutory rape. But in the District the man must be five years older than the minor girl. Between Kyisha and Antonio Hill, the father of both babies, the years are only three.

Jordan knows -- the possibilities haunt her -- that there are other ways to get a safety net beneath Kyisha and the babies. If she quit her job and went back on welfare, the family would qualify for an array of social services. If she put Kyisha and the babies out on the street, they would qualify, too.

It is easier, this grim July morning, to consider another option, one welfare reformers wish more females would take: Kyisha and Antonio could marry. Then maybe he could go into the military to support his family. As Jordan applies her going-to-work makeup -- gently melting her eyeliner on the stove to make it cling -- she indulges this fantasy, which requires serious suspension of disbelief.

"We weren't together then and we're not together now," Antonio says of Kyisha. An 18-year-old 11th-grader who prefers the streets of Lincoln Heights to a trifling summer job, who makes his home wherever a relative will lend him a bed, he has tried to help out with his sickly son. Tiny boxes of baby Nikes stacked in Kyisha's closet are his signature contribution.

Still, Antonio's words stoke Jordan's hopes. "That's my son," he says, thick fist on his heart. "I want to be part of raising him. I want him to grow up -- decent." But the exigencies of Lincoln Heights life tend to trump his family feelings. Isn't he supposed to be here this morning, to accompany Kyisha to the doctor?

"He's not coming," Kyisha says, affixing her eyes on Bachelor Number One.

Jordan raises her eyebrow. "But I thought . . ."

"Not coming," Kyisha repeats.

Not coming: as it was in Jordan's own 15th year, two decades ago. Her mother dropped her off at George Washington Hospital, where she gave birth to her first baby alone. As "All My Children" became "One Life to Live" became "General Hospital," as bombs detonated inside her, she gripped tight the bars of the bed. This is life, she told herself. You can't fight it. You just endure it.

Once, as a girl, Jordan had trolled the anterooms of the D.C. courthouse, imagining herself as a hipper Perry Mason. After the baby, a girl she named Tamika, Jordan let that dream go. Years passed. Men came and went. Children were born and raised on welfare checks and sitcoms and silence. "It was get-up-get-their-clothes-on-feed-them. But I didn't know what to say to them, what to do for their insides," she says.

Unlike many very young mothers, she managed to graduate from high school. She got married, briefly and wretchedly, to Kyisha's father. But gloom kept licking up around her. Twice she dispatched Kyisha to foster care for a spell. She permanently dispatched a daughter born between Kyisha and 7-year-old Kimberly, a girl now living with her father's family, a girl Jordan has seen maybe 10 times in as many years.

That's life, Jordan told herself. And it was her life -- until a D.C. government caseworker glimpsed a yearning mind behind the mask of nonchalance. "This woman battered me. She wanted me to take some training course. She wouldn't let me alone." The effort of resisting became greater than the effort of giving in. She showed up for a temporary job at Labor in 1988. "I figured two weeks, then back on my couch." Instead, she fell in love with work.

A job did for Jordan what welfare reformers hope it will do for millions of poor women: provided remuneration that transcended economics. From her colleagues she learned not just the fine points of fair labor statutes, but self-respect, the possibility of working toward goals. Above her bed are neatly framed certificates: "Proofreading I," "Advanced WordPerfect," two "Special Achievement Awards."

"My kids think we're rich," Jordan laughs. Her $1,300 a month is deluxe by the standards of Benning Road. But as common sense suggests and social science affirms, improving children's futures has more to do with time and values than with income. A neighbor on welfare distracts her small children with repeated showings of "Pulp Fiction." Jordan's children got Little Golden Books, "Miracle on 34th Street" and a mother often away at work. Jordan counted herself lucky when Tamika finished high school childless and joined the Army. She was less lucky protecting Kyisha from the seductions of Benning Road.

From her bedroom window Jordan glimpses the usual morning bustle at her beige-brick apartment complex: cabbies polishing hubcaps in the parking lot, nurses' aides hightailing it to the bus stop. "We're unsubsidized here," Jordan says -- not a plaint, a point of pride. But her reef of striving sits between two vast public housing projects, one that's boarded up, one that might be. "A drug-invested place," Antonio calls the neighborhood. "A place where kids get bad habits."

Research indicates that women who are climbing the lower rungs of the economic ladder feel but increasingly inadequate. No wonder: Jordan is too well-off for the free "Send a Kid to Camp" programs her neighbors rely on but too poor to send her children to camp -- let alone obtain the ballet classes and high-stimulation day care that more affluent working women purchase to compensate for their daily absences.

Jordan yearns to escape to Prince George's County, a place of decent schools and safer streets. But this apartment's $550 rent is what she can afford.

Chill out, Jordan tells herself, beating an exit from this baby-haunted home. Soon she is on the subway, then safe in cubicle country. She'll spend the day fielding the phone complaints of area workers who feel they're being exploited. Here, as other people's tribulations pour into her ear, she'll feel competent, in control. Her boss says he wishes he could clone her. But work is easy by Jordan's lights, easier than she imagined back when she was on welfare. It's motherhood that has turned out to be hard.

A Comforting Heartbeat
One hundred fifty-four beats a minute. The amplified throbs fill the tiny examination room, strong and fast and, to Kyisha, as beautiful a sound as anything on MTV.

What goes on in that girl's head? At work, between phoned-in complaints, Jordan tries to understand. "Everything I did was because I was afraid of being alone," she hazards: chased men, tied them to her by having their babies, looking for a family feeling she had not found in her childhood home. "I don't want Kyisha to feel she has to have children to keep a man, have a sense of family. . . . But still I wonder if she is afraid of being alone, because I know I was."

Today, hearing heartbeats, Kyisha does not feel alone.

It's hard to prevent children in poor neighborhoods from having more children. Recent studies in New Jersey and other states that deny teenagers welfare benefits show that birthrates are unchanged. Carrots don't seem to work any better than sticks. The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation followed disadvantaged teenage mothers who received expensive, intensive social services over several years; aid made the girls no less likely to have a second baby.

Does nothing work? Data from the massive National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicates that children with strong emotional attachments to their parents are less likely to become sexually active at an early age than children who lack that bond. Jordan worries that her ineptitude as a young parent hurt Kyisha. She worries that the following years of frantic working hurt the girl more.

"Maybe I never talk," Kyisha speculates, "because I never had anyone to talk to."

The doctors term Kyisha's second pregnancy high-risk, given the catastrophe of her first one last year. When her cervix opened at six months, her doctor commanded bed rest. Instead she went to the mall. The next day she delivered, by Caesarean, two unready babies. Three weeks later she sat in the Children's Hospital chapel sobbing, her Absolut Madness lanyard dangling over a baby-girl corpse. After multiple eye surgeries and six months of lung therapy, the survivor, Keon, came home from the hospital -- $250,000 worth of treatment covered by Medicaid, the sole government assistance for which he qualifies.

At which point Kyisha noticed her period truant again.

Now, as Kyisha shivers on the white-papered table in this North Capitol Street medical office, a nurse carefully explains to her what labor pains will feel like: carefully, because the nurse detects something it has taken Jordan years to acknowledge.

Jordan has suspected since Kyisha was a toddler that her child's quiet differed from the quiet of other children. "Slow," was the word she used. The junior high school principal advised against special education, saying it would stigmatize Kyisha. Jordan lacked -- confidence? time? stomach for the truth? -- to further plumb the mysteries of her daughter's brain. Kyisha simply went to school, existed sub-radar, collecting enough C's and D's to be passed out of one teacher's hair into another's. "I don't trouble them," Kyisha says of her teachers, "and they don't trouble me."

Jordan, haunted by her own past, was more aggressive in educating Kyisha about sex. She took her daughter to the doctor regularly beginning at age 12, advising her to get birth control if she needed it. Kyisha emerged from the office visits empty-handed. "Denies sexual activity," one medical record reads, before noting her preferred jump-rope style: "Likes double-dutch."

Doing fine, the nurse says today. Kyisha exhales, relieved.

Confinement, they called pregnancy in the old days. But Kyisha has learned with Keon that confinement doesn't end with delivery. When your baby can't breathe the outside air or tolerate sunlight in his diseased eyes, you stay inside. Antonio, beeper ever beeping, never stays as long as you'd like. Your friends stop stopping by. In the evening, after their summer jobs, they gather on the corner and shake their heads about you. "Two already!" they say. "That's a life sentence." It disconcerts Kyisha when such comments drift back her way. She should have thought. She didn't.

Jordan has thought. What she sees ahead are more bad choices.

Give up on Kyisha and move on to the next child, the ardent Kimberly: That's what some advise. If Kyisha drops out of school, she can take care of the babies and Jordan won't have to pay for day care -- which for the new baby alone would consume more than 50 percent of Jordan's weekly earnings. But another number also weighs on Jordan's mind. Five years: The new welfare law provides only five years of assistance in a person's lifetime. A slow child who's had two kids before her sweet sixteen is going to struggle anyway. Without a diploma, Jordan fears, Kyisha will be doomed.

The nurse now explains to Kyisha that she needs to increase her iron intake, that she will be constipated when she does. The nurse's advice -- Metamucil -- in hand, Kyisha heads home through a brilliant summer day, past a truck farmer selling cantaloupes, past carnies folding circus tents by RFK, past children her age playing sharks and minnows in the public pool.

Back home Kyisha doesn't turn on the lights. In the dark she Windexes the glass top of the dinner table, scours the spill rings on the stove. She listens for the bus that will bring Keon back from his daily developmental therapy: a horn toot at which time she will try to set aside an idea so mortifying it can only be murmured in darkness.

"I am not ready to do this. I am a child."

Sharing a Sister's Burden
"I just feel burnt out." Jordan this August night literally leans on her best friend and neighbor Sheila, whose black T-shirt is laced with golden baby vomit. "You can give Kyisha and Antonio your opinion, talk until you go crazy. But you can't make them do what you want them to do. Sometimes I get so frustrated I just want to run away."

Antonio, angry that Kyisha dressed Keon in a T-shirt instead of the Mickey Mouse outfit he bought for him, has shoved Kyisha. Kyisha retaliated by hurling a brick at him.

Sheila is clear on Jordan's course: "He should be barred from your house. A man doesn't hit a woman and that's that."

But Jordan feels Antonio has good inside him, that the boy yearns to change. She's been working on him, about the military, about his paternal obligations. Still, she worries, "What if we wake up one morning and Keon and Kyisha are gone? I get sick thinking of what would happen to them out on their own."

As this grown-up stuff swirls around her, Kyisha's little sister Kimberly turns her bunk bed into a fort of books, a la "Daniel Boone's Frontier Adventures." But the fort does not protect her. The fact that welfare reform keeps Kyisha in the household on Benning Road impinges on Kimberly's future as much as it does on Jordan's.

"I want be a mother some day," says Kimberly, who last year won first prize in an essay-writing contest at school. "But I think I'll be a police and a fireman first."

Last spring, between baby crises, Jordan secured a partial scholarship for Kimberly to attend a Catholic school across the Anacostia River. Jordan wanted her to see a world where children go to college, postpone babies. But with the new baby coming, with the future so uncertain, Jordan feels she can't cover her portion of the tuition. For now, Kimberly will attend the neighborhood public school.

Policy-makers might wish that Jordan would scrimp and borrow to come up with Kimberly's tuition, an investment that could pay off in the long run. But Jordan has been shaped by a culture that tends to distrust the future. Anything can happen, and does. Kimberly's bike, stored on the third-floor balcony, is stolen by an acrobatic thief. Keon goes into respiratory distress during developmental therapy and must be revived by paramedics. It's hard to think about getting ahead when you're busy getting by.

"I need to open Kimberly up to more things, but Kyisha has drained me," Jordan frets. She finds herself jumping on Kimberly when the girl dawdles over her breakfast toast and is late for school. "I wonder if it's because I know Kyisha feels bad enough already and I can't yell at her," Jordan says. "So I snap at the kid who can take it. I try to be patient. I am determined not to let Kyisha's situation hurt Kimberly's future. But Kyisha is what life is about now."

Counterdose of Celebration
Raise high the roof beams! Crack open the Hawaiian punch! Jordan has received a $3,000 raise. Okay, so after taxes and all, the gross nets out to about $100 a month. Still, it reverberates. As September arrives, Jordan's spirits lift a bit. And she finds herself, after months of studied indifference, susceptible to baby magic.

On Keon's first birthday Jordan decides that the months of stress demand a counterdose of celebration. Balloons are inflated. Antonio rolls in bearing a mite-sized Chicago Bulls outfit, more shoes. His beeper sounds -- Lincoln Heights calls. He says he has to go. He stays instead. Kyisha passes him cheese curls, a piece of Power Rangers cake. She cannot hide her smile.

"Didn't think you'd make it this far," neighbor Sheila says to Keon as he rocks on a wicker horse from the Salvation Army. A cupcake, candle-lit, memorializes his dead twin.

Jordan still hates to see Kyisha so trapped, so freighted. But the dread Jordan used to feel coming home from work has ebbed. "Now that I'm 35 I look around and think of all the things I could have done," she says, Keon bouncing in her arms. "I'm better with Keon than I was with my own."

Even the nurse who visits to administer Keon's weekly respiratory therapy is impressed by the change. The family seems to have coalesced as they struggle to raise Kyisha's child. When Jordan suctions the mucous from Keon's nose and medicates his troubled eyes, when she explains to Kyisha why soap and water clean better than BabyWipes, a subtle alchemy seems to be taking place. The responsibility of teaching Kyisha how to be a mother is making Jordan more conscious of her own parenting.

This consciousness has practical consequences. In September, after applying for night jobs at Caldor and Hollywood Video and Pizzeria Uno at Union Station, Jordan decides that Kimberly, Keon and the new baby require her more than they need her additional earnings. She clenches her teeth and decides: Kyisha will stay out of school to care for her children. She'll return to 10th grade a year from now, Jordan promises herself.

"God doesn't give you more than you can handle," she says, just before Kyisha starts to give birth in the living room.

A New Arrival
It's the first week in October. Kyisha has stayed up all night. Indigestion, she thinks. Labor, it is. By the time Jordan grasps what's up, the contractions are fast upon each other. Jordan grabs Keon. Antonio, who's been staying at the house in anticipation of the birth, takes Kyisha's arm. Together they tear out to Washington Hospital Center, where, as Jordan and Antonio grip her hands, Kyisha silently expels a noisy baby boy.

As Kyisha dozes, Antonio prowls the halls, telling the nurses about his splendid new son. Keon reaches for him, proffering his first word: "Dada." Jordan looks at the sleeping Kyisha. She looks at the preening Antonio. She looks at the playful Keon. She looks at the child who will be named Marques. It would be nice to sleep through the next 10 years. She knows she probably won't get an unbroken night for months.

Muddling Through
But life goes on, doesn't it? You pray the two babies don't want to eat at the same time. They usually do. You pray they won't wake each other up in the night. They usually do. Antonio takes to sleeping on the floor by the crib, training to be the fastest bottle-warmer on Benning Road. Bleary-eyed in the morning he gets up to go to school. Kimberly grabs her backpack and follows fast behind him. Jordan, also bleary-eyed, gets dressed, checks her clothes for baby spit and Gerber spills, and goes to work.

Kyisha watches these leave-takings silently, smudges of sadness beneath her eyes. She carries her new baby to the couch. "Cosby Show." "Family Matters." "Sanford and Son" -- what her mother watched in her years of teenage motherhood. Kyisha has received an injection of Depo-Provera contraception.

This is life, she says. "Nothing in it to be happy about."

Then again, Kyisha and her children are not on welfare. Federal fiat is pushing this family to cohere -- to change habits and expectations. And they have muddled through. A public expense has been averted.

The private expense will not be officially tallied.

Jordan emerges from a bathroom stall at the Labor Department. So a few of her own dreams have been tabled. So she won't win the middle-class sweepstakes this year. Still, she's making it. Improvising and surviving. Can anyone tell? she wonders, looking around as she hustles down the hall, back to work. Can anyone tell she's been crying?

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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