Now 25, Coley works as a custodian for Metro. Although the job often consists of cleaning unspeakable things, it provides her with health care and pays enough so she can afford a small apartment for herself and her 8-year-old son. Coley is essentially a sole provider, receiving a few hundred dollars a month in child support. Her rent increased by $40 last year, and the difference almost kept ends from meeting. “I’ve never been late on my rent,” Coley says. “I’ve never been late on my car note. But each month it’s a struggle.”
Life as a single teen mother has not been easy for Coley. The day after she and her mother held each other on the bathroom floor, shedding tears over the looming loss of adolescence and opportunity, Coley’s mother scheduled an abortion.
When they arrived at the clinic, the nurses sent Coley’s mother and her boyfriend’s mother to wait outside, leaving the pregnant 16-year-old alone. “It was cold in there,” she recalls. “The whole place just felt gray and cold.” Upon learning the fetus’s advanced stage, which was still somewhat of a mystery up until that point, the clinic staff castigated her. Repeatedly, they “told me I’d done terrible things,” she says, shuddering at the memory. “ I just kept hearing the word ‘terrible’ over and over again.”
But actually, according to CDC data, she did one very common thing. The most recent statistics indicate that 47 percent of high school students have had sex, and 41 percent of sexually active teenagers didn’t use a condom the last time they did. Coley was one who ended up pregnant.
Coley fled from the room, her tears, fear and humiliation choking her as she sought out her mother’s arms. In the parking lot, the two women tried desperately to discern her hysterical words. As she calmed, they heard, “Please don’t make me go back there. Please don’t make me go back there. Please don’t make me go back there.” They didn’t.
Refusing to drop out, a hugely pregnant Coley walked the halls of Crossland High School, where she and I first met as student and teacher. She continued to make honor roll every quarter of her pregnancy.
Still not quite 17 when she went into labor, Coley was scared. She pleaded with her mother not to leave her, weeping when the young grandmother-to-be could no longer delay a quick trip to the restroom. After 13 hours, “he was born at 3:53 a.m. on a Monday; 6 pounds 2.3 ounces, and he didn’t make a sound,” Coley says. “I thought something was wrong, but he was just busy grinning from ear to ear. It made me cry, I was so happy.”
After the birth, Coley threw herself into schoolwork whenever her son slept. She finished eleventh grade, and then twelfth, graduating from high school with honors.
Coley recalls standing on a playground in Southeast Washington a few years later. She shadowed her toddler’s movements beneath the play structure while her mother said, “Just let him go.” Back then, the two routinely argued and joked about Coley’s hovering. “I needed to be with him all the time to make sure he will be okay,” she says. “Now all the time I try to stop myself from doing that.”
Over-protection is just one of the many areas in which Coley constantly analyzes and refines the way she parents her second-grader. She prohibited the Cartoon Network after deciding “some of that is really raunchy, and those commercials on there are not good for kids.” She didn’t let her son watch TV at all until he turned 2, and he still gets little screen time during the week because school, aftercare, homework and football eat up his whole day. This packed schedule raises a separate issue: “I worry he doesn’t have enough time to do what he wants to do, to play or take a nap, to just chill.”
As a pee-wee football “team mom,” Coley says: “I’m crazy. I get really excited, really loud. He gets the ball, and I’m yelling, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ He gives me this look like, ‘Stop, Mom, you’re embarrassing me.’ So I’m trying to stand back a bit, to just let him play.”
“I know I’m not doing a perfect job,” she says, “but I pray with everything I’m working on that I can give him a happy life.”
Her determination to keep the world from stealing the smile he came into it with is what keeps Coley going. She has to start her work at 6:30 a.m., but her son’s school can’t take him any earlier than 7:40. She begs people to help bridge the gap, and he often has to spend the night elsewhere. She also sometimes works weekends: “So when my mom isn’t free, I have to have my grandmother watch him. She’s diabetic and doesn’t feel well, but she’s the only one available.”
Coley says she can hardly stand being away from him: “I want him at home in the morning. I want to wake up with him, feed him breakfast and drop him off at school myself. To say, ‘Have a great day, baby.’ ” She’s grateful for a solid job, but she gets frustrated at the conundrum of working so she can take care of her son and often not being able to care for him personally because she has to work.
“I have a pretty good support system, and his dad is a part of his life,” she says. “But sometimes they can’t follow through, and then it’s just me. It’s all on me.”
Coley’s father offered a solution. Her son could come live with him and his wife in Atlanta. Coley would move back in with her mother and get a degree. “I’d love more than anything to go to college,” she says. “But not more than anything. Not more than my son. I could never send him away. It would be the easiest thing. I’d get to learn things instead of cleaning up after grown people who can’t find a toilet. But I’m a mom. When you’re a mother, your child comes first.”
“Right now,” Coley says, “I don’t have my hair done. I’m looking crazy. But I had to make sure he got a haircut and new shoes. There wasn’t enough left for me. There never is.”
Ever since that one ordinary decision Coley made as a high school junior, she has lived with a single guiding principle: “I just want what’s best for my son,” she says. “Sometimes it all overwhelms me, and I sit and cry. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat, or I can’t stop eating.” As if fearing she’s done too much complaining, Coley hastily adds, “My life is hard, but I’m blessed. Lord knows I’m blessed.”
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.
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