I was raised by a teen mom decades before MTV’s “16 and Pregnant.” In 1982, the sight of a 17-year-old with a stroller drew stares and whispers in suburban Massachusetts.
My mother didn’t talk much about what happened between her and my biological father: how she broke the news to him, if there were tears. But I do know of at least three words he said — “I love you” — and her response: “I don’t.” He proposed, convinced that getting married was the right thing to do. But she said, simply: “No.”
She knew she couldn’t marry someone she didn’t love, even after having his child.
She told me that her high school principal didn’t want her to finish her senior year and that she should prepare for her priorities to change.
But to Mom, an education was a priority. So when she was shunned from campus, she enlisted a tutor to help her complete her English credits, determined to graduate on time while simultaneously working as an apprentice at a small accounting office.
She was the only woman in her Lamaze class with an aunt by her side rather than a husband. Her water broke during a Northeastern blizzard when her four siblings and my grandfather were in Vermont on a ski trip. My Nana bundled Mom into the family station wagon, windshield wipers barely clearing the snow well enough to see the road. Nine hours later at a hospital in Boston, I was born with a full head of brown hair.
Brian, my biological father, came to hold me the day I was born. My mother wanted him involved in my life, even though she preferred that he be only an acquaintance in hers.
But when he left that night, he didn’t return — vanishing from my childhood, leaving Mom not merely an unwed mother but a parent without even a part-time co-parent. In Brian’s absence from our lives, his parents swaddled me in love.
In the meantime, my mom was falling in love. Rob was her true high school sweetheart, and she started dating him seriously just after my birth. I always knew Rob wasn’t my dad, but he was always around. Over the next few years, while most little girls were entranced by Disney princess movies, I was swept up in seeing my own mother fall in love. (Even at that age, I could tell that real-life romance was better than any movie plot.) Each day, I patiently watched as a real love story unfolded at the foot of my bed, on the sidewalk outside my home, at the kitchen table. Rob gave selflessly to her and handled her heart delicately. Watching Mom glow had an intense effect on me — love became tangible, not simply something written about in fairy tales.
As a toddler, I even went on dates with Mom and Rob, my macaroni and cheese next to their steak and potatoes. They’d share deep conversations until forced to stop abruptly when I threw a tantrum, my presence a not-so-silent partner in their relationship. She knew he loved her when he tucked me into bed at night.
Though Rob and I were tied because of Mom, we had an independent relationship, too. Rob taught me how to ride a bike, helped me study my times tables and made funny faces with me. While Mom went to night classes at Northeastern University, he’d babysit me at his bachelor pad, attempting to put my hair in a ponytail while boiling hot dogs for dinner, the only finger food he knew how to cook. I was surrounded by two people who adored each other — and me — but I eventually felt an emptiness I couldn’t identify.
Up until I was in first grade, my mom didn’t tell me much about Brian. But I did spend a lot of time with Noni, Brian’s mom. I didn’t understand how we were connected — I didn’t know she was my biological grandmother — but I loved her intensely. In the summers, I would swim in her pool nearly every day. She’d spoil me with snacks from a secret cabinet, full of sweets Mom wouldn’t let me have at home. After hours of retrieving rings at the bottom of the pool, we would sit and talk for hours while Papa watched baseball.
But as a curious child, I asked questions that weren’t easy to answer.
I would often ponder aloud: Noni, how are you my Noni?
Her answer to this question usually went something like this: Oh, Laurie. Well, one day I was at the hospital passing by the nursery and thought you were the just most beautiful baby I had ever seen. I fell in love at first sight. So I asked your mom if I could be your Noni, and she said, “Of course.”
“How are you my Noni?” became my favorite topic of conversation, an obsession. I memorized every word of the story, even the cadence of her voice when she told it, but still asked to hear it over and over again.
When I was in first grade, mom told me about Brian. I still asked Noni for our origin story one last time. She sighed deeply — I’m sure my mom told her that we had “the talk”— but Noni recited the story yet again, with a sweet sadness in her voice. I needed to hear that she chose me when her son had not.
When I was 6, Rob proposed to my mom. This proposal was different than the first; Mom was in love — and so was I. We all walked down the aisle together, me in a blue dress that Mom hand-sewed. In the limo after the wedding, we clinked glasses, theirs filled with champagne and mine with apple juice.
When they returned from their honeymoon, we moved into a new home. The three of us walked hand-in-hand to Boston City Hall, where Rob and I made our relationship official, too. The day of the adoption, I woke up with a fever. Mom was going to postpone, but I wanted to stand before the judge, become a family … and celebrate afterward with a chocolate sundae. The magistrate even allowed for a change to my birth certificate, Rob’s name filling the space left empty for nearly seven years.
Though we had been saying “I love you” to one another for years, calling him “Dad” was a big change for me. I grew up with a “mom” and a “Rob” so, once we were official, saying “Dad” aloud was awkward at first. I wasn’t sure I’d ever call anyone by that name but was thrilled I could say it to Rob. Saying it made me glow just as my mom had on their wedding day.
At age 12, I started to put the pieces together. For Rob to adopt me, Brian had to relinquish his rights as a parent. It’s not just that he didn’t choose me initially — he gave up on me later, too. I felt abandoned, and my curiosity about him grew.
I wondered: What would my life be like if things were different? What was Brian like? What did he have in his life that was better than a daughter?
Those days, I spent a lot of time in my room silently sobbing. I asked questions about Brian, but Mom didn’t want to talk about him — she’d shut down when I pried. So I pressed on in a different way. I asked Noni questions, bringing him up in conversation with aunts and uncles, looking for a story from “back when.”
But one day outside her house, I stopped short, noticing her driveway and the curb outside filled with cars. Peering between the pickets in the fence, looking at the people in the backyard, I heard the splashes of kids jumping into the pool. There was a party happening. I wasn’t invited. The cars were those of my aunts and uncles, my cousins in the pool. It was a family barbecue, and I was only family by accident.
Brian opened the back gate, walked up the front steps and into the house, carrying a plate of hamburgers. I had never seen him, not even a picture — but I knew it was him. I willed him to look in my direction, to recognize me, yet he continued inside the house without a glance. And it hit me: They invited me or him, never both.
This became our routine: I came, he went. Wordlessly, I’d often pass him on the stone walkway — him going, me coming or vice versa. It was a little less painful each time.
My and my husband’s love story unfolded quite differently than my mom and dad’s. We met on Twitter in our 20s rather than in high school. We began our relationship while living long-distance rather than in the same small town. And we have completely different backgrounds: I’m from an All-American upbringing, and he’s from a traditional Jamaican household. But regardless, my mom’s love lessons have stuck with me.
Like my mom, I prioritize love above all. I didn’t commit my life to a guy who was “good on paper” — with a similar upbringing, background and religion — though I certainly dated many of those. Instead, I married a man who makes my heart come alive in a way I’d never experienced with anyone else.
On my wedding day in 2014, Rob walked me down the aisle, reminding me of when he, my mom and I did the same. Brian attended, though he left without saying hello or goodbye.