Talking About Teen Pregnancy and Coercion, As One Does

On Friday morning, at BlogHer in San Jose, I saw Liz Henry across the room. She’s been someone I’ve followed on Twitter and Facebook for some time. I may or may not have been messaging her regularly to make sure she was still coming to San Jose, because I absolutely had to have a fangirl moment with her, awkward or not. So when I saw her, I gathered up all of my introverted self, and excused me from the comfortable group of women I was travelling with, and marched myself right into her personal bubble:

“I saw your resting bitch face from across the room, and I just knew that was my person!” I gushed awkwardly directly to an almost stranger’s face.

Of course, Liz shares a similar sense of humor, and she lit up, while dropping a few f-bombs in my direction.  We giggled to ourselves, and found ourselves a table among the hundred or so other attendees. Mid bite, she leaned over and said, “What are we going to do about getting you published elsewhere?”

I nearly choked on my eggs.

What came from that conversation besides an amazing feeling of knowing there was someone out there who believed in my writing, and wanted to mentor me in getting it further beyond just this space, was a beautiful, f-bomb laced friendship. And a sounding board. The kind that I could send things to and say, “Oh I was thinking I’d just put this on my blog” with her response being, blunt and honest, “Uh, no. Submit it. Tighten it, but submit it.”

I didn’t send her this piece. I actually, for some reason, believed it didn’t need a second set of eyes. When I heard back just hours later from an editor at XOjane, I was floored. They wanted to publish my piece. They liked it. They also wanted to pay me for it.  I told only my husband about it, because I was still worried that maybe they’d come back and go, “Uhhh, on second thought, we don’t want it anymore.”

Until I saw my picture on my Facebook feed today. Pregnant, 17 year old me. The girl that I write about adoption, and all the mess it can entail, for. The girl who felt she had no choice because everyone around her took it from her. There she was, that beautiful girl, in front of me with the bold headline:

I Was A Teen Mom Who Was Coerced Into Giving My Child Up For Adoption.  

My heart stopped for a second, while my eyes became wet with tears.

It’s taken more than a decade, but we’ve found our voice. Hopefully, that voice helps others understand the importance of making sure that women are given actual choices, and not demands. Maybe that voice will help people understand that adoption isn’t a pristine practice, and at the very best of times, even in the good adoptions, it’s a murky. Perhaps my story will cause even one parent to pause before pulling the trigger with their daughter, and actually investigate the options available, including the organizations that are hosting said options. Ideally, all of those things would happen.

In the meantime, you can head over and see the piece in it’s fully glory. Share it, Tweet it, email it. I think it’s an important story, not because it’s my own because, I know that I’m not the only woman who was cornered and forced to believe she had no other option. And that’s not good enough.

The Kindness of A Stranger

“I’ll be right back, ” I said to the lady manning the UPS counter. I directed my daughter who was all but trying to climb the walls in the tiny office, out the glass doors and back into the parking lot.

We quickly walked back to the car, where I’d left my phone. I unlocked the car doors, placed Girlie in the back and grabbed my phone. My mind was racing; I needed that package. It contained the dress I was going to wear to my sister in law’s wedding the following week. I’d purposely come into the city, over an hour drive away from our home, early so I wouldn’t be racing around in the days prior to our trip. My to-do list was structured carefully, and of course, I hadn’t made any room for Murphy’s Law.

My bank card was not working in their debit machine. I’d just used it to fill up with gas, and grab a coffee, so I knew it wasn’t the card. The funds were there. I also knew that no matter how slowly I pushed it into the machine, it just kept coming up with an error as though my card was broken. So, I would just transfer the money to my other bank card, and we’d be finished.

Or so I thought.

My phone refused to load any of my apps. Once again, Murphy seemed to be taunting me. My phone had just worked fine, using the internal GPS to guide me to the UPS office so I could pick up the damn dress, and pay the stupid duty. Frustrated, I reset my phone, and tried again. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

What was I going to do? They didn’t take cash, and I couldn’t get either of my cards to work. It meant my drive into the city was mostly wasted. Frustration lined my body. It didn’t have to be this difficult. With the sun blaring on my face, I opened Girlie’s door, “Come on, we’re going to go try this again.”

We had to wait in line again. Girlie’s patience was wearing thin (as was mine), the air conditioning on much too high in the dank closet of a waiting room, my annoyance peaking as the counter attendant made her way through the line at a snail’s pace. Finally, it was our turn. Again.

“Let’s try my card once more.”

The error message returned.

“Your machine is broken,” I snapped, “I just used it somewhere else.” The woman didn’t respond.

“What can I do?”

“You can pay by cheque.”

“Who in the world carries cheques around?” I nearly exploded at her. She shrugged her shoulders.

“Can someone else come and pick up this package for me? I live an hour out of town. I just drove an hour to get it, your machine is broken, and I cannot get my package as a result. I need the dress for my sister in law’s wedding.”

“Sure. Just have them bring in the slip,” she responded nonchalantly. kindness

“Can I have it back?”

Her eyes went wide, “Uh sure. I think I threw it out. Let me check the garbage.”

I sighed, as she hefted the tiny garbage can full of other yellow slips onto the counter, and began to pilfer through it’s contents.

Halfway through her search, a voice behind me spoke,

“How much is the duty?”

I whirled around to face a middle aged man.

“It’s just $13 and change. They won’t take cash, their machine won’t take my card, and I don’t carry cheques.”

“Yeah, who does?” he laughed, “You said you live out of town?”

I nodded, “Over an hour out. If she can find the slip, I’ll just send my husband in.”

We both peered at the lady who was still digging in the garbage for my slip.

“I’ll pay it for you.”

“What?”

“I’ll pay the charges. It doesn’t make sense for you to have to make another trip because these guys have ridiculous policies on payments, and can’t afford to have a functioning debit machine.”

“You don’t have to do that.” I stammered, stunned.

“It’s only $13, I don’t mind.”

“Really?”

“Really,” he responded and moved toward the counter, “I’ll pay the duty,” he explained to the lady.

“Oh, I can’t let you do that,” the lady reponded, her hands still in the garbage can.

He laughed, “You aren’t serious? She lives out of town which you can clearly see on her package, your machine isn’t working,  and you won’t take cash. So, I’ll pay.”

“Well, it’s just that it has to have her name on it….”

I rolled my eyes, “This is a joke. You know if someone pays with debit, you don’t have their name, right? I’m okay with him paying. I just want the package.”

Her eyes darted between me and this stranger, she sighed, and said, “Fine.”

The machine made the same error for this kind man, but unlike my card that has swipe protection built in, the swipe worked for him. The receipts printed off, and he handed me one.

“Here, keep this, just in case.”

The lady handed me my package after I signed some forms. With tears in my eyes, I turned to this kind man and said, “Thank you so much. You just saved me an extra trip. You didn’t have to be so kind. Thank you.”

“Of course. Enjoy your sister in law’s wedding!”

“I will. I will. Thank you! C’mon, Girlie, we’re finished here.”

As we made our way back onto the city roads, I let the kindness of this man fill my body. Sometimes, we forget that we live in a society with other people who are so kind. The sort of people who would just randomly pay the stupid duty on a stupid package because a stupid machine wasn’t working, and think nothing of it.

I want to be like that. I want to be the kind middle aged man who paid the duty of a perfect stranger, because it was helpful, and a nice thing to do. Because kindness really is everything.

Nail Polish Wouldn’t Have Helped Me

Warning: This post discusses a sexual assault that occurred during my high school career. There is some graphic descriptions, which could potentially be triggering to some. Read with caution and at your own discretion. 

 

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Image Credit: Melanie Tata

 

Recently, a nail polish has been making headlines because of it’s supposed ability to test for date rape drugs in drinks. It’s being heralded as a breakthrough, and a solution to the epidemic of rape.

Besides the obvious problem that it places the onus on women to protect themselves from rape, is this really a solution, at all? Realistically, this nail polish is only a tool in the massive bag of tricks we women are expected to tote around; it’s one more thing we’re “supposed to do”. It’s also one more thing that will inevitably be used against us.

When women are sexually assaulted or raped, nothing they wear, they did or didn’t do is of much importance. Focusing on these inane details detract from the bigger problem with rape and sexual assault, the fact that rape will happen even if a woman is doing absolutely everything to protect herself. You may wear this polish, find your drink is positive, and decide to leave that location. Success, right? Not exactly. One of two things will happen: Either the rapist will still rape you despite you not being drugged, or he will move on to another victim.

Rape will still happen. Drugs or not, that’s the cold hard truth.

If the nail polish or any of the other products available make your feel more confident when you are out, then by all means, use it. However, we should be aware that this is not a solution. Rape culture goes beyond even the actual act of rape; it’s in how women are treated when they come forward from these traumas.

Part of that includes us not telling women, subtly or not so, that they are the ones that need to protect themselves from rape or sexual assault.

In my senior year of high school, I was sexually assaulted. The response of those around me introduced me without even knowing it existed, to rape culture. Because, they told me, everything I did before, during, and even after, made the assault my fault.

And, it just wasn’t.

When he took the chair next to mine, I didn’t think much of it. We weren’t friends, but we had a lot of mutual friends. I had no reason to suspect that his intentions in sitting next to me were anything but innocent.

It started off as awkward flirting, only from him, and I wasn’t reciprocating. I tried to exclude him from the conversation, especially after he rather disgusting comment about my breasts. While I was somewhat used to the commentary, it still made me wildly uncomfortable. Ignoring his comments did not work to detract him.

There was a lull in the conversation when I first felt his hand on my leg. I pushed it off and slid my chair away. A minute or two later, he slid his chair closer, slowly. I felt his hand again. I moved, he moved. I pushed his hand away, he put it back. I moved, he moved. This went on until I had no where else to move, and when his hand was no longer movable. My only options were now to get up and walk out, but I somehow convinced myself that it wouldn’t go any further.

He knew I was trapped. The girls that were at the table later told me they assumed I was okay with his advances, based on my dating history. They were so wrapped up in their own subtle judgment of me that they couldn’t see I was also as uncomfortable as they were. They witnessed me move away from him. They heard his crass commentary. What they didn’t see though, was his hand sliding up my leg, trying to get into my shorts.

While the clock marched forward toward the end of the school day, as other students talked about weekend plans, and crappy teachers, I was being fingered, against my will, by a Mormon boy. When I attempted to get the attention of the girls at my table, first by kicking my feet, and then by writing them a note, he responded with silent aggression. He even laughed at my attempts to get someone to notice.

Somehow, I managed to get out of the library. That wasn’t even enough for him. He followed me to my locker. As I opened the lock on the metal door, I could feel his breath on my neck. He continued to mock me, saying a string of disgusting words, trying to garner a reaction from me. When none of that worked, he grabbed my ass, causing me to whirl around to face him. In an instant, he moved towards me, expertly. One hand on my breast, the other into my shorts. I tried to pull away, he only became more aggressive, and soon, I was pinned to a locker, completely frozen in fear and shame.

The bell rang, dismissing classes, and as though he’d been asking me to borrow notes for a class, he removed his hands, the smirk still plastered on his face, and said, “Thank you.”

He actually thanked me.

A friend found me crumpled on the floor, my face buried in my locker, sobbing hysterically. Words must have been exchanged because eventually, we weren’t on the floor, we were walking through the hallways to the office that housed the on campus police officer. She remained with me the entire time, offering words of comfort, asking questions of the police officer. As I wrote out the report, no one second guessed me, no one assumed I was lying. Both of these people believed me. They knew I was the victim.

They were the only people that showed me such mercy and compassion.

I expected the same kindness when I told my parents about the assault. Instead I was met with skepticism: Had I encouraged him? Maybe my dating behaviors instigated his behavior? Was I just looking for attention? How would it make them look in their social circles if I pressed charges against a boy who was from a well known Mormon family? The shame they poured on me was like pouring vinegar into an open wound.

The mediation that was scheduled days later was anything but a mediation. It was a trial, and I was not the victim, according to them.

The vice principal used my history of skipping classes against me. My low grades. She said that it was “suspicious” and “hard to believe” that an honor student who participated in many extra curricular activities would do what I was “accusing” him of. I was drilled on why I didn’t yell, or leave the library quicker. Why I didn’t stop him, or  try harder, “if” he did it. His parents tore me apart the only way Mormons know how in these situations: I was sexually active (I was), and routinely dated different boys (I did).  That made me a liar, obviously. I had asked for it, and then regretted it, they explained. I knew I had done something bad, and this was my way of making myself come to terms with my sins.  They wanted to know if I understood the severity of this accusation? I could ruin all his golden opportunities; he could miss out on scholarships, he might not be able to serve a mission, what about his future jobs?

I wept, and occasionally muttered, “What about me? What about what he did?”

When the vice principal, and my perpetrator’s parents decided I wouldn’t press charges, I got up and walked out of the room. The same officer who had taken my statement, and was there explicitly for me, breathlessly ran after me in the hallway of the school.

“I believe you, Danielle. He’s lying, I can tell.  If you want to move forward with pressing charges, I’ll help you do it.”

“What’s the point?” I asked angrily.

“He’ll do it again. I’m certain he’s done it before based on the confidence he has. He knows that he’s protected. He’s got the perfect alibi- he’s a good guy on paper. This will only bolster that confidence.”

I shook my head again, “No, I can’t go through that again. He’ll destroy me.”

He nodded as disappointment and understanding overlapped on his face, “I understand. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

In the weeks after that meeting, as the rumors spread, and people whispered, “slut” or “liar at me in the halls, I had several girls come “out” and admit he’d done the same to them. There was no doubt he’d assaulted and even raped other girls before. Multiple times. All of them said the same thing when I asked them why they hadn’t reported him: “I don’t want to start anything. Who would believe me?” One girl whispered to me during our math class together, “No offense, but look at how everyone is talking about you. I don’t want that.”

You see, nail polish wouldn’t have helped me, nor would it have stopped the slut shaming I was subjected to as a result of coming forward. That’s the rape culture we’re fighting.  No  amount of sparkly nail polish can cover up the insidious nature of this beast. Perhaps if we find some nail polish that stops sexual predators from being predators we’ll finally be on to something.

Back To School Blues But Not Really, But Maybe

I think I’m in the minority of parents who are not happy when their kids go back to school. I mean, sure, I’m happy that he’s going to learn, and to socialize, and just be independent from me, but I just don’t really want him to go. It means longer, quieter days, no one bounding up to me to exclaim they just built the coolest ever fort, or randomly coming for a snuggle. Because, out of the two kids, he’s the snuggler. It also means summer is ending, and with that, the return of the inevitable sicknesses, and of course, winter with the ridiculously cold wind chill.

I miss my son when he goes to school. Soon, his sister will be following suit, starting at preschool in two weeks. I’m thanking the universe that we have a two week break between the two. If only to give my heart a slight break. This letting go stuff is the hard part of parenting.

The last two weeks have been full of babysitting (hell), squeezing in a couple extra summer activities with the family because summer isn’t really going to end, right? We’ve ridden bikes, gone to Calaway Park, seen family, gone to the World Waterpark, played dozens of games, had family movie nights, and baked together. I swear, I blinked, and summer was just gone. It was just yesterday we were planning all of the things we would do to fill our summer.

We’ve spent the last two weeks prepping for back to school. I did the shopping ahead of time this year, because last year, I sort of procrastinated. We did the clothes shopping, and the shoe shopping. We talked a lot about going back to school, something you do when you have a kid who suffers from anxiety. We talked about his new class, his new teacher, how most of his friends would be the same, and how there wouldn’t be as much “play” time this year.

The jump from Kindergarten to Grade 1 is going to prove to be a massive transition in our house, We’re going from school two or three times a week, to full time. For a house full of Not At All Morning People, it was going to be interesting. When I originally told Potato that he’d have to go to school every day, he thought I was lying.

“The other kids aren’t at school when I’m not there.” Logical, I suppose, but I told him that the kids in his class may not be there, but the big kids were there. Five days a week.

back to schoolThis morning, earlier than usual, he bounded into our room, his big brown eyes bright, and we snuggled, all four of us, as a family in our big but feeling smaller than usual bed. He got dressed without any prodding. I gave him breakfast (sorry, no fancy Pinterest breakfast here. I could pin the toast and milk he had though, if you need tips), learned he doesn’t really like Cranberry juice and quickly replaced the juice in his lunch, at his request, with just water. We talked about listening, and being nice to everyone. We discussed the fact that the “bully” from last year is still in his class, and reminded him to avoid playing with him, like he was told last year. I told him to take his time putting his shoes on (he just learned to tie his shoes) and not to rush because everyone else was. If he needed help, just ask his teacher.

We took the traditional First Day of School picture, and he was off to his first day of Grade 1. The start of his educational career, for real. Where he’ll sit in desks, and start having homework. He’ll learn to read this year, and grow into another part of the person he is and the one he’ll become. I’m happy for that.

I just wish, selfishly, that there was someway I could wrap him up, just like I did when he was a baby, and keep him close for a little longer. I know I can’t, and of course, I would never hold him back from exploring the world on his own terms, even if it makes my heartbreak and burst all at once.

Letters and Great Expectations

“No expectations,” Lisa reminded me days before I’d written the letter to my son’s adoptive parents. Her opinion and advice meant so much to me because a) she’s my friend but b) she’s an adoptive parent who does open adoption well. So I kept repeating it, over and over again. As I wrote, edited, and then finally hit Send, I repeated this mantra.

No expectations. Ha.

When it comes to adoption, open adoption especially, expectations are a hard thing to rid yourself of. The entire relationship, even when you are strangers, is built entirely on expectation:  That these people will be the perfect family showcased in the file you are presented with, that they will raise your child how you want them to, that they will be good people, and not disappoint, that the openness you’ve agreed on will continue, even when the paperwork isn’t legal. After eleven years of nothing but expectations, ones that were met and ones that led to disappointment, the idea that I needed to send this (big) letter with no expectations was harder than hitting the send button.

The resounding commentary I received from two adult adoptees was that he needed and likely wanted to know that I was here for him, on his own time, and to hear it directly from me. After I put my own reservations aside, I set out to create a situation where he could potentially have access to me, whatever amount he desired, with no strings attached on my end. That was the goal when I began writing a letter to his adoptive parents. Despite the sincerity of my words, I worried that his parents wouldn’t be able to really hear me. I worried because of past situations, and reactions from them; That they would accuse me of being selfish and doing this for myself, even when I wasn’t at all. I just wanted my son to know I was here, always here, and ready for him when he was ready.

The moment I sent that email, my expectations had been met.

Despite this No Expectation mantra, I still refreshed my email at least a thousand times in the first day. I was eager, hopeful. As the hours past away, I began to wonder if I had done the right thing. Why was I putting myself back in a similar position? Why was I being so vulnerable? The excitement quickly turned to anxiety, and pessimism. I reread the email over and over again, hoping that I wouldn’t find any words or sentences that could potentially be taken out of context.

Would they hear me through those words? Did I really want a response?

Of course, I did. Silence would have been painfully heartbreaking.

They eventually asked for time. I accepted that the answer wasn’t going to come quickly or easily, much like everything in this adoption over the last few years. Gently, I placed all the fear, all that doubt, the anxiety, the hopefulness, in the corner of my mind. It would all have to wait.

On Sunday, as I was making a list of all the things I had to do to get ready for our trip out of town the next day, I refreshed my email. I hadn’t completely forgotten that I was awaiting a response, but I had actually kind of forgotten that I could get a response sooner than later. I had somehow managed to accept that this was going to happen how it happened, and when it happened.

As the ping of my phone went off telling me my email had been downloaded, there it was, her name, and what I could have only assumed was the answer. The final answer.

“She wrote back,” I announced to my husband quietly.

He looked up from his book, eyebrows raised, “And?”

“You have to read it first. I can’t do it.”

“Danielle, just read it.”

“No,” I said, thrusting my phone in his hand, “You do it first.”

Of course, he obliged. I watched his features carefully, and he purposely animated them, because he knew I was watching.

“Don’t do that, it’s not nice!” I exclaimed half joking.

He closed the email, and handed my iPhone back to me, “Read it.” Then he went back to his book, like nothing had happened.

Ten minutes later, my feet curled up under me, as I switched from app to app, avoiding my email on purpose, I quietly asked, “Should I read it?”

His head whipped up and his eyes widened, “Danielle! Are you serious? Just read the goddamn email.”

Obeying his orders, I finally clicked it open. I read it once. Then twice. And then I looked up at my husband, my eyes stinging with tears,

“They said yes?”

He nodded, his own eyes wet.

“They said yes….They actually agreed to it. They said….” my voice broke, and tears began running down my face. I covered my mouth to stifle a sob, and muttered, “I get to write to my son. He wants me to. He wants me to write to him. They are going to let me.”

For a brief moment, as my husband and I shared tears together, I let the news settle over me. I’d always wanted,  hoped for this, for me. For him. For us.

And it’s finally happening.

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Image Credit: Liz West