Several years ago I participated in a Real Simple magazine essay contest looking for the answer to this question: When did you first understand the meaning of love? This is the essay I submitted (but didn’t win) though I have edited it for this blog. Reading it so many years later I can see why it didn’t win. 🙂 At least I know I’ve learned to write better!
Note: I will refer to my kids as Minions #1-5 in most cases, but not in this post. Changing Katie to Minion #1 would have ruined the poignancy of the writing, at least for me.
We experience many kinds of love through out our lifetime: the unconditional love a child holds for a parent; the insatiable passion of a new romance; or the quiet, steady love of a life-long friendship. Understanding self-less love, for me, wasn’t an epiphany or a magic moment. It was a series of events and experiences in five not-so-easy steps.
Step one happened at the age of eighteen. I was in my first semester at the University of Detroit studying architecture, full of optimism and anticipation. I’d done everything right in high school: good grades, athletics, clubs. Between my academic scholarships and financial aid, nearly everything was covered. A diploma would be earned in five years with only $13,000 in debt. Not bad compared to what others faced when they sought a job. But I never made it that far. All my carefully thought out “right” steps veered sharply down the hill of poor planning. I was pregnant.
The world seemed to crumble around me. It wasn’t written yet, but the song by Kenny Chesney There Goes My Life (written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher) could have been about me:
All he could think about was I’m too young for this.
Got my whole life ahead.
Hell I’m just a kid myself.
How’m I gonna raise one.
All he could see were his dreams goin’ up in smoke.
So much for ditchin’ this town and hangin’ out on the coast.
Oh well, those plans are long gone.
And he said,
There goes my life.
There goes my future, my everything.
Might as well kiss it all good-bye.
There goes my life…….
To confirm the home pregnancy test I took in the community dorm bathroom, my boyfriend and I went to a walk-in-clinic. “What are you going to do?” the doctor asked in a bored voice after he gave us the positive results. How many times a week—or a day—did he ask this very same question to terrified teenagers in this sterile, imposing room? In Detroit, I had to believe too many. But I wasn’t like those kids, was I? I had dreams and ambitions. I was going places. I had potential!
He was staring at me, his unsympathetic eyes waiting impatiently for a response, options ticking across his brain and preparing the appropriate advice. My boyfriend sat as mute and stunned as I was, but someone had to say something.
“Tell my dad?” I ventured.
“I was talking about the baby,” he mono-toned, as if my stupidity bordered on ridiculous.
Oh, the baby. Well, what was I supposed to do? Then it hit me. He was talking about abortion. That wasn’t an option. My plans were not more important than this life I had created.
So what should I do? I’d seen other students, living in the cramped married-couple’s dorms, raising a child on an inner-city college campus. It didn’t seem like a great environment for a young family. There was an upper classman who left her young daughter playing in the hall of the Architecture Department during our four-hour studio sessions which took place five days a week. Even before I was pregnant, the what if’s of that situation bothered me. What if she wandered away? What if she fell down the stairs? What if someone with evil intent came by?
And how would I raise a child and go to school full-time? College isn’t a cake-walk. You have to study and work hard. I’d already spent several all-nighters in my studio, readying a project for the next day, and I was only a Freshmen. Even with the help of my boyfriend, soon-to-be fiance, the enormity of raising my child far from the support of family was frightening.
Everyday for the rest of that semester, I walked around campus, past the fountain dyed red by the Young Republicans and blue by the Democrats, and I talked to my baby. I apologized for bringing it into this world under such circumstances. The things I might never be able to provide, the standard of living I couldn’t achieve. I couldn’t feel the baby yet, and other than some horrible morning sickness, there was no evidence of its existence. But I made a promise to that tiny life growing inside me: I would love that child with all my heart and soul, though I didn’t yet know what that would mean.
In the end, there was only one thing for me to do. I was self-aware enough to know that I could either be a good, dedicated student of architecture, or a good, dedicated mother. I couldn’t do both. One or the other would suffer and I couldn’t allow it to be my baby. I dropped out of college, packed my grandpa’s truck full of the things I had only moved to Detroit three months ago, and headed north for home.
Step two was forced upon. Christmas was far from festive that year. Deeply depressed I moped around the house doing nothing. Morning sickness was more like twenty-four-hour sickness and I saw no path for myself. Years of planning and working and studying were swept away with one act of irresponsibility. What was the point in doing anything now? My father was barely speaking to me, and when I told my mom I was pregnant, she left the house without a word and didn’t come back for hours. My parents were divorced, bu they could agree on two things: you need to get a job and go back to school.
The thought of leaving the house and facing the world was enough to induce a panic attack. On top of everything else, I also suffered from social anxiety. I was sure everyone I knew was whispering disappointment behind accusing hands. I had let them all down: teachers, mentors, family, friends. But at that time, I didn’t say no to my dad. With the help of my best friend I enrolled in the local community college and my boyfriend—now fiance—orchestrated an interview for me in the kitchen and bath design department of a lumber yard.
Having a purpose besides feeling sorry for myself brought me out of my paralyzing lethargy. I had responsibilities to my child beyond just carrying it for nine months. “Tsk. Tsk. Babies having babies,” followed me around the office, but I did my job, earning the money we would need for an apartment. During class, I held my head high, despite my growing waistline. It was my Scarlett Letter. Not that having sex was the sin. Allowing myself to get pregnant and shatter all my possibilities was unforgivable. I endured all the imagined censure from my classmates, achieving “A” grades. A bachelors in architecture was out of my reach for now, but I could at least achieve an associates degree and get a decent job in the industry. I needed to provide for my baby.
Step three was really just the growing love for my unborn child and placing the baby’s needs before my own. Swallowing my pride, I applied for WIC, a food program for needy women and children. We settled in our first apartment, a dank, dark basement unit which was all we could afford, and furnished it with hand-me-downs: the couch from my fiance’s parent’s basement; a beat-up table for the minuscule dining room. Garage sale finds and cast offs populated the tiny space, and I put no effort into decorating. Except the baby’s room.
With a south-facing window, it was the only room brightened by sunlight. I scrubbed the garage sale crib and ran the bedding and fabric wall hangings that came with it through the washer. It wasn’t much, but it made the room cheery and finished, and along with my love it was the best I could give my baby.
Step four was brutal. Natural child birth is painful, and I did not handle it well, but concerned about the effects of drugs on my unborn child I refused an epidural. I don’t regret that, but two-and-a-half days of labor pains coupled with no sleep makes for an excruciating experience. At 2:18 pm on the Fourth of July, my baby girl was placed in my arms and all the pain and misery were forgotten in that one beautiful moment. My little firecracker was born.
Step five was the gradual progression of little Katie’s prominence in my life. What Katie wore was important; what I wore was not. Wherever we went, friends and family swarmed around the baby, while my fiance and I barely received a greeting. And it didn’t bother me at all, as long as Katie was being loved. The joy of Christmas that year was found not in the presents I received, but in giving Katie her first doll. It was small and inexpensive, but neither of us cared.
So those were my five steps, but actually, I was being facetious. Those were just the highlights and I didn’t even include the realization—after the birth of my second child—that my husband and I couldn’t provide the stable emotional environment I wanted for my children; struggling to keep a positive attitude during my divorce (and sometimes failing) so my kids wouldn’t suffer any worse; or watching my second husband fall madly in love with his first born child and experiencing the joys of a new baby through his eyes.
Understanding love isn’t something you just get one day. And you’re never finished learning. Katie’s sixteen now and I’m learning more about love than ever before: Trusting her to drive a car and make the right choices; finding value in her friends and boyfriend because she does; and talking about her future so she can find that balance between a promising path and following her dreams. All the while wanting to keep her locked up safely at home. But that’s another important lesson of love: being able to let go when all you want to do is hold on tighter.
I’m looking forward to the greater understanding love has in store for me. I know there will be some amazing lessons from my younger sons, during my husband and my’s empty-nest years, and the day when that first grandchild melts my heart. I can only hope I never stop understanding love.
Note: Katie is now eighteen and has completed her Freshman year of college. Letting go is indeed difficult, but rewarding just the same.