December 13, 2010

Grown-up Children: Interviews with Teenage Mothers

(Reposted from

Kortney Owen is an Englewood-based office manager who, at 29 years old, has a nice home, a youthful face, and a love of dachshunds. People know her as a fun, aspiring comedienne who leads an easy-going life. However, many do not know about her early years as a struggling teen mother.

At the age of 14, she was fairly active and hard-working. She participated in class, earned straight As in school, and wanted to become a teacher. Then she met the boy who would become her boyfriend: “He was weird, I was weird. He was into drugs and hanging around the bad kids…it was exciting.”

Were you on birth control when you got pregnant?
KO: No…we sometimes used condoms. [I thought,] “It wouldn’t happen to me.”

How did you discover you were pregnant?
KO: I started having morning sickness almost immediately. I just kind of knew. I missed a period, then took a test to confirm [it].

What did you think or feel upon finding out?
KO: Apprehension, sadness. I also felt like I was in control of my life for the first time. I made a big decision without anyone telling me no. I felt that I had made a very serious decision [to have sex] and had to deal with the consequences, meaning I should have the baby.

How did you tell your family?
KO: My mom could tell by how sick I was. She seemed sad, but told me she would supportme in any decision I made.

How was your life immediately affected by the pregnancy?
KO: I couldn’t go to school because of the morning sickness. My friends were all really shocked and upset. Some of them started avoiding me. The school was also surprised and, I think, really disappointed. It made me feel terrible to have a lot of people around me “turn their backs.”

What was your pregnancy and delivery like?
KO: I had trouble gaining weight in the beginning [due to nausea]. Although the morning sickness subsided later, my pregnancy was plagued with health issues. I had extreme sleep troubles: sometimes not sleeping for a day or two; other times staying up really late, then sleeping the entire next day. Near the end of my pregnancy I was diagnosed with Preeclampsia [a serious condition which causes blood pressure to rise and protein to develop in the urine] and was on bed-rest for the last month of pregnancy. About five days into my bed-rest, I became extremely ill: fatigued, nauseous, and listless. Unbeknownst to me, I had been slowly leaking amniotic fluid for some time and my blood pressure was through the roof. I began having contractions and went to the hospital.

I was kept in the emergency area of the hospital for monitoring. A few hours later, the doctors began preparing for delivery. A special labor nurse explained the details of how the Pre-E and lack of fluid could make for an extremely difficult labor. Adding in the fact that I was so young, she told me that the baby or I could die. I was given an IV of magnesium to assist with the blood pressure. After eleven hours in the hospital, I delivered my baby.

What was your life like after your daughter, Zoe, was born?
KO: Hectic. Tiring. At first, I tried to continue with school, but it was too much work. My daughter was not sleeping well, was very fussy, and demanded a lot of attention. I couldn’t keep up with homework or even being gone that much during the day. After about seven months, I got a job [and quit school]. My mom watched the baby while I worked.

How did your relationship with your mom change?
KO: [We] became more equal in some ways: we both made important decisions about our children. (She also had two very young children of her own, so she had her hands full with little ones.) It was strained because she needed to help me and my baby. She taught me a lot about how to care for a baby.

How did your relationship with Zoe's father change?
KO: He ran away from home when he found out [about the pregnancy]. I think he was surprised and scared. Then he came back, tried working, saw the baby a few times [before moving to Kansas]. He was unable to help me much until just recently.

Did you date anyone else?
KO: Yes. It was much harder to date, because boys weren’t interested in having little kids around. They were afraid I’d somehow make them help with parenting. I started dating a guy that didn’t mind; he was much older than me and in a different place in his life. It made our relationship especially hard.

How were you treated by those around you (strangers, friends, etc.)?
KO: Strangers [made] comments about my “sister.” [They would] act upset or surprised when they found out she was actually my daughter. Sometimes they would say things like, “You’re not old enough to have a child!” My friends were afraid of the baby; some [of their] parents didn’t want them to hang around me anymore.

At seventeen years old, Kortney moved out of her mother’s home and into an apartment of her own. She earned her GED and focused on supporting her daughter and herself. While at times she earned enough to keep them afloat financially, there were times when they subsisted on ramen noodles or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Occasionally, she would bring home whatever food was left over from her job at a fast-food restaurant.

Amid her struggles, Zoe was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of five, then with a mood disorder (including depression and bouts of rage) at the age of nine. Suddenly, Kortney was tackling issues which would have stumped many parents more than twice her age.

KO: [Zoe] was always very high-energy and had mood struggles. It was especially difficult [for me] to be taken seriously by doctors and school [officials] at such a young age. There were times when it was insinuated that my parenting—based on my age—was more to blame than any mood disorders [with] which she had been diagnosed.

Around twelve years old, these mental illnesses became exacerbated by the emergence of pubescent hormones. She began lashing out violently, ditching school, and spending time with drug-users. Kortney, feeling helpless against this turn of events, looked into such options as placing her daughter in a group home. When Zoe was 13 years old, her father suddenly made contact with the teenager. After enduring his own struggles over the years, he was finally in a position to make a positive influence in his daughter’s life. After many weeks of phone conversations and occasional visits, Kortney made the decision to let Zoe move to the small rural town in Kansasto live with her newly-reunited father and his close-knit family.

What was like to make such a hard decision in letting your child live elsewhere?
KO: Because of my age, [we] grew up together; we lived more like siblings than a mother and daughter. Our relationship had always been quite outrageous and often strained. Since moving to Kansas, Zoe's emotional problems have stabilized a great deal. She is passing all of her classes and is very active in extracurricular activities. She participates in church and community events. She and her dad still have struggles that all parents and teens have, but she has a supportsystem that allows her to find a balance in her life. The first few months she had moved away, I barely heard from her, mostly getting updates from her dad. We both needed that break. [I] miss her a great deal, but knowing she is growing and becoming the great young adult I had always hoped for her to be helps. I look forward to her calls and messages. I feel that we are more able to care for each other and be a positive part of each others' lives than when she lived with me.

In what ways does your past as a teen mother still affect your life?
KO: People are still shocked to hear that I have a fourteen-year-old daughter. I don’t usually bring [it up], because she doesn’t live at home. People are also surprised to hear I have a child at all. When I see a young mother, it takes me back to a lot of the feelings I had at that time. Sometimes it’s a struggle to feel those things again.

What was the hardest part about being a teen mom?
KO: Being completely uncertain of the future.

What do you think was the most common misconception people had about you?
KO: That I didn’t always try my hardest.

What would you have done differently?
KO: I would have been more assertive about my parenting decisions and what my daughter needed from her caregivers (school, stepdad, grandma).

What advice do you have for other teen mothers?
KO: Don’t doubt yourself. Always ask for help, if you think you need it.

What about for parents of teen mothers?
KO: They may be young, but they will figure it out. Give them the help they need, but don’t be afraid to stand back sometimes.

Finally, what advice do you have for all teenagers, in general?
KO: Don’t get pregnant. You don’t have to grow up now and you don’t have to be right all the time. It’s okay to ask for help and keep asking until you find it.

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