A Successful Teen Mom

Galaxy - January 2013 037Lisette Orellana is an advocate for women and girls’ issues. Her experiences as a teen mother helped her connect with organizations who champion women’s issues and have taught her the importance of telling her story to help others. A mother of two wonderful children, Lisette is also a public speaker, community activist, an avid blogger. When she’s not volunteering or keeping herself busy in the community, she spends time doing what she considers her best role, a mom. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree at the University of Baltimore.

Suz: So first, as mentioned, thank you for making time and for sharing with me.

Lisette: My pleasure!

Suz: As I mentioned, I am very passionate about supporting young, single, teen moms. My goal is to share some stories, interviews, etc. on my blog which is largely an adoption blog (and by adoption I mean do not do what I did sort of adoption experience). I want to show that teen moms CAN be successful because I believe they can.

Lisette: Yes, thanks for caring so much.  We certainly need more people like you!

Suz: They are there but they are afraid to speak out. Which brings me to a topic I think all women who have experienced an unplanned pregnancy share – shame. I know you told me briefly in email your story but can you recap? Age you were, how you managed, what your parents or social structure reacted? I am curious how different (or not) it may have been with my experience in 1986.

Lisette: I got pregnant when I was 15, in 2001. I was definitely embarrassed. There’s that stereotype that girls who do well in school, who don’t date many boys, and don’t get in trouble simply don’t get pregnant.

Once my mother found out she became outraged (which is understandable). Our relationship was already bad and I saw this as a way to leave the house, so when she hinted it, I decided I would move in with my boyfriend.

When people at school started to find out they suggested abortion, which I had never considered, but no one mentioned adoption.

Suz: Really? That was one of my questions. Did anyone suggest adoption? There is some research that suggests women of color rarely consider. You are Latina, right?  It seems your experience may support the research.

Lisette: I didn’t seek help from any youth serving organizations because once I saw the reaction of the people I trusted, I shut down completely. No one told me I had options. I’m not sure I would’ve taken them. This baby meant the world to me. It was my opportunity to be everything my mother hadn’t been to me.

Yes I’m Hispanic.  I don’t know anyone of my race who has given up their child for adoption.

Suz: I find this fascinating and wonder (and I am sure there is research behind it or at least theories) why that is. Some say Hispanics, African Americans, are more family oriented. You almost NEVER see a Hispanic child for adoption.

Lisette: What we do often is, a form of adoption, where our parents or relatives take the child.

Suz: Exactly. You keep your family in tact. Where as sadly, Caucasians are all too willing to abandon their daughters and instruct them to abandon their children.

Lisette: It’s a cultural thing. Just as we are expected to grow up and take care of our parents as they get older. If we don’t we’re bad children.

Suz: Some suggest it has so do with welfare…not saying I agree here…as it is offensive but that whites would never consider welfare but minorities accept it and it is systemic and generational. I actually had a welfare officer tell me I did not qualify (when I was pregnant at 18) because I was white. Terrified person that I was, I did not question her.

Lisette: My mother scared me into NOT looking for assistance!

Suz: Scared you? Meaning demanded you do or was embarrassed by it?

Where did you eventually find help? I understand you have done well finished college, have two great kids you are parenting, but also that it was not done easily. How did you manage it?

Lisette: She always said that welfare was bad and it was embarrassing to ask for assistance.

Suz: Ah. Yes. Same mantra at my house. But interestingly, my parents were not willing to help. Better to abandon your child to strangers than to seek assistance.

Lisette: I never got on Medical assistance, food stamps or even WIC. NO ONE told me that those services were available to me at 15.

All I heard was I was a bad girl with no future. It was around that time my boyfriend had become abusive and his mother, who lived in their country had asked to raise our daughter to which I had refused.

Suz: Oh, I know the “bad girl no future” routine all too well.

Lisette: When I got pregnant with my second child I had started attending a young mother’s support group which was the first place in a year that I had felt accepted.

Every week we met and discussed different topics. It was great! I then became pregnant with my second child, I was 16. I remember going to my AP Calculus class and the teacher asked to speak to me. She said “you have one child, and have another one on the way. Have you considered your options?” I gave her a puzzled look, I didn’t know what she meant…and then she said “there’s people out there who have the means to raise a child and can’t. You should think about it.”

Suz: Oh my.  So offensive.

Lisette: My OB/GYN had suggested an abortion for my second child, when he saw me for the first time. I wasn’t offended though.

Suz: I don’t suppose it occurred to her to offer support, resources, guidance. Why does everyone assume mothers will fail? People live up to expectations.

Lisette: See, no one had taken the time to even speak to me. I thought they cared.

Suz: Why is the solution to a mother needing help and resources to take the child from her? Grrrr.

Lisette: In retrospect, I agree. Why not offer support? Why not question the fact I came in with bruises? Or that I was 16 with two kids and no parents or boyfriend? No one considers the emotional damage (of separating mother and child).

Suz: Agreed. Completely. They don’t value the mother child bond. They value $.

Suz: Past experiences…was your father involved in your life growing up? Or just your mom?

Lisette: Just my mother.

Suz: How did people view your children’s father? How did his life change when you became pregnant?

Lisette: He was the “popular guy” who had stupidly dropped out of high school two months before graduation. He had a reputation of bad boy

Suz: How did he react to you when you told him you were pregnant?

Lisette: Other than having me live with him, his life didn’t change. His parents didn’t demand him to grow up and were always there to bail him out (with money) if there were any issues. He still partied and began drinking heavily. He was happy. He had become extremely jealous and had hit me once when we were only dating. I was on the pill, but wasn’t very responsible so we also used condoms. It so happened that the condom “ripped” one time.

Suz: “Wasn’t responsible” Do you mean you did not remember to take the pill all the time?

Lisette: not every month. If I ran out of money, I couldn’t start the pack the next month, and we’d switch to condoms.

Suz: Ah. Yeah. I can see that. My own pregnancy was similar. I only had sex with my daughters father 3 times…first two I was on the pill…second was unplanned/unexpected and I took the chance. He never used condoms.

Lisette: Wow. Very similar!

Suz: So during both pregnancies you remained in school?

Lisette: Yes. My pregnancy with my son was high risk. Little did I know it was because he was born with a genetic condition. I was supposed to be on bed rest but I was a senior, I took two college classes, and I had a part time job. There was no time for a break.

Suz: How did peers, teachers, etc. at school treat you?

Lisette: All my friends had turned their backs on me, except for one who was at a different school, and one who probably felt so sorry for me she stuck around.

Most of my teachers pretended they didn’t know…they just said things behind my back. I would see drawings of me in the school bathroom…with insults and such.  The school nurse was amazing though. And I did have two teachers who were incredibly supportive. My two college teachers were also amazing.

Suz: So kind people do exist? 😀

Lisette: Yes, they do!  It’s funny though. Last summer I worked with the national women’s law center on a piece on Title 9. I published it on my FB page…so many of those girls from high school apologized for having been so mean to me.

Suz: Maturity made them see the error of their ways? I can only imagine how hard it was for you. I graduated high school in June of 1985. I was president of student government, an honor student, a “good girl”. I got pregnant in August of 85. I have always felt if I had gotten pregnant in high school I might have killed myself. I am not being overly dramatic. I would have. I know it.

Lisette: Oh my!

Suz: At home I was used to being treated poorly, that was my role in the family but at school I was a star…not sure how well I would have done if I had to be a loser in both places.

Lisette: Trust me, there were plenty of times I doubted there would be a light at the end of my tunnel. I kept saying “I have to pack extra batteries!”

Oh no! Adolescence is hard enough on your own, with a child it becomes a world of confusion…times 2.

Suz: Where do you think your strength comes from? Faith? Genetics? What motivated you to keep going and not give in to the stereotypes?

Lisette: Haha! Let’s see… where does my strength come from…. I lost faith for a very long time Suz. Especially when I found out about my son 🙁

My mother’s favorite phrase is “I did all this for you…” and I always wondered “what is it that she did??”

My only goal in life has always been to give my kids (and others) what I did not have emotionally.  When my son was born, the abuse had escalated to the point where their father would hit me in public. One night he hit me while I was holding both kids. And he kept going and going and going.

While on the floor my daughter came to me (she was 22 months old) and I crawled to get my son. I sat there and thought I was all they had. Somehow I had this epiphany that they would not grow up thinking it was ok for a girl to be treated like this, and for a man to treat a woman like that. I promised to never look back, which I have broken because I have to look back to keep moving forward…in the right direction.

Looking at my children every day, it gives me this new sense of accomplishment. I never felt pride before. Not with my 4.0. Not with my full ride scholarships, not by graduating with two degrees. Every day knowing that they’re happy I feel I can outdo myself. It feels good and because it feels good, I don’t want to let go.

Suz: Love your attitude. I can relate. I had my own version of that experience with my first marriage. While he wasn’t physically abusive, it was not a relationship I wanted my two sons to model or to think was acceptable. 

Lisette: All kinds of abuse are traumatic. Emotional, verbal, physical, sexual. They all make an impact on a person, and if it’s unwanted, it should stop.

Suz: What advice would you give to a teen today? If an expectant mother approached you, what advice would you offer?

Lisette: I would tell her to value herself and to not lose herself in the process of becoming a mother. There’s so much emphasis on child development and such (which is just as important) but if you’re not happy and at peace with yourself and the woman you’re becoming, none of that will be helpful with creating a bond with your child.  I would also tell her to look for help. She’s not alone, there will always be someone who is willing to help and who believes in her potential as a person, as a woman, and as a mother.

Suz: Agreed. Did you see those awful posters New York put out?

Lisette: Yes, I actually just sent my response to the Pushback.  I think they’ll publish my post sometime today or tomorrow

Suz: Oh, great. I will look for it. Care to share what you said? This won’t go until after theirs and I can link to it!

Lisette: I spoke about positive youth development, acceptance in bullying and how as a marketing professional they targeted the wrong audience with their campaign.

Suz: Who is the correct audience?

Lisette: I feel like they are speaking to the people who already agree that teen parents don’t stand a chance, and that their children are already behind.

Suz: Ah. Good point.

Lisette: IF they were targeting teens…to persuade them on delaying a pregnancy, they’re not thinking of children, they simply don’t have that parental instinct yet.

Suz: They are not helping prevent teen parents or even helping those that are already are. They are reinforcing the bias, judgment and such of those that don’t help teen parents.

Lisette: Positive youth development in turn empowers youth to decide how they can learn something. If they wanted to reach teens with something like this, they could’ve asked “what is an effective way that you would talk to your peers about delaying a pregnancy?”   This poster simply isn’t relevant.

Suz: Agreed.  Did anyone encourage you to marry your children’s father?

Lisette: My mother mentioned it a couple of times. He also began to push for it after I became pregnant with my son.

Suz: I ask that questions because so many think getting married is the way to “fix” an unplanned pregnancy. As if a man somehow makes all the things all better…as if a woman can only be successful if she has a man by her side.  My mother was 19 when she had my sister but she was married. No one questioned her ability to parent since she had a husband.  As a feminist, that attitude annoys me.

Lisette:  Most definitely! It’s absurd and outdated. But I do think it’s becoming less and less common …unless the other party is a lot older.

Suz: Silly playful question.  If I granted you three wishes that you could only use for helping teen parents what would they be?

Lisette:  1) A teen parent support center in every state 2)  a scholarship fund at each state university and …what would my third one be?? Oh, 3) training to providers on how to be more teen friendly. This would me mandatory for all doctor’s offices and social services workers. Boy do they need it!

Suz: Great wishes. Sadly, I do not have the power! : )

Lisette:  Ha-ha!  It’s ok to dream!

Suz: Do you have orgs, resources, etc. you would recommend?

Lisette: I was thankfully helped by my local Crittenton agency. Their capacity is so small though :(. There’s a wonderful non-profit who helps teen parents access college by matching them to a mentor/sponsor in our area called Generation Hope.

Suz: Crittenton? Really?

Lisette: The early head start program has a great program for mothers and parents, and they are a federal program, nationally

Suz: That is interesting. They are widely known as pro-adoption. It is pleasing to hear they are helping mothers raise and parent versus surrender to adoption

Lisette: Yes, they are part of the National Crittenton Family of Agencies. I am very active with the national office and speak out on their behalf a lot.

Oh yes, that was back in the 50’s.

Suz: Fascinating. They are well known for their maternity homes. I have a friend who was in one in the early 80s. So glad to hear. Really.

Lisette: under different management and a different philosophy. They very often get phone calls on uniting families, and do their best to help

Suz: Their roots were in helping then they changed to pro adoption. Good to hear they may be returning to their original mission.

Lisette:  I can assure you now that girls have the chance to choose what they will do with their children and fight to preserve families.

Suz: Are they truly informed of the reality of adoption? That is my question? Too often there is pressure, coercion and lack of informed consent.

Lisette: The girls?

Suz: Yes, the expectant mothers.

Lisette: I think in the past it was a combination of family pressure and lack of education from the providers. Now, there is more research on trauma and emotional healing. Most girls who come to the Crittenton agencies have experienced some kind of abuse. The providers are trained on trauma informed services and are more responsive to the needs of each girl.

Suz: Yes, there are many factors. We are a religious country, evangelical adoption movement, etc. belief that only wealthy people have a right to raise children, belief that children must have two parents, etc. One final topic (I have kept you a hour!)

Lisette: Yes. All those misconceptions. Without realizing social status, race, and religion does not guarantee a safe environment. Wow, has it been that long?!

Suz: I have been debating parental notification on my blog. Concern over parental notification seems to be centered on girls who come from abusive homes. I get that. But also, as a non abusive parent, that wants to be involved in my child’s life and decisions, I feel punished by such rules. As both a parent today and a former young girl facing an unplanned pregnancy, what are your thoughts on this?

(and agreed with your previous statement, married, wealthy, biological, adoptive, etc. all abuse children. the only way to know how your child is doing is to raise them yourself)

Lisette: Let me see if I understand your question. Parental notification of adoption or of the whereabouts of your child?

Suz: Should a teen be required to notify their parents of their desire to abort? To adopt? To be tested for STDS?

Lisette: No.  Which is why I believe that all providers should have some kind of training in how to be “teen” friendly. I took my pregnancy test and begged my doctor not to tell my mother I had requested a test. She told my mother the results without telling me.

We need to empower youth to make decisions, whether right or wrong, they are their decisions. You mentioned that you felt pushed into your decision, and many of us may times feel that way because adults have that power over us.

Suz: A commenter on my blog said engaging in sex is an adult activity and should come with all adults’ rights and decision making. I am inclined to agree (at least my 17 year old self is) but I am curious what that does to a parent? Do we terminate only SOME of the parents’ rights? Consider that recent case where the mother won in court against her parents NOT to have an abortion. But the court then demanded the family support her.

So, if my 15 year old  is now pregnant and has the rights of an adult, am I, as a parent no longer responsible for her AT ALL?

Lisette: It’s such a touchy subject, and interesting one to discuss as well. Moral values versus legal ones. Where do you draw the line?

Suz: Agreed. Exactly. I obviously have no answers…just questions and concerns.

Lisette: My mother stopped supporting me at age 15 when I moved out. But I had to have emergency surgery shortly after having given birth, and I needed her signature. It was terrible!

Suz: Exactly! It’s ambiguous.

Lisette: I don’t think there will ever be a correct answer to these questions

Suz: Okay. I should let you go!

Lisette: Sure! It was so great speaking with you!

Suz: Thank you so much for sharing. Enjoyed chatting with you and find you so inspiring! Hugs to you and your kids.

Lisette: Aww thank you! Have a wonderful rest of the day!