At 28, Maria is proud of the good life she's achieved. She lives in a large home in an affluent Orange County neighborhood, has three happy children and a loyal husband who owns a promising business. But there is something else, a secret that she doesn't want many people--particularly her two oldest children--to know.
The truth is, their "real" father is someone else, someone whom she married and left before she was 18.
Maria (a pseudonym) does not see much good in telling the world the truth. Teachers and friends, she believes, would treat her children, now 11 and 12, differently. The children themselves might suspect they were unwanted. And acquaintances would start asking questions of her and her husband, John, whose business might suffer. "He doesn't need to make excuses for me, and I don't think I need to explain to everybody why I had these kids," says Maria, a sturdy woman with large, gentle eyes. "It's none of their business."
Besides, ever since she remarried eight years ago, Maria has felt a need to "prove herself" to her in-laws, who were upset when their 18-year-old son became serious about an 18-year-old mother of two. "You feel like you have to explain over and over, and you get tired of it after a while."
Nevertheless, she wanted to tell her story one more time to try to reach pregnant teens who harbor rosy--and unrealistic--notions of young motherhood. Those who might look enviously at Maria's current life, she explained, don't see the lean years of hard work. Nor do they feel the pain of living with secrets.
Maria's children were ages 1 and 2 when she met John at a restaurant where they both were working nights. Maria was living with her mother, also divorced, and her sister in a two-bedroom apartment in Pasadena. She cared for the children during the day and her mother, a waitress, watched them when Maria went to work--also as a waitress.
A solid B student, Maria was also finishing high school at night. She wanted to continue school and resented having to take care of her children, too. She wanted them to grow up fast so they could take care of themselves.
John, a high school senior, knew she had children. Industrious and family-oriented, he asked her out, became serious first and wanted to marry. She cared for him, but was more cautious. "When it got serious, I wanted him to be aware it wasn't just me." After he graduated--and against his parents' wishes--they rented a house and started building a life together.
Never taking a vacation, they worked and studied night and day for five years, taking turns shuttling the children to preschool, until John finished his four-year degree and Maria finished beauty college.
By that time, they had married. "We were content to be with each other. Some people aren't ready for it at that age, but we were," recalled Maria. John started his business. He adopted the children.
Some of Maria's close women friends who know what happened assume she must be grateful to John for having "rescued" her. She doesn't see it that way. "It takes two," she said. "I was willing to accept things about him, too. I think he was lucky to find me, too."
She says she does not need a man to survive.
Maria was 16 the spring her periods stopped. Four months later, she told her aunt, who took her to a doctor. The doctor said her first baby would arrive in November.
Maria's boyfriend wanted to marry; she did not. Her mother favored abortion. But Maria and her mother argued often back then. "I think just to spite her, I said no."
Instead, while still living at home, she went for medical care and counseling to St. Anne's Maternity Home in Los Angeles, one of fewer than a dozen residential facilities in California for pregnant teens who decide against abortion but cannot stay at home.
"Often parents are really upset and angry. This is their little girl," said Helen Quinn, supervisor of social service at the 95-bed home in Los Angeles. "Hopefully, by the time she delivers, the angry feelings have dissipated." Frequently, Quinn said, parents will ask the staff to persuade the girl to give her baby up for adoption. Counselors try to help the girls make up their own minds without steering them in any direction, she said.
Education a 'Must'
When her daughter was born, Maria had almost decided to give her up for adoption. Then her mother arrived and offered to help her raise the baby so she could continue school. Maria says that going back to school was a "must" with her mother. Her coming to the hospital signified to Maria that she accepted the situation and that it would work out.
Living at home, working and going to school was hard. Within a year, Maria had succumbed to pressure from her mother and her boyfriend, whom she had been dating, to marry. Although he had been using condoms, she was a month pregnant when they were married. Seven months later, when Maria was 18, her second child was born.
Teen-age parents are three times as likely as those in their 20s to separate and divorce, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Having a second baby before the divorce is a common pattern, said Bobbi Mitzenmacher, a health educator at Cal State University Dominguez Hills.
"It was of no value to get married," Maria recalled. Her 22-year-old husband could not hold a job, nor would he help with the children or housework. "I think he was put on this earth to aggravate me. He just wanted to possess me," she said.
After one month of marriage she told him to leave and he went. He has called her once since then. She said he was never interested in the children.
Maria met the young man who would become her first serious boyfriend and her first husband when she was 16. She was a serious girl, a volunteer at the local Teen Center when a friend introduced them. "He was six years older. It was kind of cool to have an older boyfriend." Most boys she had dated were not pushy about sex. But this one pressed. Looking back, it seems that sex was "just there at the time."
Her mother had never talked to her about birth control. At school she had learned how the reproductive system works, but not how to determine her fertile period or prevent pregnancy.
She now believes that sex is an act of love between two people. At 16, she did not understand that. "I want to try to instill in my children that it's an emotional thing. You don't have sex just to have it."
When her own daughter wants to experiment with sex, Maria plans to be honest. "Nowadays, girls don't have just one partner before marriage. Hopefully, she won't sleep with every person she meets. But if she does have relations, I'll tell her, 'Birth control is not a big thing. Take it. The consequences are worse.' "
Maria has no plans to tell her children about their biological father, although she admits it's unlikely she can keep the secret forever.
But there is another secret, more deeply buried, that she will never reveal to them--that while she loves her children without reserve, she sometimes wonders whether she made the right decision at St. Anne's.
Without the responsibilities of young motherhood, she might have obtained a four-year degree. She and John would not have started their life together with "one foot in the mud." And now, at 28, she finds it hard to play mother to a daughter who is nearly 13. Teachers frequently mistake her for her daughter's sister, and sometimes she feels that way, too.
Having a Wanted Child
Two years ago, she and John finally had a child of their own. Now, she said, she knows the feeling of having a wanted child. She has more patience. She does not want the child to grow up too fast and pampers the girl.
Also, when she looks at her, she sees "something that's from the two of us"--from her and someone she loves, she said.
Last year, Maria and John had another baby who died at birth from genetic defects. It was ironic, Maria said. Unlike her first pregnancy at 16, she sought medical attention as soon as possible: "I did everything you are supposed to do, and it didn't work out. It really hurt."
It was then, she said, that she realized she was no longer a child herself. "For the first time, I felt sorry for myself. And all of a sudden I became a real parent.
"Now," she said, "I know the meaning of responsibility."