The Story Behind The Story
J. Anderson Coats (aka nilliaj)
Recently, my essay on the production of historical fiction appeared in Mamaphonic, an anthology that deals with creativity and motherhood. I did what promotion I could manage, cheerfully badgering local libraries and bookstores to carry it and sending out a few review copies to local newspapers. Then I went on to the next writing project, hoping to get another $40 to contribute to my heating bill.
About a two weeks ago, I got an email from an editor at a well-known regional parenting magazine that I’ll call RPM. Ms. Editor said she’d read my essay in Mamaphonic and noted from my bio that I was both a teenage mother and a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She wondered if I was interested in writing a feature article about being a successful teen mom.
I stared at the words. I read them four times with my heart in my throat. My hands shook. An editor from a well-known magazine was contacting me---was soliciting a feature article. My writing floats in dim corners of print and the web, and every article and essay resulted from hours of research, tedious querying and endless rejection. But this editor---she came to me.
RPM has a circulation of over 200,000, a thousand times what my best piece ever landed in. I’m trying to make a living writing and this looked like a big break, the perfect clip to lend some validity to my portfolio.
I wrote a gushing email to Ms. Editor, saying how happy I was to write the feature, how I was a firm advocate of young mothers and their empowerment and was always looking for ways to educate the public about the reality of young motherhood. I barely remembered to include the strictly professional questions--pay rate, kill fee, word count--and sent it off chortling.
I started writing the article right away, even before I got a response. I began with my pregnancy during my first year at a large state university, the ridicule, the anger of my parents at me “ruining my life”, the relentless dismal trudge of the school/baby grind. Then I told about moving across the country, 3,000 miles away from anything and anyone familiar, landing on the east coast at barely twenty with a crawling baby on my hip. How I felt that first year, that I was sinking into a void I had no name for, crying far into the night and sleeping late over and over in a desperate, lonely cycle.
Then I wrote about Bryn Mawr, how I applied with the firm conviction that I would get in, but with the secret fear that I wouldn’t be able to compete with girls who spent their summers in third world countries building clinics out of mud or on archaeological digs in Nineveh, while I spent mine reading One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. I wrote how Bryn Mawr changed me, changed how I looked at myself as a young mother and as a person. How I could do a full course load of Ivy League work with a part-time job, a four-hour commute and a toddler clinging to my leg. How I could do better than girls who got twice as much sleep as I did and got less done all day than I did before nine in the morning.
Right about there, I stopped. Pulled my fingers away from the keyboard and reread what I’d just written. I went back and reread Ms. Editor’s initial email. A successful teen mom. I thought about RPM, its glossy paper and articles about the perfect hand-crafted birthday party invitations, its chirpy, feel-good advice about the best educational videos, its photo spreads of baby clothes that cost more than my whole thrift store wardrobe.
And I began to get pissed.
What was I doing but reinforcing the stereotypes held of teen mothers by a bunch of SUV-driving suburban soccer moms with fifty-dollar manicures? They’d read my feature about being a “successful” teen mom and nod their made-up, well-coiffed heads and say, “Oh yes, she’s successful, went to a top-drawer school, has a master’s degree, happily married, has a well-adjusted kid. She’s not like those other teen moms.”
These women have probably never even met a real teen mom in the flesh, one who works graveyard at Hooters just to keep her moldy apartment with peeling paint and windows that leak cold air, or one who can’t quit her mind-numbing job at the cubical farm even though her boss is sexually harassing her, because her kid needs the health insurance. They see us on the news, big-bellied and ignorant, wrangling a mess of kids at the welfare office, and think they know us.
In their world, I’m “successful” because my choices--and let’s face it, my luck as well--have allowed me to mirror their lives. I am like them, therefore I’m successful. But I’m not like them. I’ve gone hungry. I’ve gone without heat and a phone. I’ve paid for gas with pennies. I’ve had strangers at the mall avert their eyes and when they think I’ve safely passed mutter, “I hope our daughter doesn’t end up like her.”
I read back over some of the things I wrote in that feature. “I studied every moment I got, did Latin at naptime and stayed up late writing papers.” But what the hell right do I have to tell a fifteen-year-old girl who’s been raped by her brother’s friend and whose parents have put her on the street when she was seven months pregnant, that everything will be okay if she just studies hard? That she won’t be successful unless she’s just like me? What the hell right did I have to hold myself up as “successful” merely because I’ve manage to gain the socially accepted trappings of success? Every teen mom who gets out of bed each morning and gets through her day is a success, bar fucking none.
I sent an article based on these last few paragraphs, edited, to Ms. Editor at RPM. She emailed me back a chipper but bewildered note saying it wasn’t what she had in mind, and could I come up with something a little more upbeat, more inspirational?
Like. . . patting soccer moms on the head by upholding their prejudices, when these same women used to look between my son and me at the playground, give a fluty little laugh and say, “Oh, you’re too young to have a child that big.” Or worse, the condescending tilt of head and mildly reproachful, “How old are you?”
I spent hours at RPM’s website, linking and back-arrowing through the maze of behavior-modification tips and reviews of all-inclusive “family fun” destinations that cost more than my car. I won’t deny it. I really, really wanted to send in that first essay I wrote about Bryn Mawr, how hard I fought and how many nights I didn’t sleep and all I gave up to graduate magna cum laude with departmental honors at the age of twenty-two, how I walked across the lawn at graduation with my preschooler at my side. I’m proud of what I’ve done and not ashamed of that fact, but it does not give me the right to encourage society to measure other young moms by the standards I have set for myself.
Ms. Editor sent me one last email, all but begging me for a “cheerier” article. Her boss was enamored of the idea of a teen mom feature, she explained, and had authorized her to offer me $1 a word.
Bloody hell. I did a quick word-count on the Bryn Mawr piece. 2,250 words. Bloody, bloody hell.
I looked at RPM’s website again and thought how 200,000 mothers could be reading my story of struggle and eventual personal reward. But ultimately, the story would be false since the words telling it would not encompass the entirety of that story. I couldn’t do it. Because it wasn’t true.
Really, I don’t think Ms. Editor meant any disrespect in her ignorance. Her heart was in the right place. She probably saw my story as a “positive spin” to put on the “problem” of teen motherhood in an era of increasing hostility toward any group perceived to put a strain on an already faltering economy. What she didn’t understand, regardless of my attempt to explain, is that there does not exist a teen mother like the stereotype in her head, in her readers’ heads, because that stereotype is an artificial social construction used to encourage an agenda from somewhere above. There are no welfare queens or lazy shiftless whores. Just young women with babies, trying to get through each day.
I almost told Ms. Editor about Girlmom. I almost wrote, “Here---lurk on this site for a week or so. These girls here, they’re your success story. Girls who have to work out motherhood while working out self, who hold crappy jobs, trudge through school, raise one kid or three on less money than you make in a week and put up with crap you wouldn’t dream of. These girls are ten times more successful than I can ever hope to be, merely by being themselves.”