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					THE TRUE STORY OF A TEEN MOM

Think a young mother's life always heads downhill? Rachael Gordon, who gave birth at 14,
proves the answer is "no way" and offers hope to others struggling to succeed.

Within a few hours, my life is going to change. I know it's going to be hard, but I'm ready." Rachael
Gordon was 14 when she wrote those words in her diary. Fifteen hours later, she gave birth to her son,
Felix. As she lay exhausted in a hospital bed, her mother by her side and her 17-year-old boyfriend
waiting in the hallway, she held her son for the first time. But rather than marvel at his tiny hands and
wide brown eyes, Rachael wasn't sure how she felt. "All I could think was that this person was 100
percent dependent on me," she recalls. "I wondered, How am I gonna do this?"

Teens: Too young to be moms?
Though teen pregnancy rates have been declining for the past decade and are at their lowest ever
recorded, each year an estimated 820,000 American girls under age 20 still get pregnant. About half of
them decide to become teenage moms--two words that, for most people, conjure up images of high
school dropouts and women perpetually on welfare. Rachael Gordon's future could have easily
unfolded this way. The daughter of a single mother herself, she grew up in the projects of Worcester,
Massachusetts. By the time Felix was 6 months old, Rachael and the boy's father had ended their
relationship, leaving her with only her mother's support. But Rachael had dreams for the future, and
she wasn't about to let her new status as a teen mom stand in her way.

"I'm stubborn," she admits. As she went out into the world with her baby on her hip, Rachael began
sensing strangers' sideways glances. So she knew what she had to do: prove everyone wrong.

"People told me I had no future"
Luckily Rachael qualified to attend Burncoat Senior High, a school with an adjoining day-care center.
Every morning she and 20 other students dropped their kids off there before going to class. At home
Rachael waited until Felix was asleep before studying: "I often pulled all-nighters," she recalls. "I
refused to use Felix as a reason I couldn't finish an assignment. It was infuriating to hear students say,
'I forgot it,' when they were partying, when here I was working so hard."

Nonetheless, she couldn't shake people's assumptions that she was a careless or ignorant mother due to
her youth. During her junior year, as she and 3-year-old Felix were waiting for the bus home, her
toddler tripped and fell, cutting his forehead. No one stopped to help. Worried the bus would leave,
Rachael clamped her hand over the wound on Felix's head and threw her schoolbag into the street,
forcing the bus to pick her up. "I need to get to the hospital!" Rachael told the driver. Many people on
the bus looked at Rachael as if she were to blame. By the time they arrived, Felix was covered with
blood. "Can't you control your kid?" Rachael heard someone say as she rushed off the bus.

At the hospital Rachael was relieved to find that Felix's wound looked worse than it was; all he needed
was three stitches. Rachael remained calm, even cheery, for her son. "But inside I was in turmoil," she
admits. "I wanted to have a breakdown, but that wasn't an option. There was too much to do."

Juggling college and a kid
During her senior year, Rachael applied to college and was accepted at Worcester State. A year later
she transferred to Smith College and majored in biochemistry.

Thanks to her financial aid and welfare, Rachael was also able to move into a place of her own. For
years Rachael managed to keep it together. Even so, there were times when she couldn't afford
groceries. On those days, Rachael fasted so her son could eat.

Just eight weeks before graduation, the stoic resolve Rachael had assumed since her pregnancy
crumbled. First her car broke down, forcing Rachel to walk a total of 14 miles to and from school
every day. Then a paperwork bungle cut off her welfare benefits. To top it off, the stress caused
frequent debilitating migraines. On an especially difficult night, Rachael grabbed the video camera--a
gift from her mom--that she had been using to make a video diary. Rachael poured her heart out. "I
was crying that I couldn't go on any more," she recalls. "Maybe all those people who had said I had no
future were right." Afterward Rachael felt the determination to move forward. "Filming myself helped
me set those feelings aside," she says. "I figured I could go back to them when this was all over."

A few days later, Rachael opened her campus mailbox. Inside was a check for $100, most likely from
someone who knew about her struggles. Then a fellow student dropped off the keys to a car that she
insisted Rachael use until graduation: a red sports car. "I felt like I was dreaming," she says. Not one to
waste time, Rachael hopped in and started the ignition.

A life she never imagined
May 18, 1097: graduation day. With her diploma under her belt, Rachael soon found a job as a lab
technician, assisting Columbia University professor and Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel. Rachael
moved to New York. "Here I was, a single mom making it in New York," she says. "I could see
myself heading toward my goal--I was getting there." Then one night things changed--for the better.

While out at a club, a man named Frank said something to Rachael that made her laugh. "I thanked
him," Rachael recalls. "Surprised, he asked why. I said I hadn't done much laughing." Frank asked for
her number; Rachael reluctantly handed it over. "I didn't think men were a part of my future," she says.

But over time, Frank continued to win her trust--and he piqued Felix's interest too. The boy asked if he
could meet and spend time with Frank, saying that he needed a male role model. A year later, when
Rachael was out at dinner with Frank, the waiter placed a box in front of her. Rachael opened it, and
then immediately dropped it in shock. "Truthfully, I wasn't that surprised that he wanted to marry me,"
she says. "What shocked me was that, until that moment, I had no idea how much I wanted to marry
him."

Giving moms like her hope
Rachael, now 29, lives in a quiet suburb with Frank and Felix, 15. By telling her story, Rachael hopes
to help other young mothers--and the public at large--realize that teen moms can succeed. All they
need is a little encouragement and a lot fewer judgments.

"People talk about the endless cycle of poverty and teen parenting," says Rachael, who mentors teen
moms in her area through the Parent Aides for Teens program. "But when there is a story of
overcoming and thriving, that, too, becomes a cycle, and it's the responsibility of that person to pass it
on. I don't want to be the exception."

WHERE YOUNG MOMS CAN GET HELP
Three resources that help with the transition to motherhood:

• Federal Student Aid Information Center (8004-FED-AID) Mothers can call here and get
scholarship and financial aid information.

• Second Chance Homes (aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/2ndchancehomes00/brochure.htm) Supportive group
homes or apartment clusters provide free housing for teen mothers and their children who can't live at
a parent's house.

• Standupgirl.com Created by a teen mom, this website features peer support and advice through
stories of other teen mothers.

The facts about TEEN MOMS
• The United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and births in the Western industrialized
world.

• Thirty-four percent of girls will get pregnant at least once before the age of 20.

• Eight out of ten teen pregnancies are unintended.

• About half of teens who get pregnant decide not to terminate their pregnancy and to keep the baby.

• Most teenagers giving birth before 1980 were married, whereas most teens giving birth today are
unmarried.

• Only one in three teen moms graduates high school and only 1.5 percent get a college degree by age
30.

• Nearly 80 percent of unmarried teen mothers end up on welfare.

• The sons of teen mothers are 13 percent more likely to end up in prison, while the daughters are 22
percent more likely to become teen moms themselves.

By Lu Hanessian

Redbook; May2004

				
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