What would you do?
The back story:
It is the early 1960s, a time before “sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” ruled American youth, a time when the word “hippy” referred to your figure rather than your politics, and nice girls didn’t “do it,”—and if they did, it was a secret…and if they got pregnant, it was an even bigger secret that involved a long visit to a “sick aunt” in another state and hush-hush adoptions.
You are in your late 30s and have custody of your 17 year old daughter, Dana, who has recently graduated from high school. You and her father have been divorced for seven years and you have both remarried. You (Georgia) and your husband (Frank) own three apartment buildings, four houses, a small chain of figure salons and a small chain of laundromats. The three of you live in one of the one-bedroom apartments and you work outside the home as a bookkeeper. Your daughter has just announced to you that she is pregnant by her high school boyfriend, who is also 17. What would you do?
Scenario 1: your daughter tells you she intends to keep her baby, even if she remains unmarried.
What I would do if I was Georgia: I would counsel Dana as to the difficulty of her decision. If she remained unmoved, then I would rent her an apartment in my building and give her a job at one of the laundries so that she could earn a living and start on the road to independence. I would help her furnish her apartment, get set up with welfare so she would have medical coverage for her pregnancy and birth. I would tutor her on such things as budgeting and take her to flea markets and second hand shops to help her get things for the baby.
What actually happened: Georgia arranged for an abortion (illegal in the US at this time) in Mexico; Dana discovered the plan and refused to go, threatening to turn Georgia in to the authorities (and tell her father) if she was forced. Georgia then told Dana she could live at home during her pregnancy only if she agreed to give the baby up for adoption; if Dana was insistent on keeping the baby, Georgia had made arrangements for Dana to go to an institution for unwed mothers.
What would you do?
Scenario 2: the father of your daughter’s child has refused to take responsibility. In a time before DNA testing, this was not an uncommon situation. Your daughter, however, has been proposed to by a young man in the military, a young man who is not the child’s father and who did not meet your daughter until after she became pregnant. Because she is 17, however, she needs your permission to marry.
What I would do if I was Georgia: I would counsel her as to the likelihood of teen marriages ending in failure. I would also, however, counsel her on the social stigma of being illegitimate…something for which her innocent child would have to suffer. If she decided to accept his proposal, I would sign my consent, but ask them to continue living in the apartment next door so I would be available to help her once the baby came.
What actually happened: Georgia refused to give permission for Dana to marry. By this time, Dana is out of her house and living with her father and stepmother, but Georgia stubbornly retains custody. When asked why she would not give permission for Dana to marry, her response is “She made her bed, now she has to lie in it!” Dana eventually gets permission to marry from a judge who recognizes the value to the unborn child of being born legitimately.
What would you do?
Scenario 3: Her husband has gone AWOL from the military and Dana does not know where he is. The baby is 18 months old and Dana is pregnant with her second child. The military cuts off her support. With no income, no job, a toddler and another child on the way, Dana is desperate and decides to move in with her inlaws, in another state. She has just enough money for a train ticket…5 days and 4 nights on a train, heavily pregnant, and with a toddler in tow.
What I would do if I was Georgia: I would offer Dana to return to work at the laundry and provide a playyard for my grandchild so that she could bring the child to work with her. I would give her time off with pay when she has the second baby, and make arrangements for her to be able to bring the new baby to work with her when she is recovered from the birth and able to get on her feet again. If she is adamant about going to her inlaws, I would make sure she had money for food and incidentals, and drive her to the station (airfare was beyond the reach of the average middle class family back then).
What actually happened: Georgia told Dana, when she called, “You made your bed, you lay in it.” Dana made her own way to the train station and travelled for 5 days and 4 nights to the other side of the country and no one was there to greet her. She waiting at the train station, broke, pregnant, hungry, and with a hungry, tired toddler for several hours before her mother-in-law begrudgingly picked her up.
What would you do?
Scenario 4: Dana’s husband has been dishonourably discharged from the military for desertion. He comes to his mother’s house, collects Dana and the children, and moves them into a dilapidated slum. He has difficulty finding work because of his DD, and when he does find work, his belligerent attitude gets him fired. He develops a fondness for drink and often drinks half or more of his paycheck before he even gets home, making it difficult for Dana to even buy enough food for herself and the children. She leaves him and takes the bus across country, back to her home town, and arrives with two little kids, a couple of suitcases, and not even enough money to rent a cheap motel room for their first night back in town. She calls you…
What I would do if I was Georgia: Jump in the car and go collect her and the kids from the bus station. Move them into whatever empty apartment (they are furnished apartments) I have at the moment, and make plans to put her to work in the laundry until she is able to get herself together and find a better paying job.
What actually happened: Georgia hung up on Dana after saying something like “It’s your problem, you deal with it.” Georgia called her grandfather collect and begged to borrow $50 until she could get a job and get settled. After hearing what Georgia had done, grandfather wired the $50 by Western Union. Dana took the first job she could find: cocktail waitressing in a go-go bar where she later started dancing because it paid almost double what the waitressing jobs paid. When the club went topless several months later, Dana had the choice of going topless or losing her job. With two small children and no one but herself to take care of them, she couldn’t afford to lose the job...
What would you do?
Sometimes when we look at someone and we judge them, we might have a different attitude if we knew their back story. Dana wanted to go to college, but scholarships for girls were few and far between in the days before Women’s Lib, and her parents had made no provision for paying for more education. Even with an infant, Dana could have gone to college and become a teacher (her dream at that time) if her family had been supportive and provided her some assistance. As it was, Dana was thrown on her own meagre resources and, young and fairly naïve, she was betrayed by the man she married and trusted, and left to fend for herself and her babies.
I often feel great compassion for young women in desperate circumstances for I know it is unlikely they freely chose their situations, that they may well be living the results of a series of “lesser of the evils” choices. Blaming them, haranguing them, harshly judging them does nothing to improve their situations nor the circumstances of their innocent children. Each road to ruin is a different path, each one as unique as the person whose life is in shambles around her. And until we know each person’s story, until we see what alternatives were available to the choices that were made, we cannot fairly judge.
Better to take a position of compassion, to remember that few choose lives of desperation if alternatives are available, and to be thankful that our own options were not so limited that our choices had to be made between which forms of desperation our lives would take.