Content And Community For Black Moms

Becoming a mother in high school was not in her plans, writes nonprofit founder Nicole Lynn Lewis. But the experience changed her life—and she's ready to talk about it.

Photo credit: Erika Layne for mater mea

Nicole Lynn Lewis had some rough experiences as a first-time mom. There were times Nicole, then 18, was homeless while trying to graduate from high school. (She did, with honors, in spite of the odds.) Then there was trying to attend and afford college while taking care of her infant daughter Nerissa.

Those challenges have informed her life’s work. In 2010 she founded Generation Hope, a nonprofit “dedicated to ensuring teen and student parents have the opportunities they need to succeed and experience economic mobility.” And now she’s written a memoir, Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families.

In Pregnant Girl, Nicole uses her own experience as a Black teen mom to explore the many ways systems are set up to disadvantage Black and brown teen parents. In this excerpt, she reflects on the moment she found out she was going to be a mom when she was 18 years old and a high school senior.

You can get your copy of Pregnant Girl, written by Nicole Lynn Lewis, at Amazon and Bookshop.

The two pink lines formed quickly and clearly. My period was two weeks late, and my breasts were sore. My other attempts to determine if I was pregnant—like trying out Bree’s theory that there are more bubbles in your pee when you’re expecting—didn’t seem reliable, so I went to Kmart and bought a test. Looking through the different types of tests, trying to avoid eye contact with other customers and the cashier, and rushing back to my parents’ station wagon in the nearly empty parking lot was an out-of-body experience.

It was three o’clock in the afternoon, right after school. I’d paged Rakheim and told him to meet me at my house. He had swung his Cadillac into my parents’ driveway, Nas emanating from the gigantic subwoofers installed in his trunk.

It was odd to be there, together, at that time of day. The house was quiet. The bright afternoon sunlight made patterns on the walls and on the furniture in the family room behind us. He stood next to me, smelling familiar. The shampoo he used to wash his dreads that morning was still fragrant, and if I had dug my fingers into his scalp, I would probably have felt his roots were still damp. The smell of Newports, and Black & Milds too, always on his breath and seeped into the fabric of his clothes.

He was a mixture of sweet and bitter, endearing and repelling. I held the small white plastic square in my hands, and the two of us watched the pink lines surface, light at first and then darker—like watching magic.

Nicole Lynn Lewis in high school
Nicole Lynn Lewis as a high school student.

Pregnant.

A hot, fleshy, intense aching. That’s what I felt. Like someone had shot me right where the baby was supposed to be.

I exhaled slowly, letting my chest sit empty for a moment, almost as a punishment. I needed to feel the physical sting of what had just ripped through my heart. The painful clarity that I was now instantaneously different—inherently bad. Other. I was one of those girls, eroding the American family and American society and disappointing everyone who ever cared about me. It happened quickly and without question or hesitation—the transformation from good to bad girl, from right to wrong, from destined for greatness to destined for failure.

The moment—even in its swiftness—sent a shock wave through me, defining me wholly and completely.

Becoming a Statistic—and ‘an Enemy of the State’

Without knowing it, I was feeling the impact of a president’s words and a country’s fears. It was 1998—just three years after President Bill Clinton, in his State of the Union address, called teenage childbearing “our most serious social problem.”

Not the peak of crime rates in the early 1990s, which had been on the rise since the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. Not the crack-cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s. Not the mass incarceration that exploded under President Ronald Reagan, decimating families and disproportionately affecting communities of color. No, young mothers were the greatest threat to our country. Those two pink lines meant that I was now an enemy of the state.

I assumed teen pregnancy was always an epidemic because, from the time I was aware of these kinds of things, it was. There was no beginning to it, no emergence. It was understood and accepted as a perpetual plague. I would later learn that, like all things, there was a beginning. Teen pregnancy wasn’t on the public’s radar until the 1950s and 1960s when teen childbearing reached its highest rates. Then, President Jimmy Carter and nearly every president after him identified it as a priority of their domestic agenda. But it was President Clinton’s proclamation that seemed to hurl it into overdrive. It didn’t matter that at the time, teen pregnancy rates were drastically lower than twenty-five years earlier—nearly 50 percent lower.

Nicole Lynn Lewis pregnant
Nicole Lynn Lewis when she was pregnant with her firstborn daughter, Nerissa.

‘This Could Not Be Happening’

The national campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy was formed just one year after Clinton’s State of the Union address. Poll after poll showed that Americans viewed teen pregnancy as a growing problem despite its overall decline. Money was poured into ineffective, fear-based teen pregnancy prevention campaigns that focused on shaming and stigmatizing young women. Few addressed the complexities of teen pregnancy, the issues often in place in a young person’s life before a pregnancy, the negative assumptions about people of color that pervade our narrative and thinking on this issue, our own failures in working with families in poverty, or the basic premise that all young people should know they matter regardless of their decisions.

I remember our slender, blonde PE teacher showing some of the ads warning against becoming pregnant on a projector in our sex-ed class along with photos of her own premature baby in a NICU incubator hooked up to tubes. She warned us that teenagers are more likely to have premature babies and asked if we wanted this same fate for our children.

I don’t remember feeling an overwhelming aversion to sex when I watched her slip a new translucent slide on the humming projector. I do remember, however, feeling that she—like the ads—seemed completely disconnected from me and everyone I knew.

I suppose all of this was weighing on me as we stood so close in that bathroom, with the walls feeling tight around us and the reality of what I held in my hands rushing in all at once. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wanted to believe that I was watching someone else look at a positive test. A different Nicole. But there I was staring back, with the color drained from my face, both familiar and strangely unfamiliar. I dropped the test on the counter and stumbled back into a ray of sunshine from one of the windows in the family room. I felt its heat on my arm and face, and I could see Rakheim reaching for me through the glaring white.

Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of nonprofit Generation Hope
Nicole Lynn Lewis today.

This could not be happening. I was president of the gospel choir. I was an honor student. I was in AP classes. I had a stack of congratulatory college acceptance letters on my dresser upstairs. I had a plan for my life. I didn’t feel pregnant. Wouldn’t I feel something? Why couldn’t I feel anything?

I finally looked at Rakheim, now sitting across from me on the black couch. He was reclining on a cushion, twisting one of his dreads between his two fingers with an incredulous look on his face. He seemed boyish and awkward in his oversized Avirex jacket, baggy jeans, and untied camel-colored Timberland boots. He was not a father, and I was not a mother.

Get a copy of Pregnant Girl at Amazon and Bookshop.

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