04/01/07 — Growing up as a mother

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Growing up as a mother

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 1, 2007 2:08 AM

At 14, Anna Gurganus thought she had such "a humdrum life" she couldn't wait to get out of high school.

But that was before she became pregnant and married at age 15. Suddenly, any plans she had came to a screeching halt and school -- along with childhood -- became distant memories.

That was nearly 19 years ago. Now, at age 33, she and husband, Jimmy, have six children. And while they might be considered a success story for staying together, each member of the family has paid the price for being a part of a teen pregnancy.

They had a lot of things going against them from the very beginning, Anna said.

"I hate to say I was set up for it, but I came from a very poor background," she said. "A couple of times I went to bed hungry because there wasn't enough food for us."

She was allowed to date when she was 11, something she says is still confusing to her. The family moved to Wayne County when she was 13 and one year later, she met a young man who would become her husband.

"We went out for awhile and it got sexual and moved to where I got pregnant," she said.

It was not the first such scare. A false alarm preceded it, she said, but they were young and invincible.

"You know what it did for me? Nothing. Because I wasn't pregnant," she said.

When it became a reality, however, that was another story.

"I was scared to death. Jim and I, we didn't know what to do," she said.

"We knew exactly what our plans were, and they didn't involve a baby. I was planning on finishing school, going to college and joining the Air Force. He planned to tag along, visit all these cities and own his own business."

She was probably about six weeks along when someone at school suspected something was happening with Anna.

"A teacher came up to me and asked, 'Are you pregnant?' I said, 'No,' but I thought, 'Dear God, am I pregnant?'"

Her mother suggested they go to the doctor. It was scary for the young girl, who had never had a pelvic exam. The pregnancy was confirmed.

"(Mother) took it well. She was happy but yet as she put it, she knew things about me were gone," she said. "I was no longer able to pursue my dreams of doing what I wanted to do."

Anna chose to keep her baby.

Finding a minister who would marry her and Jimmy was tough.

"It took about a week for my mother to find a pastor that would marry us," she said.

Within a month after she learned she was pregnant, she was married.

"There are snippets that I can't even remember, it happened so fast," she said.

There was no proposal on bended knee, no engagement party or showers leading up to the special day. But at ages 15 and 19, she said none of the reality sunk in anyway until long after the wedding day.

A few weeks shy of finishing 10th grade at Goldsboro High School, she felt compelled to drop out. Her husband had already dropped out years before when he was in ninth grade.

It was difficult for the young newlyweds. She tried her hand at several blue collar jobs -- waitressing, factories, telemarketing. None of it was for her.

Their first child, Caroline, whom they called Cari, was born three weeks early and had jaundice. The baby weighed only 5 pounds, 8 ounces and quickly dropped a pound. She remained hospitalized for a week. Physicians cautioned the couple that the little baby might not make it.

"I was not prepared. I didn't look like an adult, but I acted like one," she said.

They lived in a household of chaos, she said.

"In the beginning ... all we did was fight," she said. "It got to the point where I was constantly throwing him out of the house. Not literally. He was always back within three hours. I needed him for financial support. I needed my kids to continue to have what little they did have."

Cari had colic, making for many sleepless nights. Anna said there was no one to leave the baby with and her husband was the sole breadwinner, so that left her with the task of caretaking.

"I was not a happy person," she said.

It got better when the other children came along, she said, but the firstborn always bears the brunt.

"Cari pays the price for being born to a teenage mom," she said.

Having a baby at such a young age has other residual effects, Anna said.

"It stunted my own growth by getting pregnant because I had to nourish Caroline when she was in me. I still wasn't through with my growing," she said. Now 17, "Cari is shorter than I am. The doctor told her she might get a quarter-inch taller. She's not even 100 pounds and like 4'10"."

The couple went on to have five more children. At age 17, Anna had Caitlin, now 16; at age 18, she gave birth to Courtney, now 15; and there is one son, J.J., 14; plus Caliana, 12, and Cristin, 9.

Daycare was cost-prohibitive, so Anna became a stay-at-home mom. Only one of the pregnancies was planned, she said, and came at a time the couple went to her home state of New York for a job opportunity.

"He was making $6 an hour and had been there for a year," she said of the decision to move. After two years, they returned to North Carolina.

Fights over money persisted throughout the years. While it's still a concern, she said their approach today is different.

"Now, basically if money's tight, we look at each other and whoever's down, the other will say, 'We'll get through it, we always do,'" she said. "We have mellowed out a lot."

For the most part, everyone is healthy. Fortunate, because health insurance is one expense the couple cannot afford.

"The children are on Medicaid," she said. "If I have to go to the hospital, I can't pay for t. I don't like to go because I can't pay."

Financial problems have stretched the family at times, she says. Translated, that means doing without. Ipods, going to movies, restaurants or vacations are considered luxuries.

"There's no instant gratification in our house," she said. "I do without. Jimmy does without. We'll probably never see Disney World. For us to go to a nice restaurant, for a family of eight, that's $90."

Their own journey has determined the kind of parents they are to their brood.

"We're very strict. We're mean parents," Anna said.

She gives her own children rules she did not have at their age. Her girls are not allowed to date until they are 16.

"I do what was never done for me," Mrs. Gurganus said. Likewise, the girls have to be chaperoned and the boy must pay for the chaperone to go. High school dances are also out.

Sex is a big issue in the house and the children are all aware of it.

"They know what happened between me and their father shouldn't have happened, but there's no looking back. There's only looking forward," Anna said.

"They know it's best to wait. They know what happens when you don't wait -- a child happens. ... If they don't wait, though, I would like an open channel kind of thing."

From her own experience, she realizes the importance of understanding consequences.

"You have to live with that mistake, although I don't like calling Cari a mistake. I could not imagine life without her. I can't imagine life without any of them. They have made me who I am," she said.

Anna said teen pregnancy is still a societal problem. She welcomes the opportunity to talk about her own experiences if they will help even one person. What she would share, though, depends on how much she is allowed to say.

"God knows, sex is fun," she said. "But it's emotional, physical and psychological -- all those three factors that you have to bring into it.

"If you're a 13-, 14- or 15-year-old, you're not bringing to it what you need to do."

She said she has witnessed classmates of her daughter in eighth, ninth and 10th grades getting pregnant.

"I've asked, 'Cari, what are these schools doing for you?'" she said.

The only answer she's gotten is, in a word, "Nothing. They all talk, 'don't do it.' I think there should be talk of what to do if you're going to do it.

"If I had that talk when I was 15, there would have been more protection used. For us, there was none."

Young girls today, Anna said, are not aware of what they will lose if they become pregnant.

"They think, I'm going to have a baby and I'm going to love this baby," she said. "But you need diapers and you need to get your hair done -- baby's going to get diapers. You start making do with what you have.

"I did without. My husband did without. There were times when we had nothing."

She is aware of the price her own children have paid for her own decisions years ago.

"These kids have had a rough life, not filled with the kind of roughness that I have had but they have had to give up so much. ... They have put up with a lot. That's the price that they have had to pay for being the children of a teenage mom," she said.

They are also close-knit, perhaps in part because of all they have experienced.

"I'm there when they need me. I have been their counselor, their maid, their nurse, their doctor, everything," she said.

"We have gone through it together, not separately. If times were bad, we went through it together. If times were good, we went through it together."

And the times when they pulled together the most, she said, were when there was nothing.

"To tell you the truth, I'm one of the lucky ones," she said. "Without Jimmy, I don't see how I could have gotten through Cari -- me and Jimmy as a team make it work. A lot of girls nowadays, the boyfriend says, 'Goodbye, see ya.' The court system is full of the stories."

Education, her own and that of her children, is also something she stresses. In 1992, she received her GED from Wayne Community College, returning in 2004 to study toward becoming a licensed substance abuse counselor for children.

"I was pretty much an at-risk kid my whole life," she said. "I want to be able to help children who took the wrong path."

As her own firstborn prepares to graduate from high school this spring, Anna cannot help but be a little nostalgic about her own path.

"I was sitting in my car recently, tears streaming down my face, thinking, 'I'm going to be a college graduate in May. Cari's going to be graduating from high school,'" she said. "I never walked across the high school stage and she's going to do that."