We were on the same floor at the small children’s hospital, probably noticing each other because of a shared doctor. Two young mothers, one white, one black, both of us doing our best to get our sons healthy and home again. My son was 3 months old, while hers was — a year? Two? I can’t remember exactly – just that he seemed so big and accomplished compared to my infant.
“Is your baby’s father still around?” she asked as we were chatting in the hall one day. The question threw me off. Then I realized that, even as a married 25- year old, I could still pass for teenager. The girl, who I will call Marie, was a 17-year-old high school senior from a Chicago suburb. Her son's father was not in the picture.
Two young mothers, one white, one black, both of us doing our best to get our sons healthy and home again.
“You are lucky,” she said when I affirmed that my son's father was still around.
Marie explained that she had planned to place her son for adoption, but when the ultrasound revealed a number of abnormalities that would require multiple surgeries, her mother convinced her to keep the baby.
“If you give him up," her mother had said, "he’ll think you didn’t want him because he wasn’t perfect.” She couldn’t stand the thought of her child feeling that he hadn't been wanted because he was less than desirable. So here she was, back at the hospital for another surgery.
Marie's high school principal was pressuring her to get back to school or risk not graduating. Education was important to her – she loved everything about cars and hoped to some day own a dealership. Her mother was unable to take time off work to come and stay with the baby, so she was leaving him to the care of the nurses during her school days.
There were no volunteers to help feed, change or play with the babies in this small hospital, and nurses, already stretched thin, could not be expected to add babysitting to their duties. As it was, Marie was already getting resentful looks from the nursing staff, presumably for how often she was away from her son.
When I learned that my son was going to need surgery, about half way through my pregnancy, I was met by nothing but kindness and compassion in the hospital and at work. My boss and co-workers knew I would not be returning to my job until after my son had this surgery at three months. Everyone seemed to understand that we were experiencing horrendous stress and anxiety related to having a sick baby.
Marie, who had made the choice to raise a special needs child on her own, was having a completely different experience. Instead of being met with compassion, she faced judgment from hospital nurses and was threatened with not graduating by her high school principal, as though she were a truant, and not a single mother trying to save her son's life.
Our basic circumstances were similar – two mothers at the hospital, our sons recovering from surgeries. The way we were treated was anything but.
One day, before Marie had to catch the bus home, she wanted to buy her son's favorite crackers so that he could enjoy them while she was at school. I knew the area around the hospital and offered to go with her to a nearby market.
“Does it take food stamps?” Marie asked. Once again, I found myself taken back. I had never had to think about which shop to dart into for something so simple as crackers. It turns out they did not. My husband offered to drive her to the nearby grocery store. She got the crackers, but, digging through her purse, she came up a dime short for the tampons she also needed. My husband covered the ten cents.
I cannot imagine being a 17-year-old asking a male stranger for a dime so I can buy tampons. It never occurred to me that tampons are not, like milk and bread, considered to be basic needs and are, thus, not covered by government aid (though this may be changing).
Once Marie had left the hospital for school, the nurses placed her son in a wagon. He sat at the nurse’s station, eating his crackers, quietly recovering.
I think of Marie and her boy often. I hope she has a car dealership and is doing well. Her son would be 23 or so now, a young man, perhaps still living outside of Chicago. Did he go to college, does he have a job? I have wondered. Or is he like my son – taking a class here or there at the community college, working, but not steadily.
I cannot imagine being a 17-year-old asking a male stranger for a dime so I can buy tampons.
My son is finding his way. If Marie's son is doing the same, I wonder if he gets the same accommodations and understanding that my middle class child does. I can't help but think that there are some who judge him for his race and his circumstances -- born poor, to a mother who birthed him as a teen. Perhaps even his disabilities are held against him.
I have no way of knowing. But in these ever more divisive times, my hope is that we can strive as a nation to understand that we all share this very basic desire for a good life for ourselves and our children. And I hope we have the courage to show compassion and kindness, not only as individuals, but in the policies our elected officials set. I hope we prioritize ensuring that each of us has the resources and support they need, starting with the simple necessities, like tampons.