The morning my parents learned I was pregnant I hadn’t actually decided to tell them. They only found out because my mom happened to open the bathroom door when I was throwing up before a pre-dawn figure skating practice. It would be the first practice I ever missed.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were pregnant,” she said.
The words spilled out, “I think I am,” and I knew I couldn’t take them back.
She screamed for my dad.
He charged up the stairs in his pajamas and appeared in the doorway, his brown hair sticking out the side of his head, his eyes squinting. “What the hell is going on?” he asked.
“She’s pregnant!” my mom shouted.
They stood over me as I wiped my lips with the back of my hand. I don’t remember what they were saying to each other, but there was a lot of gesturing and yelling and I knew I needed to escape. I scurried around them and ran down the hall to my bedroom. I sat on the edge of the bed, still dressed in my leotard, and waited. Their voices were far away, like sounds heard underwater.
After some minutes, my mother tapped at the door and entered. “We’re worried you might kill yourself,” she said.
I looked out the window toward the next-door neighbor’s house. Nicole’s bedroom was eye-level with mine, and when we were kids, we’d talk to each other between the houses when we were supposed to be in bed. The thought of suicide hadn’t crossed my mind, and I wondered if part of them wanted me dead rather than face what people were going to say about them and their parenting.
The following day my parents forced me to go to confession. What am I confessing? The sex or the pregnancy? I entered the confessional box at St. Alphonsus Church and knelt at the honeycomb screen. I waited inside the booth for the priest to enter his side of the confessional. He slid open the screen and revealed another, more transparent screen so that I could make out the faint outline of his silhouette. I caught the earthy, almost yeasty scent of his robe.
I appreciated the anonymity that the box and screens afforded, but in retrospect it was absurd to think that my confession would ever stay anonymous. Soon my pregnancy would be a very public sin.
In school we were taught to start our confession with the line, Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, it has been ____weeks since my last confession. I sped through the opening line and in the same breath blurted out that I had sex before marriage. He didn’t seem to register what I had said. He paused for a moment, then asked me if I was sorry. I said yes. He assigned me ten Hail Marys and three Our Fathers and shut the screen.
For a couple weeks after my parents and siblings found out about the pregnancy, no one in the house spoke to me. Instead of talking to me, my parents arranged for me to see a counselor through Catholic Social Services.
My mom and dad attended the first session, but after that, I went alone to meet with the therapist and my child’s father; this was the only time the two of us were allowed to see each other. I guess my parents felt that my interactions with him needed to be supervised. As if I might get double pregnant? I decided not to argue with my parents about this ridiculous arrangement with my son’s father; I knew it was their way of making up for the things they wished they had put in place before.
The truth is, if I hadn’t gotten pregnant, my son’s father and I would have ended things when he graduated high school. He was a year ahead of me with plans to go to college, and it wasn’t like we were in love. No one’s serious at seventeen, as Rimbaud pointed out.
Looking back, I don’t really remember the therapy except for one particular session where my counselor looked me dead in the eyes and said, “You wanted this to happen.”
I thought about that time in middle school when my father spied through our living room window at Nicole as she got into a car with an older boy. “She’s going to wind up pregnant at sixteen,” he told me. It was a mislaid oracle, but still prophetic.
In recent years, hauntological psychiatry has taught us that in every nursery there are ghosts. That these ghosts are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents, the uninvited guests at the christening. Psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg says that under favorable conditions the ghosts return to their subterranean dwelling places. But that’s not to suggest they are not capable of mischief.
Unsurprisingly the therapy didn’t do anything to repair the issues that my pregnancy caused between my parents and me. In anger and disgust they said I should just get my GED, not to bother finishing high school. I continued to attend school every day in my uniform skirt. When I couldn’t button my skirt anymore, I zipped it partially and untucked my shirt to hide the gaping. But untucked shirts got you detention. Eventually I had to wear pants because there was no way to wear the skirt with my expanding waist. With the pants came the stares; it wasn’t long before word of my pregnancy spread like locusts across my high school. I was bigger and smaller than I had ever been. I hid in the house. I slept in the middle of the day.
Summer vacation rolled around, and we went on our annual family camping trip. We didn’t go to a real campground— just a recreation park about forty-five minutes from home that had something called a “Tent Village,” rows of A-frame tents on top of concrete slabs. The campground carried a lot of nostalgia for my parents because their parents had also brought them to camp there when they were kids. I also knew we needed to stay close to home while on vacation. My dad was working two jobs and he only had paid vacation time at one of them. While we went to the pool, he drove back to the city to work his second job in the afternoons.
Each slab had a tent with six cots, a covered picnic table, and a small kitchenette inside of a wooden shed. Year after year, my parents rented the same tent in the same row. When my siblings and I hit middle school, my parents rented a second tent, and we were each allowed to bring a friend. This year I came alone.
I read Albert Camus’ The Stranger on a chaise lounge in the sweltering heat, relieved I could sunbathe and no one I knew could see me. I remember being astounded at Mersault’s indifference. I had never read anything like it before. I loved the scene where he went swimming with Marie Cardona and said, I had the whole sky in my eyes and it was blue and gold. I would have given anything to go swimming that summer, but I couldn’t bear putting on a bathing suit.
In Architecture from the Outside, Elizabeth Grosz writes that fantasies about the future are always, at least in part, projections, images, hopes, and horrors extrapolated from the present, though not simply from the present situation but from its cultural imaginary; its self-representation, its own latencies or virtualities. After I became pregnant, everyone around me seemed to reassess their future projections of me.
“I thought you were going to be president one day!” my older brother’s friend said when he found out that summer. “I guess not anymore,” he laughed.
I laughed, too, trying to stay dispassionate.
He was the lead singer in an alternative rock band, a Michael Stipe wannabe who never went on to play a venue bigger than our local VFW hall.
I was thirty-two weeks when I started my senior year of high school. I had managed to stay invisible most of the summer and was dreading going back to school in my condition. I had exceeded what was considered the normal range of healthy weight gain during pregnancy. My mom and aunt had tried to put me on a power-walking regimen. I knew it was about vanity and not my health. I complied for a couple weeks and then made excuses until they stopped asking me about it.
Normally the start of school meant that figure skating practice ramped up again. I had been on a synchronized skating team since I was ten. I lived at the rink, practicing every day before and after school. I would spend the entire weekend from Friday night to Sunday afternoon in various on and off-ice conditioning. It was strange how much free time I had now. I mostly spent it reading Anne Sexton poems and eating Stouffer’s French bread pizzas. If I was feeling especially ashamed of my weight gain and wanted to cut calories, I would lick the seasonings off Cool Ranch Doritos and discard the soggy remains in the trash. I repeated the Weight Watcher’s mantra my aunt had pinned to her refrigerator: What you eat in private, you wear in public.
My coach called me on the Sunday night before school started. I hadn’t spoken to her since I quit the team last spring. I was afraid of her. If any of us messed up the choreography or made an error she made us write sentences as punishment. One time I had to write “I will get the lead out” one hundred times for skating too slow.
My mom came into the living room where I was lying on the couch and handed me the phone. “It’s your skating coach,” she said.
I had managed to bury any feelings I had about figure skating up until that phone call. At first, I actually thought my coach called to yell at me. I don’t remember much about our conversation, but she was kind, said something like she was sorry about my situation and that the team would miss me. I swallowed back tears, whispered thank you, and hung up.
I began to miss the smell of the rink in the early morning and being the first one on the ice just after the Zamboni finished. I used to purposely get out there before the ice had time to dry so I could slice through the shallow puddles of water and watch them ripple out.
The first minutes on the ice were always brutally cold. My teammates and I wore sleeveless leotards. Our bare skin stung when we linked arms, gripping each other’s shoulders tightly so we wouldn’t break the chain. In synchronized skating, the goal was always to look identical. For competition we sprayed our hair black so you could barely tell us apart.
I always started my warmup with progressives, which are kind of like elegant crossovers where you exaggerate the extension of the free leg before it crosses over the other foot. It’s more of a gliding move and is deceptively difficult. I used to lap the rink over and over doing progressives as a kind of meditation.
A few weeks leading up to my son’s birth I stood at the kitchen counter chopping strawberries in my pajamas—a matching silk camisole and shorts. My dad walked in and erupted in anger, “Get upstairs and put some clothes on!” I was stunned and afraid in a way that I had never been. Hyper-aware of my body through my father’s gaze, the way that cockroach-shame had darted out of nowhere and ensnared us both.
I recently found a picture from my son’s christening. I was wearing a brown blouse and a long brown and gold skirt. A headband pulled my shoulder-length hair from my face, revealing just how young I was. I was surprised to see how confident I looked despite the crippling fear and embarrassment I felt at the time. In the picture I had angled him toward the camera and looked right into the lens, smiling.
This past winter I reminisced with my son about his fifth-grade trip to Camp Wolverine. He loved that trip, he said. It was a kind of rite of passage into middle school. I remembered the trip was in early spring, but it was still cold. I knew it would be even colder when they got near the lake. On the morning of the trip, before we left the house, I put his hat and gloves on top of his winter coat and told him he needed to bring them. He hated wearing a hat and gloves. He had a remarkable tolerance for the cold. To this day he avoids wearing a coat if he can. I was constantly buying new hats to replace the ones that were mysteriously lost. At the time he was obsessed with the anime series Yu-Gi-Oh! so I was thrilled when I found him a Yu-Gi-Oh! ski hat. This hat managed to stick around longer than the others.
The students had to be on the bus at 7am sharp. We lived next door to the school, so I walked him over to the parking lot carrying his backpack, lunchbox of snacks, and sleeping bag. When we got to the bus, a group of parents had already assembled with their kids and mounds of bags. He spotted his best friend and ran over where the boy was standing with his mom. I headed over to say hi to her and the other moms.
The chaperones gave a one-minute warning for the kids to say goodbye to their parents before it was time to board the bus. In the trek over, I failed to notice he wasn’t wearing his hat or gloves. By this time, he had also unzipped his coat and it was flapping behind him as he ran toward me to say good-bye. Before I could ask him about it, his best friend’s mom inquired loudly, “Ethan! Where are your hat and gloves?! You’re going to freeze!”
Everyone looked over at my son and then at me. I scanned the group of boys who all had coats zipped up to their chins, hats and gloves intact. I could feel the heat of embarrassment rush into my face. It was a familiar feeling. Like when I attended the PTA meetings and was mistaken as an older sibling. Before I could say anything, she started offering up the extra gloves and hat that she had packed for her own son.
“I told him to bring—”
She cut me off, “Oh it’s no big deal at all! We can’t have him out there freezing. Here.” She put her own son’s hat on my son’s head. Ever since he was born, I had been mortified at accepting anyone else’s hand-me-downs. No matter how well-intentioned they were, I didn’t want people thinking I couldn’t provide for him on my own.
“All right, Penguins, let’s go!” the lead chaperone shouted.
I leaned down to give my son a kiss good-bye, and whispered forcefully to him, “I told you to bring your hat and gloves.” He was either too excited to notice I was upset, or just decided to ignore the vibe. “Bye mom!” he shouted as he bounded up the steps of the bus.
I watched as the school bus rolled out of the parking lot and down our street. I could see my son through the window wearing the plain brown ski hat that wasn’t his.
As we reminisced about Camp Wolverine, I decided not to tell him what I remembered about it, how self-conscious and ashamed I felt when his friend’s mom stepped in to help. I didn’t want my feelings of insecurity as a young mother to overshadow the fond memories he had of that trip. But no matter how infrequent and fleeting those moments of shame are now, they’re still there ready to scamper out when I least expect them.
Even now at forty years old I’m horrified that people might suspect I’m pregnant, of my parents commenting on my weight. Stepping on the scale at the doctor’s office sends my heart racing. A nurse’s innocuous question at a routine check-up—any chance you’re pregnant?—makes me clap back, No, not a chance.
Lately I’ve been having recurring dreams about figure skating. Minutes before the music starts, I realize I don’t know the choreography. I panic and try to fake the moves. Sometimes in the dream I forget how to use my body, what my legs and feet are supposed to do. I can’t complete a crossover. I can’t skate backwards.
I recently woke up from one of these dreams and decided to search old You Tube videos of my skating heroes. I’ve always loved the underdogs, the outcasts, the outlaws of figure skating. Witt. Bonaly. Baiul. Harding. Lapinski. The ones who complicated the ice princess trope—were a little more brute than ballerina. These women did backflips and landed triples—quadruples, even. They defied odds, set records, caused upsets. They wore bright colors, sheer panels, plunging necklines. They drank. They unraveled. They disappeared. They came back.
In my search I stumbled on a documentary about Tonya Harding that I hadn’t seen called Sharp Edges. Sandra Luckow, who was a Yale University student in 1986, made the film for her senior thesis project. It captures the lead-up to Harding’s first National Figure Skating Championship. The film shows all the Harding family demons: abuse, alcohol addiction, poverty, crime. Luckow interviews Harding’s coach at the time who says the skating community is trying to “lift Tanya out of the gutter.”
There is one scene where Harding’s coach and choreographer take her to a department store to buy her a dress for the post-competition gala. They tell her to try on a black off-the-shoulder gown. She emerges from the dressing room, annoyed she can’t zip up the dress, and rolls her eyes when they gush how “darling” she looks. The camera cuts to the choreographer who tells Tanya, “We need to class up our act.” And that’s not a slap in the face she says, rather Tanya just hasn’t had the opportunity to be classy. She tells her they want her to be “sell-able” to people with money who may want to invest in her skating career.
The film ends with Harding in the black dress at the gala. She is smiling and dancing with the other skaters like they’re at a high school dance in a gymnasium. She seems genuinely happy, as if she forgot what the dress was for. She is just a fifteen-year-old kid at a party.
The Harding film made me think about the myth of the troubled teen and its allure. How adults love to either cast these teens off or try to reform them. The way their peers other and alienate them, are maybe even afraid of them. When I was browsing at a used bookstore a couple months ago, I spotted the title of Emily White’s book, Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut. When I read the word “slut,” I felt that familiar jab of shame. I flipped to the middle of the book: Troubled teens are evidence of the way the adult world tries to read itself in kids, to see where adults might have gone wrong and how they might be threatened, Emily White writes.
I think about all the ways my own parents tried to rewrite me as a troubled teen in order to make sense of my pregnancy. How they couldn’t bring themselves to admit that abstinence, despite Catholic dogma, is untenable, that free will often means we choose what gives us pleasure, despite or because of the prohibitions. How instead they desperately tried to see where things may have gone wrong—always searching for the missed mass, the slutty shirt, the bad influence.
But the truth is none of those things were ever there. I was a young girl who loved to figure skate and read poetry. I know my parents loved me, but when adults can’t reconcile what they believe, with what happens in life, they end up telling stories, conjuring myths. We all do.
So, here’s a story: It’s April and I just picked up my son from Lake Superior State University where he’s studying chemistry. His last semester in the U.P. before he moves to Pittsburgh for grad school. We’re driving in a white-out blizzard from Sault Ste Marie to Marquette for what’s supposed to be a mother-son weekend. The drone of AM radio fills the car. I glance over at him and catch him watching the snow fall outside the passenger side window. He’s wearing a North Face jacket with his gloves and hat resting on his lap. Thank god we’re dressed for this, I think.
Sarah Pazur writes education scholarship and Op-Eds. She has a doctorate in Educational Leadership. Her work has appeared in places like EdWeek, Ed Surge, Getting Smart, English Leadership Quarterly and Hybrid Pedagogy. She is currently working on a book chapter on the role of poetry in educational leadership, which is part of a proposal under consideration at Teachers College Press. Sarah Pazur lives in Michigan. You can follow her on Twitter @Saypa.