Beating the Odds: A Teen Mother's StoryBy Susan Bush
12:00AM / Monday, February 20, 2006
Pownal, Vt. - Nicole Bushika has a vivid recollection of the day she learned that she was pregnant with twin girls.
|Nicole Bushika and daughters Aubrey and Taylor [submitted photo]|
Her mom had accompanied Bushika to an ultrasound appointment.
"The nurse turned to my mother and said 'well, Grandma, I see two heads,'" Bushika said. "There were tears welling up, and then there was like this silence that I think went on for days."
There were valid reasons for some concerns.
"You think you are in a bad boat when you are 14 and you are pregnant," Bushika said during a Feb. 21 interview at her home. "When you find out it's twins, you know it will be twice the struggle."
Overcoming the Challenges
For the past eight years, Bushika has met and in most cases mastered, every teen-age motherhood challenge that came her way. Now 23, she and seven-year-old daughters Aubrey and Taylor live independently in a two-bedroom apartment. The girls are second-grade students at the Pownal Elementary School, Bushika is a part-time employee at the Port-A-Brace manufacturing company in North Bennington and a part-time Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts student.
She will graduate later this year from Community College of Vermont in Bennington with an associate's degree in liberal studies; her MCLA goal is to earn a bachelor's degree in sociology. Bushika's current focus is social work.
Aubrey and Taylor are exactly what one would expect of energetic little girls; they enjoy writing original stories, creating artwork, attending school, playing with friends, and riding their bicycles. Taylor, described by Bushika as the "tomboy," is eagerly learning to ride her bike sans training wheels, while Aubrey is hesitant about making the leap to just two wheels, Bushika said.
"They really love learning," she said. "They are so awesome. Once in a while, they'll say 'I hate school,' and I say 'OK, who did you hear that from?' and I get right to work getting them back on the right track. We don't have [television] cable; if we did, they'd get stuck in front of the television and so would I. The reading wouldn't get done, the homework wouldn't get done. We all have quiet reading time and I have created a reward system that uses DVDs."
Aubrey and Taylor Bushika at a summer 2005 community event.
She does not advocate teen-age parenting, she emphasized. The struggles are enormous and can seem impossible to manage. Life as a teen-age mother is very difficult under any circumstances.
But she does want people to know that teen-aged mothers are not "lost causes." And she wants teen-age mothers to know that their children aren't excuses for failure but are reasons to work long and hard toward accomplishment.
Bushika is clearly beating the odds and besting every preconceived notion associated with teen-age mothers. There are no miracles to her story, no rescues or generous benefactors who came to her aid.
For the most part, Bushika hasn't relied heavily on public assistance.
Bushika relied on herself.
Because of her age, her pregnancy was termed "high risk" from the beginning. She understood the concept of being pregnant, but had little understanding about the realities of the road ahead, Bushika said.
"I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew that I had a high-risk pregnancy, and I don't know if it was a coping mechanism, but I was really just very passive while I was pregnant."
The twins were born in May 1998. Aubrey was delivered without incident but Bushika underwent an emergency Cesarean section delivery for Taylor. One baby weighed 4 pounds, 11 ounces at birth, the other weighed 5 pounds 13 ounces.
"They were perfectly healthy," she said. "I was fortunate; we stayed at the hospital for the normal two-and-a-half day stay and then we went home."
"Home" was an apartment shared with her mother. Bushika's mother was employed full-time, and Bushika, who had celebrated her 15th birthday while pregnant, now had to care for two babies with her own two hands.
18 Hours of Bottles and Diapers
"It was hard," she said. "I stayed on a very strict schedule. I knew when they were hungry and for the most part, I sat Indian-style and held the girls on my thighs. I fed them at the same time that way. When they got bigger, when they got to be a couple months old and that method didn't work anymore, I fed them 45 minutes apart."
She felt "self-conscious" about her teen-age parenting, she said, and so she documented everything she did for her babies.
"I remember there was a 24-hour period that for 18 hours, almost all I did was feed and diaper," she said.
Bushika's boyfriend was a presence during her pregnancy and for a time after the girls were born, but Bushika said that she recognized he wasn't prepared to tackle the responsibility of the children.
"I did try to work toward having that father figure, but I knew that he wasn't going to be around," she said. "So I decided not to waste my time fighting for something that wasn't going to be."
At that point, Bushika supported herself and her children with a monthly dependent allowance from the Social Security Administration, which she received as a dependent of a disabled adult. She and the twins were eligible for state health care and the Women's, Infants, and Children [WIC] nutrition program.
"That was what I had, my mom worked, so we didn't qualify for public assistance," she said.
"I Knew I Needed An Education"
Bushika did not leave high school when she became pregnant. She continued to attend ninth grade classes enrolled in a girls' program affiliated with the Mount Anthony Union High School until her obstetrician ordered her to bed rest. After the twins were born, Bushika knew that she wanted to return to public school.
"I knew I needed to go back to school," she said. "I knew I needed an education."
She wanted to return to the girls program as a 10th grade student at the start of the 1998-99 school year, but the medically necessary bed rest caused Bushika to miss more class time than was permitted by the school.
"I had only gone over by just a few days but they wouldn't let me make it up and go back as a 10th grader," she said.
She refused to give up on her education and began to research what options might be open to her, Bushika said. Her search brought her to the Sunrise Family Resource Center in Bennington.
"They were great and I owe them a lot," Bushika said. "They really helped me. You work really closely with them. They introduced me to their program, called 'Vermont Home Room.'"
First, A GED
Because of her age, only a high school diploma alternative, the GED program, was open to Bushika. By 1999, she had earned a GED and had also completed a life skills class. During the class, she became acquainted with other single mothers, some young, some older, but most with one thing in common: a penchant for complaining about their boyfriends and their lives.
"It was then that I knew I had other goals," she said. "I knew I didn't want to be sitting around complaining about what my man was doing. Seeing all that and listening to it, especially from some of the older women, it really cleared my head about what I wanted."
During that time, a home health nurse offered assistance to Bushika and the twins received child care at the Child Care Connection facility, which has since closed.
Once Bushika had a GED in hand, she visited the state's Bennington-based Department of Employment and Training office. Her goal was to learn all she could about getting and keeping a job, she said.
"I'd never held a job in my life, so I wanted to know about everything that was out there."
A "Working Mom"
She benefited from a career aptitude test and participated with a DET-sponsored Workforce Investment Act program. The program's administrators placed Bushika at an American Red Cross Bennington chapter office as a secretary for the agency's youth services programs division.
"And as a teen-age secretary for youth services, Nicki couldn't keep her mouth shut," Bushika said with a chuckle. "I had to tell them all my ideas about youth programs."
The agency officials took her suggestions seriously, and developed a relationship with the AmeriCorps program. Bushika was hired through the program as a "promise fellow" and was paid via a grant.
"The Red Cross [office] became my host site," she said.
The job required Bushika to be a leader with youth program creation and implementation, and "it was the best job in the world."
"One of my programs was a story hour at the library," she said. "I instructed first aid and did baby-sitter training. I did baby-sitter training at schools all over, even Stamford [Vt.]."
Her female supervisor became a role model, Bushika said.
"She was a strong, independent, woman and she really inspired me," Bushika said. "She became a mentor. I knew I wanted a college education and I knew that I didn't want to go to college with a GED. I was reaching 18 years old, and that meant that I could go for my high school diploma."
By this time, Bushika and her daughters were living on their own in Bennington. Bushika enrolled as a Bennington Tutorial Center high school diploma program student in February, the month of her 18th birthday.
A High School Diploma And A New Challenge
The challenge ahead went much farther than simply acquiring the diploma. If Bushika could successfully meet the program requirements by May - a mere three months - she would be able to accept her diploma at the Mount Anthony high school graduation ceremony as a member of the Class of 2001. And the Class of 2001 was the class she'd expected to be part of when she began high school.
"I knew that to be able to graduate with my original class, I had to complete the portfolio by May," she said, and noted that the class usually takes many more months to complete. "I knew I was going to have to work my [butt] off. It was the first really big goal that I set for myself. And I did it. It was very important to me to do this."
Most people were pessimistic about her chances of a 2001 graduation, but Bushika said that she wanted to succeed for herself and for her daughters, who were learning from her actions.
Nicole Bushika at home in Pownal, Vt..
"Not many people were encouraging at all," she said. "But when I earned that diploma, it felt like a weight had lifted off my shoulders. I knew if I could write my goals down, I could accomplish them. And that's why I have my 'life map.'"
The 'life map' hangs on Bushika's bedroom door, and documents past accomplishments, such as the twins' birth, their first day of kindergarten, and Bushika's high school graduation. The map also contains future plans, such as Bushika's anticipated MCLA graduation, the twins' 16th birthday and their high school graduation. A trip to Disney World holds a place on the map.
The upcoming CCV graduation is listed as well, and Bushika credits Sunrise family center worker Jan Bopp with helping make that dream come true.
On To College
Bushika was among the first non-traditional CCV students to participate in a program initiated by Bopp, the tutorial center and CCV. The program provided free textbooks for a trio of free introductory classes: Career and Life Planning, Effective Leadership, and Introduction to College Studies. Bushika was among several of the 15 students who enrolled to complete the three courses. She also tackled a fourth class, which was not part of the program and was not offered for free.
She qualified for a post-secondary education pilot program when she enrolled at CCV in pursuit of an associate's degree. The program offered a modest living allowance and permitted participants to maintain state-funded health care and federal food stamps and included college attendance requirements. Bushika exceeded the attendance requirement by taking classes year-round, she said.
Bushika worked full-time throughout her CCV endeavor. She enrolled in daytime classes and arranged to take work home at night so that she could be home with the twins during the evenings. She was forced to enroll in one evening class because that was the only time the class was offered, she said.
"I really wanted to do it that way," she said. "I was already working and I felt awful that as a single parent, I would have to spend more time away from the girls. So I did everything I could during the day."
Bushika demonstrated perseverance and patience during her quest for an associate's degree.
"I never thought it would take me three-and-a-half years to earn a two-year degree," she said. "It really is hard, and I can't imagine how long it will take me to earn my bachelor's [degree]. But I will earn it."
"We Are Pursuing Education Together"
When Aubrey and Taylor were three years old, they were enrolled in a Head Start program.
"I was so excited that they would be learning," Bushika said.
And when the girls began kindergarten in 2003, "I was the only mom who brought a camcorder and a camera."
"We did the 'kinder-camp' thing [a program that introduces children to kindergarten just prior to the start of school], and I knew then that they were growing up," Bushika said. "We are pursuing education together, and the girls know the importance of education."
Bushika has benefited from education grant revenues but has also had to acquire education loans as well. She will graduate with a significant amount of debt due to education loans, she said.
But setting an example for her daughters and carving out an independent, successful life for her family is well worth any financial payback, she said.
Standing On Her Own Two Feet
"When you listen to girls who were teen-age moms, you hear about the boyfriend this and the boyfriend that," she said. "I was talking to somebody recently and it was 'oh, my boyfriend got approved for a mortgage," and "oh, my boyfriend owns this business.' There is clear recognition in my mind that I will be the one to say 'I was approved for a mortgage,' not 'my boyfriend was approved for a mortgage.'"
She is planning a career in human services.
"I know I want the kind of job that involves community," Bushika said. "I can see myself working as a case worker at a place like Sunrise. I would like to work with teen-age mothers, and I'd really like to work with teen-age pregnancy prevention."
Bushika said that "labeling" can be detrimental; she has been termed a "delinquent," categorized as a "teen mother," and both designations carry stereotypes that can beat down self-esteem.
She persevered because she refused to accept being typecast for life.
"Sometimes it doesn't seem real," Bushika said. "When I look back, I remember when I first started out it was 'what I wouldn't give for my driver's license,' 'what I wouldn't give for a car, ' or 'what I wouldn't give for my own apartment.' And I got those things. Now it's about getting my degrees."
There are no magic words, no clever turns of phrase that will make challenges easier for teen-age mothers, Bushika said. The only thing she's found that works is, well, work.
"There isn't just one message," she said. "One thing the moms have to do is look at the lives they have through the eyes of their children. And you are not going to get anything unless you work for it."
Accomplishing one goal can lead to another, Bushika said.
"When I went for my high school diploma, I told myself that whatever time I needed to put into it, I would," she said. "I knew that I had to have it for my own development and to face what was ahead. The girls know the value of education and I want them to know that women don't need to be with men for success. There is nothing I hold back from them. They are living this life as well as I am. They have a right to know what is going on. I want them to grow up in their own time, when they are ready."
Bushika is hopeful that she is teaching one lesson particularly well.
"I want them to know about being a teen-aged parent because I've shared stories with them, not from their own experience. I am afraid of when they get older, of what can happen. I want them to be educated about sex and pregnancy. I want them to know what they can do on their own. I want them to know...they are my princesses."
Susan Bush can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-823-9367.