“When are these kids ever gonna wise up?” asked Ellen, the older charge nurse, as she shook her head in frustration. “This is the third young single girl tonight that I’ve treated that is pregnant. And this one is pregnant for the third time. She’s not married and probably never will be.”
“The guy is probably some jerk who thinks he’s a stud, just ‘droppin’ his seed,” said Takia, one of the younger nurses. “I see guys like that all the time.”
“Don’t blame the guys,” said Jamal. “He’s just doin’ his thing. Makin’ sure his genes make it into the next generation. It’s ‘survival of the fittest.’ That’s evolution, baby. You gotta reproduce.” Jamal was going to community college and working at the ED at night. He loved to antagonize the nurses with his male chauvinist banter. “Hey, nobody made them get pregnant, did they? None of them were raped, were they?”
“Hey, we’re not talking about sexual freedom here gang,” I said, jumping into the conversation. “That war was fought and won in the 60’s. You can have sex with anybody or anything you want these days. It’s practically your constitutional right. The problem is that there is someone here who is not being considered, and that’s the baby. Do you know that 70% of the boys in juvenile detention homes who are serving long term sentences are from single mother homes?”
“Hey, I’m a single mom,” Kathy said, walking across the nurses’ station to enter the conversation. “And I resent the implication of that statement. I can’t help it if my son’s father is an ass who never comes around. In fact, I never want him to come around. And I sure as hell would never marry him.”
“Well, then,” I said, too fatigued to hear the ice cracking beneath me, “why did you decide to have a baby with that guy? If you knew he was bad, why did you start a family with him?”
“Look,” she responded defensively, “I didn’t plan to get pregnant. It just happened.”
“You’re a nurse. You can’t tell me you didn’t know about birth control. I know you’re not allergic to latex.” I looked up to see Ellen glaring at what I had started. Her look seemed to say “You better end this if you know what’s good for you…and quick.”
“The birth control pill made me sick. Besides the doctor told me I couldn’t take it anyway…”
“Because you smoked and it would increase your risk of PE, right?” After I finished her sentence, it seemed that smoke might start coming out of her ears.
“If I don’t smoke, I’ll get fat. And that’s not good for your health either.”
“So, let me see if I get this straight. You didn’t take birth control so you could smoke. And because of that you had a son out of wedlock. Do you know that your son is five times more likely to commit suicide than a boy with a father in the home? He’s nine times more likely to drop out of school, ten times more likely to use drugs, 14 more times likely to commit rape, 20 times more likely to end up in prison, and 32 times more likely to run away from home?” Even I couldn’t believe that I had just said all that. Something had been bottled up, waiting to escape. But it was all true. “Who’s watching your son tonight?” From the look on her face, I realized that while the previous statements had made her angry, this last question terrified her.“He’s home alone. He likes to play computer games and surf the net,” she said quietly with a hint of shame. “I can’t always get someone to stay the whole night with him.”
“Do you block the net so he doesn’t get into porn,” I asked quietly. I could see the frustration and ambivalence welling up in her expression.
“Hey, the young man has to learn about the way of women somewhere,” Jamal said, swaggering back into the conversation.
“Jamal, shut up,” Takia said with authority. “At least she didn’t have an abortion. Doctor P, not every boy raised by a single mother ends up in prison. Look at President Obama.” I knew that Takia was from an intact family and she was trying to take up the case for her friend.
“Of course not,” I said, finally showing some compassion. “Lots of single moms do a terrific job raising their sons. But that’s not the ideal way, is it? You wouldn’t do it that way if you didn’t have to, would you?” I put my hand on Kathy’s shoulder. “I respect the fact that you didn’t have an abortion.”
“But Obama was raised by his grandfather and grandmother,” I added clinically, squandering any good will I had been able to retrieve previously. The charge nurse who was following the conversation looked at me in utter disbelief. I’ve gotten a similar look from my wife from time to time when I’ve made really insensitive bonehead comments.
“I make pretty good money. It’s not like we live in a bad neighborhood like…” she said dropping the last of the sentence and nodding gently toward Takia and Jamal. But they both caught the gesture of bigotry and betrayal.
“The white girl thinks that only black people do drugs and time,” Jamal glared, taking the toothpick out of his mouth that usually hung from his lips like a cigarette.
“Jamal, shut… up!” Takia almost shouted. She took a deep breath. “I can’t believe you’d say that, Kathy.”
“She’s right,” I said. “Having money and living in a white neighborhood doesn’t change things. The truth of the matter is that while the African-American community has its problems with too many out of wedlock births, when a study recently controlled for single motherhood the difference in black/white crime rate completely disappeared. It’s not a black/white thing. It’s family thing. Hey, we’ve all been affected by this problem either directly or indirectly. The sixties sold us a bill of goods. I’m not immune either. But I think it’s time that we did something about it. Speaking of Obama, he’s for change. I hope this is one thing that he starts to change. Hey, if we can put posters on the walls to get people to stop smoking and start buckling up their seat belts, maybe we can get people to think about creating families to nurture children in. If C. Everett Koop can start us on the road to a smoke-free society, maybe Sanjay Gupta can begin rebuilding families to raise healthy children.”
“Pick your face up out of the paper and go to bed,” my wife said as she passed the breakfast table. I opened my eyes to see that I was about an inch from the headline. Where am I? I thought. I looked at the paper. The headline read “Thirteen Year Old Rapes and Kills Neighbor”. The thought horrified and saddened me. How did this happen? Then I thought: Did I really have that conversation last night. I hope not. How embarrassing.