How I Overcame Getting Pregnant At 17 — And Then Losing My 4-Year-Old To A Preventable Illness

How I was able to make peace with the bad choices I made in my life.

Teen mothers struggles Anna Subbotina, OLHA TSIPLYAR, solidcolours, PixelsEffect | Canva

My earliest memories of my childhood still have echoes of inadequacy and emptiness — memories of watching my parents let contempt get the better of their marriage, then growing acrimonious by the day, separating, and then my dad remarrying. 

They're memories of destitution and vulnerability that only a dysfunctional family can create.

But they're also memories of bad decisions and paying dearly for them, memories of quickly transitioning from a child to a child carrying another child. 


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I became pregnant at 17.

I remember finishing middle school, and because there was no dad and no one to step in, I couldn't join high school.

Mom did menial jobs, bringing home pennies that were barely enough. The fact that I am a special needs person — I lost my hearing after surviving acute meningitis as a child — who required special education only added to their burden. 


When it became apparent that I was never joining high school the following year the year after that or any other following year, I resigned to doing menial jobs to help support my parents and siblings. I was 16, almost a woman, but still certainly a child. 

I became a nanny, then a housekeeper, then a laundry lady, and so began my winding journey of servitude: cleaning, picking, and looking after others. I was doing all the honest work so I could make myself useful and stay out of trouble. I wanted something that would break the monotony of poverty, hopelessness, and lovelessness. 

But then I also did something I'd regret for the rest of my life: I went looking for fulfillment that I couldn't find at home: love, care, and support.  

I found it — or I'd thought I did — in the arms of a man way older than me. It felt like love, although I wasn't so sure. He was charming and funny, and whenever he looked at me, he would tell me I was beautiful and hardworking. I believed him because that's what any 16-year-old would do. I felt appreciated, validated, and loved.


Then, I gave in to it against my better judgment. It felt wrong, illicit, awkward, and unpleasant, but he'd asked for it, and I didn't want him to leave. The very idea of him leaving made me panic with paranoia. I wasn't capable of handling another abandonment, so I chose to hang onto this feeling that felt like love but I wasn't sure was. I never even considered the idea that he was taking advantage of me — or that sex with someone under the age of consent is unlawful. 

Before long, I realized that he only looked for me and at me whenever he needed it, but I couldn't dare complain. His absence, nay, presence in my life helped fill a deep void, which, when I think of it now,  runs even deeper, and nothing — to this day — has ever been able to fill it. 

Then, the inevitable happened. My periods failed to come that month and the next month. 

I knew what that meant, and overwhelmed by panic, I let him know. He stopped telling me I was beautiful and hardworking and then disappeared.


Naturally, my mother was disappointed, as any mother whose 16-year-old gets pregnant would be. She told me outright that she was ashamed of me. She was furious. How could I do this at that age? I knew how bad things were at home. The consuming poverty, the hopelessness, she scolded. How could I bring another innocent life into all this mess? She kicked me out. 

My older, married sister took me in as a charity case. If I ever felt like a victim of life, this unexpected pregnancy left me broken, lost, and disgraced. I attempted abortion, and it backfired. I took the pills, hoping to end it all, but I ended up in hospital, alive, not dead. 

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I delivered my baby, a healthy, beautiful boy. I didn't know what to feel then. My emotions were a bitter concoction of joy, regret, fear, and an enormous sense of responsibility. I was 17.


I was then told I had become a woman and a mother — not a child. I must woman up, nay, mother up. I went back to cleaning, cooking, and being at people's constant beck and call. 

Two years later, I met someone who promised to help me get a better job and settle with my baby. I started a job where I wouldn't have to break my back cooking and scrubbing floors and answering to people who made me feel like a lesser human. 

Also: I stayed with him out of desperation. And he continued to insist on it. I was 19 now; I was supposed to be a little wiser now. But no one ever makes wiser decisions when they are desperate. More than anything, I wanted to do better for my baby. 

So I took precautions, but somehow, I became pregnant again. He stopped talking about the job that was going to give me a new lease of life. I realized then that I only succeeded in compounding my problems and complicating my life further. 


My family, fed up with me, left me to my wits.

My sister kicked me out, and he, as if on cue, disappeared again, too. I ended up finding an organization that rescues teenage mothers with crisis pregnancies. I delivered my baby, a gorgeous little girl. I could have been happy, but I was 19 and alone, with two children. I felt like a freak, an idiot. 

Here I was, living with a disability, no education, no job, and two babies that needed me. At the organization, I learned to sew and create handmade crafts. It ignited in me a new sense of optimism. I could use it to fend for my babies, I hoped. But then, one of them died suddenly.

The boy, two weeks after his fourth birthday. He complained of a stomach ache, and just when I was organizing to get him checked up, he died in my arms as I watched helplessly. The physicians said he died of acute gastroenteritis. 


I felt distraught and lost. I sank deeper into misery, convinced I was a terrible mother who had failed her babies. If I had done better, if I had provided better living conditions, my baby wouldn't have succumbed to the flu or bacteria or whatever it was that caused the stomachache. 

I felt responsible for the loss of my baby, almost going insane with grief. I was convinced I didn't deserve to be a mother — that I was unworthy of anyone's love. Otherwise, why did they all have to go? My dad, my baby daddies, and my son? 

Seeing what an emotional, mental, and financial ruin I was, I offered to give the little girl up for adoption, but there was so much bureaucracy involved that the process flopped. 

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Slowly, over time, I realized no one was coming to stand up for me, and if I still wanted my surviving baby to live, I needed to own up, rise above the misery, and take charge of my life. Fired up with a new resolve and purpose, I made peace with life. It was my turning point. 

I had years of experience cooking, cleaning, and serving people. I knew how to keep living spaces organized and beautiful. I was a self-taught chef and housekeeper, skills that saw me join the hospitality industry. While the income was nowhere near sustainable, it didn't take away my dignity. I dedicated the rest of my energy to raising and loving my daughter

Now in my late 20s, I've yet to cultivate a meaningful relationship with any man thanks to such a traumatic past. I can't get over my own perception of men as selfish, hurtful, unloving creatures. 


My own dad chose to abandon us. He could have stayed to see me through school and life. He could have cared, protected, provided, and it was the same case with all the men who exploited my desperation and naivety.

My mom was as much a victim as I was. She was just as broken. It's me who disappointed her. 

It's been twelve years since I became a mother at 17. Twelve years of resilience, frustrations, and commitment to raising my surviving baby. Twelve years of paying the price of looking for love in the wrong places. 

Sometimes, I look back at my life and realize that the little girl in me still has daddy issues. I still wish there was someone out there who'd love and care for me. And why not? I'm human; it's natural, and no human deserves to be alone. But I'm careful not to make the same mistake thrice.


There's something else, though: my daughter. I go above and beyond, trying to give her all the love and care I possibly can to ensure she has the chance at a solid future. What I can't give her is a father's love, and I know what such a void can do to the human soul. 

I'm currently raising a preteen and questioning my parenting and capabilities as a mother. Will she grow into a happy, fulfilled person, or will she go looking for love in the wrong places?

I only pray history doesn't repeat itself — but if it's up to me, it won't. 

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Teri O'halo McMahonn is a professional memorial writer and author who writes about technology, lifestyle, parenting, hearing loss, and other human interest topics.