It was almost glamorous for about a week to be an unwed teenage mother from Gloucester, Mass., says Boston Magazine’s Rachel Baker. Now reality is setting back in.
Stuff was different before. It used to be that on summer Fridays, Kaila Simpson would push the limits of the “No Loitering” sign in the McDonald’s parking lot near Gloucester High. Or she’d catch a ride, head down Main Street, and past the pier to the Dunkin’ Donuts where her cousin works and where Kaila can score discounted Milky Way hot chocolates, the most delicious drink in the whole world.
But June 20th of this year was no ordinary summer day. Kaila, who had just turned 17, was set up at her kitchen table. And she was even more distracted than usual by her pink Razr phone. Each time it bumped to the tune of Usher’s “His Mistakes,” Kaila would slide off her chair and scamper across the living room in search of clearer reception, leaving a trail of Paris Hilton perfume in her wake. At the window, Kaila raised her normal voice a full octave to offer a drawn-out “Hellooooo,” filtering the happy sound through a wide grin.
This time, it was NBC on the line. They wanted Kaila, along with as many of her pregnant and teenage-mom friends as she could help them find, to appear on the Today show. Chin down, phone glued to her right shoulder, Kaila stroked her messy ponytail as the producer hit her with the full pitch: They’d fly her down to New York, put her up in a fancy hotel, do her hair and makeup. And, on national television, Kaila would wow millions of people with her story. Sounded like a sweet deal. But Kaila had something else in the works. Letting the producer down gently, she told her no thanks. Kaila was sitting on a better offer from The Tyra Banks Show.
The calls rang in all afternoon. Some from other TV producers, others from friends of the family who’d seen Kaila in that morning’s Boston Herald. The Herald had gotten its story when reporters spotted Kaila and a couple of her friends with babies in tow strolling a stretch of waterfront sidewalk known as the Boulevard. It was from these reporters that they first heard of an online Time magazine report that there was some sort of “pregnancy pact” among the girls of Gloucester High—which they, being girls of Gloucester High, found totally bizarre. Things got more intense when they got closer to McDonald’s, where a Channel 7 news team had camped out. “They just whipped out their cameras and started rolling,” Kaila says.
And that’s when Kaila did what she usually does, and took charge. In the clip that ran on Channel 7, she struts across the screen pushing a stroller. She is asked what parents can do to solve this pregnancy “epidemic.” Her hand clenching a cigarette and swatting the sun out of her eyes, she replies, “Get into their kids’ lives. Half the parents around here have no clue what’s going on with their kids.”
All the attention was somewhat intoxicating. Also strange, since, as Channel 7 had failed to mention, Kaila herself was not a teen mother or mother-to-be: The baby she’d been pushing was her 1-year-old niece. Her real role in the whole drama was as her pregnant friends’ spokeswoman. She had always been the agenda setter within her crowd. Why shouldn’t she also be a quasi-agent when the press came calling? Her friends had enough to deal with. This was how she could help. “I know how they are and how they think and everything,” Kaila says. “I basically say what they’re feeling about things because I know them so well.”
So yeah, stuff was different. But it was going to be cool.
It was back in March that people began asking questions. School officials had counted up the number of pregnancies that year at Gloucester High and got 10—which was six more than last year. By the end of the semester, the number had risen to 18. When Time looked into the story, principal Joseph Sullivan told the magazine’s reporter that the phenomenon was a result of a pact. By the time the town’s mayor and school superintendent held a press conference five days later to tell the world there was no evidence of any such thing, it didn’t matter much. Whether or not they had made a deal to get pregnant and raise their kids together, the fact was that 18 high schoolers were going to be mothers. Reporters had a field day stirring in pop-culture references—Juno, Knocked Up, Jamie Lynn Spears—in an effort to provide answers.
Proof of just how insatiable the interest had become was in the backpack full of cash that a couple of National Enquirer staffers lugged with them as they wandered around town, looking for angles and info. Pretty quickly, a lot of media outlets figured out that it was Kaila who held substantial sway with several of the teen moms. This was how the note reading, “Willing to pay to speak with Kaila Simpson,” came to be taped on the front door of her family’s apartment. It was why a reporter and photographer from the Enquirer wound up handing Kaila $200, for which Kaila introduced them to her best friend, Alivia, one of the Gloucester 18.
Alivia is 17, with a petite frame and startled-looking eyes; she gets nervous around strangers. Kaila was thrilled to hook her friend up with the kind of opportunity she never could have brokered for herself. After receiving $500 for an interview, Alivia showed up on the cover of the Enquirer’s July 7 issue, holding her 6-month-old, Xavier. The headline was “We Wanted to Be Like Jamie Lynn.”
But of course the notion that a baby would make their lives anything like that of Disney Channel star Jamie Lynn Spears or any other teen-mother celebrity is crazy. In Gloucester, young mothers push carriages down the Boulevard, the mile-long promenade along Gloucester Harbor. The benches that line the sidewalk provide a good place for changing diapers, and for letting admirers who pass ooh and aah over the cute babies. These strolls often begin or end at the parking lot shared by McDonald’s and the 7-Eleven, right across from the Maplewood housing project. On summer afternoons, the lot is a hot spot for socializing; sometimes it’s a kind of battlefield as well. Kaila’s ex-boyfriend Kyle was stabbed in the gut and nearly killed here in March.
The teens come here because there’s nothing else to do. Plenty of the parking-lot kids come from families with fisherman fathers who are out to sea for weeks. Some kids will finish high school, but if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen—you do what you can. The attitude’s the same toward getting pregnant—an “unplanned blessing,” the girls call it.
When Alivia first told Kaila she was pregnant, it didn’t feel like a scandal to them. It was just a high school girl getting pregnant. Sure, there were a few tears; they knew their lives would change. But the girls weren’t devastated. Alivia had seen lots of her peers become mothers and the challenges didn’t seem impossible. In fact, there were parts of motherhood that seemed exciting. Alivia came to think that this would be a chance to have a family of her own, which is something she’d always wanted. She’s never met her father, and her mother only surfaces once in a while. The grandmother she used to live with died a few years back, and so Alivia moved in with an aunt, who subsequently died of a heroin overdose. From there it was on to another aunt’s house.
Alivia was sure it was love that she felt for the father. He was 21, a Brazilian immigrant, and she was attracted to his maturity and his sense of humor. Before he and Alivia got together, he and Kaila had hooked up. But any awkwardness between the girls had long since disappeared—Kaila and Alivia were too tight to let any boy get in the way. He was the first person Alivia had ever slept with, and when he took the news of the pregnancy with a smile (“He tells me that girls have babies in Brazil at 13,” she says), Alivia felt pretty good. She fantasized about getting an apartment with him.
Not long after Alivia and Kaila had started telling people, their friend Meaghan pulled Alivia aside during math class. Meaghan wondered what it was like to be pregnant. When she admitted she was going to have a baby, too, it was a relief for Alivia to know she had a friend in the same spot. That’s when they made an agreement (sort of like a pact, maybe, if you wanted to twist it that way) to raise their babies together. Meaghan had grown up with Kaila and Alivia in the Maplewood projects. As kids they all played arcade games at Bonkers and Good Times before graduating at some point to scrounging for littered cigarette butts to smoke. In elementary school, they practically memorized their favorite movie, Riding in Cars With Boys, in which Drew Barrymore plays a girl who gets pregnant at age 15 but still manages to make her dreams come true. Raising families would be the next experience they could share. They’d stroll together on the Boulevard—Kaila could bring her niece, Kaycie—and it would be great.
After school, Kaila and Alivia worked at McDonald’s, where their managers made sure to schedule the chatty friends for different shifts. The work could be tough, especially for a pregnant girl. One afternoon Alivia passed out in the kitchen while working the apple pie oven. She later angered her bosses when she said she could no longer lift the heavy fryers that had to be taken apart for cleaning at the end of the day. A few weeks later, Kaila phoned to say that she couldn’t come in the next day, that Alivia had gone into labor prematurely and she needed to be with her. They told her not to come back.
Alivia’s son, Xavier, was delivered by emergency C-section nearly three months before he was due. (There are higher risks associated with teen pregnancies because, as a group, teenagers are less likely to eat and sleep and care for their bodies the way obstetricians advise.) Doctors rushed the baby by ambulance from the North Shore to Children’s Hospital in Boston; later that night, Alivia, still woozy from the surgery, was shuttled to Boston in an ambulance with a couple of friends.
Xavier had a list of health problems so long and severe that the doctors weren’t sure he would make it. He’d been born with a hole in his heart, bleeding in his brain, and cysts in his airway. To Alivia it seemed as if the doctors were also wondering how far they should go to save him. “They said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I didn’t want [Xavier] to hurt his whole life,” Alivia says. The boy’s father insisted that every effort be made—a bit of parental dedication that Alivia now finds ridiculous, given that his parenting has been almost totally hands-off ever since.
Xavier was released from Children’s last spring, and Alivia says he’s fared better than she expected. “His medical issues—it’s been more than normal,” she says. Doctors are still uncertain, though, what complications the boy will face as he gets older. He may never be able to walk. He may be slow. It’s just too soon to tell.
From a longer story that appears in the current issue of Boston magazine. © 2008 Metro Corp. All rights reserved.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- How U2 became the new Nickelback
- Russia is stealthily threatening America with nuclear war
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- California's epic drought
Subscribe to the Week