You can devour all the statistics and expert commentary you want on teenage pregnancy, but there's nothing quite like sitting in a living room with an unwed 17-year-old mother and listening to her tell you how Daddy's little girl made a royal mistake.
If she could only turn back the clock. If only she were as mature a year ago as she feels today. If she just hadn't been so rebellious and so foolish and so trusting.
These are always poignant stories, detailing the kind of life-altering moments that occur behind closed doors in neighborhoods rich and poor. They can rend families apart and consign young mother and newborn to lives of turmoil and regret.
That, Diane Lopez tells me in quiet but emphatic terms, is not gonna happen. Not to her and certainly not to her 6-week-old son, Nathan.
We're talking in the early evening in her comfortable Fountain Valley home, the one she has lived in since first grade. She's 17 now and reflecting on the "rocky road" that 2005 represents, starting with being 16 and discovering that she was pregnant, and then lurching into estrangement from her father, spending several months at a Tustin shelter for unwed pregnant teens and returning home in summer after reconciling with her father.
And then, the birth of her son in late September.
She jokes about feeling like she's in her 20s. I ask if she means she's aged. "Matured," she says.
I'd written recently about sex education in high school and asked why we wouldn't want to make sure teenagers were fully informed. Lopez smiles at that, saying that teen girls know all they need to know about sex, no matter how dumb they may act. She'd been dating a boy she'd known since junior high and was using a contraceptive. When she told him of the unplanned pregnancy, he broke off their relationship.
She and I are talking the night before Californians vote on whether to require that parents be notified before their underage daughters get abortions. Lopez opposes the idea, saying it would affect only families that don't communicate well or where the daughter might feel threatened with disclosure. "If people say yes on [Proposition] 73, I see girls going to an extreme extent to have an abortion," she says.
Abortion wasn't in the cards for her. She decided early on to have the baby and not to put it up for adoption. Her few months at Mary's Shelter in Tustin helped her develop some personal discipline and focus; it also reminded her how much she missed her home and family.
On Mother's Day, she felt the baby's first kick. On Father's Day, she gave her father a picture of the ultrasound and a written note of apology, which she read to him. Amid tears, the two reconciled and she moved back into her parents' home that includes two older sisters.
Lopez's story is not a sad one, but it is sobering. I ask what she would tell other teenage girls about having babies. "If they'd listen, you mean?" she says, wryly.
With that proviso, she says, "I'd tell them: You don't want to have a kid. They're beautiful, they're great, but you don't want to do it right now. They're too much. You don't know what you're getting yourself into until you have it. It's not a puppy. You have to deal with it every single day. You can't lock them up. You can't tell them, 'Don't bug me, don't cry, let me sleep, let me eat.' "
She's not whining. She's speaking softly but with complete composure. She sounds amazed how much her son's birth has redefined her identity, which she concedes was that of a rebellious teenager who thought life was served on a silver platter.
Lopez laments that other girls in the continuation high school she now attends remind her of her old self. "The things they say, I used to say," she says. "Now it sounds so ridiculously stupid. I can't believe I said those things. Just childish talk. But I know I said them too. That's how I know I've matured."
Life throws curveballs at us. Sometimes we whiff; sometimes we don't.
I'm going to take a guess that Lopez won't whiff. For now, her family is helping her care for Nathan. She's hopeful his father, also 17, will assume some responsibility. Once, they had talked of marrying at 21 and taking two honeymoons and starting a family. "We had our whole life planned out," she says.
Smart enough to realize the mistake she made and thoughtful enough not to be ashamed of it, Lopez strikes me as someone who can hit the curveball.
She's planning on college and law school. "I know what I want, and I'm going for it," she says, without a hint of bluster. "I know I'm going to be someone, and I'm going to bring my son ahead in life."
Dana Parsons can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.