How I Got off 'Mental Welfare'

By O'Neal, Lucille | Newsweek, April 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

How I Got off 'Mental Welfare'


O'Neal, Lucille, Newsweek


Byline: Lucille O'Neal

I still remember walking into my house that summer day in 1971 and seeing my mother and grandmother waiting for me in the living room. They were the two most important women in my life, and they'd joined forces to confront me about something I'd been denying: my pregnancy. I was 17 and unmarried. The news was particularly unpleasant because my family was religious, and being pregnant would be embarrassing for everyone around me. It was a painful moment in my life, but this is how the impending birth of Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal was announced in my home. Thirty-eight years later, that memory resurfaces every time I see a pregnant girl who is unclear about her future.

At 55, I can't imagine myself sitting in that living room with my head down, hands folded in my lap, fighting back tears. Back then my family wanted honest answers about why I had gotten myself in the "family way." With no job or higher education, I could barely take care of myself, and having a baby so young would end--or greatly delay--a chance of a promising future. As a teen, I wasn't able to verbalize the reasons for what I'd done. But in retrospect, I imagine the reasons then were the same as they are now for many girls who find themselves in similar circumstances.

I've thought about this a great deal in recent months as the news reported a 3 percent increase in teen pregnancies after more than a decade of declining rates. Abortions are also up 1 percent for the first time since 1990. And for African-American women, the numbers are even more disturbing. Black women account for nearly 40 percent of abortions in this country.

The reasons for this may perplex some, but not me. My childhood was filled with heartache, the biggest being my parents' divorce when I was 3. My brother, my sister, and I were separated from our mother, and what followed was years of self-doubt and low self-esteem. …

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