Published on November 14th, 2017 | by Nina Packebush0
Too Queer, Too Poor, Too Young: An Excerpt From Nina Packebush’s GIRLS LIKE ME
If teenage mothers are underrepresented in literature, queer teen parents are almost entirely absent. Yet, as a recent study by Teenwise Minnesota revealed, LGBTQIA teens are two to seven times more likely to experience teen pregnancy than their straight counterparts.
“As a working-class teenage mom and avid reader, I was never able to find myself represented in books,” Nina Packebush says. “It was a lonely feeling that increased my feelings of worthlessness and isolation. Later, when I came out as queer, the chances of seeing myself represented in novels—even adult novels—became even less likely.”
Packebush’s bold new YA novel, Girls Like Me, tells the story of Banjo Logan, a pregnant, queer-identified sixteen-year-old. After waking up in a juvenile mental ward, Banjo “realizes that the clueless therapist and shiny psychiatrist can’t help her come to terms with her genderqueer boy/girlfriend’s suicide, much less help her decide what to do with the fetus that’s growing inside her or answers the question of why she cuts” (Bedazzled Ink Publishing). Throughout the novel, Packebush weaves Banjo’s story with honesty and compassion, adding an essential voice to the discussion on teen pregnancy.
Girls Like Me is what happens when teen parents are given the space to speak our truths: a narrative that is at once heartbreaking and hopeful, filled with the messy details that make up real life. The characters in the book are nuanced, complex, and impossible to forget. Banjo puts it best: “Girls like me, we were survivors.” – Jen Bryant
MOM PULLED UP to the Women’s Clinic, “Ready?” “No.” “It’ll be okay, sweetie.” I doubted that.
We walked through the polished glass doors into a lavender room filled with overstuffed chairs in various pastel colors. The walls were covered in watercolor paintings of mothers and babies, most of them sitting in soft focus flower gardens. We made our way to the check-in counter. The thin woman behind the desk smiled at Mom.
“Hello,” she chirped.
Mom returned her smile. “My daughter has an appointment at one-thirty with Dr. McCanne. Amanda Logan.” As Mom said this, I realized that I should probably be the one to be checking in. I suppose that would be the grown-up mom thing to do, but I stayed silent.
The receptionist’s gaze shifted from my mom to me. Her smile melted into stern judgment. The woman looked me up and down, her eyes resting just a moment too long on my chopped up, scraggly hair—which had grown out into some sort of mad scientist style of a disaster—before moving down to my watermelon belly sticking out under the men’s shirt. She handed me a clipboard and pen. “Please fill this out and return it to me when you’re finished.” Her voice was hard.
Mom put her hand on my back as we made our way to two empty chairs. The room was filled with women, some with brand new infants in car seats, some with swollen bellies. A few had, what I assumed to be, husbands sitting next to them. All were much older than I was. I felt their eyes on me as we passed them.
“This sucks,” I whispered to Mom. “I feel like a freak.”
“I know, baby. I’ve been there. Just try to ignore them.” I filled out the paperwork and returned it to the desk. I heard a little boy say, “Mommy is that boy gonna have a baby?” My fingers dug in. It didn’t bother me that he thought I was a boy because sometimes I totally felt like a boy, what bothered me is that girls like me didn’t fit into this heteronormative, middle class, shiny white world. I was too queer, too poor, too much in the middle of the gender binary, and too young. Did my baby even stand a chance?
I made my way back to my seat, flopped down, and picked up one of the parenting magazines from the small table next to us. A blond mom and her blond son smiled back at me. Today’s Most Amazing Moms was the feature story followed by 14 Totally Awesome Breakfast Hacks for Toddlers to Teens and Disneyland Planning Made Easy.
I flipped through the pages. All the moms looked straight and, if not rich, definitely not poor. They were all at least ten years older than me with husbands and houses and all the other things that you were supposed to have to make sure your kids turned out okay. I would never be any of these women that smiled back at me and my baby would never be one of these kids. Shame seemed to seep out of the magazine, up my fingers, and through my body. I felt sorry for my baby.
She would be better off if I found some fancy couple to adopt her. She could have a mom and a dad and all the things this magazine said she needed.
I flipped to an article titled How to Help Your Teenager Make Good Choices. I leaned over and showed Mom. “Maybe you should have read this article?”
Mom looked at me with tired, sad eyes and sighed. “Amanda Logan,” a tiny woman called from the doorway. Mom and I stood. I heard the little kid say, “See, Mommy, that boy has a baby in his tummy.” The mom shushed him as my mom took my hand in hers and we followed the nurse into the reality that I had been trying so hard to avoid.
Half an hour later I was sitting on the edge of the exam table, totally naked under my paper gown. My butt stuck to the waxy paper cover on the table and made jagged crinkling noises every time I tried to adjust myself. Mom had returned to the waiting room. There was a brief tap on the door before it swung open and a woman in her early fifties with wild gray hair and thick-rimmed glasses stumbled in. She seemed less like a doctor and more like an absent-minded professor. She looked at me, confusion spreading over her face. “Amanda Logan?”
“Yes, but um I go by Banjo.”
“Well, hello, Banjo.” She seemed to regain her composure. “I’m Doctor McCanne, but you can just call me Alice if you’d like. I mean, if I’m going to be digging around down there we shouldn’t be so formal, am I right?” She winked. “I must admit you took me by surprise. I was expecting someone older. I hope that doesn’t offend you, but I like to be honest with my patients. I mean, if you don’t have honesty what do you have?” Her words came out sharp and fast.
I couldn’t decide if I liked her, but I thought maybe I did. She reminded me just a tiny bit of Pru. She sat down on her little rolling chair and slid over to the computer in the corner and brought up my chart.
“So let’s just confirm that the information here is correct.” After we confirmed my name, birthdate, address, and the rest she turned back to me. “So you’re sixteen?”
“Yes,” I said.
She faced me. “And you don’t plan to give this baby up for adoption, is that correct?”
I felt myself stiffen with embarrassment, though I was not really sure why.
“I’m not really sure.”
“Okay, that’s fine. You’re past the time that we would typically think of abortion as an option unless it was medically necessary, so either way you will be giving birth to this little peanut.”
She turned back to her computer and with her back to me she said, “Is anyone pressuring you regarding what choice to make?”
“No,” I said quietly.
“You’re aware of your options?” “Yes.” “If you do choose adoption, an open adoption is often a really good choice, but that’s for you to decide.” “Yeah, that’s what I plan to do. I mean if I don’t keep her.”
When those words came out of my mouth I felt the tears build. “Well good. Congratulations,” she said, smiling as she turned back to me. “Have you seen the movie Juno? It might be a little bit before your time, still it’s a wonderful movie, but then I think Ellen Page is wonderful so I may be biased.” I was to eventually find out that when it comes to pregnant teenagers, adults could be divided into three types. There were the horrified, you will burn in hell because you’re a dirty slut types. There were the former teen mom or friend of a teen mom types who were more or less cool and supportive and then there were the have you seen Juno people. These were the hardest ones because you never knew if they were suggesting adoption or just grasping for some way to connect with you. I didn’t know this yet though. This was to be my first encounter with the Juno Type.
“No,” I mumbled.
“Well, it’s a good movie, but not entirely realistic if you ask me. It’s about a teenage girl who gives her baby up for adoption. I happen to think it plays into a whole lot of stereotypes about teenage mothers, but for some reason I still like it. Not many girls can just give their baby up for adoption and go on their merry way. That’s not reality, but it’s a sweet movie.
“In my opinion the only moment of reality in the whole movie was when Juno was in the hospital crying after the birth of her baby. The rest of it . . . well, it was pretty far-fetched, but I won’t ruin it for you. Watch it if you get a chance. Great soundtrack.
“And, by the way, I’m not suggesting that you give your baby up.” She must have read my mind. “Having a baby at your age, well, any age actually, but especially at your age, is no walk in the park, but you can do it if you want to. Don’t let anyone tell you different, okay, sweetheart? But this is your choice and whatever choice you make is the right choice. Okay? Do what you think is best for you. Not what’s best for your boyfriend or your parents or even the baby, because what’s best for you is what’s best for that baby and only you and the baby matter in this decision.”
She turned back to her computer. “Okay, just a few more questions. Are you on any medications, Banjo?”
“No . . . I mean, yes.” I was suddenly afraid. Doctor Jack had said that if I didn’t comply with my terms of release he would make the courts force me to take my meds or try to take the baby. And even though I might give the baby up, I definitely didn’t want CPS to take her from me and put her in a foster home or something.
I had no idea if Doctor Jack would somehow find out whether I was taking my meds or not, but it seemed like a bad idea to lie to my obstetrician.
Alice must have heard the fear in my voice because she spun her chair around again, her face stern. “Banjo, it’s very important that I have a complete health history for you. We want to make sure you have a healthy baby.”
“I’m supposed to be taking Seroquel, but I’m not taking it.” “Why are you supposed to be taking Seroquel?” “Well,” I hesitated, “I was in the psych ward at Providence. I just got out. The psychiatrist told me that if I didn’t take it he would try to force me to.” I swallowed hard. “Or take my baby. You’re not going to tell him, are you? I promise I’ll start taking it.” My voice rose and I felt my fingernails digging into my palms.
Her face softened. She leaned forward and touched my arm. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’m not going to tell anyone anything. He can’t make you take those drugs. The age of consent for psychiatric medications in this state is thirteen. He won’t take that baby from you. I think it’s very wise of you not to take medication right now,” She cocked her head. “Why were you in the psychiatric ward, sweetie?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I guess I do. I just sort of fell apart. My friend died and I was having a hard time being pregnant and . . . I just lost it.”
“I see,” Alice replied gently. “Well, I think that anyone would fall apart given those circumstances. Did the psychiatrist at Providence give you a diagnosis?”
“Okay, well, let’s just see how you do without the medication, okay? After the baby’s born we can revisit the possibility of you taking meds, but for now let’s just see how it goes.” Her smile widened.
“Do you see a counselor or a therapist, Banjo?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said. “Oh, good. And you’re happy with her or him?” “Yes,” I said. I was happy with Anna.
“So Banjo, you’re actually the first teenager I have had as an OB patient. Surprising actually . . .” She seemed to drift off into thought. “But then again, I haven’t been doing this long. I’m what you might call a late bloomer.”
Before I could answer she went on. “I had my son when I was just a little older than you are. He’s in his thirties now. Hard for me to believe, it feels like just yesterday.”
She wheeled over a silver table with lube, a speculum, and various other things scattered about. She patted my naked knee and then pulled two exam gloves from the box on the wall and snapped them onto her hands. “You’re going to do just fine. Just fine. Now lay back, legs in the stirrups. Let’s get this over with.”
While she was digging around inside of me she asked, “So, Banjo, is the baby’s father going to be part of this?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Trying to figure out what to call Gray, how to explain it all, it was just too much.
“The other parent is dead,” I said.
She stopped what she was doing and looked up at me. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. Your friend that you mentioned?”
The tears came out of nowhere. I turned my head to the side and stared at the wall as the tears rolled onto the crinkly paper under my head. “And the baby’s other parent wasn’t, I mean they were . . .”
I was naked, flat on my back, had a woman as old as my mom digging around inside of me, and I had to explain how my dead boy/girlfriend was not a father, or really a mother. “They were genderqueer. They . . . I mean genderqueer is . . . it means that . . .” “Honey, I know what genderqueer is,” she said in a soft voice.
“It’s okay. I understand. I’m a lesbian, Banjo.” Lately it seemed like the whole world was gay. “May I ask you how they died?” She took the speculum out of me, snapped off her gloves, and tossed them in the trash. “You can sit up now, sweetheart.”
“Suicide,” I said flatly.
“I see. I’m so sorry.” She sounded like she really meant it. “Why don’t you get dressed now. I’ll be back in a minute, okay?”
She patted my knee again and left the room. I stood up and let the paper gown fall to the floor. I looked down at my round belly. I ran my hand over the bulge. My belly button had popped out like that little red thermometer that popped out when a frozen turkey was done. I had a baby inside of me. I was going to be a mom. This was really real.
I missed Gray so much. I wonder what they would think of Alice. I pulled on the men’s shirt that Mom had gotten me at Value Village, and tugged on the cargos that I wore shoved below my belly. I was just lacing up my shoes when Doctor McCanne, or rather Alice, knocked softly.
“Come in,” I said.
“So, Banjo, would you like to hear the heartbeat of the little bean?”
“The heartbeat? Um, yeah. Wow, really? I can hear the heartbeat?”
“Yes, of course. Would you like your mom to be here? I can have my nurse call her in,” she said.
“Yeah, I mean if that’s okay.”
Alice stuck her head out the door and shouted down the hall for her nurse to go get Ms. Logan. A moment later Mom was in the room and I was flat on my back with my shirt pulled up. Mom sat down next to me and took my hand. Alice grabbed a small white machine that looked sort of like an old school speaker. It had a small plastic rectangle attached to a cord. She squeezed warm gel onto my belly and then put the rectangle in the gel and started moving it around. Suddenly the room was filled with a rhythmic swooshing noise.
“That’s a baby!” Alice cheered.
Mom squeezed my hand, and I started to cry again. I closed my eyes and just let the sound fill me. My baby. For now, while she lived inside of me, she was my baby. I wondered if she would she be my baby after she came out. She kicked me hard and the swishing noise got louder.
“Pretty amazing, huh? I’m going to schedule you an ultrasound for next week. You ready to see that kid that’s swimming around inside you?”
She let me listen to the heartbeat for a few more minutes and then shut it off. She handed me a tissue to wipe my belly, coiled up the monitor, and put it on the counter. “It’s been good to meet you, Banjo, and you too Ms. Logan—”
“Please call me Jane,” Mom said.
“Okay, Jane. And like I told Banjo, you can call me Alice. I don’t think birth should be a formal event.” She turned to me. “I hope you decide to stick with me as your doctor, but if for any reason you’re uncomfortable please let me know and I can offer you some referrals. Or if you decide to go with a midwife, as you mentioned before, I’m happy to help you with that too.”
“The most important thing is that you, Banjo, are comfortable with the person who’s helping you to welcome this new life into the world.” She reached to the rack on the wall and pulled down a few brochures.
“Here’s some information about upcoming birthing classes, support groups, and what-have-you. Also some general information on what to expect in your pregnancy, though between you and me the Internet is where it’s at for up to date information. And here’s some information on an adoption agency that I highly recommend.” She handed me yet another pamphlet. “They’re pro- choice and only do open adoptions. Their pregnancy counselors are wonderful.”
She opened a drawer and pulled out a thick book. “I’m required to give you this book, but it stinks if you ask me.” She handed me a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
“I mean there’s some valid information in there, but I know that when I was in your position I wouldn’t have related to this book at all. Hell, I’m fifty and I don’t relate to it at all, but I have to give it to you all the same,” she said, smiling.
“It’s actually a little exciting to me to have a teenage mom as a client. I mean if you decide to stick with me of course. I used to work with pregnant teens and young moms, and I miss it. Once a teenage mom, always a teenage mom. Trust me, Banjo,” she said.
“You were a teenage mother?” Mom asked. She had been remarkably quiet up until now.
“Yes, I told Banjo here that my son is past thirty now. Hard to believe.”
“I had my first child when I was eighteen,” Mom said. “It’s true what you say about always being a teen mom. It never goes away. It changes you and sets you forever on the outside.” She paused. “But to be honest, I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Alice faced us. “Nor would I. It’s nice to meet you, Jane. It’s rare that I meet women around my age that understand the experience.” She turned back to me. “Here’s a list of some really amazing resources that I have been gathering through the years. Some online, some print.” She handed me a sheet of paper.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Well, I hope you find some value in some of those things. Something tells me you will.” She winked. “And if you do watch Juno let me know what you think of it. I hope I see you again, Banjo, but if I don’t I know you’re going to be just fine.”
“You’ll see me again,” I said.
Alice clapped her hands together. “Oh good. I’ll see you next week then.”
Excerpted with permission from Girls Like Me by Nina Packebush. Copyright 2017, Bedazzled Ink Publishing.
“Nina Packebush’s Girls Like Me makes visible an invisible, necessary story—that of a pregnant teen wrestling with gender, grief, desire, and transformation. Packebush’s narrator Banjo is utterly real and refreshingly complex. We are compelled to stick with her as she and her quirky cast of misfit friends navigate the terrain of queer adolescence with humor and grit. An essential book for this generation of young adults.” — Jacks McNamara, co-founder of the Icarus Project and author of Inbetweenland