by Nune Gazdhyan
photography by Isela Peña
Sonya Keith, 27, sociology major at ULV, got pregnant when she was 21 years old and became a mother at 22. Her journey to motherhood was a tough one, filled with tears, regrets, pain, denial and fear. She felt that she was following in her mother’s footsteps. “My mother had four children and a drug problem. She couldn’t really take care of us, and she would constantly get married and unmarried.”
Consequently, her mother abandoned her and her siblings at an acquaintance’s house, whom they called “Grandma Webster,” promising to come back for them in two weeks. She never returned. One-by-one, Sonya’s siblings were taken away by family members or friends of the family. Sonya was left, and Grandma Webster, “who did not mind taking care of Sonya,” enrolled her in Holly Avenue Elementary School. She lived there for two years. Then Grandma Webster put Sonya up for adoption because she was aging and unable to care for her.
Judy Lou Keith, an instructor at Sonya’s elementary school, realized that Sonya was, as Sonya puts it, “available for auction.” She and her husband Raymond called the county and placed a bid to adopt Sonya. The Keiths succeeded. At age 7, Sonya moved to Arcadia with her new parents into their two-bedroom house. Instantaneously, Sonya not only gained two “normal” caring parents but also grandparents, cousins — the works. She went from having no family stability to a family complete with all the trimmings.
Sonya’s social worker put together a scrapbook for her that contained, among other things, a driver’s license photograph of her mother and two men, one of whom might possibly be her father. “I never really cared because I knew my [adopted] mother loved me.” Sonya says she does not feel the need to look further for her biological parents. She is content with the parents who wanted to make her a part of their life.
Sonya was the only child in the family, but, after two years, her parents adopted another baby. Sonya became an older sister to her Vietnamese brother Kevin, whose biological mother gave him up because she could not care for him.
Sonya says she led a normal childhood, “doing all the things that all the other children on her block did.” She went to Arcadia High School. Following, she applied to Cal State Long Beach and was accepted. Sonya says she went to college because of the expectations of her parents.
During her first two years at Long Beach, she stayed in the dorms. By her junior year, she had her own place by the beach. “It would have been my junior year if I had actually gone to classes,” she says.
While Sonya’s adoptive parents did all they could to make her comfortable, Sonya admits to having been careless in college; she did not really care about classes as long as she had her friends.
“I knew almost nothing about politics. I couldn’t really have cared who was President because I had just assumed that my friends and I would somehow graduate through college and magically have jobs, and life would be magically delicious.”
Sonya’s magically delicious, happy life took a sudden halt. She broke up with her boyfriend, then became a victim of rape following a party.
Sonya went to a motel party at Santa Fe Springs but says she soon realized that she did not want to stay. She wanted to go home, but her driver was drunk, and she could not find another ride.
The security guard at the motel, whom Sonya knew, offered her to spend the night at the motel and promised that she could find a ride in the morning. She took him up on the offer because she says that she had no idea how to get back to Long Beach from Santa Fe.
The next morning the same security guard walked into her room and said that the only way she could get a ride was to sleep with him, says Sonya. She says that she was still sleepy and thought that he was joking; she knew him, and surely he did not mean that. But it was too late.
It was an acquaintance rape, and, after the rape, Sonya says that she locked herself in her Long Beach apartment for two weeks, refusing to answer the telephone or the door. She completely isolated herself from her family, friends-the world.
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody, because in my mind this was something that was never going to happen to me. When it did happen, I was trying to justify it; trying to find a different definition for it because rape is such a horrible word, and it wasn’t a word that was ever going to apply to my life.” After the rape, Sonya missed her period for months. She just assumed it was due to all the stress that she had endured. “Well, it wasn’t stress, but it may have been a sign of the stress yet to come,” she says.
On Jan. 17, 1994, Sonya had the courage to take a pregnancy test. “The whole thing immediately turned purple.” Sonya spent her 22nd birthday getting a Sonogram. “From the time I found out that I was pregnant, I knew that I was going to be a single mother, and it was going to be me. I had no college degree, I had no money, and I needed help, but I didn’t want help from my parents. I was afraid that I would grow up and be one of those people who live at home off their parents, and they never get on with having their own life.”
Her unexpected pregnancy also triggered criticism from others; she was an easy target for all the stereotypes associated with young, single pregnant females. “Some woman that I know told me, ‘Don’t you feel bad about having sex before you got married. You’re going to have this horrible pregnancy, and you’re going to have a terrible delivery, and you’re going to have a monster for a child.’ Hence, I call my daughter the ‘Monster-Child.’ I run into this woman periodically, and I want to rub it into her that my daughter is the sweetest thing on earth; she’s kind, considerate and caring.”
At this time, her mother was the only person who knew about the pregnancy, and she had arranged for a free referral for Sonya to see a doctor from a crisis center. When she was on the examining table, the doctor looked at her and exclaimed, “Oh, you’re very pregnant.” Sonya was not sure how many months pregnant she was, because shortly before the rape she had had a boyfriend and had been sexually active.
“It [the pregnancy] wasn’t at all what my parents had planned for me. My mom always thought that I would have this great career, and my dad, although he never said it, I always felt that he thought I was going to go and save the earth.”
Dreams deferred, Sonya’s hopes of a better life were unclear. She would not be her parent’s hero. “I remember when we went to get the blood test back, a male nurse said, ‘Congratulations,’ I started to cry and said, ‘For what?’ ”
Sonya was scared because nothing was working out. She was not going to graduate from Cal State Long Beach because she had dropped out and moved back home, and her parents did not want her to raise a baby. “They thought, ‘Well if you’re irresponsible enough to go get pregnant, then you’re not responsible enough to be a parent.’ I had no flesh and blood relatives left around me. Therefore, the whole concept of giving away the one that I would have was an issue. My mother [biological] had children, and she had to give us away. Am I going to turn out to be just like that?”
Sonya did not know what to do. She had been robbed of childhood. She did not want to do the same for her baby.
Everyday, her dad would ask her, “Well, you know you could have her today. What would you do? You have got to make a decision. We don’t mean to put pressure on you, but you can’t keep this baby. Financially, it just won’t work out, and you’re going to ruin your life. You have so much to do.” Sonya went to Catholic Charities and looked into adoption. She realized then that she would not put her baby up for adoption. “I was just going to have to do this impossible thing somehow. Other people had managed to do it; I was going to raise my child on my own.”
On April 12, the baby was on her way out, ready or not. Sonya was dilated but felt she had plenty of time before she was due. That night, her parents asked for her final decision regarding the child’s future and the faith of the life she was about to bring into the world. She told them that she would keep the baby.
As the clock ticked away, Sonya and her parents went on a shopping spree for baby apparel.
Jacquelyne Lorraine Keith was born on April 13, 1994, at Santa Teresita Hospital. The time of birth was unexpected because the baby was not due for hours. “My daughter was delivered by the nurses. The doctor didn’t think that I was going to have Jackie for another four hours. The very first thing she did when she was born was to put her palm out and place the back of her hand on her forehead like, ‘Oh, what a headache!’ She was a little drama queen from the start.”
When the nurses brought Jackie into Sonya’s room, it really hit her that she was a mother. “I brought her home, and she’s been with me ever since. I couldn’t imagine giving birth. I just kept on thinking that it’s not going to happen. Of course, it’s going to happen. I just thought that this can’t happen. But when I saw her for the first time on the sonogram, my thoughts exactly were, ‘Well she’s not going to dissolve.’ ”
After the birth, the security guard who raped Sonya (his name is withheld by La Verne Magazine because Sonya has not filed rape charges) came to the hospital and insisted on having his name placed on the birth certificate. She put the name down to avoid having to explain to her parents why she did not want his name on the certificate. At this time, Sonya’s parents did not know about the rape. And Sonya was not certain he was the father. “At first I was afraid if I found out that Jackie was a child of rape that I wouldn’t be able to love her. I would just really start to hate her and be completely revolted because of the memories of the rape and the memory of him. Not knowing was better than knowing.” Sonya also never told her boyfriend at the time about the rape or the possibility that he might be Jackie’s father. She told him years later, after he was married to someone else.
“My life plan was to get married when I was 24, have my first child when I was 28. But I wasn’t married, and I was having this child. Before she was born, I couldn’t imagine having a baby. Once she was actually there, I was just scared. I mean, it’s a baby, my baby. I could change diapers but just knowing that she was mine, and she was going to be there forever was really hard.”
Sonya knew that there was no way she could provide for Jackie without financial help, so she applied for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). She had to swallow her pride and go to the welfare office and accept the fact that she had to go on welfare for her daughter’s sake.
“The first time I had to go to the store with food stamps and buy something, I kind of hoped that the store clerk wouldn’t look at me funny. To me, being poor wasn’t just a social economic status of living. To me, being poor was like being from another country — like living in a subculture — and it was really hard.”
But Sonya knew that she wanted more out of life than being on welfare. She knew that she would get off as soon as she was able. At this time, Sonya was still living at home. When Jackie was a month old, Sonya moved out “so that I could go live in the real world,” she explains. She also decided to go back to school. At the time that she had dropped out of Long Beach, her GPA was between 1.5 and 1.7.
“I still have the transcripts on my refrigerator. I look at them once in a while to remind me of what I had done.” She told her parents that she wanted to go back to school, and that she was going to fund college herself. “If you work out the math, it’s physically impossible to be a single mother with a minimum wage job without a college degree and survive. It cannot be done. I decided that I was going to do it anyway. When Jackie was a few months old, I decided to go back to college, because working at Mervyn’s for $6.50 an hour, part-time, was just not going to cut it.”
Sonya had her previous classes from Cal State Long Beach re-evaluated at Citrus College. After two years at Citrus, she applied to four-year colleges. Among the ones that accepted her were the University of La Verne and the University of Southern California. The Admissions Department was especially helpful at ULV and promised to find her financial aid. “I thought that was the nicest thing. They waved my application fee and told me that they’ll find me money [financial aid] — just show up for class. They came through. They have been that nice to me ever since.”
Sonya is the fifth person in her adoptive family to attend ULV. Her mother, her father and her two uncles, Mike and Wayne, attended ULV, as well.
Now that Sonya was back in school, she had even more things to do. She had cut out many of her friends, and they started to judge her for being a single mother. “I was still the same person, and I wouldn’t be poor except that I decided that I was going to go back to college. A degree was going to be worth at least something. I didn’t want Jackie to grow up and think, ‘Well, mom could’ve been this or could’ve done that, but she sacrificed it all to be my mother.’ That is a lot of crap and a lot of guilt to give a child.”
When Jackie was about two years old, Sonya finally told her parents about the rape. For Sonya, it was a courageous step. “Saying the word and having to explain to them was hard.” She says there was risk: “If they didn’t believe me, it was going to be disastrous.”
She wrote a lengthy letter to her parents explaining that she had been raped, and the fact that she was not sure who Jackie’s father was. They were able to cope with the news. Now that Sonya told the truth to her parents, she was confronted with another situation.
As Jackie grows older, she wants to know why she does not have a father around. “Jackie always asks me where her father is, and I tell her that he’s far away. Then she asks if he loves her, and I say, ‘yes ….’ I’m not sure I know who her father is.” Sonya has contacted her previous boyfriend and the security guard to get one of them to submit to a blood test. So far, none has submitted to a test.
Sonya is close to completing the college maze, and she will soon embark on a new journey. Her quest-finding a job to get off welfare. “I hope that when I get off welfare, I won’t return to be the person that I was before; that I won’t lose touch with the problems of this social economic status.”
Sonya’s achievements and her refusal to succumb has kept her strong and, at the same time, set an example for Jackie. Life threw a fast curve at Sonya, but Sonya did not panic; she met her demons head-on and succeeded.
“I want Jackie to know that she is a benefit to my life. I really enjoy being her mother, and she more than anything helped me grow as a person and change the person I am, rather than stilted the person that I would have been, because pretty much I had no direction. Being a mother was a big direction. For the rest of my life I’ll be her mother, and that’s important.”
“I wasn’t a naturally good mother. I had to grow into it, develop the skills. It was like I had been hurled back to earth from a distant galaxy. Now, I am happily planning my life with her.”