My Turn: Shaq's Mom on Self-Esteem

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. Throughout childhood I never thought I was good enough, or smart enough, or pretty enough—I was six feet tall when I was 12. Unfortunately, the adults in my life didn't understand my need for reassurance and validation. So I searched for validation and love in the wrong places.

Though I was young, I knew the risks of unprotected sex—and the wrath I'd face if I got pregnant. But it happened anyway. Why? A part of me wanted something of my own, something I could love that would love me back unconditionally—someone who didn't care how tall or smart I was. A baby fit the bill. Of course, it never occurred to me that having a baby and taking care of a baby were different things.

My low self-esteem in 1971 doesn't compare to what girls face today. Almost every TV show, movie, and Web site promotes an unrealistic ideal of beauty. What's a girl to do who doesn't fit the mold? If I didn't face such pressures as a teen, my children and grandchildren do. My oldest daughter also got pregnant while she was a senior in high school. But because of Shaquille, we were blessed to be in a better financial situation. She went to college, an opportunity I wouldn't have until I was nearly 40.

I spend a great deal of time today talking with my grandchildren and other girls about inner beauty and self-worth. I tell them they can find the unconditional love that I so desired by looking inward, by respecting themselves. The conversations are the kind I wish I'd had when I was their age, and sometimes I find it hard to believe that I'm the one giving the advice now. Thank goodness time gives us a chance to heal—and grow.