This is the second story in a series that follows 18-year-old Katie Schimmel's journey into motherhood. Read the first story.
With parenting comes a never-ending list of questions.
For 18-year-old Katie Schimmel, those questions are mostly answered with the cries, whimpers and grunts of her 2-month-old son, Nicolas.
Eighteen years old and pregnant, Katie Schimmel's life was about to change forever. For four months, we followed Katie's journey to motherhood.
“Hey, why are you crying?” she asks as she soaps his head and rinses him under a running faucet during bath time.
“Is it a little too hot for you?” she ponders.
That the baby is still fussing is the only direction she receives, leaving her to guess at what comes next.
Most of the time she knows.
And when she doesn’t, she’ll follow it up by asking “what?” or just mimics the sounds that Nicolas makes.
At 2 months, Nicolas is a healthy 11 pounds, smiling and holding up his head when he lies on his tummy. He is ahead of his age developmentally, Katie proudly shares.
Nicolas still has the tuft of blond hair and old-man face he was born with. When he is about to cry, his whole body seems to scrunch together. And when he is content, lying in Katie’s arms or in his swing, he looks at the world in bewilderment, as if asking his own question: “How did I get here?”
Lessons in mothering
Most of the parenting skills Katie knows come from her best friend, fellow teen mom Marissa Carley, or Jenni Stark, a family support worker for the Healthy Families program with the Kansas Children’s Service League.
Marissa delivered her son last June, when she was 18. She read everything she could about parenting. It’s through Marissa that Katie has heard about Healthy Families, food vouchers from WIC and cash assistance through the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Marissa also shared information on which car seats and infant swings to buy and passed along leftover baby formula, Pedialyte and diapers. From Jenni’s weekly visits, Katie has learned more about tummy time and soothing techniques.
The intention of the Healthy Families program is to prevent child abuse through supporting families that have multiple stressors in their homes: high poverty rates, single parents or young moms.
“If you would want me to go with you to one of those doctor’s appointments, I would be more than happy to go,” Jenni offers to Katie when the two meet a month after Nicolas is born.
“ ... If you have questions you are uncomfortable asking,” Jenni continues.
Katie is one of nine families Jenni visits. She is there to give rides to job interviews and doctor’s appointments, help fill out state assistance forms or just hand over the phone when a phone call needs to be made.
Many of the clients that Healthy Families serves are similar to Katie: young mothers with unplanned pregnancies in rocky relationships and unstable living situations.
“Often overwhelmed” is how Jenni describes them.
While Katie never admits to being overwhelmed, she does express frustration.
Since Nicolas arrived in December, the two have shared a bedroom in the back corner of her dad’s mobile home. On Katie’s walls are pictures of Tweety Bird, horses and SpongeBob SquarePants. There is also graffiti in bright magic marker, a plastic black rose and gaping holes where the trailer’s insulation shows through.
Technically, Katie says, she is a single mom. The label is a difficult one to attach because Katie has moved back and forth between her dad’s mobile home and the duplex where her boyfriend, Mike Glynos, lives.
Mike and Katie met on the school bus in 11th grade. The two have been in a roller-coaster relationship since.
When things are good between them, Katie brings Nicolas to Mike’s west Lawrence home. Mike’s mom, two brothers and a roommate also live in the three-bedroom house. Mike, Katie and the baby have set up quarters in the loft.
When the arguing starts and the relationship begins to crumble, Katie retreats to her dad’s mobile home. While a visitation schedule for Nicolas has been discussed, it isn’t followed.
“It is just kind of up in the air. When he comes, he comes,” Mike’s mom, Monique Glynos, says. “So it’s hard to plan things.”
At times, Katie has threatened to file for child support and worries that she’ll have to fight a custody battle. Before the baby was born, Mike’s mom bought a stroller and car seat for Nicolas. Other than that, Katie says, there has been little financial support.
“I’m going for child support. I actually decided today. I’m not going to be nice anymore,” Katie says.
The comment is made in early February, amid a flurry of chores: bath time, washing a sink full of bottles, doing laundry, feeding the cats.
She rocks Nicolas’ swing with the ball of her foot while she puts clean sheets on the mattress in the baby’s crib.
“Before I had a kid, I was an extreme multitasker,” she says.
The past few days have been rough. Nicolas visited the emergency room because he kept throwing up. He had a virus and needed Pedialyte to stay hydrated.
Part of the $357 Katie receives from SRS each month has disappeared. She thinks an acquaintance might have stolen it. If she doesn’t get it back, she will have to start selling belongings. The month before, Katie borrowed $75 from her grandparents to buy baby supplies.
And things are bad with Mike, who wasn’t taking Nicolas on the weekends like he said he would, Katie claims.
Part of the pressure for Katie to seek child support comes from SRS. By law, for people to receive cash assistance, they must seek child support if the father is considered an absentee parent.
“If they are not going to help me, then I’m not going to sit around,” Katie says that day.
A few weeks later, Katie and Mike’s relationship has improved.
“He’s being a lot nicer to me. It’s weird,” she says. “It makes everything a lot easier.”
By the end of February, Katie is staying at Mike’s house for a few days. They have pledged to get back together.
Mike and his mom say they “absolutely” want to be part of Nicolas’ life. It was Mike who proposed Cobain, after ’90s grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, for the baby’s middle name.
“He is probably the most important thing right now,” Mike says of Nicolas. “I love him more than anything.”
Monique calls Katie “an impressive young mom” who has been able to tap into “all the resources Lawrence has to offer.”
But with no car, job, high school diploma or place of their own, Katie and Mike weren’t prepared to have a baby, Monique said.
Complicating parenthood are Katie and Mike’s disabilities. Both have seizures, and Mike has a sleep deprivation disorder. Neither one has been able to get a driver’s license. For Katie, that means using Lawrence’s public bus system or relying on others for rides.
“Neither one were ready for this,” Monique said. “All of a sudden adulthood has jumped right in front of them and said, ‘This is how it is going to be. And it is hard.’”
On a sunny but brisk February day, Katie prepares to make the 10-minute walk to Lawrence Memorial Hospital for Nicolas’ checkup.
“I can’t believe he’s 2 months already,” she says.
Today, things are good for Katie. She and Mike are getting along. And, for the first time, she mentions that she wants to join the Coast Guard when Nicolas is older.
She is full of advice for teenage moms: Don’t go into delivery without an epidural; access the Healthy Families program; don’t buy cheap binkies; and cut the baby’s fingernails while he is sleeping.
In the past few months, Katie has applied for work at Walmart, Target and Kohl’s. She is still looking. Maybe she’ll be a waitress or find a job at Checkers, where her friends like to work.
She still needs to pay off the medical bills that accrued, about $2,000 worth, from her pregnancy before the state’s health insurance program kicked in.
With a new baby and the snowy weather, she said it’s been too hard to stay with the high school completion program. She has decided to get her GED instead.
She continues to talk about getting a place on her own with the help of the federally funded Section 8 housing program.
A job, an apartment and a better relationship are all things that Mike and Monique want as well.
“What I honestly wish for these two is that they could find a way to get along and make it work as a couple for the baby,” Monique said. “They have a hard time coming together like that, but, hopefully, with a little bit of maturity they will find a way.”
This spring, Katie wants to visit her sister and mom in Florida and work on losing the extra baby weight. In May, she is scheduled to get an IUD for birth control.
“I don’t want another kid,” she says.
Katie says this all while packing the baby bag with diapers. She then bundles Nicolas up in a blue Winnie the Pooh snowsuit and covers him with a white blanket.
Because the stroller is too bulky to make the trip and the baby has already outgrown the shoulder sling, Katie carries Nicolas in her arms as she cuts through the snow-covered mobile home park and crosses a wooden bridge that leads to the hospital.
As Nicolas grows up, so will Katie.