As a pregnant teen, I felt like a failure. But then I realized failure wasn't an option.
I lay on the table in an Atlanta hospital room almost a decade ago, watching as my doctor sliced me open and yanked two slimy, screaming balls of fire from my abdomen.
I couldn't describe the emotions that overtook me the first time my daughter and I locked eyes; I just knew I had to protect her. My son arrived 60 seconds later, and I knew I would take care of him, too. I wanted to give my babies the world - a world many didn't think I could offer because of my age. I didn't know if I could, either, but at that moment, I stopped seeing myself as failure.
I was a mother.
At 17, I was supposed to be taking the SAT, not a pregnancy test. But nine months earlier, I found myself squatting over the toilet in my mother's basement, hands shaking so hard I was positive I was going to pee on them.
My boyfriend nervously paced outside the bathroom door. After what felt like an eternity I emerged with the stick in my hand, its two pink lines telling me I was now a statistic.
I shoved the test into his hands and slid down the wall to the floor.
"It will be okay," my boyfriend said. "I'm not going anywhere."
His support helped relieve some of my fears, but I didn't tell my mom right away. I couldn't. My shame would only be magnified by the disappointment I knew was coming. She was only in her 40s. Being a grandma wasn't on her radar. I was scared she'd see me as a complete failure.
We hid the pregnancy for two months until I saw a doctor at the free clinic near the high school. Another test confirmed that I was pregnant, dashing my last-ditch hopes of a false positive, the flu or another mysterious illness. The nurse offered us an ultrasound; I didn't see the point but obliged. As I sat on the table I thought about all the things I wouldn't get to do, the places I wouldn't get to go and the dreams left unfulfilled.
When the cold gel hit my stomach I shivered. It smelled funny and felt like slime. I avoided looking at the screen and kept my eyes on the technician.
"There are two heartbeats," she said, a wide smile creeping across her face.
"What does that mean?"
"You're having twins."
I felt as if my entire body was shutting down, one organ at a time. I didn't know how I could raise a child, let alone two, when I wasn't done growing. My boyfriend held my hand and tried to reassure me that everything would be okay, but nothing he could say would make anything okay in that moment. I was the one, not him, who had to deal with the people who decided that my occupied womb at 17 made me unworthy of a bright future.
"God hates me," I kept saying to myself while trying to catch my breath. My life was over.
I finally turned my head to the screen. Two blobs in two sacs, one slightly bigger than the other. They were mine; these little things growing in my stomach who didn't even know who they were yet. We had that in common; I didn't know who I was yet, other than knowing I was their mother.
I finally noticed that my boyfriend was squeezing my hand, and I knew we would survive. I just didn't know how.
That weekend, I mustered the courage to tell my mother. She cried and embraced me in a tight hug before saying the words that sustain me to this day.
"I don't know why this happened to you, but we are going to get through this," she said. "So we're having some babies?"
I smiled and nodded my head through the tears.
As my stomach grew, it became more difficult to get through the day. I couldn't fit in the desks at school, so I'd pull a chair up to the edge of a table. People stared and whispered, and each time I left class to run to the restroom, I could feel the eyes of my classmates on my back. Sometimes I heard whispers that I didn't know the father of my twins even though my boyfriend and I attended the same school. I felt like the butt of everyone's jokes, but every day I'd walk through the courtyard with my head held high.
By the time I was well into the second semester of my senior year, my doctor wanted me on bed rest, which would have meant restarting the semester at an online alternative school and delaying my diploma and therefore college - a dream I was determined to follow even with children. I had to negotiate with my counselor to work out a part-time class schedule so I could protect my babies but finish school on time. Thankfully my doctor approved it.
In public, strangers joked that I was carrying triplets because of the size of my stomach. "Wow, you've got a big load there," they'd call. Or my personal favorite, "How old are you, baby?" asked while glaring at my stomach. I felt that they were looking at me and seeing a load of bad decisions. At home I couldn't stop staring at the road map of stretch marks on my body.
Somehow, I walked across my high school graduation stage 8.5 months pregnant with twins. My boyfriend screamed with pride as he sat in the audience of seated graduates.
I enrolled in community college that fall and transferred to Georgia State University the following year after raising my GPA high enough to earn a HOPE Scholarship. When I wasn't in class, I worked as a cashier at Home Depot. My boyfriend and I spent many a day handing off the babies in the store's parking lot as we scheduled our parenting time around our education and jobs. I threw myself into breast-feeding, and pureed baby food like my last name was Gerber.
Failure was not an option. Not with those two pairs of big brown eyes looking at me each day and giving me the courage to keep going. They kept challenging me to ignore the boxes society tried to place me in and exorcise the anxiousness that consumed me during my pregnancy about being a teen mother.
I knew we were going to be just fine.
Author information: Akilah Harper, 27, earned her bachelor's degree in communications in 2015. She resides in Atlanta with her still-proud partner - now husband - and their three children.