Subscribe to spotlight on women's health email updates.
Photo credit: Katherine Corea Photography
Kelly has been an English teacher, a literacy coach, and a guidance dean. She was also a teen mother who, after giving birth a second time, placed her second daughter with an adoptive family. Now an adult, her daughter has returned to her life and together, with her other 3 children, they are living as a blended family. Currently, Kelly is an academic assistant principal and a well-known blogger.
Kelly has been on National Public Radio's "Tell Me More" show, is a content writer and editor for BlogHer, and was a co-host for the vlog, BackTalk. Her blog, Mocha Mama, is the candid and humorous tale of her life and all of its ups and downs.
- Girlshealth.gov for Parents and Caregivers
- National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Search
- Openness in Adoption (Child Welfare Information Gateway)
- Minority women's health
- Anxiety disorders fact sheet
- Depression fact sheet
Please read our disclaimer regarding this interview.
Interview With a Champion for Teenagers: Kelly Wickham
Being a parent is hard and being a parent of teenagers can be even harder. So what do you do when you're a teenager and you're also a parent – of two? Kelly Wickham has gone through all of it. After having a baby at 15 years old, she found out she was pregnant again. Already struggling as a teen parent, she placed her second daughter with an adoptive family. Now a successful blogger, speaker, and writer, Kelly shares her stories of overcoming adversity in a candid way to thousands of people each day. Read our interview with Kelly Wickham and see how she never lets anything hold her back.
How did you come up with the name of your blog, "Mocha Mama?"
"Mocha" became a nickname for me among friends. It refers to both my race and my love of coffee and it sure beat out being called "Oreo Girl." When I first started blogging, I thought "Mocha Mama" was fun to say and rolled off the tongue really well. Apparently, I was right, because people in my everyday life use it regularly.
So, being a mom, tell us about your kids.
Caitlin (who goes by "Maddie" online — which appropriately fits with the rest of my other kids with "M" names) is 22. I placed her for adoption when she was an infant since I was already struggling to take care of Mallory. Caitlin contacted me when she turned 21 and we've been putting our family back together since then. My boys are 18 and 15.
How did you decide to place your child for adoption? What impact has it made in your life?
First of all, I was already a parent at 15 and was struggling to figure it all out. What I didn't know at the time was the statistical data showing how many girls get pregnant again in their teens. Her birth father was getting ready to go to college and I knew I couldn't do this another time all by myself so we made the very difficult decision to place her for adoption. It was an open adoption, so I got to write letters to her family and receive pictures of her as she grew.
The impact of placing her is nearly indescribable. If I hadn't wanted so much out of this life and tried to work so diligently to get it, then it would have made that choice to place her null and void. Placing Caitlin made me much more transparent with my perceived failures (because perception is reality, after all) so that anyone looking at my life wouldn't think that it's all a fairy tale. I'm flawed; horribly so. But if you only look at where I am now then you miss all of the struggles that got me here. I wouldn't be nearly as strong as I am now without stumbling all over the place. Most of all, though, it made me understand love and sacrifices. None of us would be much at all if we didn't make sense of that forfeiture.
What are the greatest challenges and rewards for you as a mom of teenagers?
It's sort of obvious, but I never wanted my children to grapple with the hardships of growing up too quickly so I'm happy they didn't become young parents. Teens are funny creatures and one of the best rewards for me is listen to them, acknowledge their difficulties, and to laugh with them. A challenge is to instill in them a sense of esteem. So many teens are lacking in that department. They only see the hills and mountains before them, but not their strength in being able to climb them.
As an education professional what would you say to parents struggling to raise teens?
Parents of teens, in my educational experience, usually struggle with stamina. What I hear is, "I just don't know what to do with them anymore." They are tired, they've worked hard, they've done their best, and many of them are ready to give up by the time their child is a teenager. Don't do it. Part of the job of a teenager is to wear you down. Stand firm and make the hard decisions. Take that phone away, hide the car keys, and force them to spend time with you during dinner after they've helped cook it with you or set the table. That'll show ‘em! You're spending time with me, kid, whether you like it or not and we're gonna communicate if it kills us!
What inspired you to continue your education after your pregnancy?
Inspiration comes in many forms. Mine was in the form of adults at my high school who didn't believe in me or care to help me or who were flat out horrible to me for getting pregnant. The insistence that I drop "college bound" from my high school profile and the encouragement that I "just go to cosmetology school" absolutely floored me. It's what made me question everything about adult behavior, choices that were suddenly taken away from me, and just how fragile the human condition is. If ever there was a time I was broken, it was then. When I took my issue to another guidance counselor and asked her if there was any possible way for a teenage parent to go to college she said, "Sure. You're not the first girl to get pregnant and still want a degree." Knowing that I had to work twice as hard to get far in life helped me stay on course. When you have a baby looking at you to provide everything, you suddenly stop being selfish and determine to do what you can. There was a fire in my belly that wouldn't go away and I don't know where that came from except to say I was pissed off that a guiding adult that I was supposed to trust decided to treat me so poorly. If nothing else, wasn't I still a human being? Didn't I deserve some compassion?
It is that compassion and all that (finally!) came with it that made me recognize other teen moms and what they might need. In every instance, I am encouraging. I don't limit their dreams, but instead work very hard to convince them that they can still have what they want. In the school I work, there is just about an equal number of minority and non-minority teen girls getting pregnant. For all of them, I am just as invigorating and fervent in my desire to help them and listen to them and just be a supportive adult.
What do you say to minority teens, pregnant or not, regarding the importance of higher education?
The minority teens I work with have a special place in my heart. Don't get me wrong! I love all the students no matter what their color, but there is a satisfaction in working with minorities that can only be described by a few illustrations. When an adult takes an interest in some minority teens it is, often and unfortunately, the first time anyone has listened to them and tried to figure out where they're coming from before jumping to stereotypical conclusions about them. When I hear people say, "Well, Black parents don't care as much about education for their kids" I first want to punch them in the mouth. Then, I want to ask, "Oh, really? Let's go ask them. Let me get a group of them together and we'll scientifically survey them to find out their beliefs about education." I think educators have spent far too much time making assumptions and not nearly enough time listening to the very people they're holding back. Every parent wants the best for their child, but not every parent knows how to get that accomplished for their son or daughter. This knows no color and I see this in impoverished families most of all. What they're doing, instead of focusing entirely on academics, is trying hard to survive. Let's use all our social communities to help them and then they can focus on that academic portion. When a student tells me what they want to "be" someday, I have to help bridge for them the work it will take to get there. If I can break it into smaller chunks for them it helps so they aren't overwhelmed. "Get good grades" is too vague a phrase for them. "Do well on this test" or "Study this section" or "Know your learning style" is a much better place to start.
You're so positive, but it hasn't always been this way, has it? Tell us about your struggle with depression and anxiety and your philosophy to cope with those feelings?
My own struggle with both depression and anxiety has been as a sideliner watching it unfold with detrimental consequences. I was in love with a man who refused to see his depression. Watching his demise was heartbreaking and I still can't talk in depth about it yet. But I have children who suffer from anxiety and the first panic attack I saw my son have made me step back and make major changes in my parenting. I was a yeller and an "angry-face-maker." Neither are good for the anxious people in my house. So I've tried to take deep breaths and be a much calmer parent. My philosophy is that you do whatever it takes to get healthy and let nothing stop you from doing that. Do it for yourself, not for your loved ones. When I've been depressed myself I sought help and medicine and, honestly, it didn't work nearly well enough for me because the way I felt was worse than when I was off of it. The first time I experienced it was after leaving my husband and wondering if I would ever climb out of this hole. Would I ever find love again? Would these depressed feelings stop or go away? Would I finally know the difference between alone and lonely? (Yes, yes, and yes.)
Now that you're a big success, what kinds of things do you do for yourself to stay healthy?
Seeing a therapist, writing my blog, and having ridiculously incredible friends who know when a bottle of wine and a sympathetic ear are necessary helped get me where I am today. To stay healthy I have to eat healthy, sleep healthy, and talk healthy. That means not letting my own words discourage me. I like to exercise with a friend who walks, does yoga and Pilates with me, and she makes me talk about everything important when we do. Another friend calls and checks in and remembers to invite me to do things with her. Still more are just incredible when asking, "How are you doing? And I mean really, really doing." Being in a healthy relationship now has done wonders for me and there's nothing I can't talk about with him. It's not perfect and never will be, but when there's a problem one of us reminds the other that we need to talk and discuss and figure out a way to move forward. All of life is moving forward. Otherwise, you stop growing and change comes whether you like it or not. Finally, I walk my dog a few times a day: in the morning before work, right after work, and once before bedtime. When we walk I talk to her and debrief and decompress about my day. It's really good to talk to a pet because they are super cheap therapists and then they'll lick your face when you're done talking. What therapist sitting in an office will do that?
Content last updated June 1, 2010.
Interview contents copyright © 2010, Kelly Wickham.
A federal government website managed by the Office on Women's Health in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
200 Independence Avenue, S.W. • Washington, DC 20201