THE LIFE OF A U.S. TEEN BRIDE
Maria wants to make marriage work against odds
It was the day of the birthday party, and the husband and wife had invited everyone they knew. They’d spent the morning buying food — a sheet cake, jumbo hotdogs, ground beef, soda, chips — and were now standing around a picnic table covered with it all, along a long lake under a cloudless sky, hoping at least some people would show up to eat it.
Today was the first time both sides of their family were supposed to come together, something that hadn’t happened at their wedding four months before. On that day, not a single member of the husband’s family had attended — not his brothers, who’d called him a fool for marrying like this, and not his parents, who’d told him the relationship would only get him into trouble. Just about the only people who’d gone that day, and were here so far on this day, had been the people involved in the wedding itself.
There was Maria Vargas, a shy and brooding girl who looked older than her 16 years, and her husband, Phil Manning, 25, who often acted younger than his. And nearby, smoking a cigarette, was a slight woman with long, narrow features, Michelle Hockenberry, 39, the mother who’d allowed her daughter to marry.
Even in an era when the median age of marrying has climbed higher and higher, unions like Phil and Maria’s remain surprisingly prevalent in the United States. Between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 248,000 children were married, most of whom were girls, some as young as 12, wedding men. Now, under pressure from advocates and amid a nationwide reckoning over gender equality and sexual misconduct, states have begun ending exceptions that have allowed marriages for people younger than 18, the minimum age in most states. Texas last year banned it, except for emancipated minors. Kentucky outlawed it, except for 17-year-olds with parental and judicial approval. Maryland considered increasing the minimum marrying age from 15, but its bill failed to pass in April. Then in May, Delaware abolished the practice under every circumstance, and New Jersey did the same in June. Pennsylvania, which may vote to eliminate all loopholes this autumn, could be next.
“Devastating” is how the bill’s memorandum summarized the consequences of child marriage. Nearly 70 per cent of the unions end in divorce, research suggests, and for children in their midteens, it’s higher still — about 80 per cent. Teen brides are nearly three times as likely to have at least five children.
Their chance of living in poverty is 31 per cent higher. And they’re 50 per cent more likely to drop out of school, which was the outcome that terrified Maria the most. The start of the school year was just two weeks away, and she still didn’t know whether her mounting responsibilities at home would keep her from returning to the classroom.
“There’s your parents,” she whispered to Phil. Sinewy and sweating, Phil looked up from the grill and saw a bearded man and a darkhaired woman. They slowly made their way to the picnic table, piled with presents wrapped in tinsel paper to celebrate the second birthday of Maria’s son, Douglas, whom she’d had with another grown man. They stopped and looked down at the presents, then at Phil, then at his new wife.
There was a long silence as everyone looked at one another.
“What do you think, Mama?” Phil finally asked, but his mother only shook her head.
Maria wandered away with her son to play at the lake’s edge. Phil went to the grill and started serving food. Michelle took a sip of ice tea and glanced at her daughter’s new in-laws.
“How you guys doing ?” she tried. “All right,” Phil’s mom said. “Hot?”
And that was the end of the conversation.
Maria walked back, straight black hair dripping from the water, and Phil met her halfway. He put his arm around her. He gave her a long kiss, and everyone watched them, expressionless. The kiss ended, and Maria went to the picnic table. She looked at what the few guests had left behind. The vanilla cake that, by the end of the day, would be only a third eaten. The dozens of hotdogs. The barely touched potato chips.
“Supposed to be a lot more people here,” Maria said. “I wouldn’t have gotten so much food.”
This is how a child in America gets married:
It was a Friday, March 16. Maria woke early. She normally hated anything feminine — “a tomboy,” Michelle called her, who smoked, swore every few words, had skull tattoos — but today was different. She wanted it all. Michelle did her makeup and hair. Maria put on a white dress and veil. Then, fearing authorities would arrest Phil at the local courthouse, they drove into nearby West Virginia, where they wouldn’t be recognized and which has one of the country’s highest rates of child marriage. Within an hour of arriving at the Morgan County Courthouse, her mother had signed the form, the marriage licence had been issued, an officiant at the ceremony outside had said, “It’s my pleasure to be the first to introduce Mr. and Mrs. Philip Manning,” and everyone had begun to cheer. Maria felt happier than she’d ever thought possible. And now?
Now it was nearly five months later. She was waking once more, this time past 10 a.m., feeling exhausted again. She poured a bowl of Cocoa Puffs for Douglas’s breakfast, then looked at the mess around her. She swept the floor. Scrubbed the counters. Pulled out a bag of garbage from the trash bin. Put in a load of laundry. Lit a scented candle. And checked on Douglas.
“I got to clean your room next,” she told him, sighing.
Maria was a housewife, in every sense. In this trailer at the edge of town, which she rarely left and which she and Phil shared with an unemployed friend, she cooked most meals, swept floors, dispensed advice and managed finances. Every month, Phil took home US$1,600 from a furnace of a factory making drill bits, and every month, they spent about US$1,150 of it on bills. To keep them disciplined, she’d stuck a budget to the refrigerator. “Monthly savings: US$450,” it said. The sum seemed more hopeful than realistic, but it was what they had to save if they were ever going to get the money they needed to move to nearby Bedford, where she hoped to enrol at a high school that had oncampus child care for Douglas.
The possibility of going to school was the only remaining shard of a childhood that had long since splintered apart. She remembered the moments. She was four, hugging her handcuffed mother, while Michelle was incarcerated for simple assault. She was 13, caring for her younger siblings, day after day, as Michelle watched her stepfather die of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the hospital. She was 14, hanging out with a 19-year-old man who, according to police reports filed in the subsequent criminal cases, had sex with her at least five times at the Janey Lynn Motel in Bedford, got her pregnant, became her boyfriend and then later abducted her.
After Douglas was born, and after the father had gone to prison for the concealment and corruption of a minor, school seemed to matter less. Michelle told her she’d look after Douglas. But Maria couldn’t bring herself to trust him with anyone, not even her mother, and didn’t return to the classroom that year. One of the first people, in fact, she allowed to care for Douglas was Phil, whom she’d met at a friend’s place when she was 15 and with whom she’d at first wanted only a physical relationship. But soon she couldn’t imagine being with anyone else, and still couldn’t.
“Will you make me lunch today?” he asked, as a hard rain washed over the trailer park and they sat on the porch smoking.
“I already made it,” she said of two tuna sandwiches. She stood and, noticing the time, glanced down at herself, still in pyjamas, then at Phil, still shirtless.
“I got to get dressed,” she said. “And then get Douglas dressed. And get you dressed.”
Douglas had a pediatric appointment. Phil told her he was coming, too, and she was again reminded why she married him. Even in the beginning, their relationship had never to her conformed to the stereotype — with her as victim, him as predator — but instead felt as if they were saving each other. She helped him stay out of jail, where he’d twice gone on burglary convictions, and he helped her with Douglas, promising to treat the boy like his son.
“All right, we got to go,” Maria said. The roommate, a recovering heroin addict with short blond hair, drove them in his battered white sedan through downtown Everett, a drab collection of Colonial houses beneath a mountain, before pulling up to a pediatrician’s office. They went inside, and that’s when Maria saw her. The middleaged woman in the waiting room with her own child, wearing a shirt that said “Everett Warriors.” It was her old high school principal.
Maria had last seen her at the beginning of the 2017 school year, when, following her time away, she’d tried out Everett High School. Within weeks, the isolation of eating lunch alone, unable to connect with other students, and the annoyance at seemingly impractical classes had become too much, and she was back home. But did that mean 2018 would be that way, too? What would it feel like, she wondered, to do something, rather than having things done to her?
“I have to enrol,” she whispered to Phil.
“We are going to Bedford,” he promised.
“If we don’t, I’m going to be a sitting duck,” she said, left at home doing nothing. “I can’t put Douglas on my hip and take him with me, or I would.”
The name of the principal’s child was called. Maria watched her disappear into the back. Relieved that the woman hadn’t seemed to recognize her, she leaned her head against her husband.
Days before the start of the school year, the trailer was quiet except for the murmur of the television and the running of the faucet as Maria washed dishes, worrying. She thought about the car the family didn’t have, and how Phil needed to bum a ride every day to work. She thought about the new phone he needed. The replacement she’d bought off a guy on Facebook for US$230 the day before had wound up being broken, and now they were out the money and he still didn’t have a phone. She finished with the dishes, then looked at the black kitchen rug, covered in crumbs and dirt again.
“Do you know what we really need right now?” she asked when Phil emerged from the bedroom past 11 a.m. “A vacuum.”
“I know,” he said, apologetic, always apologetic.
“You’re going to want to spend at least US$150 for a vacuum. Anything cheaper and you’re working with a stick that does nothing,” she said, standing, then turning her glare back to the rug again. “I hate this carpet.”
“What’s wrong with the —,” Phil began, but she was already onto the next thing she disliked about this place, which was the wall, where they’d recently discovered black mould.
“It’s been raining,” he said. “And those windows, they didn’t caulk them right.”
“Look at this! Mold on the carpet,” she said, considering one more unplanned expense, one more reason she’d taken down their budget, because what was the point in trying to save if they never could?
She sat on the floor. She let out a frustrated sigh. She looked at Phil.
“We can’t move right now,” she said quietly. “We don’t have the money.”
“I know,” he said, nodding. Neither said what Maria feared that meant. They wouldn’t be moving to Bedford, not in time. She would not go back to school. She would not graduate. This trailer, these walls, Phil wanting a baby: All of it would be her life instead.
“I can’t go to school,” she told Phil, feeling it closing in, and he nodded, silently accepting what she, as weeks went by, could not.
She would decide to find another way, to change things. She would tell Phil she couldn’t have another baby, not now, and they would get back to using birth control. She would call Everett High School, and they would allow her to go part time in the morning, while Phil watched Douglas at home. She would start classes two weeks late, taking the ninth- and 10th-grade courses she’d missed. She would seize control of events. She would become an adult.
She had years to go and knew the delicate alchemy of this moment could suddenly evaporate. Douglas could get sick. Phil could lose his job, or switch shifts. She may never graduate.
But right now, early one Friday morning, those concerns seemed remote, as Douglas and Phil slept side by side in the bedroom, and Michelle wrote her a Facebook message, telling her she was proud of her, and Maria headed out by herself for school, the child bride who didn’t drop out.
Maria Vargas, 16, takes a kick in the face while playing with her son Douglas, 2. Vargas is married to a man who is 25.
Maria Vargas, 16, glances out the window of her mobile home to watch her husband Phil Manning mow the lawn. Phil Manning wipes sweat from his face after spending the afternoon doing yard work on a hot and humid day.
“I have no sympathy for you,” barks Maria to husband Phil. She warned him not to swipe a bite of pork from the frying pan while she was still cooking.
Phil works with his father, Joe Manning, to replace mouldy wallboard in Phil’s mobile home.
Maria is focused on her phone as Phil plays video games after dinner.
Maria gives a goodbye hug to her husband Phil before he heads off to work.