SALT LAKE CITY — John Pedersen sits next to his wife in a local diner on a recent Friday, mulling his past as he cuts into a slice of cheesecake. If statistics were always right, he'd be very different. In fact, John and Melissa probably wouldn't be sitting here at all.
His background is the stuff of research studies and predictions: Grew up with a severely drug-addicted parent, spent as little time at home as possible as a teen, got his girlfriend pregnant. But instead of fulfilling the forecast, which says that's a bad way to launch a successful long-term relationship or find stable employment, John and Melissa are trying hard to buck the odds.
Those odds, experts say, are both distressing and unassailable — and they are often "just life" for children growing up in homes where resides addictions, poverty and other challenges. Kids who come from these sorts of backgrounds are often forgotten and invisible to the broader world, their futures seemingly already decided by the circumstances in which they grow.
As many as 13.3 million children lived in poverty in 2008, according to the national organization Child Trends, which tracks childhood wellbeing. Statistically, that fact alone makes a child more likely to earn lower grades, drop out of school and have health and behavioral problems compared to better-off peers. Parental addictions can cause many of the same harms. Addicted parents often fail to create structure or discipline, but expect their kids to be more competent than other parents would expect at many things.
Teen parents almost never go to college. They have lower earning potential. And teen pregnancy is typically death to relationships, says Jessica Sheets Pika, spokeswoman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
John Pedersen had nearly every one of these odds stacked against him. The pregnancy could have stifled not only John's future, but his wife Melissa's as well.
Instead, here they sit, seven years later, snuggled companionably in a booth, munching on cheesecake and laughing as they tell a near-stranger about the budding chemistry — theirs — in their 10th-grade chemistry class at Hillcrest High.
They have two kids now: Hailey, who's almost 6, and Kamden, who's 18 months old.
John has been working at ARUP for nearly three years, and he goes to college. School has been a long slog, punctuated by time off to work full time when finances demanded it. Melissa completed college and is a registered nurse, working at Valley Mental Health.
And though money's tight and they're back living with her parents again — they did that early in their marriage — this time they moved in to save the down payment for the house they hope to close on. They would have the house keys except a woman with the same name owes a medical debt that was mistakenly placed on their credit report, and they've had to wait for that to clear up. They hope it's soon.
More nuance than number
Pedersen has a mental blueprint of the kind of life he'd like to create for his own kids. The list is pretty straightforward. He'd like a nice, clean house where he and his wife can invite friends over. And he'd also like family vacations — at least one a year. "I've never been to Disneyland and I'd like to go once," he says, his face smiling but his voice a little wistful.
About the only similarity you find in John's and Melissa's childhoods is the year they were born; they're both 26. She grew up in a religious household, while John's mom, Carol Pedersen, says she and her late husband decided early on to let the kids find their own way religiously. John has chosen belief; he converted to Melissa's LDS faith when he was 19.
She was raised middle class, while he was decidedly poor. His dad, Scotty, did construction work and maybe even made a reasonable wage. But the man who liked fishing and camping and playing baseball with his boys was also a cocaine addict, and that's where many of his resources went. Carol Pedersen describes a small allowance to buy food, clothes, gas, pet food, household items and cigarettes and says they usually didn't have enough. Despite a wish to get better and a trip to rehab paid for by his father, John's dad Scotty couldn't overcome his addiction. He died three years ago.
Life was always challenging. Scotty and Carol had squeezed themselves and their four children into a series of small apartments, moving eight times in their first 10 years together. After that, they settled into one place, a two-bedroom unit in Midvale where young John slept on the couch. Carol lost the apartment after Scotty died.
Early on, Carol Pedersen says she didn't know Scotty was addicted, then she didn't realize how bad it was. It was when the kids were in their teens that her husband's addictions started to get out of control, Carol says. Still, the couple stayed together — a marriage that lasted 28 years. That means John's parents beat a few odds, too. Experts all agree that addiction tears families apart.
John, the second-youngest, describes his childhood as "dirt poor." By age 16, he was "home no more than to sleep and to eat occasionally." He'd made a friend in middle school who would remain a best buddy, and he found himself gravitating increasingly to his friend's house. His own was crowded and messy and there was no privacy. His friend's house was different.
John got a job as soon as he could and paid for his own clothes and other needs throughout high school. He didn't like to invite friends over because the house was a mess. He couldn't do much with friends elsewhere because he was too poor. But he was smart and driven. He liked sports and movies and worked hard. And he was innately sweet.
Carol Pedersen says there wasn't much she could say when they told her Melissa was pregnant. Carol got pregnant herself at 17 and gave her first baby up for adoption. "I was just happy I got all four kids through high school without one baby," she says. She was proud John wanted to marry Melissa and keep the baby. When Carol got pregnant, "I wasn't ready to have a kid then and tried to do what was best for her," she says of the daughter who found her years later.
With four kids in five years, Carol says she sometimes felt overwhelmed. The addiction issues in their household piled on stress. John says they all felt it. Still, he seems proud of the fact that "My family doesn't pretend to be anything they're not."
As for Carol, Melissa says she is a "way good grandma" to Hailey and Kam.
Letting go of misconception
So how does someone overcome the trajectory the statistics expected for John? David Derezotes, a social worker with a clinical practice who is also a professor at the University of Utah, has never met John and Melissa, but addressed the issue in general terms. First, he says, you have to set aside some misconceptions about people: "There are these myths about people who are poor and people of color and people we classify as more at risk," he says. "There's even a suggestion about a difference in values and morals."
Being poor doesn't mean you love your kids less or want less for them. But it can put you at a disadvantage. "It may be that if I'm wealthy and privileged in that way, I can purchase services to take care of my child who needs help." It's possible that John's trajectory has been a result of something Derezotes refers to as "post-traumatic growth. The very most difficult things in life can challenge us to make our most remarkable decisions ... and become who we are capable of being," he says.
Some call it "resiliency." And experts like Derezotes say having even one adult in your life who "cared about you, respected you, believed in you and helped you" can be a factor in developing it. A friend's parent, a teacher, a counselor — "even the junior high janitor can make a difference," Derezotes says.
And for everything that seemed to go wrong, others must have gone right. All of Scotty and Carol Pedersen's kids are reportedly working hard and doing well.
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