Even though unwed motherhood is a hot-button issue right now, it’s rare to hear from women who know about the topic firsthand. But we’ll get that chance on Mother’s Day , when ABC presents “Mothers of Strength and Spirit,” the last program in the Passion to Play series of four shows devoted to female athletes. (The first two were broadcast in April; the third, “Women of Adventure,” airs May 7.
One of the highlights of “Mothers of Strength and Spirit” is an interview with Karleen Shields, which is excerpted here. At 26, Shields is a highly regarded guard on the University of Southern California’s women’s-basketball team, a full-time sociology major, and the mother of two daughters, Ayesha, 8, and Keisha, 7. She was heavily recruited as a high-school senior in Texas, but then, finding herself pregnant, gave up her dream of going to college. It was just four years ago, while she was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, working four jobs and trying to stay afloat, that she decided to start anew. She picked up Ayesha and Keisha and moved to California, enrolled in junior college, and made an impressive showing on the school’s basketball team. In 1993, USC came calling with a scholarship.
Looking ahead, Shields wants to own her own day-care center. “I know how hard it is for single moms and single dads,” she told ABC. Anyone in Washington listening?
ABC: What happened when you first got pregnant? What was going through your mind?
KS: I had signed with a major college when I found out I was pregnant. I wasn’t going to be able to register or anything, so I thought it was over. Why go? I decided to stay home and take care of my child.
ABC: What kinds of things did people say to you?
KS: It was all negatives, except from some of my immediate family. They stood behind me ’cause we are all really close, but some friends, coaches, people who I thought were closer to me than a lot of other people, they kind of gave up on me.
ABC: Did you ever feel like giving up on yourself?
KS: I never felt like giving up, because I wasn’t raised that way. I was learning to accept what was put my way, and part of it was to just ignore the negative comments and just keep pushing forward to prove everybody wrong. Before, everyone was on my side. “Oh, Karleen, you’re going to college. You’re going to play basketball.” Whatever. Then all of a sudden nobody knew Karleen anymore. So that kind of made me feel alone, hurt.
ABC: Can you tell me about the jobs you had in the beginning?
KS: I’d go in at five in the evening to Burger King, and I would get off about four in the morning. I’d go clean a bank before it opened. [Shields also worked as a teller, then as a babysitter later in the day.] I’d get home and have to take care of the kids and take care of my friend’s children until I had to go back to work. I wasn’t happy at all, and I was doing something that I said I would never do. I always wanted to work with children, and I found myself working in a fast-food place. You know you have to do things that you don’t want to do just to make ends meet, but I felt like I could have been doing something better.
ABC: When you first had your children, did you ever think, “I could be playing basketball right now–that’s what I really want to be doing”
KS: I never thought like that, because once I had my children that was me, and whatever decision I made about anything, I had to include my two daughters. That was something that I knew I would have to do when I decided to have them. I had to grow up part of my life without my mother, and I think that was a really big empty space that I needed to fill. So I just wanted to be there for my daughters. I think that it’s very important for any child to have both parents around. My daughters don’t have their dad around during the school year, but they see him in the summertime as much as possible. I think with them being two little girls, at this age they need to be around their mom.
ABC: Tell me a little bit about a normal week for you.
KS: I’ll probably get home about ten-thirty or eleven. It depends on what I have to do, like in my lab or at the study table over at the library. While I’m gone my daughters get ready for bed, and when I come home they’re usually in bed. I’ll clean up and get their school clothes ready for the next day. So I get to bed usually about two in the morning and back up about six-thirty.,
ABC: How do your teammates treat you?
KS: They look at me as a mom figure sometimes. I cook for them, I feed them when I cook big meals. They always ask me, “Can you bring some spaghetti?” Or “Mom, I haven’t eaten.” But at practice or on campus, in class, I’m just one of them and we clown around a lot. I think a lot of times they don’t remember how old I am, and a lot of times I don’t remember how much younger they are than me. We all get along. I don’t think the age matters.
ABC: What kind of role model do you think you are for your daughters?
KS: I think I’m showing them that hard work pays off and to just work hard at whatever you want and never give up, no matter what people say. They might keep pushing you down, but you just have to keep going.
ABC: What keeps you going?
KS: Ayesha and Keisha keep me going. Also, knowing that I’m on my way to graduating from college and out of 12 kids I’ll be the first one to do that. I want to do that for my dad and my mom and for myself. I’ll do whatever it takes.