Bethesda Magazine | July-August 2017

Illegitimacy By Katherine Byrnes

High School Essay Honorable Mention Winner, Connelly School of the Holy Child

Nullius filius; bastard; illegitimate; me. No, that’s not an SAT practice question asking which does not belong to the group—I belong with those words. Most people attribute the discrepancy between my mother’s last name and my own to an ostensible divorce I’ve somehow never mentioned, but if someone asks, I tell them the truth: my parents never married each other. I don’t hide the circumstances of my existence, but I don’t advertise them. Though society’s traditional view of parenthood has been shifting, having children out of wedlock is still viewed as shameful, especially in the conservative schools I’ve attended all my life. Nullius filius translated from Latin means “son of nobody.” Bastard not only denotes a child born out of wedlock, but also an “unpleasant person,” and illegitimate is synonymous with illicit, improper, invalid and wrong.

Society’s stigmatic view of its christened “illegitimate children” has certainly affected me. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never wished for a quintessential American family experience—if that even exists. Though I’ve never been specifically called out for the improper way I came into this world, I’ve felt people’s caustic condescension for my situation. I’ve also witnessed the great sacrifices my surprise beginning has elicited from my mother, and don’t plan to have children before marriage. But being born illegitimate has made me realize that I am completely legitimate.

My actions aren’t illicit. My humble abode and various interesting housemates over the years, far from the near mansions of my classmates, are not improper. My family, consisting of my mother and aunt in our two-level rental house, is not invalid. My existence is not wrong.

My unconventional origins have shaped me into an independent, thoughtful, and confident young woman. Never living with my father has taught me to kill my own spiders and change my own light bulbs—small feats teaching me to take initiative. I’m typing this essay atop the IKEA desk I assembled myself. I’ve grown to realize that I can accomplish what I set my mind to, whether it’s fixing my mom’s hanging mirror or someday restoring salubrity to the polluted Potomac River. 

My mother’s countless sacrifices, such as not pursuing another degree to make me her priority, have shown me how greatly one person can impact another’s life. I aspire to similarly devote myself to others, saving patients’ lives or making bioengineering discoveries. I’ve seen enough of my parents’ problems, from my mother’s emotionally abusive ex-husband to my father’s trophy wife, diagnosed as “psychotic with an underlying personality disorder,” that I know how wrong things can turn out. The rocky path I’ve successfully traversed has equipped me to overcome any future challenges I face. I do my best because unlike the circumstances of my birth, I can control my efforts. In doing so, whether met by success or failure, I’ve realized that no matter how society may perceive me, I am far from illegitimate.