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I Was a Teen Mom

I was a teen mom. I suppose it’s a label I’ll carry around for awhile, watching people do the mental math when they discern my son’e age minus my own. I’ve written about this many times before. I got pregnant within days before my eighteenth birthday and Ethan was born before I turned nineteen. I barely finished high school, but continued with my education and now I’m this close to finishing my undergraduate degree. If you’ve been with me for awhile, you know that I plan to go on to graduate school and gain the idependence and self-reliance that I so want.

I did all this without going on welfare, without succumbing to homelessness, avoiding abusive relationships, and not letting the surprise of pregnancy remove me from my goals. How? I have a whole lot of help from people who absolutely adore me and Ethan. Because we’re so adorable.

A paired book and movie have come out in recent years that I intend to get my hands on, “Growing Up Fast” by documentarian Joanna Lipper. One thing about the Alternet article that profiles Lipper and covers this book/movie and the teen parenthood phenomenon irritates the hell out of me:

Growing up in Manhattan, Lipper was both “very focused academically” and athletic, playing on basketball, softball, and volleyball teams. “I loved to read, definitely as a teenager and throughout my whole childhood. I lived vicariously through stories and I always loved storytelling.” After high school, she attended Harvard, where she studied under esteemed professors like film-theory philosopher Stanley Cavell and literary theorist and cultural critic Elaine Scarry – an experience that, she gushes, “changed my life. I just really, really, really loved it.”

This quote in itself isn’t inherently bad, but considering the context of the article and the content of the movie, it seems to juxtapose the successful Lipper against her unsuccessful teen parent interviewees. After all, teen parents don’t read, lose all professional opportunities, and only come to teen parenthood through poverty, ignorance, and naivety. Further, the image of teen parenthood is so stereotypically hopeless that I nearly sprained an eyeball from rolling my eyes so often.

In the film version of “Growing Up Fast,” Lipper introduces six young women: Shayla, a doe-faced beauty; angry MaryAnn; Colleen, a chunky Christian with a junkie boyfriend in the clink; Jessica, a model student whose reckless rendezvous with an older man who has already fathered three kids results in her own; Sheri, a wounded-looking teen abandoned by her boyfriend during her pregnancy; and Amy, a rebellious, stubborn party girl who got pregnant twice, by two different men.

Further, whenever anything about teen parenthood is compiled, there is always a mom who says something like this:

In the film, 16-year-old Shayla explains her mind-boggling motivation: “I thought it would make my life a lot better, not only in my relationship with C.J., but with my friends. I thought it would bring my popularity up because people would be like, ‘Hey, she’s got a baby, and that’s cool.’ “

Lipper’s “research” was conducted in one solitary city, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a factory town treading loss of industry and jobs. While this might serve as an interesting case study, it isn’t anything near a norm for most of the teen parents I know. I grew up in a fairly affluent community, not Manhattan of course, in an affluent family. I took to reading like a fish takes to water, wasn’t particularly interested in children unless you count teaching my nieces and nephews how to armpit fart, and I obviously too enjoy storytelling. And I made some questionable choices, got pregnant, made the choice to have Ethan (but not without some incredible soul-searching and back-and-forth as I imagine many unplanned pregnancies entail), and when I had Baby E, things changed.

Sure, I grew up quickly and had a long bout of crippling depression, but there were plenty of helping hands along the way. My family came in just as I needed them most, a family friend counseled me through the pregnancy, and my many friends decided to swoop in and regard the little one as, not tragedy, but my destiny. This made all the difference.

The only teen parents I know who could perhaps be considered “unsuccessful” are those who have or had no help at all. They had abusive authority figures that labelled them failures before they even started parenting; intermittent help that was given and rescinded with no way to predict which day would bring what; unhelpful, contrary, or absent parenting partners; little education and no hope for upward movement; and poor parenting models on which to operate their own parenting styles.

I have long been an advocate for a mentoring program for single parents, some sort of public funded project that aligns members with other single parents and former teen parents, people who have been there and can guide floundering or nervous newbies into success. That’s what I had and so desperately needed, and this is to what I contribute 90% of my success, the other 9% being my tenacity and sheer will. Add 1% of inertia and you have the perfect equation.

Somewhere we fell short, allowing pro-life groups to take over teen parenting mentorship and support, where I presume a more liberal or feminist approach to early parenthood would provide the knowledge necessary to guarantee success — information on birth control, advice on navigating public services, legal rights, expectations, but with a healthy dose of personal choice. Young parents need the scaffolding of outside hands, knowledge, and yes, sometimes money, to ensure that they and their children can succeed and not be derailed by this enormous life change. In addition, young parents need contacts with peers who share similar circumstances, and with whom they can collaborate.

Being a single, teen mom is not the best arrangement, but it need not be disastrous. Shaming, blaming, and proselytizing teen parents is useless because it operates only in hindsight and doesn’t allow for a potential healthy, happy future for either parent or child.

Rather than enforcing and reenforcing stereotypes about teen sex, teen pregnancy and teen parenthood, we have to be willing to embrace the parents we tend to shame to ensure that their progeny have a chance. Treat us like we’re naive, irresponsible, and incapable people and don’t be surprised if you end up with naive, irresponsible, and incapable parents. Or even better, ignore those of us who don’t have babies to climb the ladder of high school popularity and ignore those of us who do just fine regardless.

We’ll be here, plugging along despite you.

Required Reading:
Girl Mom Dot Com – “Girl-Mom is about empowerment. Girl-Mom is about defying social stereotypes, and fighting for our rights as mothers.”
One Young Parent – For teen parents (both moms and dads), their families and friends, and for those interested in helping them.

Neither site glamorizes teen pregnancy or parenting, but provide a supportive online community for young people having children.

And one more myth-buster: Teen motherhood has little impact on welfare costs, a study by professors at the Heinz Graduate School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University.

16 thoughts on I Was a Teen Mom

  1. What a lot of people will argue, dear Lauren, is that you are the exception to the norm. They’ll also say that you “succeeded” because of private support, not public. I’m not necessarily making those arguments, but I DO think that having a support system of folks who love and nuture those in need can make a big difference.

  2. Oh my God, I just typed a long response and it got lost. Dammit!

    Here’s the gist: I don’t necessarily disagree with your assertions, Rox, but as New Deal democrats might assert, the government has an opportunity to step in and help those who cannot or don’t know how to help themselves. Other forms of mentor programs receive public funding, and as we often claim, if we want to truly leave no child behind, we have to be willing to address some of the root causes of societal issues.

    Existing parenting classes are condescending and gender stereotypical. Fathers are told how to change diapers and avoid beating their children. Mothers are given advice on how to get along with their babydaddies. These government-sponsored, content-limited classes are available only to those who have already come through the court system, and quality classes are available only to those who have hundreds of dollars to attend speaker-oriented conferences. Existing classes operate in the short-term and aim at solving symptoms of root issues.

    I envision something along the lines of a more preemptive, collaborative program that pairs old-timers with newbies and forges long-term contacts and support for advice from the large to the small. It’s a pipe dream, I know, but all local and state government does now is throw WIC, housing and welfare bones at struggling families, instead of offering support for them to attend classes, job training, and other upward-oriented opportunities. There has to be more than that.

  3. They’ll also say that you “succeeded” because of private support, not public.

    Sort of. I used a rather common form of public economic support early on, and if financial aid is considered “public support” I definitely rely on that.

  4. I’m waiting for the day when every 15 year old MALE gets a state sponsored “reversible” vasectomy as a birthday present. This statement shows why I’ll never be elected to any public office, but in my experience it takes two people to become a teenage mom. It seems in your case Lauren, that Ethan’s dad hasn’t been totally absent. This isn’t always the way it is.

    “Being a single, teen mom is not the best arrangement, but it need not be disastrous. Shaming, blaming, and proselytizing teen parents is useless because it operates only in hindsight and doesn’t allow for a potential healthy, happy future for either parent or child.” Absolutely true! It’s also my experience that even with an older, married mom and dad, it helps immeasurably for the child to have the support system Roxanne (who’s statement I totally agree with) talks about.

  5. What I find interesting is how deep the stereotypes are and how they can completely blind us to reality. I knew so, so many girls who had kids as teenagers and I bought into the belief that their miserable existences were the result, hook, line, and sinker.

    And then a couple years later, the same fate fell on nearly everyone else, regardless of whether they “waited” or not. Turns out the best indicator of future success wasn’t whether you had kids young or not, but the social class you came from to begin with. That’s the dirty little secret our discussions about teenage motherhood are hiding.

  6. Thanks for the link to the ‘misanthropic-bitch’. Funny stuff in a real sick sort of way. But I agree with some of the posts here. It’s exceedingly rare to have an outcome as successful as yours from a teen parenting experience. You’re right however that it does take plenty of help to overcome some of the natural disadvantages. That unfortunately is available to fewer and fewer young moms. It needs to be made more available somehow. I say it comes down to valuing human beings and our future over making a few folks richer. Having a parental generation more willing (and able) to help out their own would be a great improvement, as would better educationa and more available contraception. I’m not up on most of the stats (see Family Planning Perspectives from Planned Parenthood), but a significant portion of teen moms set out to become pregnant. That’s a risky choice without an adequate support system, and one that the larger culture will continue to distain. as TMB ably demonstrates. Still there’s several trends going on in fertility now. We have couples in their 40’s trying to become pregnant for the first time, and usually failing at great costs. Natural biology (when it does not kill you, right?) makes it much easier to get and bear kids when we are younger. It might not be simpler, it just happens a whole lot easier. Hence there is an argument for having your kids, should you desire them earlier in your life. This may all change however with better technology, right??

  7. I was 24 and married and still got looks/comments when I was pregnant, as if everybody should wait until they’ve “established” themselves somehow in the world (I’m assuming they mean a paying job?) to have children. Now I’m 28 with three preschoolers and *still* get looks/comments. Why oh why do we act like children are burdens, or that parenthood is something you have to be “ready” for? I am glad you are raising your son. He seems to have a good momma.

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  9. I grew up about 40 minutes south of Pittsfield, Mass and I think it’s important to think about the city as a whole when thinking about teenage moms. My experience with people both from Pittsfield and from the surrounding smaller towns is that most people are “unsuccesful” whether they have children early or not. There’s a lot of drug and alcohol abuse running rampant in the area, education is not encouraged, and most parents don’t have the time to spend with “troubled” teens because of long hours at low paying jobs. The women I know who have made the choice to have a child while in high school are happier than they would have been otherwise. They weren’t expecting to go off to college with huge professional opportunities, they were expecting to find a job near home and live with their parents or high school friends if their parents have kicked them out. At least they know have something important to do.

  10. I was just thinking about this issue the other day. I was a teen mom, and I still have a complex about the whole situation. My daughter is four, and I feel like an outcast with all of the other mothers at her preschool. They are all in their mid thirties, and here I am, only tweny three. I am pursuing a career in secondary education, and when my students find out that I am a mother, they are baffled, and it is very awkward. I strongly believe in having a support system of friends and family. I really did not have this because I shut everyone out of my life when I got pregnant because I felt that people would treat me differently, and I was ashamed. I could write a book about being a young mother, and all of the awkward positions that I have been in. I would really be interested in helping young teen moms. If you have any info about where to go, I would really appreciate it.

  11. All the judgemental baggage that is dumped on teenage moms serves one great big purpose….to cover up the deep, dark secret that teenage motherhood isn’t really different than so-called adult motherhood. That “adult” motherhood is no Shangri-La, either.

    I mean, hell, I was 32 when my daughter was born (and got comments like, “ohmigod! why did you wait until right before menopause?, because here in the midwest a woman is supposed to have three kids before leaving her late twenties), and it’s not like I didn’t have struggles, too. I was established in my career, and when I asked for FMLA leave I was terminated instead. Age does not shield one from bigotry. Nor does it shield one from life’s little or big crises, or even the everyday run-of-the-mill parenting issues. It doesn’t make it any easier to wake up in the middle of the night for the umpteenth time, changing poop or puke-filled bedding. You don’t magically gain the ability to function for days on four hours of sleep upon turning 21. Doesn’t shield you from possibly needing WIC, or other forms of assistance. Without the societal baggage…’s the same motherhood everyone else is having.

  12. Judging from the description of some of the people in your town, I wouldn’t worry about too many people making the connection, as elementary subtraction should remain a wonderful mystery to them, known only to the high priests. Or you could claim that Ethan is negative 2, but he’s very precocious.

  13. that Alternet article is truly idiotic – check out where we learn that Ms. Lipper is a “redheaded, red-lipsticked young author, dressed in pointed-toe boots and an ankle-length skirt”…?) – but i wouldn’t judge Lipper’s book by it. i don’t think she’s trying to portray teen pregnancy as a disaster or tragedy. i think she’s trying to show that despite these women’s desire to succeed, on whatever terms they desire, they are constrained within very real sociopolitical networks/demands that have as much to do with their class as their gender.

    at the same time, i can also see how Lipper’s work can be regarded in a similar vein as Ehrenreich’s “Nickel & Dimed”: affluent social activist goes slumming & returns to reveal to “us” the amazing fact that poverty sucks. no! really?

    side note: though she could’ve gone into more detail about it in general, Lipper does talk about a support group some of the women utilize known as the Teen Parent Program of Pittsfield. in some ways, it may be addressing some of the goals/strategies that your mentoring idea is aimed at, at least insofar as it helps the women involved complete school if they want to. here’s what they offer:

    “Alternative educational site for pregnant and parenting teens with licensed and accredited day care center on site. Five-day school week with transportation for mothers and children, high school diploma program, GED preparation, parenting classes and career planning.”

    and here’s a short piece about Helen Berube, the former director of the program who recently passed away… A gifted mentor for teen-age mothers guided teens to a better life

  14. you know those times when you’re a bit listless, a bit restless, a bit sleepless, and you find yourself spiralling through a circle of websites and blogs, hoping to come across Someone or Something inspiring? something to give you a little jolt of three a.m. *bzzzzt* inspiration, a feeling of connection? well, you were that person for me today — except that it’s actually four in the afternoon. i am completely entranced by your website, your thoughts, your honesty, your fervor… you.

    and this TRULY isn’t meant as a promo, but i would be beyond honoured to have you one day take part in my own website. i run, a fairly new and small site, dedicated to feminist erotica, writings, and community. it’s sort of like vargas meets third wave. it’s still very new, and above all, it’s a close-knit community where i strive to encourage the women i adore to feel beautiful (inside and out and beyond), have a place to share themselves, etcetera etcetera. it’s also an erotica site which has a small following, and will hopefully have a larger one, in time. but i like to think (no, i truly believe) it’s something different than even it’s feminist forerunners. and that’s why i’ve lunged right in, to discuss it with you.

    to make it clear from the get-go that i am not writing you in search of a token young mother: whether or not you were a teenage mother, i would be writing you this same giddy note. particularly because of my background in child therapy, i am impressed with you and the network of support you’ve garnered to get you through the muck of adversity that faces single mothers. but you pique and tantalize my interest FAR beyond your role as a mother, and this message would have been shyly, antsily typed even if (god/etcetera forbid) your son did not exist. but i will say this: our site has models & writers from a wide variety of class backgrounds, women of different races and sizes and sexualities. but one thing i have always felt we lack is the presence of mothers. (i am also, always, actively focusing on increasing the diversity of our community in other ways, but i think this one is beyond essential, and has gone completely ignored by even the most progressive erotica sites.) the site is small and close-knit, and this may be the first time i’ve come even close to asking someone to be part of it, without really “knowing them” first. i have two amazing friends who are young mothers and who were going to model and write for the site, but both of them were left far, far away when i moved across the country, a few months ago. (perhaps my own most difficult battle: severe chronic illness. looong story.) i hope to still work with these women in the future, and one of them is still a very active presence in our community discussion forum.

    so basically, aside from the fact that you’re in indiana, and illness has me unfortunately rooted semi-permanently in the d.c. area: i would go completely gonzo with happiness to have you model for me. there is still the possibility of you writing for the site, if modeling doesn’t interest you, and the community forum is free, free, freeee. (i’m not in this for profit, although i absolutely believe in paying my models — so membership itself is 5 dollars a month, as cheap as i’m capable of keeping it.) but as i’ve said, the community boards are free, so that anyone with any sort of computer access can take part in the fun.

    if you’d like to talk (about this, or anything else) i just might giggle with glee. i went ahead and stormed you with discussion of my site, because, well, it seems that you might really like the little community we’ve got going. but regardless of that, i want to thank you for putting your voice and your fire out there. it may come naturally to you, as putting myself out there in my own ways does to me. but i still say that this site, and you, are fucking courageous.

    xxoh, hoping to hear from you,
    (who has her own humble little blog, in addition to her website, at

  15. hmmm… i just posted an extreeemely long message, and it’s not showing up. i suspect that it just may have been TOO extremely long. lucky for me, i copied it, and will now send you; lovely creature who has made my day; an email.


  16. You know, it’s funny. I got online and more political and more feminist because of (the used-to-be twin site to Girlmom). I met Alison Crewes once at a hipmama thing, even. Anyway, the thing I learned/decided about all that was that, just as mothers are kind of the canaries in the coal mine of the American work force (the things we need are the things that everyone needs, but they get marginalized as “women’s issues” in order to keep the whole fucked-up “your entire life should be spent on the job” system working), single/young mothers are the canaries in the coal mine of motherhood. The things young moms need are the same goddamn things ALL moms (parents, people) need: support from friends and family rather than blame and shame; support from the public in the form of assistance (when needed) and acceptance of our right to be part of society; being treated as complex human beings rather than “social issues” that are reducable to a set of pat truisms; and so on.

    And you know, it’s interesting. My mom married at 18, dropped out of college, and had me at 20. No one considered her a fuckup for that, b/c that’s what women did back then. But when my sister had a kid at 24, it was a little “worrying” b/c she was single and not quite out of college yet. And now that a lot of women like me are waiting to have kids until our 30s, THAT’s a problem. Gimme a break. Kids and motherhood are not a “problelm” in a healthy society.

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