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.
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.