What Society Got Wrong About Teenage Mothers

From a formerly teenaged mother

I’ve wanted to write this story for a long time but it’s always been such an emotional exercise to even begin. I’ve always surmised that the greatest writers are the greatest thinkers, and thinking about my experiences as a teenage mother always seems to end in a great deal of pain. While that hurts me, I also think that’s what makes this story so important to write.

From time to time I’d wonder what could be the most succinct way to describe the experience of a teenage mother. There’s just so much to encompass that it couldn’t possibly fit into one statement. But if I had to choose one, I would have to say: Along with felons, we’re a category of humans that nearly everyone actively wishes failure upon.

People don’t want to see teenage mothers succeed or even live a respectable life. Our lives need to be brutal and unforgiving. We need to go through insurmountable hardship so people can string us up as cautionary tales for other teenage girls. They point to us and whisper as if to say “You don’t want to be like that girl, so make sure you behave.”

Before I got pregnant at seventeen years old, I remember watching 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom on MTV. I remember the vitriol and ridicule the teenage girls featured on the show faced. As a highly empathetic person, it amazed me how vile people could be to teenage girls who were having one of the greatest challenges of their lives turned into a farce for reality television.

But what I saw from society was the approval of this farce. News articles touted the reduction of teenage pregnancy rates in response to the show. Society actively accepted the highly curated and dramatic narrative provoked and edited by a television network whose sole goal it was to receive as many views as possible; and they championed it because it supposedly made teenage girls behave more in a way they wanted them to behave.

But what society didn’t want to see was that this wasn’t just something that came from the decisions of teenage girls. The racial, socioeconomic, and social factors that could explain why this was happening weren’t being talked about enough. The many adult men who were getting these teenage girls pregnant in the first place weren’t receiving the scrutiny they deserved. And what they didn’t want to talk about most of all were the teenage mothers who defied the commonly held stereotypes — the teenage mothers who were at the top of their class, graduated high school, went to college, and were on track to build productive lives alongside their non-parent peers.

There’s a very specific idea of a girl who becomes pregnant as a teenager. People assume that she’s uninterested in her education and that she had no real potential to begin with — that any girl who could make one slip-up should clearly have it define the totality of her being and her future. But this just can’t be true.

When I got pregnant with my daughter, I was at the cusp of graduating from high school where I had done exceptionally well. I had my acceptance letter to Cal tucked away in my desk and was eagerly looking forward to attending the top public university in the world. And I wasn’t the only teenage parent who would be attending such a prestigious school. I met a number of peers at the university who likewise got pregnant in their teens.

I suspect many people can’t even begin to wrap their minds around the fact that there are teenage girls gestating or raising children while receiving an education at an elite university, but that was our lived reality. Many of us did it alone without the help of a partner and with our family hundreds to thousands of miles away. We stuck close to one another, helping each other through the academic rigors of our university, dire financial straits, and raising our children the best we could with the limited life experience we had.

I often joked that MTV should make a show covering our lives as teenage mothers — of early morning feedings and readings, rushed commutes to daycare and our morning lectures, and the spare moments we would find in between our numerous responsibilities to keep our households running — but that wouldn’t make for good reality television.

In 2013 there was backlash over a series of ads that were posted around New York City as part of a teen pregnancy prevention campaign. If you lived in NYC around this time you might have seen these ads and not given it another thought because the crude messages it sent to teenage girls is one society is accustomed to.

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Image from Human Resources Administration (Flickr)

I remember seeing this ad for the first time online and feeling a wave of shame and anger wash over me. The ad seemed to call out to me directly. My daughter’s father (I hesitate to even call him that, because he has never been a father) hadn’t stayed with me — the ad was right. But the decision to have my child was far removed from him. In fact, my decision to have my child didn’t concern him in the slightest. To think that women must make the decision to bring a child into this world based on the whims of a man was completely insulting.

But this is the narrative that we push in society without even realizing it. Men aren’t shamed nearly enough for refusing to take on an equal burden in raising their children, and when a woman takes up the burden herself somehow she’s shamed for being the parent who stayed, the parent who did the right thing.

Another ad in this series features a curly-haired baby with text that reads: “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” This couldn’t be my daughter, I thought. My daughter spent the first six months of her life in the lecture halls of a top university strapped to my chest, listening to lectures on philosophy and morality, suckling on me occasionally for comfort. She lay cradled in my left arm while I sat in my professor’s office and feverishly completed a final exam with my right. If she was raised by me, she would be someone who knew that education was worth fighting for because her mother had fought so hard for her own.

I recognize that I’m the exception and not the rule, of course. Only 40% of teenage mothers graduate high school and fewer than 2% graduate college before the age of 30. But instead of asking how we can support young mothers in continuing their educations, we write them off as lost causes before they’ve even had the chance to try.

Natasha Vianna, a formerly teenaged mother and cofounder of NoTeenShame, recounted the experience of her college guidance counselor refusing to help her apply for colleges because they did not expect her to graduate high school. She’s now a professional working at a Silicon Valley tech company.

Instead of helping teenage mothers, we relegate them and their children to a life of poverty and choose to weaponize their shame against other teenage girls.

Society is so very good at shaming teenage mothers, but they’re not so good at recognizing how a lifetime of failures on the part of her community places her in such a predicament. Most of the teenage mothers that I knew, myself included, came from homes rife with abuse and poverty. Where some of us excelled academically, we fell short socially and emotionally. Many of us dealt with mental health issues. Many of us turned to relationships to receive the love we weren’t getting at home.

To this day when people ask me what the best method for reducing teenage pregnancies is, I say it’s to uplift impoverished and working-class families — give them the resources to overcome the trauma that gets passed down generation to generation and the resources to be at home and raise their children in households full of love. That is the best anyone can do.

Anyone who says sticking an IUD into a teenage girl or putting her on the pill is the best way is oversimplifying an issue that’s entirely too complicated. While she might not be able to get pregnant, the trauma and the abuse that will lead her to harmful coping mechanisms can hinder her for the rest of her life regardless of whether she has a baby on her hip or not.

It’s not about shaming or medicating teenage girls, it’s about healing them.

For teenage mothers, the perpetuation of trauma continues far after she’s had her child and it can often time dissuade her from seeking a better way of life.

When I first became pregnant in the last few months of high school, I confided in a few of my teachers because I had no one else to turn to. They made a pact to keep the news from the principal of the school because it could have meant that I would be sent to our district’s continuation school — the school that was commonly known as a last resort for delinquent students. It amazed me even then that this could be possible considering I was among the top students of my graduating class. But it was just a primer for the reality that other would define me through my pregnancy alone.

During the last few months of my pregnancy when my stomach grew unwieldy and my pregnancy could not be hidden anymore, I could feel the the judgment of my peers. I could feel that they were all dying to ask me how on earth I was attending the same classes as them while expecting a baby at such a young age but they steered clear from me like I was an affliction they were afraid of catching.

I received welfare when I was in college so I could make it through. I remember the judgment of the worker assigned to my case as she snidely questioned me, asking why I wouldn’t just drop out of college to find a job instead — a job that would’ve paid poverty wages but would also have meant I wouldn’t qualify for welfare and I would no longer be her problem. Even in the governmental institutions that purport to lift people out of poverty, hardly anyone was really looking out for my best interest. I received the same judgment there that I would anywhere else. It was a judgment that told me no matter how capable or educated I was, people didn’t think I deserved the chance to escape poverty on a long term basis because I had had a child too young.

My daughter is still too young to know just how young I am to be a mother of a child her age, but she’ll soon find out. I fear for the day that she sees a billboard or an ad on the subway that tells her that she’s a “public health issue.” But when that day comes, I’ll embrace her tightly and tell her that there’s nothing that could have stopped me from choosing to have her and raise her.

I don’t mean to sugar coat the experiences of being a teenage mother. When I look back on the life that I’ve lived, I solemnly recognize that I’ve probably lived through enough hardship and agony that is more befitting of a woman three times my age. But I also recognize that most of it came from being cast aside by society as a failure before I could even show them what I was truly capable of. The hardest part by far was the utter isolation I felt.

As I grow in age, the extreme stigma I once faced is replaced with the comments of bemused acquaintances who tell me I’m so lucky to be so close in age to my daughter. What was once an extremely shameful way of life now draws the fascination and adulation of strangers even though who I am and the values I hold haven’t changed all that much. It’s funny what a decade can do to change people’s perspective of you — that my age alone drew such harsh criticism and judgment during a time I needed acceptance and understanding.

I don’t think the stigma of being a teenage mother will ever be completely eliminated, but my hope is that we can offer them a little more understanding and support. If even just one person came to my eighteen year old self and told me that there was nothing morally wrong with what I had done, that would have made all the difference.

Motherhood isn’t important only if the mother is old enough, and it’s time we started recognizing that.

Written by

I enjoy writing about society and culture, especially of the internet variety. janicebaecopy@gmail.com

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