Last month I read a piece in the New York Times that put the spotlight on the MTV show 16 and Pregnant which was not so much an article about the sensationalistic view of having children while still in your teens so much as it was a way to view mothers and their (very similar) problems to older mothers. I've been vocal about my distaste for the show because of how exploited I feel some of those stories are. What I haven't spoken out on enough is how little hope there is for these girls.
Let's not forget that the focus is on the girls. If we see the fathers it is usually with regard to how these young mothers still forge relationships with them. Sometimes, we see the dads get custody because of the behavior these young women display. Those are the sensational ones that seem to garner more air time.
The article, titled MTV's '16 and Pregnant', Derided by Some, May Resonate as a Cautionary Tale, talks a lot about the decline in teen pregnancy in areas where that show was watched. Hence, the title of this post (with a correction in my age, of course). Along with the clucking, finger-wagging, shame-blaming that comes with being a pregnant teenager, there are few who truly want to know what it was like. In the years since I started writing about it I have managed to show a different side of the story that isn't often highlighted: one of hope.
Of all the questions I get asked about it, lo these 29 years later, the number one question is always this: How did you do it? It comes with a sincere request for me to talk about that. Even when I got a call from a producer at the Oprah show for her Life Class on single mothers, that was the question. I had to back out of the show for a few reasons including the fact that I'm not a current single, struggling mother with no partner help and, as I understand it, the focus would be on how to help those who are navigating those waters right now. Seeing as I'm on the other side of the struggle, I gave up my spot and decided to go to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the ONE Campaign.
I'm trying not to have regret about it since I feel like I do have a lot of advice to offer. Especially since reading this quote from the NYTimes story:
“I did get two awesome blessings,” said Ms. Lowry, now 21 and married with a second child. “But I still haven’t gotten my bachelor’s degree, because, one, day care is so expensive and, two, how do you balance studying and having little ones at home?”
These were the same problems I faced at 18 years old but by this time my daughter was a toddler who had just turned 3. So, while toddlers still demand quite a bit of time from you, I found it easier than trying to wrap a baby up with a diaper bag and trying to get to classes.
It still begs the question: how does one do this?
While I do not have all the answers I do have my own experience from which people can draw, especially currently pregnant teens. There is no 'easy' in any of it, much like there is no 'easy' in simply being a parent.
First of all, I lived very modestly in an apartment the size of my current office. It didn't even have a full kitchen but rather a kitchenette with a tiny fridge and mini stove. Much of what I see on scandalous television, however, shows many of these mothers who still want so many things for themselves. It must be difficult to give up a cell phone or purchase a cheaper plan when you're used to having those things and I don't judge them for that, but it is a choice. Of course, I didn't have to grapple with that. But I did have to let things go that were, after getting pregnant, a luxury. I believe that there is grounded into the pathology of our society that we can't wait for things anymore and that is a horrible by-product of living in poverty and not wanting anyone to know that you're poor.
Day care is, indeed expensive, and was for me at the time, too. So, when I met other single mothers we formed a sort of tribe where we traded days of classes for watching one another's children. If I took a MWF class then my friend, Demaris, would watch Mallory. She took TR classes and I watched her twins. Yes, she came to college the same time I did but she did it with twins.
We also did plenty of potluck meals to spread our grocery dollars and agreed to sharing food weekly. We ate dinner together with our three children quite often and that meant we were able to feed them better with healthy choices of vegetables and fruit. Meat was, however, a luxury item that ate sparingly. Knowing that my daughter was getting nutritious choices helped me feel better as a mother because we all know, from having children, that there is a giant G scarlet letter pinned to us for guilty since we feel so inadequate most of the time. As an older woman, I know this to be true now but I didn't feel much solidarity with other moms because of my status: teen mother. It was as if people thought I didn't have the same complex feelings of motherhood or even post-partum depression. This is simply an unfair assessment of those mothers and I offer my struggling stories to young mothers to this day to show them that they are worthy in their roles and not discounted simply because of their age.
I taught my daughter the alphabet and sang her songs and kept her involved in activities that would benefit her just like mothers, not of the teen persuasion, did. My dreams for her were no different that any mother would have for her child.
But it was a feeling of support and tribe and solidarity that got me through. It was other mothers, some teens and some older, who pushed me and helped me get through college with not one but two degrees. If I could urge any teen or single mother in her struggle it would be with that advice:
Find your tribe
No, it wasn't easy, but I wasn't doomed to failure, either. There was much hope and hard times and tears of frustration that I was DOING IT ALL WRONG, but my tribe of mothers gave me better than what we offer girls with reality television and seeking to sensationalize the difficulty. I am not minimizing how hard it will be, but I sincerely hope that someone out there is giving those young ladies a boost and helping them realize their potential and dreams. A shorter reply to the question How did you do it? would be, With a lot of help.
I leave you with a bit of advice I got from my assistant principal at the time when she found out I was pregnant: