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Teen Moms Are Not Doomed, So Stop Treating Them Like a Punchline

It’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, and young parents are on my mind. There’s my 34-year-old cousin who watched with pride last week as her 18-year-old daughter graduated. There’s my former student who was a junior in high school when she found out she was pregnant. Now she has a 7-year-old son and a B.A. from Ohio State University. She’s studying for the GRE.

I know of other success stories, but much of the teen pregnancy prevention messaging would have us believe these families don’t exist. Sure, it's not all rosy, and these young women relied on supportive adults along the way. But no one needs to figure my student’s son into calculations projecting how many prison or group home beds the state of Ohio should plan to have on hand. No one should have assumed that my cousin’s daughter would drop out of high school. And I don’t trust claims that the OSU alumna earns less now than she would have had she given birth at 20 instead of 17. Unfortunately, when think tanks and charities talk about the “public costs” of teen pregnancy, they peer into these families' futures and assume they will only hold chaos.

Naming the blame game

The U.S. teen birthrate is about half what it was two decades ago, and the perils of babies having babies are still woven throughout prevention efforts. To celebrate Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, the Candie’s Foundation created celebrity PSAs. One ad reads, “You’re supposed to be changing the world … Not changing diapers.” (In case it’s not clear, you can’t do both.) In March, New York City’s Human Resource Administration rolled out a similar campaign. Those ads featured teary-eyed babies and accusatory captions that addressed an assumed audience of shortsighted and dangerously unprepared teen mothers. An accompanying text messaging game implied that among a pregnant girl’s biggest concerns are ill-fitting prom dresses and wisecracking friends.

The Friday before Mother’s Day, I sat in a classroom with a dozen teenage girls from around the east side of the San Francisco Bay and eavesdropped while they talked about their kids. They shared strategies for how to respond when toddlers throw tantrums and traded tips on setting boundaries with well-meaning family members who have parenting ideas of their own. Andrea Sanchez, 18, lives with her grandmother and aunt, but when it comes to disciplining her 1-year-old son, she gently reminds her elders who’s boss.

“I tell them straight up, ‘It’s my kid. I pushed him, so I make the rules.’”

Later, Andrea told me how much her son is learning in the daycare this Alameda County school for pregnant and parenting girls provides free of charge. She talked about balancing school with working a dozen hours a week at a local cell phone retailer. She talked about the bus drivers who routinely pass her and her classmates by as they stand waiting at the nearby bus stop. (“Too many strollers,” they’ve been told.) She talked about the Facebook posts she’d seen that convinced her abortion was wrong and that she would carry her pregnancy to term. She mentioned the challenges inverted nipples pose to breastfeeding and how she and her boyfriend can’t wait for Isaiah to walk so they can take him camping. No mention of fatphobic friends who shunned her during her pregnancy. No mention of screaming fights over prom.

Andrea moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a baby. Most of her classmates are also Latina. Here in California, portrayals of young moms as resentful of children that keep them from parties, boys, and presumed teenage rites of passage can feel like finger pointing at one community in particular. Latinas make up just over 70% of the state’s moms who are 19 or younger. Nationwide, Latina girls have the highest teen birthrate as well.

“Some of it is just a downright cultural piece,” Gabriela Valle, an advocate with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, told me. “If in the history of your immediate family all of the women going back to your grandmother and great-grandmother were young moms, the fact that you moved here doesn’t take away your family history or that part of the culture.”

It’s a sentiment that came up in conversations with advocates elsewhere. One expert pointed out that sexual health educators call their credibility into question when they tell rooms of girls and women that young parenting will shatter their lives. People know from personal experience that many teenagers are up for the challenge and make it work, so they give everything else coming out of the messenger’s mouth — including tips on safer sex — the side eye.

Can a cultural shift start with schools?

“We’re not making friends where we need to if this is the message we’re putting out there,” Patricia Quinn, executive director at the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, told me. Her organization is working with state lawmakers to pass a bill that responds to high dropout rates among teen parents. We assume they leave because their attention is elsewhere or because they hated school in the first place, but that’s not what the research says. 

One study found that having a child actually increased Massachusetts students’ commitment to stay in school. Another from the Gates Foundation found that teen parents were the most likely category of high school dropouts to say they would have stayed had their school demanded more of them and provided necessary help.

Taking its cues from the data, the Massachusetts bill requires districts to have a policy that makes it plain what teachers and administrators need to do to encourage expecting and parenting students (boys and girls) to stay in school, including designating a staffer to help these students set academic goals and graduate. The bill asserts students’ rights under Title IX — typically thought of as insurance against gender discrimination in sports — and is winding its way through the legislature.

It’ll be a while before that proposal comes to a vote, but last month brought a legislative victory in New Mexico. The Republican governor there signed into law a bill that requires schools to give young parents additional excused absences for birth and to tend to their own and their children’s medical needs. New Mexico has the nation’s highest rate of teenage pregnancy, and the bill was engineered in part by young parents — mostly young women of color — who were frustrated that some districts’ inflexible attendance policies made it hard for them to get a diploma. 

Republican lawmakers, some of whom framed the bill as in keeping with their anti-abortion views, helped achieve the win. Whatever their motivation, their votes helped set a precedent for education policies that could be a major boon to girls — especially black and brown girls — nationwide. Just a third of Latina teen moms get a high school diploma, the lowest of any ethnic group. Black teen mothers are more likely than white or Latina young women to earn a diploma by the age of 22, but the numbers are nowhere near good enough. Less than half of black teen moms achieve that basic educational goal.

Sure, many of us want the girls in our lives to wait to start families, and it makes sense to explain why they should want that for themselves. But those explanations don’t have to involve turning young women who don’t go the prescribed route into a punchline. Some teenagers have babies while others remain childless past an arbitrary birthday that allows women to claim Suitable Motherhood status. Girls in both camps want to succeed and can. Public narratives and policy shouldn’t try to convince us otherwise.

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