Mother's Day 2013: Teen Moms Were Forgotten

Mother's Day is supposed to celebrate unqualified motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in our society. And as Mother's Day approaches each year, morning news shows, pop culture, and other mainstream media inundate us with images and stories of the mothers we celebrate. But, surveying these images, it does not take long to discern a pattern. The mothers we are really celebrating are straight, married, upper-to-middle class, and (at least for for-now's trend) pursuing their careers while having a family.

But not all moms fit that description. Probably one of the most marginalized groups of moms that do not are single teen moms. Instead of highlighting the achievements of these moms at least some of whom have overcome the adversity faced as a teen parents we would rather pretend they don't exist. Just look at the recent case of Caitlin Tiller, whose senior picture that included her infant son was left out of the yearbook. The school district's reasoning (that it did not want to encourage teen pregnancy) obscures Tiller's significant achievements, which included graduating early and starting college classes, undermining her value as a student.

Tiller is, in fact, one of an extraordinary few teen moms who manage to graduate from high school after becoming a mom. About 7% of teenage girls become pregnant each year. 59% of these end in birth. Two-thirds of these girls will never receive a high school diploma. And less than 2% will graduate from college before they turn thirty. Teen parenthood is the number one reason why girls drop out of school.

Not surprisingly, this has dire consequences for these girls' economic security and ability to provide for their children for the rest of their lives. 60% of teen moms live in poverty. Teen moms are less likely to be employed than other women. When they are employed, they work fewer hours and earn less per hour than other women.

Keeping teen moms in school is a necessity, and not just for the individuals: it needs to be encouraged for the benefit of society as a whole. But teen moms face discrimination because of their pregnancy or parenting status. Schools might refuse to give teen moms excused absences, restrict teen moms from participating in extracurricular activities, or coerce teen moms into substandard alternative schools. Discrimination can manifest itself as bullying — by teachers and students, with teachers' complacency.

Title IX of the Education Act of 1972 prohibits schools receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex, or marital, pregnancy or parenting status. Teen moms have the right to stay in school and participate in extracurricular activities. They are entitled to excused absences and to stay home from school for as long as a doctor says it is necessary. The school must treat pregnancy and childbirth the same as other medical conditions. If the school allows students who miss school to receive make-up assignments, it must do the same when a student misses school due to pregnancy.

Of course, the first step in keeping girls in schools is thinking about how we can eliminate teen pregnancy. Teen pregnancy has dropped over the years. Nevertheless, the United States teen pregnancy rate is the highest in the developed world. And when it comes to helping pregnant and parenting teens, it is too late for prevention. Instead of excluding them from the metaphorical yearbook, schools need to be better at supporting these young women to overcome the significant challenges they face as parents and students.

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Jill Maxwell

public interest/civil rights lawyer particularly interested in women's rights, constitutional law, and the role of courts in social change. nothing i write on this site is legal advice.

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