Teen parent haters like the government-funded National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy love to throw around statistics about the children of teen moms being more likely to become teen moms themselves as if it’s some sort of intergenerational trauma. Girls Like Me author Nina Packebush has a different theory.
Some of you may remember the Public Service Announcements put out in the early 2000s by the The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy aimed at shaming teenage parents. The campaign featured photos of teenage parents with labels like Reject, Nobody, Cheap, and Dirty plastered in red across the girls’ chests. Apparently these posters would make teenagers realize just how society would see them if they dared to become pregnant, or worse yet, carry a pregnancy to term. Those of us who were already teen parents got a nice powerful reminder to hold our shame front and center at all times. We were, after all, cheap and dirty nobodies.
Now they’ve done it again, but somehow they’ve managed to come up with an even more egregious way to ostracize, shame and blame teenage parents, and to make certain that society continues to buy into the myth that teenage parents are worthless trash. TLC has just announced that they have partnered with The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy—which receives government funding—to create a new reality show called Unexpected.
Unexpected follows the lives of three pregnant teenage girls, but what makes this show different from shows such as 16 and Pregnant, is that all three of the girls featured were themselves born to teenage mothers. In the promotional material for the show it is states that: “Statistically, children of teen moms are more likely to become teen parents themselves — and TLC is exploring this phenomenon in a brand new reality show, Unexpected.”
The National Campaign claims that this show will “open up dialogue” about teen pregnancy.
It seems to me if The National Campaign truly wanted to open up dialogue about teenage parents they would have chosen a more accurate representation of teenage parents. The press release from TLC says, “In each story, our pregnant couple is entirely unprepared to have a child.
They went out of their way to find—what they perceived to be—the most vulnerable teen parents to feature.
I actually remember seeing this casting call and joking on Facebook that all of my teen mama friends with teen mama children should join me in auditioning and subversively smash the dominant paradigm that they were trying to promote, but we all knew that teen parents like us would never be chosen.
We don’t fit the narrative that The National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy so eagerly promotes. A campaign that quotes one adult teen mother saying, “It’s pretty much a mom’s worst nightmare.”
The National Campaign likes to throw around the statistic that girls born to teenage mothers are three times more likely, than girls born to older moms, to become teenage mothers themselves. They throw this out there as some sort of proof that being a teen mom is dooming your child to, not only poverty, lack of education, a higher rate of incarceration, and a life in foster care, but also to follow in your loser footsteps because we all know that one of the very worst things you can be is a teenage mother.
But if you pay attention to the wording you’ll notice that girls born to teenage mothers are not more likely to become pregnant than girls born to older moms. The teenage pregnancy rate is pretty much the same for kids born to teen moms as it is for kids born to older moms, what’s different is that kids born to teenage mothers are much more likely to carry their pregnancy to term and to then go on to raise their babies.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is actually The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Parenthood, specifically unwed teen parenthood. They honestly don’t care a bit about teen pregnancy. If you doubt me, go spend some time on their site. https://thenationalcampaign.org/why-it-matters
The thing I find interesting is that The National Campaign makes no effort to explain why girls born to teen mothers are more likely to have children earlier than their peers born to older moms. They just toss out that statistic and most of us assume that these kids are more likely to become pregnant than girls born to older moms and then are more likely to choose to carry their pregnancies to term because they are growing up in poor, unstable, poorly educated households and just don’t know any better. Teenage motherhood is some sort of intergenerational trauma cycle that must be broken like physical or sexual abuse.
I have a different theory.
Take two pregnant teenagers—one born to a teenage mom and another born to a mom who was in her late 20s to early 30s (what society defines as the correct age in which to become a parent). Imagine the teenager who was born to an older mom being fed the standard narative that if she keeps her child her life will go nowhere, she will die alone and in poverty, her child will end up in foster care, become a high school drop-out or incarcerated, have more health problems, and will even be doomed to grow up to be mentally ill and addicted to drugs. Imagine this teenager then going out and seeing posters of a girl who looks like her with the word NOBODY plastered across her chest in red. Imagine this girl turning on Unexpected and seeing just how dysfunctional her life will become, including dooming her child to the same fate of being a loser teenage mother.
Imagine this girl telling her parents that she’s pregnant and having them react in horror and rage, threaten to kick her out or try to punish her. Imagine these older parents saying, “you made this mess, don’t expect us to help you clean it up.” Of course this girl is going to be much more likely to seek an abortion—whether or not she really wants one.
Now let’s look at the second teenager who happened to be born to a teenage mother. She will see all of these same statistics, scare tactics, posters, and shitty reality TV shows meant to shame her, but then she will turn around and look at her own mom. She’ll think back to her own childhood and have a very hard time recalling if she was poor, but she will have vague memories of the pride she felt riding on her mama’s hip as she graduated high school or maybe college. She’ll remember how much fun it was when it was just her and her mama living in that tiny apartment. She’ll think back to those nights she and her mama sat at the kitchen table doing their homework together—maybe her mama was eighteen or maybe she was thirty when she went back to school, but either way this girl knows it’s possible. Or maybe her mama decided college wasn’t for her and went on to start a business or go to trade school or she found a partner and became a stay-at-home parent, or maybe she just remained in a low-wage job and this teenager realizes that a low-wage job is not the end of the world because, while money may make some parts of life easier, in truth money really doesn’t equal happiness.
This teenager will remember eating late night boxed mac and cheese in bed with her mama and riding the bus and going to punk shows and road trip vacations of cheap motels and diner food, and, if she’s super lucky, living with mama at grandma’s house.
She’ll know that in many countries there’s no shame in children and parents and grandparents all sharing a home together. In short this teenager will realize that growing up with a teenage mother may not have been the same as her friend who had an older mom, but it was still a childhood filled with love, adventure, and their own definitions of success.
Imagine when this teenager tells her own mama that she’s pregnant and her mama saying, “Whatever you choose, we will do this together,” because her own mama knows that really the only thing a teenage parent needs to be a successful parent is to have one adult who believes in her. This girl is going to be much more likely to continue her pregnancy if that’s what she truly wants.
I personally know many, many teenage mothers. Recently I asked a few of them to ask their kids what they remembered about growing up with a teen mom. I asked for the good and the bad. Here are some of the responses. My own eleven-year-old grandson said, “I like having a teenage mom because that means I get to know her for more years than other kids get to know their moms AND I get to grow up with both you and mama. My 31-year-old son said, “I don’t remember anything bad, but I do know I have much better childhood stories than any of my friends.” Another 15-year-old boy said of his mom, “I like that we share music. That you play cool music in the car and we sing at the top of our lungs and dance like no one is watching. If you were old, you’d probably make me listen to dumb music and we wouldn’t sing.” Another young mother who grew up with a teen mom said, “I don’t remember anything bad about growing up with a teen mom. It’s easier to relate to each other. There’s more time in the long run to spend together and we can be not only mother/daughter, but also very good friends.”
One of my favorite stories is a friend of mine, now in her 30s, who was thinking back to her own teen mama days and feeling a little uncomfortable about the times she took her young child dumpster diving, and then one day she overheard her grown-up 18-year-old daughter telling her friends about how she and her mom used to go dumpster diving when she was young and how much fun that was. The girl’s friends were impressed and jealous.
None of the kids questioned could think of anything bad about growing up with a teenage parent.
I know current and grown up teen mamas who have PhDs, who have master’s degrees, who have bachelor’s degrees, and who have associate degrees—some earned in their late teens and some not even begun until their 30s, 40s, or 50s. I know some teen mamas who went to trade school, who decided college wasn’t for them, and some—like me—who are autodidacts. I know teen mamas who work retail, who are writers, who are stay-at-home moms, who are bus drivers, who own their own business, who are teachers, who are therapists, who clean houses, who are firefighters, who are unemployed, who are artists, who are doulas, who are yoga instructors, and some who are still figuring out who they are. I know teenage mamas who run marathons, who make comics, who save animals, who are farmers, who play music, who make zines, and some who laze on Sunday mornings playing video games. I know teenage mothers who own nice houses, who live in shabby apartments, who co-raise their kids with their moms (like my daughter and I), who travel around in RVs, who own condos, and some who have roommates.
To be honest I do know of some teenage parents who have failed their children, sometimes in pretty big ways, but I also know some parents in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who have also failed their children.
If you are a good parent at thirty, you probably would have been a good parent at sixteen. Though if you fail at thirty few will click their tongues and say, “Well of course, what did you expect? I mean she is thirty after all.”
So when those two teenagers I mentioned earlier are looking at the prospect of continuing a pregnancy to term and then choosing to raise their child, the girl raised in the home of a teen parent is going to know that her age has little bearing on her ability to love her child and give that child a pretty awesome childhood. She will have a realistic idea of the struggles and difficulties she may face, but she will also know that a child is not a death sentence for her dreams, as a matter of fact she will know first-hand that a child may just be the motivation she needs to make her dreams happen. She will know that teenage parents are just like any other parents. She will know that having a child in her teenage years may take her down the bumpier trail of life, but maybe she really likes hiking and she knows that often the bumpy path is the one with the best views, the one that gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment, and the one that leaves you with the most precious memories. And she will know that sometimes the greatest gifts are unexpected.
Nina Packebush is a grown up teen mama, a young granny, and a writer living in Washington state. Her YA novel Girls Like Me, about a queer teenage mom, is available right now on Amazon. You can check out her teen mama blog at: wehaveraisedpresidents.org