You Sure Do Look Young: Reflections on Teenage Motherhood by Jen Bryant

I didn’t like the narrative of my life the world presented me with, so I set out to craft a new one. I am not “dirty,” “cheap,” or a “nobody.” I am a full-time employee, a perpetual student, a half-marathoner, and a freelance nonprofit grant writer. And in spite of all the odds, or maybe even because of them, I am a damn good mother.

Grocery shopping with a toddler: this phrase can strike dread into the heart of even the most seasoned mother. No longer a leisurely stroll through the aisles with a small hand-basket in tow, grocery shopping as a mom now involved planning around naps, securing a cart with four working wheels, and making sure the diaper bag was packed with snacks, distractions, and an extra change of clothes in case of an emergency. On that day, I had all of these things going for me; as an added bonus, my son woke up from his nap in a great mood. He played happily in his seat as I navigated the aisles, filling our cart with essentials. Success.

As we pulled up to the checkout, my son smiled and babbled at the cashier. I started unloading our purchases onto the conveyor belt, mentally checking to make sure I had everything we needed. Then the cashier paused mid-scan, frowned, and held up the organic baby yogurt I’d picked out. “Uh, you know food stamps don’t cover this, right?”

My face must have registered confusion. “Excuse me?” What was she talking about? I wasn’t on food stamps. At the time, I didn’t even have a credit card, just cash from that week’s paycheck.

The cashier rolled her eyes, sighed, then said more slowly, “You can’t use your food stamps for this.” She flicked her gaze from me to my son, then set the yogurt aside.
Then I understood. She’d assumed I was on food stamps because of my son, sitting oblivious in the cart. This wasn’t an assumption she’d made about the twenty-something man who checked out ahead of me, or one she’d make about the older woman behind me, either. Even though I was just going about my day like everyone else in the store, I stood out to her as different. Without knowing anything about me, she presumed to be familiar with the details of my life. Because in addition to being a mother, I was also 19 years old.

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I discovered that I was pregnant shortly before my high school graduation. Although I didn’t know it then, I was about to undergo the most radical transformation of my life: from ordinary teenager to social pariah.

Do an Internet search for “pregnancy” or “motherhood” and you’ll receive thousands of results–what to expect, the most nutritious foods to eat, how to remain stylish throughout pregnancy. Photos show airbrushed bellies or tiny feet cradled in mothers’ hands. There are many quotes about the sacred nature of motherhood. The top hit, from whattoexpect.com, announces, “Congratulations, and welcome to your pregnancy!” Above the image search bar, suggested phrases are included to help refine your search: “love,” “beauty,” “power,” “strength.”

Nobody PSANow add a qualifier to your search: “teen pregnancy,” or “teen motherhood.” There are no congratulations here, no tips on cute baby announcements or how to be fit and fab right up until delivery. One of the top hits – just below the crisis pregnancy center ads – is the Center for Disease Control’s reproductive health page. The subheading: “The Importance of Prevention.” The images here are in stark contrast to the smiling moms and babies dressed in pastels from the previous search: A black-and-white silhouette of a pregnant girl with a ponytail, head hung in shame, with the caption, “SEX HAS CONSEQUENCES.” A picture of a young woman holding a pregnancy test, mascara tears streaking down her cheeks. One article is headlined “Children Having Children,” the title layered over an image of a young girl in a nightgown; another accuses Jamie-Lynn Spears of “glorifying” teen pregnancy. And just in case you still don’t get it, there are also many, many PSAs designed specifically to remind viewers that teen pregnancy is a bad choice: “You’re supposed to be changing the world, not changing diapers.” “Be a kid – don’t have one. “Don’t be a statistic.” Finally, there are the ads that take an even more direct approach: pictures of teen parents in varying stages of misery emblazoned with the words “DIRTY,” “CHEAP,” “NOBODY.”

The message is clear: If you are a mother, you are associated with “love,” “beauty,” “power,” and “strength.”

If you’re a teen mom, though?

Dirty. Cheap. Nobody.

When I found out I was pregnant in my senior year of high school, I knew I had options. Fiercely pro-choice from a young age, I weighed my possibilities, ultimately deciding to become a mother. At the doctor’s appointment to confirm my pregnancy, no congratulations were offered, and there was no light-hearted speculation on gender or eye color from the physician or her staff. Instead, I was unceremoniously handed a pamphlet from an anti-choice pregnancy center titled “Adoption: The Loving Option” and given a mandatory referral to a social worker, who asked me no-brainer questions like, “Under what circumstances is it okay to shake a baby?” Just a year earlier, based on the strength of my junior year SAT scores, my guidance counselor had suggested an internship with a local newspaper and sent off for college brochures on my behalf. Now, I was told that my best options were to register with a temp agency for clerical work or to get a third-shift cashier job at a mini mart. As I left that appointment, my aspirations deflated like my graduation-party balloons.Dropout PSA

I didn’t need PSAs or internet searches to tell me what society thought of me and my choice. After my son was born, it seemed like everywhere I turned, I was receiving unsolicited feedback on my life. “You sure do look young – are you the sister or the mom?” became an almost-daily refrain. From store clerks to my college professors, everyone had an opinion. Like the pharmacist who, when I brought my son with me to pick up my birth control pills, tapped the bag and boomed in front of the entire line while pointing to my child, “That’s why you should have used these – so you wouldn’t have one of those!” Or the pediatrician who, after diagnosing my son’s ear infection (his first) and writing a prescription, told me off-handedly, “You know, I don’t usually trust young parents to follow through on treatment plans, but you seem like you’re pretty responsible.” And I can’t forget the day that a mother and her preteen daughter walked by as I was struggling to fit my child’s stroller through a narrow department-store door. Gesturing my way, the mom looked at her daughter and said, “See? You don’t want to end up like that.” To the rest of the world, I had left my worth, along with my brain and my respectability, in the delivery room.

As my child grew, I tried to join a few playgroups, but these usually ended in me standing alone after my attempts at making a connection with the older parents failed. My invitations for playdates were rebuffed throughout preschool (although, oddly enough, many of the parents who seemed uncomfortable with sending their child to my house to play employed childless high school and college students as babysitters). Once my son started elementary school, the beginning of each year was a challenge; I was usually assumed to be a lazy parent until proven otherwise. I spent the fall months frantically volunteering in the classroom, baking dozens and dozens of cupcakes, and never, ever being late to drop-off or pick-up in order to boost my esteem in the eyes of teachers and other parents. After all, I’d learned that if I seemed like a ‘good mom,’ I was the exception to the rule; this was the best I could hope for. If I came across as anything else, well, what could be expected from a girl like me?

Stereotypes aren’t just hurtful; they can lead to attitudes and policies that directly impact teen moms in a negative way. If a guidance counselor feels that pregnant teenagers are a distraction in the classroom, will he help to accommodate a pregnant or nursing teen trying to finish her degree, or will he – directly or indirectly – steer her towards dropping out? When the policymakers in charge of social program funding think that teen moms are societal ills and their children “consequences” to be endured, like walking, talking scarlet letters, is it a stretch to imagine that they’ll be more likely to cut funding to the programs that keep these families hanging on? When medical professionals believe the media’s message that teenage mothers are doomed to lives of misery and regret, will they take a teen’s postpartum depression symptoms seriously, or write them off as the circumstances of “poor life choices”? And if a teen mother receives the message, over and over again, that she and her child are burdens on society, might she grow to internalize this?

Candies_Foundation_PSAFrom an early age, girls receive conflicting messages: Be sexy, but don’t actually have sex. (In one telling example of the bizarre dichotomy young girls are faced with, The Candie’s Foundation, one of the largest supporters of anti-teen pregnancy ads, was created by the Candie’s brand, a national retailer which sells clothing such as “shortie shorts” and push-up bras that are marketed specifically to preteens and teenagers.) While some schools provide comprehensive sexual education programs in middle and high school, these programs can vary between districts; some provide abstinence-only sex education in schools, or none at all. Despite the evidence that abstinence-only programs are largely ineffective, certain states continue to push these programs as the standard. (Case in point: Mississippi, which forces an abstinence-only curriculum in the schools that choose to offer sex ed, consistently has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the US.) And as a society, we still hold females to a higher standard of accountability than their male counterparts when it comes to sex. A pregnant teenager is the most visible reminder that teenagers are and will continue to be sexual beings. So it’s not surprising that she receives negative attention in this environment. But when females are uniquely judged based on their sexual and reproductive histories, the impact to how the world sees them, not to mention how they see themselves, can be devastating.

When you look at the obstacles that face pregnant and parenting teens, many are more closely related to social class than to age, such as poor nutrition, low incomes, and increased dropout rates. Yet when a young woman becomes a mother, many forces combine to keep her trapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to advance. Some pregnant teens are kicked out of their homes by their families; with limited options, they may find themselves forced to stay in unhealthy or abusive relationships due to a lack of support elsewhere. Despite the Title IX amendment, which grants female students equality in the eyes of the law, high school girls can end up suspended from school simply for becoming pregnant, or forced to attend alternative schools designed for ‘troublemakers.’ The obstacles don’t stop at pregnancy, either. Even when a teen mom takes steps to overcome the compounding issues of poverty and lack of education by graduating high school or college, starting out in the labor force can provide new challenges. A new mom likely can’t afford to take an unpaid internship to advance her career, for example, and she may be unable to put in the long hours at a new job which are required to advance. If maternity leave policies for salaried, Fortune 500 company employees seem paltry, they are much worse for minimum-wage and under-the-table workers. If finding a good daycare is a challenge on two middle-class incomes, it can seem all but impossible on an entry-level salary or on student loans. This can keep young mothers stuck in low-wage jobs that allow little room for upward mobility, perpetuating the cycle.

When an entire demographic is written off, everyone loses. Teen mothers and their children feel the brunt of it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else escapes impact. We all benefit from happy, healthy parents and kids. But when a young woman’s life is assumed to be over the moment the pregnancy test turns positive? When her children are said to be future criminals, dropouts, and knocked-up teenagers themselves, these judgments heaped upon them before they even reach their first birthdays? And when pregnant and parenting teens receive little to no support from the authority figures in their lives that are supposed to provide guidance? That can feel like a series of doors slamming shut, one by one.

Once a pregnant teenager makes the decision to become a mother, no amount of societal ire is going to change her circumstances. But a little support just might.

Obviously, I am not advocating that teenage girls go out and get pregnant. Absolutely, there are risks and negatives associated with teenage pregnancy and parenting. And I’m not saying that you have to throw the teenage girl in your life a ticker-tape parade if she comes home from school one day and announces that she’s going to have a baby. Becoming a parent early in life presents a lot of challenges, and it isn’t an easy road. I get it; believe me, I do. However, if a teenager does become pregnant, and if she then chooses to continue that pregnancy and become a mother, she deserves support and guidance, not an extra heaping of shame to go along with everything else she’s dealing with. So I think compassion is as good a place to start as any.

What might compassionate support for teen mothers look like? For starters, let’s move away from those negative ad campaigns which carry dire warnings about how terrible the future looks for pregnant teens. Shifting the focus to encourage girls to become informed about their options, as well as to teach kids of all genders about the importance of consent, agency, and protection in sexual relationships, would be a much better use of that money. Teenagers need to be made aware of all of their options through comprehensive sex education programs in schools, and birth control should be accessible. Instead of applying one-size-fits-all advice to pregnant teens, guidance counselors, educators, and social workers should seek to understand them on an individual level. What are this young woman’s hopes and dreams, and what are the resources she needs to make them happen? The same care and attention should be given to these girls as is given to non-parenting students. After all, the better educated a young mother is, the more likely it is that her own children will do well. More community colleges, which provide an affordable option for undergraduate studies or a two-year degree, should offer daycare options for student parents. Educating mothers is a major factor for lifting families out of poverty; removing roadblocks makes education, and the doors it opens, much more accessible. Employers should offer more flexibility for parents across the board. Give teen moms a voice in matters which directly affect them. Ask young parents what they would like to see in terms of policy changes. Offer them a seat at the table.

On an individual level, check your assumptions. What is your reaction to teen moms, and why? Do you automatically equate “teen mom” with “trashy” or “low class”? Don’t believe everything you see on television or read in the news; teenage mothers come from all backgrounds, and most aren’t criminals or neglectful. When you encounter pregnant teenagers, don’t treat them as cautionary tales. If a teenage girl in your life gets pregnant and makes the subsequent decision to parent, help to initiate her into her new role with the same rituals you’d create for any other expectant mother, like a baby shower. She probably needs the community (and the gifts) at least as much as older moms do, if not more. Research political candidates’ stances on issues like comprehensive sex education before voting; these beliefs, when legislated, can have real, immediate, and lasting consequences. Take the time to initiate a conversation with the young mother whose child goes to school with yours, even if outward appearances indicate you have little in common. Motherhood is lonely for all of us at times, but it can be especially isolating for those who become parents before they have a supportive social network in place.

Finally, stop telling teen moms how young we look, how hard our lives seem, and how completely we are expected to fail. We already know.

Jen and K

Unlike those ads and Internet searches might lead you to believe, my life did not end the day my son was born. I did not spend the years that followed in a never-ending regret spiral, either. Instead, I delighted in being a mother (although, like any other mom, I was often sleep-deprived and in need of a shower, in those early days).

As my son grew from a baby to a toddler and then to a school-age child, I worked, took college classes, packed lunches, and chaperoned field trips. Sometimes, things were easy; other times, we struggled. Often, I found myself fighting an uphill battle against others’ prejudices and lowered expectations. Overall, though, our lives don’t look so different from those of any other mother and child. Despite the dire warnings and predictions, my son, now in high school, is a happy, healthy honors student.

I didn’t like the narrative of my life the world presented me with, so I set out to craft a new one. I am not “dirty,” “cheap,” or a “nobody.” I am a full-time employee, a perpetual student, a half-marathoner, and a freelance nonprofit grant writer. And in spite of all the odds, or maybe even because of them, I am a damn good mother.

Teen moms are more than cautionary tales and one-dimensional stereotypes. We are students, entrepreneurs, artists, employees, musicians, dreamers, and nurturers, succeeding against the odds. We don’t need approval to be successful; we’re already out there defying expectations every day. But we sure would appreciate it if you’d meet us halfway.

 

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Jen Bryant is a writer, coffee drinker, and perennial student. Her work has been published in the anthology You Look Too Young to Be a Mom as well as online at Girlmom.com and Mamalode.com. A native of the South, she currently resides in the Midwest.