“I felt like a zoo animal. All eyes went straight to my belly before people looked at my face. The whispers and judgmental looks amplified. It was like this protrusion around my midsection was a scarlet letter, a badge of shame that showed I was marked for a life of failure and misery because I had sinned. I’d had sex. As if none of them had.” –The Pregnancy Project, Gaby Rodriguez
At one point in your daily routine you’ll find yourself sitting on the subway, ordering lunch in a fast food restaurant or waiting at a red light and you’ll witness a teen mom with her toddler(s) in tow. She might be wobbling onto a bus, wiping her child’s runny nose or trying to maneuver a stroller on a narrow escalator. But regardless of what she was doing one of the following thoughts has probably gone through your head:
“They were just dumb and in love, I feel sorry for that baby.”
“With all that idle time on their hands to have sex, it was bound to happen.”
“There goes some more of my tax money. I can’t have kids of my own because I’m too busy paying for everyone else’s.”
That last gem was mine. And even now in my career as a human sexuality/parenting educator, I come across plenty of teens that reinforce the negative stereotypes of teenage parenting and I find myself slipping into that same self-righteous way of thinking. But the truth is, for every ten teen parent I meet that think having a baby is a glorified game of “playing house” or who couldn’t care less about condoms, I meet one that proves to me that teen pregnancy doesn’t have to mean a one-way ticket to public assistance and poverty.
Although the teen pregnancy rate for the United States is on the decline, our country still has the highest rate out of all the industrialized nations in the world. This means that even if you aren’t tuning into MTV’s “16 and Pregnant,” at some point you’ll cross paths with a teen mother or father. And the truth is, not all of them became parents because they were promiscuous, irresponsible or “young and dumb.” But with society, media and even our school systems setting the bar so low, I can understand why teens think that bringing a child into this world at a young age means the only option for them is failure.
That doesn’t mean I am endorsing teen pregnancy. The numbers don’t lie and the futures of teen parents are grim in comparison to their childless counterparts. Only one-third of teen mothers complete high school and receive diplomas, 80 percent of unmarried teen mothers end up on welfare and sons of teenage mothers have a 13 percent greater chance of ending up in prison as compared to their peers. But becoming a teenage parent doesn’t solidify a life of settlement, just as not becoming a teen parent doesn’t guarantee success. It’s like I tell my students, “Having a baby never made anyone’s life easier.” What I do believe is that it is our responsibility to make sure that teen parents are afforded the same chance at success as their peers and that it is not our responsibility to make them “pay” for a few minutes of faulty judgment. They are already experiencing the consequences of choosing pampers over parties and two-year trade schools over four-year universities.
I can understand the momentary mindset that takes over when you witness a young mother walking down the street, her toddler trailing at least ten feet behind her. It’s easy to write her off as an irresponsible baby mama who will never amount to anything and probably would have better parenting skills if she had just waited until she was an adult to become a mom. You grab your cup of coffee and go about your business never giving it a second thought because more than likely you’ll never see that girl again. But what about the systems these young parents have to navigate every day and the professionals with whom they interact with every day that have ample opportunity to intervene, what’s their excuse?