In a suburb north of Minneapolis, eighteen-year-old Mary sits on a sofa holding her infant daughter, who’s teething. Having been up with her daughter most of the previous night, Mary is pale and weary-looking. Her boyfriend, Jamie, is downstairs in the basement with friends, and the high-pitched beeps indicate that a Nintendo game is in progress. “That’s sort of what Jamie does, is play Nintendo,” she says, shifting the baby to her other shoulder. “I love being with my baby, but I really wish he’d help out more.”
“Six kids, with five different fathers”
Trina, another young mother, is sitting on a patch of grass near a homeless shelter smoking a cigarette. Five of her children stand aimlessly nearby, unsure of what to do with themselves. Her sixth child, a newborn, dozes in her arms.
“Six kids, with five different fathers,” she says quietly. “That’s gotta be some kind of record, huh? I can’t say it was a mistake, because that would be disrespecting my children. It would be like saying they shouldn’t be here. But I will say that most of those babies’ fathers were mistakes. I got into some things I’d have been better off leaving alone—especially crack.”
Trina shrugs when asked what being a mother is like. “I’m a recovering addict, four days ago I delivered my sixth child, and we’re homeless. I guess right now it seems like things couldn’t get no worse.”
“Mostly, I’m sad”
Although she would rank her life above Trina’s right now, nineteen-year-old Kay is far from happy about her situation. She is in a hurry to get to her high school class, and her daughter is fooling around instead of finding her shoes. Repeated attempts to move the little girl along are falling on deaf ears.
Kay says that although she loves her daughter, she resents the loss of her own childhood. “Mostly, for me, it’s that I’ve lost out on my teenage years,” Kay says flatly.
I get jealous of other people, of how they live, the things they do. I hear girls say, “I’m going to go to college in Florida.” I wish I could go to college in Florida. I want to go to a college far away, someplace great like Florida.
As for my daughter, I like making her happy. It’s fun to see her when I tell her we’re going somewhere or when I buy her a present that she really likes. But other than that, I’m not glad she’s born. Mostly, I’m sad. Every day it goes through my head; I can’t stop thinking about it. I feel guilty, too, like I’m supposed to think a different way. I just live with it, though.
A common bond
Mary, Trina, and Kay are very different people, with very different upbringings—yet they share the common bond of becoming parents at a very early age. They are part of a rapidly growing group of teen parents in the United States—more than 500,000 each year. Only a small fraction of teens who give birth—roughly 3 percent—give their babies up for adoption. The rest decide to keep their babies.
Not only are the numbers of teen parents increasing daily, say experts, but the age at which teens are starting families is getting dramatically younger. In fact, in a recent study, researchers Barbara and Richard Lowenthal found that the fastest-growing group of parents in the United States are girls between the ages of ten and fourteen.
Most of the 1 million teenagers who become pregnant each year are unmarried; by far, the majority of pregnancies are unplanned. Unprepared for the physical, financial, and emotional stresses of pregnancy, teen mothers—as well as teen fathers—can easily be overwhelmed.
The increase in the numbers of teen parents in the United States has prompted a great deal of concern—from politicians, social workers, and educators. Study after study has been done to monitor teen parents, and to understand the problems that they face.
These studies suggest that one of the most common problems for teen parents is poverty. One 1997 report, Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy, foretells bleak consequences for teen mothers and their children, claiming that “more than 80 percent end up in poverty and reliant on welfare, many for the majority of their children’s critically important developmental years.”
In addition, the report finds that children of teen mothers are far more likely to do poorly in school, be abused or neglected, and engage in criminal activity. The cost society bears for these children in terms of welfare, courts, and medical care is astronomical—almost $7 billion per year.
One especially worrisome aspect of the issue is the health of babies born to teen mothers. Experts say that teens are more likely to give birth to babies with low birth weight or other health problems. These are often the result of poor prenatal care.
The reason for many teens’ poor prenatal care, say doctors, is that they do not see a doctor early in their pregnancy. This is especially true of young teens ages thirteen to fifteen. Because of their age and the understandable ignorance about conception or the physical growth of a fetus, many teens don’t realize they are pregnant until the third or fourth month. And by that time, they might have inadvertently done serious damage to their unborn babies.
Pregnant teens who smoke, for example, are injuring their babies. A pregnant teen who drinks is increasing her baby’s chances of being born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Retardation and learning problems are common characteristics of a child born with FAS.
Statistically, teens are more apt to use illegal drugs than adults, and a pregnant teen using such drugs is putting her baby at grave risk. Janie Gore Golan, an investigator of prenatal drug exposure, explains the grim consequences of using crack or cocaine:
When you use crack or cocaine during a pregnancy, the child you give birth to may at first look fine, healthy and normal. Then a week later, he or she could have the shakes and be irritable. And by irritable, I mean screaming and not able to sleep. Crack babies don’t tolerate feedings well. They are extremely demanding. As they grow older and you hug them, they won’t hug back. Instead, they go rigid or act like a wet doll. They are not able to respond or give love in return. There’s no comforting these children.
Even if illegal drugs are not part of a pregnant teen’s life, pregnant teens are more likely to have engaged in some unhealthy practices. “Even if we’re not talking about crack or marijuana,” says one counselor, “we’re talking about teenagers. They are less worried about things they eat or drink. They might have a cigarette, or a beer, or a wine cooler. Or they pop diet pills. Or they simply don’t have the energy or money to make sure they’re eating well. You compare the health habits of a fifteen-year-old who doesn’t want to be pregnant with those of a 28-year-old who’s been trying to have a baby and who’s taking the vitamins, getting sleep, eating right—my money’s on the 28-year-old.”
An uncomfortable subject
Though it is certainly true that teen parents face many difficulties today, teens having babies in the United States is nothing new. American teenagers—married and unmarried —have been having babies for many generations. What has changed, say some, is society’s perceptions—not only of teens but of sex.
Up until the 1970s, the subject of sex was taboo, even when talking about a married couple. “You didn’t even use the word pregnant,” recalls one woman who was a teen in the 1960s. “You said, ‘She’s in the family way.’”
Society was so uncomfortable with the idea of sex and pregnancy, in fact, that as late as the mid-1970s, married pregnant women were discouraged from teaching in public schools. This was done, explains one sociologist, “lest their swelling bellies cross that invisible boundary separating the real world (where sex and pregnancy existed) from the schools (where they did not).”8 If society was having trouble feeling comfortable with married pregnant women, it should be no surprise that unmarried pregnant women were viewed with dismay.
“A secret thing”
Through the first half of the twentieth century, a pregnant unmarried teenager and her family were objects of shame, and the young girl was often hurried into a home for unwed mothers or sent on an extended “visit” with a faraway relative until she gave birth. The baby was almost always put up for adoption.
In the poor neighborhoods, unmarried pregnant teens fared no better than their counterparts in upper-class white communities. Louise Eaton was a sixteen-year-old in 1922 and remembers well what it was like to be poor and black in New York: “In my times, if a girl got pregnant and she didn’t have a husband, she found one! Or if she remained single, she went into a home. Her pregnancy was a secret thing.”
The same attitude prevailed in the 1950s and early 1960s. A teen who married the father of her baby presented no problem for society at all; it was assumed that most women would stay home and be homemakers rather than pursue an outside career. With a husband to support her and her baby, she was neither an object of shame nor an economic burden for society.
“I knew quite a lot of girls who got married young and had children,” one woman recalls. “It wasn’t a bad thing, nothing unusual. Just hard. And if you were a poor person, there wasn’t the kind of help you had today. No welfare, of course. We had to do things on our own.”
But society began to change in the late 1960s and 1970s, becoming more open about sex and pregnancy. Not only were men and women living together without being married, but many unmarried women were having babies and raising them by themselves. So much had changed, in fact, that among single-parent families in 1992, the largest group consisted of families headed by never-married mothers. In 1970, such families made up only 1 percent of single-parent families.
However, rising prices for life’s necessities and salaries that have failed to keep pace have made it impossible for many single parents to support their families without assistance. State and national welfare budgets, already stretched by the numbers of unemployed and working poor, are completely overwhelmed by the number of young mothers who have no means of supporting the babies they are having.
Those who work with teen parents sometimes feel overwhelmed, too. “It just got out of control,” says one youth worker at a teen center.
Too many kids getting pregnant, too few marketable skills. They quit school and then—what? A job flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s? For a few hours a day, maybe? And that’s providing the baby isn’t sick, or the bus is on time, or five or six other things.
And the worst thing about it is that the teens who are having babies now, the ones I’m seeing at the center here, are themselves the children of other teen mothers fourteen or fifteen. Some have boyfriends, very few are married or have prospects for jobs. I’d say we’ve got us a problem.