Teen Moms and the Social Workers Who Love Them

27 09 2010

One thing that people love to ask me about my work is the ages of the mothers. I’ll mention seeing a six year old and his mom, and someone will inevitably pipe in with, “Oh, how old is mom, 19?” This is considered the height of comedic skill by many. It works both as a hilarious joke, and as a social commentary.

Except, it’s not really funny, and it’s not really true. I work with a lot of teen mothers, sure. I also work with women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who started out as teen mothers. I work with a couple of teen girls who almost became mothers before opting for abortion. One of my clients is a pregnant 42 year old. Honestly, I’m much more concerned about her parenting skills and ability to cope with this stress than I am concerned about my pregnant 21 year old, who already has a pre-schooler.

Most people are never really ready for parenthood. (Honestly, coming home from the hospital one day with a person for whom you are responsible, for life? Terrifying.) It’s particularly tough for teens. The responsibility almost exclusively falls on the girls. The guys put on a good show, coming to an ultrasound appointment, bragging to friends about his powers of procreation, and insisting that any boy born be a “Junior.” But when the time comes to buy Pampers, do late night feedings, or stay in on a Saturday because that’s what parents do sometimes, the young man is not quite as enthusiastic as he once was.

That being said, teen parents can thrive, with some help and support. You might not think this, considering teen pregnancy has become one of those Big Scare topics. You know, when they want you to think American is really going down the drain. “Our babies are having babies!” Poor Forever 21 just wanted to offer pregnant young women some stylish, affordable maternity gear that will fall apart in three washings, and just think of the controversy that caused. (For some reason, the solution to this teen pregnancy epidemic is to make Lifetime movies about imaginary pregnancy pacts and ensure that no one gives out condoms. Doesn’t make much sense to me, but what do I know? I’m just a social worker.)

Teen and young mothers are some of my favorite people to work with, often for the very reasons that people say they’re so terrible.

  • “They’re having a baby just so they’ll have something to love, that will love them!”
    OK, let’s pretend for a moment that 30 something women aren’t doing this as well. Is it the best reason to have a child? No. And it should be discouraged. Teenagers need to understand that raising a child isn’t all cuddles and rainbows. But my teen mothers are some of the most loving parents I know. Their kids are usually happy. A 20 year old I work with, who has a two and a four year old, can’t get through a session without one of her children running by saying, “Mommy, I like you!” or climbing into her lap. Unlike a lot of parents I know, she doesn’t get annoyed with this. She enjoys her children, more than most.
  • “They’re too young, and don’t understand anything about child development.”
    This is the usual professional line. It does present a concern. People who don’t know that a two year old can’t sit quietly and wait for mommy to get off the phone might think that their crying, antsy child is just being a brat. They might think that you can discipline an 18 month old. Again, this can also be a problem with older parents, but let’s talk about it. My teen mothers (for the record, I don’t work with any fathers) are more willing to learn than any other group I work with. They will sign up for any parenting class I suggest. They will sit and go over developmental charts with me, and they genuinely delight in identifying what milestones their children have reached.
    Sometimes, this lack of knowledge works in their favor. One of the smartest people kids I know is the child of that pregnant 21 year old I mentioned. She’s four years old, and just started school. Her teachers cannot believe that she was never in Head Start. This is because she talks like she’s about 25. One of the highlights of my career was when I walked into the waiting room, and she looked up at me and said, “Oh, you look cute today.” When it’s just mom and baby, there’s not a lot of room for baby talk. Her vocabulary is stunning. Her mother was telling me about a vacant apartment they had gone to see. The child looked up from writing her letters (practicing ‘A’s, or catching up on her correspondences, I’m not sure) to say, “Vacant means empty.” Her mom didn’t let the idea that her daughter is too young to have an extensive vocabulary, or to learn to read, hold her back. The child was able to thrive and rise to the occasion.
    Get ready, because we’ll all be working for this kid one day.
  • “Those mothers will never finish school.”
    This one is my biggest concern. Like I mentioned elsewhere, these young women need a lot of support. Not everyone can count on being an MTV reality star. It’s a lot easier to pass judgment on these girls than it is to give them the help they need. It’s especially difficult to pay for it. Yes, they need help with child care, finances, and probably some alternative school options, so that they can graduate.

With these options, and preferably some familial support, teen mothers can be successful. Teen pregnancy is not desirable, I’ll certainly tell you that. But it’s not the end of the world. It can’t be, for these women, and for their children. These young women know it better than anyone. I have never met mothers more concerned with the example they set for their children. They think about it all the time–they need to finish school, so their kids will know this is important. They need to get a job, so the kids don’t think it’s normal to live on public assistance. They need to remain single, so their daughters don’t think that it’s OK to stay with a man who treats you poorly, and their sons don’t think it’s OK to treat women this way.

This doesn’t really go with a lot of people’s ideas of “teen motherhood.” But it is, often, the reality.

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9 responses

27 09 2010
daryl cognito

One of my projects is to sit on a Board of a small agency that provides parenting supports to people who most consider not ready to have kids. One thing I’ve notice is that teen parents and the parents we serve are luckier than most. Because they are considered too young, or unprepared or too poor someone will also tell them they need support. If listen they have an opportunity to receive support. People old enough, prepared and financially sound are not always ready or able to be parents, trouble is there is no one stepping in to say they need help. Sadly many don’t get it.

Nice post, thanx

28 09 2010
socialjerk

That’s a great point. People who don’t fit the usual description of someone who “needs help” are so often put at even greater risk. It’s especially difficult because they’re essentially being told that they should be able to do it on their own, so what’s wrong? It reminds me of the people I work with who have jobs, and make just enough money to not qualify for public assistance, but not enough to truly support their families.

Thanks for reading!

28 09 2010
Joe

Each of your postings helps me see the world in a truer way. Thanks for doing this so well, so generously, and so clearly.

28 09 2010
socialjerk

Thank you so much for this wonderful comment. I really appreciate you reading, and your support!

31 12 2010
Nat

Thanks for writing this piece. I was a teen-mom myself and my kids and I are continuing to live out the legacy that entailed.

@Daryl, I find it really offensive when outsiders declare “you need help”. It usually comes from a place of judgment instead of compassion and is often based on ignorance. Hence, the imposition of “help” can cause further problems. I have always preferred to ask for help or seek it out the services myself; however, the reality for me has always been that help and support were not there or caused more problems than they solved. I hardly felt “lucky”. In fact, as I got older, I found I was more able to access supportive resources, not the other way around.

I feel that support should be out there for any parent who need it, regardless of their age. It is true that it takes a village to raise a child. As for those who need help, but don’t seek it for whatever reason, there are probably good reasons they don’t that you don’t understand, but if such “neglect” is serious, child-welfare agencies exist for all children, regardless of parent’s age.

3 01 2011
socialjerk

Thank you for reading!

I understand what you’re saying about having help imposed. I think the idea is that things like parenting classes, or help accessing benefits you qualify for, are something that a majority of parents could use, like you said, regardless of age. When you’re a young mother, those things are offered to you (or, maybe, forced upon you.) The ideal would be creating a system that makes it easier for all people who need help to access it, without the stigma of admitting to some kind of shortcoming.

23 10 2012
Launice Thomas

Yes I really need help I’m 17 & pregnant can you please help ?

16 01 2013
Shelby

I absolutely love this! Very well put. I was sixteen when I had my daughter, I was lucky enough to have amazing family support, able to graduate and get a job. I am now twenty,my daughter is almost four and I wouldn’t change a thing. She is my motivation and is an absolute miracle. I was down a bad road as many other young girls, and I changed it all around for her. It is hard work ecspecially when you have so many people that expect you to fail. I now have a year left of college before I get my assoicates degree in human and social services, then I plan on going on for a bachelors of social work. There are so many ways to help people and thankfully there are those who step up and support and truly want to help people, including us young mothers!

20 01 2013
socialjerk

Thank you so much! I’m glad to hear from someone who is living it. And glad to hear you guys are doing so well!

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