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.