Say what you will about MTV, and the fact that they have apparently forgotten what music is. They do some quality documentary television. I could not make it through my time at the gym without True Life ,(you’re in a polyamorous gay relationship and still live with your parents? OK!) I Used to Be Fat, (greatest name for a TV show since Howdy Doody) and, of course, 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom.
You would think I get enough of this at work. But somehow, I don’t.
I like working with teen girls. That’s my passion. Which is cool, because I used to be afraid of teen girls. Especially when I was one. And teen pregnancy is a subject I’ve learned more about, since working with pregnant teens, as well as parenting teens and young moms.
I used to fall into the trap of only learning about teen parenthood through fiction. And not good fiction, like Juno. (Which, let’s face it, got slammed for not punishing a girl enough for having sex and getting pregnant.) Shitty scare stories on Ricki Lake, about 11 year olds desperate to get knocked up by anyone who will have them. I recently got into an argument with someone who quoted a pregnant 15 year old from a Lifetime movie at me. (Hint: don’t do that.)
When I actually started interacting with pregnant teenagers, I realized that there was a lot more to them. So when I’m not getting my fix at work, I get it through MTV.
A lot of people, mostly people who have hardly watched the shows, are shocked that I love them. It’s so exploitative! It glamorizes teen pregnancy! Those children should all be taken away!
To which I say: wrong, wrong, shut up.
I recognize that it’s not entirely realistic. I don’t know exactly how the pay scale works. I don’t know exactly what role the cameras and producers play in daily interactions. But I also know that this is a pretty good depiction of teen pregnancy and parenthood, that a lot of people never get.
What do we learn from all this?
- Go to court. You think you don’t need to. You think you’re special, that your love will last forever. If not that, you’ll at least be able to be civil. The non-custodial parent will at least always pay child support!
Odds are, no. For one thing, teenagers are by nature impulsive. They get angry first and think later. (Trust me. I once saw a girl throw a futon out a window.) For another, the world of love is fraught with tension. (Translation: one of you will start doing someone else. The one not being done will get pissed. The more they say they’re not pissed, the more pissed they are.)You need someone else saying how much time the child spends with each parent, who pays what, where the kid gets dropped off and picked up. I know court is unpleasant. You have to wait in long lines, people are rude, and lord knows where the bathrooms are. But go now. Thank me later.
- Talk to your kids about sex. I know it’s awkward and uncomfortable. I have had to explain what oral sex is to rooms full of teenagers. And answer the inevitable “Why do people do that?!” from the one naïve girl in the back. I’ve also had kids who I used to babysit and change diapers for tell me they lost their virginity. But the talk needs to happen.
Every kid on these shows, and who I meet through my work, say the same thing. “I wish someone had talked to me about birth control. I’m going to talk to my kids about it, starting now.” Not to say that teens who experience good sex education don’t become pregnant. But Schoolhouse Rock was correct–knowledge is power. They can’t make good decisions without this knowledge. And my girls who get dragged to the clinic for their Depo shot every three months? They might not be perfect. But they’re not pregnant.
- Date the good guy. Note that I didn’t say “nice guy”. Nice guys are the ones who talk about how nice they are, and how girls don’t like nice guys. Those guys are idiots, and they’re not all that nice. But then there’s the good guy.
Tyler is a ridiculously sensitive and insightful teenager who divides his time between making sure his girlfriend feels special and loved, encouraging his family to get into counseling, and calling his mother regularly. Kyle dotes on a toddler that isn’t his, and is more involved in caring for the child than most biological fathers. Kayla’s boyfriend Mike stayed home with her, trying desperately to get her to eat despite her anorexia, and paid rent to that horrendous mother-creature of hers, just to be with his girlfriend and child.
Ryan, the pretty boy with the motorcycle? Calls the mother of his child a liar and a bitch, often in front of said child, and lets his parents do the vast majority of child care. Looks fade, but shitty parenting lasts a lifetime. And don’t get me started on Chelsea’s boyfriend Adam. He’s alluring, because he’s a bad boy. I mean, really. Verbal abuse also lasts a lifetime. How Chelsea’s father has allowed Adam to live is beyond me.
- Consider adoption. So many young parents don’t even see it as an option. It’s not the only answer. Often, it’s not the best answer. Adoption is messy and complicated. But it’s also wonderful. I’ve seen it in my family, and I’ve seen it on the show, with Caitlynn and Tyler, and then again with Ashley.
It’s also shown us the importance of support–one does not just walk away from adoption. Caitlynn had support from her ridiculously awesome (and adorable, come on) boyfriend, a great social worker, (what what) and an adoption support group. Ashley’s family thought they could handle it with just a lawyer, and Ashley suffered because of it.
- Consider abortion. Several girls have talked about this crossing their mind upon discovering that they were pregnant. Having an abortion does not make you a bad mother. Deciding you can’t be a parent right now, and possibly being a better parent later, is not a selfish decision.
- Your boyfriend is not going to grow up. What someone is giving you now, they will give you once the baby is born. Babies are not magic. Ryan was an idiot before Bentley was born. He seems like the type of guy who would think a burping contest it a sweet way to bond with your dad at a family function. When his child was born, what did he do? Got the baby a mini-motorcycle, tattooed his son’s name on his body, and refused to change a diaper or support the mother of his child.
The same goes for immature women. Amber was selfish, in her own world, and at a loss for how to control her anger before the baby. Guess what she’s like now?That’s not to say there isn’t hope. I’m in the business of hope. But we’ve seen what counting on, “He’ll change once he sees the baby” leads to.
- Listen to your parents. This one comes with a qualifier–if your parents are on meth, and in and out of jail, and can barely take care of you, you might want to ignore this piece of advice. Caitlynn and Tyler did the right thing for themselves and their child by ignoring the guilt trip Caitlynn’s mother and Tyler’s father (who married one another…yeah) and putting their daughter up for adoption.
But then there are the others. Jenelle’s mom might be a shrew, but she was right in telling Jenelle to stay home with her child, and think less about boys and partying. Jennifer’s parents knew Joshua was not good for their daughter. She saw how disrespectful Joshua was to her parents. But she didn’t really get it until Joshua kicked her out of his car on the side of the road, and took off with the passenger door open and their twins in the backseat.
Sometimes, parents know what they’re talking about.
- Pregnant teenagers, and teen parents, are people. They’re kids. They have to grow up, but they’re young, and they will make mistakes. Like all parents. They need help and support. Shame and blame helps no one.