You Gotta Give ‘Em Hope, Jr.

17 05 2012

A groundbreaking article was recently released on the subject of teen pregnancy and parenting, that is apparently based on new research. I say “apparently” because it’s possible that it was actually based on one of my rants from when I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, and began my relationship with pregnant and parenting teens. The article states that getting pregnant and raising a child is not typically the thing forcing young women into poverty. They start off in poverty, and this makes them more likely to become pregnant and choose to parent, for a variety of reasons.

And everyone who works with these young women kind of knew that already.

We talk about how likely it is for young parents and their children to live in poverty, for the parents to not finish school, and to work in menial jobs. For a lot of the girls I work with, that’s not all that different from the future they see for themselves without a child. It’s what their experience and examples dictate. While I certainly believe that young people who work really hard and have the right support, opportunities, and talents can create a different life for themselves, it’s incredibly difficult. We ask a lot of these kids, much more than we ask of those who were lucky enough not to be born poor.

If I had a child at seventeen, it would have meant giving up the scholarship I had to go away to college. It would have meant no study abroad. It would have meant not getting to do the things that most of my friends were doing. For my girls, this isn’t the case.

I recently went a high school to visit a sixteen year old girl I’ve been work with for the past year. She was in quite a mood, saying she was exhausted and nauseated. My mind started racing. “Weren’t you exhausted and nauseated two weeks ago?” “Yeah…”

Oh boy.

Now, I’m very positive when it comes to teen mothers. I have worked with many wonderful young moms. (Sorry I don’t write about teen dads, but I don’t have any!) I have written about it extensively, as I adore them and their kids, and feel that they can do a wonderful job, provided they have some chances and support.

This girl does not want to be a mother, teen or otherwise. She has said this for as long as I’ve known her. Her own family is, in her words, a disaster. She’s never felt taken care of, and has experienced all too frequently the many ways in which this world can suck. The kid wants an abortion.

But she’s being pressured, by her mother, by her boyfriend, not to take that route. So she’s considering what life would be like as a mother. I worked with her on taking some time to consider her options, as it’s still very early. What would be good about having a baby and raising it? What would be good about having an abortion? Can we even talk about adoption?

The answer to the third question is no, we can’t. Why you so crazy, SJ?

The answer to the second question is that she doesn’t want a child. No one is taking care of her, and she’s trying to focus on taking care of herself.

The answer to the first question was, essentially, meh? Why not? Things aren’t going to get any worse, and maybe it would motivate her to get up and get things done. The rationale that most people utilize to decide to chug a Five Hour Energy.

I was once informed that, because I expressed the hope that my teen girls would focus on developing interests and goals for furthering their education and careers, I did not have the necessary respect for motherhood, which is rooted in sexism. I would take a moment to address that point, but it’s so obviously stupid.

I have tons of respect for motherhood parenthood. I also have tons of respect for dismantling bombs. I don’t think either of these activities should be entered into lightly, or without preparation. At age 28, the idea of being responsible for another human (they don’t stay babies for long, do they?) blows my mind and terrifies me. Most parents I know say the same thing. It’s not that I don’t respect having children. It’s that I respect it too much.

Sometimes a pregnancy is a welcome surprise. I get that. I saw “Knocked Up” I also know actual humans who got pregnant before they intended to, but decided to go with it, because they realized it was what they wanted, and the time might never be exactly right, but they could do it. Mazel tov.

The idea of going into having a child the same way I go into having edamame for dinner four nights in a row is what’s troublesome to me. “Eh, why not? There are really no other options, and it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other.” It’s also sad. Profoundly sad. Because this girl honestly believes what she’s saying. That there’s no hope for her. Taking care of herself is not enough of a motivation. A child might be worthy of that, but she’s not.

This is a rare instance in which I wish I could take a child home.

I have faith that this girl could be a wonderful mother if that’s what she wanted, whenever she wanted it. I have faith that she could be amazing at whatever she chooses to do. Chef, rocket scientist, sanitation worker, poet, kickboxer, literally anything. She is smart, capable, and has proven over and over again that she is crafty as hell, and has essentially been responsible for herself and her siblings since adolescence. But she doesn’t have hope.

I have hope for her, and faith in her. Getting her to have that for herself is much more difficult. That is the hardest part, for me, about working with teen pregnancy.

Much harder than talking to a roomful of teenagers about condoms.





“It’s Women’s Day, Rudy.”

7 03 2012

I’ve hardly had time to put away the decorations from last year, but once again, International Women’s Day is upon us! Before we get started, am I the only one who thinks of that episode of The Cosby Show when Rudy gets her first period, and they all go out for “women’s day?” Just me? All right.

The theme this year is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” To which I say: cha-ching! I love those things!

I might have mentioned once or twice that my favorite work to do is with my teen girls’ groups. These groups are fun, challenging, different each time, and important. There is something special about bringing a room full of teen girls together and telling them that what they have to say really matters.

Feminism is an integral part of working with girls. We can act like it’s an option, but it’s really a requirement. Trying to help them deal appropriately with their anger, improve their self-esteem, make good choices, have safe sex, live peacefully with their parents, or anything else would be a lot easier if they weren’t already considered a bit less worthy, simply because they are girls.

It seems especially important since we’re living in a country that is still debating birth control. You know, that stuff that lets you have fewer than seventeen kids? And in which a man with millions of listeners saw fit to publicly declare that an intelligent, civic minded, possibly sexually active law student was a “slut” and “prostitute” because she thinks that universities and employers should not have the right to determine what medications the insurance she pays for will cover.

I just need to get this out, and then we can move on. The entire thing is bull shit. The next person who says, “Well, why should I pay for your birth control?” is getting a foot directly in the ass, as that is the orifice that they are talking out of. We are talking about INSURANCE COMPANIES, not taxpayers, paying for medication. We’ve had enough sexism and misogyny, we don’t need outright lies. Taxpayers do pay for birth control–it’s called Medicaid, everybody. The country hasn’t crumbled into the sea and been sucked into the fiery pits of Mordor just yet, so I think we’ll survive a private insurance mandate.

Oh, and I don’t care if you say birth control is not preventive medicine. Doctors say it is. Insurance companies cover it when not blocked by squeamish employers. That’s kind of it.

I’m also sick of all the false information being spread about birth control. Our kids are misinformed enough, we do not need politicians and drooling radio hosts further confusing them. It’s been said a million times now, but apparently it hasn’t sunk in. IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW FREQUENTLY YOU HAVE SEX, IF AT ALL, YOU STILL TAKE ONE BIRTH CONTROL PILL PER DAY. Rush Limbaugh is thinking of condoms…or Viagra…or those other pills he’s known for being so fond of, I’m not sure.

But way to mislead young people, and make them ashamed for taking control of their reproductive health. Yes, better to just have sex without protection. We wouldn’t want people hearing about my prescription.

Whether or not our girls have ever even heard of Rush Limbaugh (I’m sincerely hoping they haven’t) they are living in a society that has given him a platform. In a society that punishes women for speaking out about their rights and sexuality by shaming them for being sluts. A society that publicly admonishes a woman for daring to have sex, because that’s bad, but then says she should let men watch, because it’s cool when men do it.

Or something. It’s so convoluted I have trouble keeping up.

Working with girls to get them to recognize their own value and worth as women in this society is often an uphill battle. It is complete with peaks and valleys, which I present to you now.

Valleys:

14 y/o: “Wait, you can say you were raped even if you’re married? That’s stupid.”

Yes, so silly. If you say yes once, you say yes always, everyone knows that! And your body is there to be used by a man as he sees fit! I’m going to rock in the corner for a bit.

13 y/o: “My teacher was saying that like, if you get pregnant, it’s your responsibility, so like, you have to have the baby. So that’s why abortion is illegal.”
SJ: “OK. That might be what your teacher feels. But we all know that abortion is legal, correct?”
13 y/o: “No, I don’t think it is.”
SJ: “It definitely is. It’s been legal in this country since 1973.”
13 y/o: “Really? That doesn’t make sense, how is that possible?”
SJ: “I’m not saying you have to run out and have an abortion. But it’s really important to know your options.”

Teenage girls in America, many of whom have mothers who have had abortions (trust me) don’t know their rights. That is how demonized and muddled this issue has become. Scary.

15 y/o: “Miss, if a girl is giving head in a stairwell, she’s a slut! It’s ok to call her that!”

Fine. Now we’ve degraded her, and remained suspiciously silent about the boy involved. Are we better people yet?

“You should consider what people are going to think if you dress a certain way, because you might get a reputation. People will think you’re a certain type of girl.”

That was from my co-leader. Because if there’s one thing teen girls need to consider more, it’s what others think of them. And there are very few, very clearly defined types of girls.

Peaks:

15 y/o: “Do you guys notice that we get in more trouble for fighting than boys do?”
13 y/o: “Yeah, they expect them to be aggressive but we’re supposed to be perfect angels. It’s not fair.”

Wait…yes! That’s a double standard! And you’re noticing it on your own!

16 y/o: “Sometimes I think girls say they just got caught up in the moment and had sex because they don’t want to say that they wanted to do it. Like, because people will think they’re slutty. But that’s not slutty. And if you think about it and prepare then you’ll use condoms.”

No shame in wanting to have sex, and condom use?! High five!

14 y/o: “Slut is such a stupid word, can we please not use that in here?”

We should TOTALLY not use that stupid word in here!

15 y/o: “You know, I think I finished an entire bottle of ranch dressing in here tonight, but I don’t even care.”

It’s not groundbreaking, but comfort is important.

14 y/o: “Yeah, but whatever you do and however you dress someone is going to have something bad to say about you, so you might as well do what you want.”

Accurate.

The valleys, the downfalls, the moments that make me want to tear my hair out, have so much value, even though the peaks are what keep me going. Without that being presented, we can’t counteract it effectively. Feminism, and challenging the status quo, is a point of view that these girls are really not hearing.

A lot of lip service is paid to what in my day was called “girl power” (even when I was 13 and the Spice Girls were massive, I thought it sounded a bit silly.) You’re tough, you’re strong, girls rock! While it’s fun, a lot of it is meaningless. People are very often not talking about the real issues with girls, and educating them on issues that affect them. These girls aren’t stupid. They’re young, they’re easily influenced, but at the same time they’re smart, and they know on some level when they encounter inequality. Talking to them and introducing the idea that things actually can be different is an amazing gift for all of us.

So please, let’s try it this women’s day. For Rudy Huxtable, if no one else.





Who left this soapbox unattended?

21 02 2011

I’ve heard it many times now. “Aren’t you glad your mother was pro-choice?” Meaning, “If your mother supported abortion rights, surely she would have had one.”

If that were true, I wouldn’t be dealing with abortion at all. My mother is pro-choice. (She raised me that way.) Somehow, this wicked pro-choice heathen escaped the abortioneers.

OK, but I’m a family social worker. The women I work with are mothers. They’ve chosen life. So why is abortion important to them?

Contrary to popular belief, 61% of women who elect to have abortions already have at least one child. Each pregnancy involves a decision. One can choose to have a child, and then choose an abortion.

Then there are the teenagers, those mother’s children, who don’t yet have children of their own, and would like to keep it that way.

Last week, I got a call from a client. She’s 21 years old, has a four year old daughter and a three month old son, and is a wonderful mother.

She’s also been through hell. Absentee, drug addicted father. Abusive and neglectful mother. Placed in a foster home after she had been damaged enough that she was running the streets and acting out.

This young woman got herself together for the sake of her daughter, and has done better than anyone has the right to expect her to. Unfortunately, she still struggles with relationships. As a result, the man she elected to have her son with is, if I speak generously, a worthless loser.

I don’t have anything better to say about a man who threatens the life of a woman who is pregnant with his child, and then threatens to lie to get custody of that child.

I’m extremely proud of this woman. We’re working on getting her to be proud of herself. She recently started dating a long time friend. Personally, I thought it was a little soon, but that’s not my call to make. It seems to be the first healthy relationship she’s had with any man.

So I was a little heartbroken when I got a call from her just last week. Apparently, she thought she had a stomach virus over the weekend, because she felt so terribly sick.

It wasn’t a stomach virus.

Two young kids at home, a brand new relationship, struggling to move out of a shelter, and pregnant again.

She opted to have an abortion.

Who could blame her? What else could we expect this intelligent, resilient, responsible, though financially and emotionally fragile 21 year old mother to do?

She was not happy about the decision. But she did what she had to do, for herself, and for the two children she already has.

Her boyfriend was not happy about the decision. But he went to the clinic with her, and supported her.

She’s not happy. But she’s coping well. She’ll be all right. I’m much more hopeful than I would be if she were still pregnant.

I’ve worked with other women who’ve had abortions. I’m very supportive of teen mothers, but some girls are not ready. I’m confident that they made the right choice.

One young mother really wanted another child, but recognized that her son’s mental health issues and her own physical health problems meant that this wasn’t the right time.

Then there was a mother of four, who had recently lost an infant daughter born with severe health problems. She had just regained custody of her four surviving children, after physically abusing one, and expressing the desire to kill herself and her children. Throwing a new baby into the mix would have been a disaster.

For anyone wondering about “responsibility,” yes, it is discussed. I don’t think anyone can accuse me of not talking up birth control. We discuss it.

I then direct my clients to Planned Parenthood.

Sometimes for an abortion, but most often not. Usually it’s for information, gynecological exams, pre-natal care…oh, and free or low-cost birth control.  Because we want to prevent unwanted pregnancies. And this is what Planned Parenthood does.

No woman I work with has ever skipped merrily into my office to share with me the details of her latest abortion. (Huzzah!) They are upset that the situation arose, and disappointed that they became pregnant when they didn’t want to.  They sometimes have feelings of guilt, about not being able to carry the pregnancy to term.

 

Every woman I have worked with who has had an abortion, though, has expressed feelings of relief. Even if they were not happy about it, they know that they made the right decision. For themselves, and for their families.

Planned Parenthood, in case you haven’t heard, is under attack. The house recently voted to strip them of federal funding. If this is allowed to pass, the familiar Bronx building that I refer my clients to when they need things that I can’t provide (often thanks to our funding) will have a much more difficult time meeting those needs. Condoms, Depo shots, HIV testing, cancer screenings, and yes, abortions.

Because for all I hear about taking Planned Parenthood down, I don’t hear about plans to allocate funding to make it easier for a 21 year old mother of three to find day care for two infants so she can complete her GED.

I don’t see those politicians developing plans for increased access to mental heath services in the Bronx, so that a mentally ill mother of four can be there for her children.

I haven’t heard plans to expand TANF or WIC to make it possible for teenage girls to support themselves and their babies while attending school.

I hear New Jersey Republican Chris Smith decrying abortion as “child abuse,” but I haven’t seen him at my clients’ homes, crying with them about their own abusive upbringings, or hearing what having another child would do to their mentally unstable state, and to the safety of their children.

As a social worker, I trust women, and I stand with Planned Parenthood. I hope you all do as well.





Our bodies, Ourselves (Also, our snacks)

3 02 2011

Last night, we packed up the scented candles and snacks (my goodness, my girls love ranch dressing) one last time. It was our final teen girls’ group.

SocialJerk, you said you weren’t going to cry.

OK, I’m back.

We did the things you usually do when terminating (my, that word sounds kind of harsh) with a group. The girls did evaluations. We reminisced. We talked about what went well, what could have gone better. And we asked the girls what they learned.

They had a lot to say. A lot about confidence, and self-esteem, and making friends. But one thing stuck out to me.

“I learned that I can say ‘no.’ Like, that people should listen to it.”

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, I know. And this girl had definitely heard before that she has a right to her boundaries, and that people should respect them.

But still. This was something important, that she credited group in helping her with.

Weeks earlier, we had a rather memorable sex ed chat with the girls, which was spread over two sessions. A lot of the second week was spent talking about the right to say no. Is “no” ever not enough? Can you ever sacrifice that right?

Some of the girls thought that you can. Quite easily.

We asked the question, “If a girl is wearing something sexy, and she’s assaulted, does she have the right to go to the police?”

Why was I so naive to think that this wouldn’t be a debate?

Almost all of the girls thought that a girl dressed “too sexy” was at least partly to blame for her assault. My co-leader and I challenged this assumption. We talked about self-control. Why are we constantly degrading men, acting like they’re dogs who can’t help but hump anything that will hold still for long enough? It seemed like these girls legitimately thought that a man could not be expected to have any restraint if he saw a woman showing too much skin.

I then pointed out how subjective “too sexy” is. Have you ever seen footage from Afghanistan? Saudi Arabia? They would be scandalized by you showing your arms, your ankles, your neck. Does your grandma ever think your clothes are too revealing, when you know they’re exactly what everyone else is wearing? OK, so how could one possibly regulate this?

“Well, maybe the guy AND the girl should go to jail.”

Oh, dear.

One girl (there’s always one) looked at the rest like they were crazy. “I don’t show off my body, but no one has a right to touch you if you don’t want them to.”

Thank God for you!

The other girls came around a bit. And I think they will continue to. I’m glad they were exposed to some different ideas. It’s important to challenge those immediate assumptions, because people really just don’t realize how silly the knee-jerk reaction is. Oprah showed us all when she interviewed Trisha Meili, “the Central Park jogger,” who was raped while out jogging. She asked her what she was doing in the park at that hour, alone?

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have thought it. “It’s terrible what happened, don’t get me wrong. But what was she doing in that area/out at that hour/walking alone/going home with that guy/drinking that much/dressing like that?”

Um, she was probably looking for someone to assault her horribly. I mean, obvi.

We need to teach girls that they have control over their own bodies. That they have rights, and are entitled to their boundaries. That their bodies are not on loan.

A lot of us have been hearing about HR 3, a charming bit of legislation that would make it more difficult for low-income women to have Medicaid pay for their abortions in cases of rape.

Stay classy, Republicans (and one Democrat.)

They want to limit Medicaid funded abortions to cases of “forcible rape.” You attorneys out there will recognize the term “forcible rape” from your second year law class, “Legal Terms That Do Not Exist and In Fact Make No Sense.”

All rape is forcible. What they’re saying here is, you weren’t really raped. Unless a stranger jumped out of the bushes and assaulted you while you were walking to the library in a safe neighborhood at a reasonable hour, preferably while you were wearing a nun’s habit, it simply doesn’t count. Saying “no” isn’t enough. You are not in charge of your own body.

I don’t delude myself into thinking that my girls are C-Span junkies, hanging on John Boehner’s every word. But they are getting this message. It’s a part of our culture.

And let’s bear in mind, in our work, that this is something we need to challenge. Making sure that women are aware that they have agency over their lives and bodies is crucial to what we’re trying to do. The idea that one of these girls, my girls, could be victimized in the future, or think of how they’ve been victimized in the past, and see it as something they brought on themselves, breaks my heart.

Which is enough to get me preparing for our next group already. I’ll get the ranch dressing.





First and foremost, I am a lady

3 01 2011

But I’m sure you all thought nothing less.

I was raised by two staunch feminists. No, really, men can be feminists. They should be, in fact. Feminism is defined as “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.”

Oh heavens, I am scandalized!

I have both my mother and father’s last names. I grew up reading Ms. Magazine. I got in an argument in kindergarten, advocating the view that there was no such thing as boy and girl colors. I also firmly believed that my Peanut league coach would not let me play first base because I was the only girl on the team. (I stand by that. I was a remarkable five year old athlete, meaning my shoes were generally tied and I knew right from left.)

But I digress. What does this have to do with social work?

Social workers work with the marginalized. We work with people in need. By and large, these people are women. And their children.

I currently have a caseload of twelve families. Of those families, ten are headed by single mothers, one by a single grandmother. Only one has an involved father. (And I use the word “involved” loosely.)

Women, very often young women, are the one raising these families. They’re the ones working, paying for day care, taking care of those damn kids day after day. When they can’t do it, it’s most often the grandmothers that step in.

Where are the dads? Sometimes they’ve just taken off. Other times, they’re around. They pop in now and then, drop off some cool sneakers, and go on their way. A lot of the mothers are surprisingly understanding. “Well, he’s not working right now, so how can he pay child support?”

Right. Give him time to find himself while you sacrifice your education and dreams to work a menial job to care for your child. I mean, it’s not like he had anything to do with the pregnancy. It’s only fair.

At what point do you explain that you will have to smack him for hours, until he comes over with Pampers and actually puts them on the kid?

I started this off talking about feminism for a reason. These women, as strong as they are, believe that this is their lot in life. They don’t see options. They don’t think that the men they had children with owe them, and those children. They might ask the guy to bring material things to the child, or to spend some time with the kid. (That’s fun, daddy time. Go to the park, play video games…not the serious mommy stuff of potty training and time outs.)

But they rarely think that the father has a role as a parent. And the men seem to think this as well. Most of them didn’t have a model father to show them the way. By the time they have their own kids, though, they need to figure it out.

These women already expect a lot from themselves. They need to expect more from men. The men need to think about what a father is, and what kind of a father they expect themselves to be.

Oh right, that’s where we come in. We need to come at these issues from a framework that will benefit our clients, and help them to make those difficult changes.

Not pro-choice? Fine. (Well, not really, but that’s not the point.) We need to be for our clients. The social work mantra value of self-determination kind of insists on it. I’ve had two clients in the past year come to me, telling me about their plans to seek abortion. One was a 15 year old child, one was a 24 year old raising a disabled son.

I asked if they needed anything. They both told me they were fine, knew where to go and what to do. They both knew I was there if they needed anything.

And that was my role. It was not my role to look shocked, act like this was a tragedy, or try to talk to them about options they weren’t interested in.

Most social workers, I’m sure, wouldn’t intentionally do this. But some do, and don’t even realize it. Because they start thinking as if they were the ones with the decision to make, when in fact they are not.

Again, I bring up feminism. Because this is an issue of trusting women. Of having enough respect for them to allow them to make their own decisions, and to understand that they are capable of this.

Whatever you would consider yourself to be (and I really hope that you would consider yourself to be a feminist) it’s something we owe to our clients.