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.

Sexily sexing for sexiness. Do I have your attention?

22 12 2011

We all know that’s it’s my favorite time of year–Solstice sex talk week. Every teen girls group I run, no matter the focus, at least one week is devoted to this topic. Self-esteem, communication, body image, basket weaving, I don’t care. I’ll find a way to work it in.

It’s important. I hear more and more about the Obama administration ushering in an era in which pre-schoolers are putting condoms on anatomically correct dolls, but I feel like my girls are less informed with each passing year.

This isn’t true for all of them. Some are at least savvy in some matters. Just recently I was walking to the office with one of the twelve year olds I work with who started informing me of the girls she has crushes on. After a minute, she looked at me and asked, “Do you know what bi means?”

Um, yeah. I was watching My So-Called Life before you were born. I remember Danielle rolling her eyes and telling her mom “it means bisexual.” Not to mention I’m fifteen years older than you, come on.

My teens, though, they’re confused. They’re not sure what they think or who to believe. We’re battling the media, you know. It’s not always giving them the best information.

14 y/o: “Can’t the baby claw its way out of you?”
SJ: “Not outside of Twilight.

15 y/o: “Oh, I know this one girl…”
SJ: “Do you know this girl, or is this another ‘I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant’ story?”
15 y/o: “It’s ‘I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.'”

14 y/o: “But one girl on Maury said she didn’t have sex with the guy the DNA test said was the father, she just…”
SJ: “Maury is not an acceptable source. For anything. Ever. Except for funny ‘not the father’ dances.”

I’m glad they at least feel comfortable asking questions.

“If a boy masturbates and then shakes your hand, can you get pregnant?”
Wow. Why would that even happen? No you won’t get pregnant, but maybe invest in some Purel if that’s really a concern. Bonus points for use of correct language, though.

SJ: “You can get STDs from oral sex, but you can’t get pregnant.”
15 y/o: “Even if you swallow?”
And now I’m nauseated.

There’s always the one who thinks she really knows what she’s talking about. Rather often, that’s the one with the greatest number of “facts.”

“Well, there’s always the risk of STIs. And those can turn into STDs!”
You’re a little misinformed. But I think your heart is in the right place.

“Two guys together is nasty to girls, and two girls together is nasty to guys.” Now you’re just grossly misinformed. Not to mention the fact that we’re respectful and non-judgmental in this space. (But seriously, have you heard of the internet? Silly.)

15 y/o: “The fetus is what the baby grows in.”
SJ: “Well that’s actually the uterus. The fetus is what we call the baby when it’s developing, before it’s born.”
15 y/o: “No, but like, it grows in the fetus.”
OK, you’re saying it a little differently, but still no.

“If you go off the pill, and then have sex with a bunch of different guys, you can get pregnant with like, four different guys’ babies at once.”
That’s it, you’re staying after for a remedial session.

Some girls are just uncomfortable, and need a little baptism by fire.

SJ: “Some people only consider it sex if it’s penis in vagina.”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
SJ: “What, vagina?”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
14 y/o: “Or penis?”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
15 y/o: “We all have a vagina in here.”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
SJ: “OK this is silly. Penis vagina penis vagina penis vagina.” (To the tune of “La Cucaracha.”)

And sometimes, they’re just hilarious.

“Pfft. Her booty isn’t a virgin.”
Did you steal that from a book of proverbs?

“I don’t want to have sex ever! Well, I mean, I guess before I die. I don’t want to be a nun. I heard you can die if you don’t have sex.”
Yeah, I don’t know either.

“I would like to see you all wait until you’re 21.”
My group coleader. Isn’t that cute? She’s new at this.

SJ: “Is it ok for someone to have sex because they want to have a baby?”
Group: “No!”
SJ: “OK, at your age, I agree. But what if the person is older, and they’re married or in a relationship, and they want to have kids?”
13 y/o: “I just don’t feel like that’s a good choice in this economy.”

Occasionally, there are moments of awesome.

13 y/o: “Is it good if you tell a guy you’re not ready, and he’s ok with it, and he still wants to date you?”
SJ: “Yeah, I think that’s great.”
13 y/o: “Oh yeah, that’s my man!”
14 y/o: “Can we clap for Liz’s man?”

You know we clapped. Also, Liz’s man is in fact fourteen.

For all of the laughs, and the moments of wanting to slap myself or others in the face (YOU CAN GET PREGNANT YOUR FIRST TIME AND BIRTH CONTROL PILLS ARE EFFECTIVE WHEN TAKEN CORRECTLY) I love these sessions. Somewhere along the lines, we’re really failing our kids in terms of sex ed. It’s a very concrete way we can shape kids lives, and help them to make good, informed decisions.

Or at least teach them to say “vagina” without cringing.

I Want My MTV (for social work purposes only)

11 08 2011

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?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.
  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.
I’m not saying everyone will love it. I’m not saying that it’s flawless. But there is value to these shows, because, if people are willing to watch, they show us that there’s value to these kids.
So stop judging me for watching.

Marty McFly, and Other Social Work Pioneers

26 07 2011

I wouldn’t expect most of you to know this, but I’m a bit of a time travel nerd. I think it started with my dad’s love of Rocky and Bullwinkle when I was a kid–I was pretty jealous that Sherman got to do all that traveling in the WABAC Machine with Mr. Peabody. Then of course there was Back to the Future (I’m sorry, it’s pretty much the greatest trilogy of all time, Lord of the Rings be damned.) When I got a bit older took physics, read “A Brief History of Time,” and momentarily dedicated myself to turning my aunt’s Ford Tempo into Doc’s DeLoreon.

Somehow, I never quite mastered it. Hence turning to social work. As convenient as time travel would be, as we get older, we realize that it’s not likely to happen any time soon. (Or, according to these assholes psysicists, not at all.)

At least, that’s what I thought. The more people I talk to about my job, or hear talk about the issues I face every day, the more I realize that some people believe that Back to the Future was, in fact, a documentary.

That’s the only conclusion I can draw when I’m constantly being told what people should have done to avoid their current situations, and how they don’t deserve assistance if they’re not willing to go back and undo their terrible decisions.

I hear this all the time, and it blows my mind. Especially when it comes to people who have children.

SocialJerk:              “One of my clients is facing eviction, I’m really worried.”
Compassionate Soul:”Well, maybe she should have paid her rent.”
SJ:         “That will be a great comfort to her four year old.”
CS:        “Maybe she shouldn’t have had kids she couldn’t afford.”
SJ:         “She was only 16 and in an abusive relationship when she got pregnant.”
CS:        “Maybe she should have picked a better boyfriend and kept her legs closed.”
SJ:         “Maybe you should duck, because I’m throwing a flower pot at you.”
CS:        “What?” *thud*

That’s not to say my clients haven’t made preventable mistakes, or bad choices. I think most humans have. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I have clients I wish I could throttle. (Metaphorically.) People who miss their kids’ appointments, pay for cable before buying groceries, or refuse to attend school meetings. And there’s certainly something to be said for dealing with consequences. There are changes that the families I work with need to make. Some of them need to learn to budget to prevent future eviction. Some need to learn non-physical discipline to avoid traumatizing their children. Some need to understand that cursing at a teacher or boss because you feel “disrespected” will not, in fact, warrant you the positive outcome that you’re seeking.

But to simply point out that someone shouldn’t have had a child, or shouldn’t have dropped out of school, or shouldn’t have stayed with an abusive partner does nothing for the present situation.

The person who most often suffers when we punish people for poor choices and mistakes is not the person who made the decision.

It’s their child.

Compassionate suggestions that we reduce benefits for people who have children while on public assistance, as some sort of deterrent, are really punishing that new baby. The idea that teen parents need to be shamed for being “promiscuous,” as some kind of example, actually shames their child. Cutting off WIC or Medicaid due to a missed appointment might teach a parent the importance of being punctual. But more likely, it will make their child miss out on a nutritious meal or a check up.

Not only that, it will teach that parent to be distrustful, and to learn ways to “work” the system, that is clearly working against them.

Do we want to learn from our mistakes? Of course. Is it important to identify cycles of destructive behavior so that they can be broken, and not crop up in the next generation? Absolutely. But sitting around pointing out everything that should have been done, telling someone what foresight they should have had at age fourteen, blaming people who aren’t even available to the family, does nothing for the current situation. All it does it make things seem hopeless. Well, I can’t change those things that happened, so…I guess I might as well just keep doing them? Because at least they’re fun, and comfortable? Or maybe just throw in the towel.

My Ford Tempo caught fire on the side of the highway*, so I’m even further behind in perfecting time travel. But I will make it happen, no matter what those scientists say. However, until I do that, perhaps we can chill out on the blame, in favor of doing something constructive.

*True Story.

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.

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.