Their faces are on tabloid magazine covers at your local newsstand, and their exploits make for some of MTV’s highest ratings. They’re the stars of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, and the media treats them like celebrities. All you have to do is Google their names and you’ll find headlines to rival those of your favorite movie and TV stars. “‘Teen Mom’ Maci Bookout Shows Off New Boob Job,” blared a headline on Examiner.com last month. Just a few days earlier, Us Weekly had reported that “Teen Mom’s Farrah Abraham Goes on Horseback Riding Date With New Guy Daniel.”
Being in the spotlight—landing magazine covers and prime-time interviews—is many a teenage girl’s dream. But the real reality—not the reality TV version—of teen parenthood is a lot tougher and more complex than they could ever imagine. And the cover of Us Weekly is usually not part of the bargain.
“Reality TV makes teenage motherhood look almost…fun,” says Tamika Hall-Frye. “Trendy, if you will. Like it’s the ‘thing to do.’” Hall-Frye is an author (The Little Things We Learn In Life), a blogger (thaLadyBlogga), and the “Relationship Examiner” for Examiner.com. But in 1991, she was a teenage mom; she gave birth to her daughter Sachielle at the age of sixteen. “Being a teenage mom back then was ‘taboo,’” she says. “Now thanks to MTV, it’s become a novelty.”
There are a lot of reasons that teenage girls become pregnant. Some young girls look at the teen moms on television and imagine life as a celebrity. Others think it’s a way to hold on to their boyfriend. Still others want the unconditional love they imagine a child will bring. In some cases, teenagers practice birth control incorrectly and become parents by accident.
Few can imagine the years of struggle that await the majority of teen parents. Oftentimes babies impede their educational and professional goals. “Research shows that people who have children in their teens are less likely to get a high school diploma or go on to college,” reports NBC News. “They tend to earn less in the working world, and children born to these teens struggle to keep up with their peers. For many, beating back poverty becomes the overriding concern.”
Poverty is an issue for many of these young girls. As a country we may pride ourselves on frank sexual education and early prevention initiatives, but there are more teen moms in the U.S. than in other developed countries. And there are more of those moms in poor areas than not. This year, the New York Times noted the United States’ high rate of teenage births (surprisingly, the U.S. is home to more teen moms than countries such as Canada, Germany, Norway, Russia, and Switzerland) as well as the link established in a new study between income inequality and teenage motherhood. “Teenage childbirth is more common among poor girls,” reported the Times, adding that the authors of the study cited, Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, believe that “inequality… makes the poorest citizens believe that they have little chance of economic mobility. They are giving birth at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement.”
There are exceptions, of course, and Tamika Hall-Frye is one of them. But for her, an additional challenge was transcending the expectations people had of her once she became pregnant. “People were shocked because I was an honor student and a ‘nerd’ so for me to be pregnant was a big deal,” she recalls. “Everyone I knew basically told me that I was not going to amount to anything if I had a child at 16. My high school college advisor told me not to bother filling out applications, despite the fact that I was an honors student.” Tamika surprised everyone again—this time by graduating high school on time and going on to complete four years of college. She went on to obtain her Master’s degree in Curriculum Writing and Instruction, and worked as a teacher for years.
“My thought process was for two,” she explains. “I knew that I had to make a life not only for myself but for my child. In order to do that, I had to finish school, go to college and get a job.” She gives a lot of credit to her mother. “My mom was a huge help and support to me,” she says. Initially, things were difficult when Tamika broke the news of her pregnancy (“she threw me out,” Tamika recalls). But Tamika’s mom “ended up helping…. She watched Sachielle while I still did normal ‘kid’ things like go to Prom and All City High School band practice on Saturdays.” And by acting as caregiver to Sachielle after Tamika graduated high school, Tamika’s mom made it possible for Tamika to go to college.
FAIRY TALES VERSUS HARSH REALITIES
Tamika’s story has had a happy ending for her and Sachielle—but not with Sachielle’s father. “We were actually breaking up when I found out I was pregnant,” Tamika says. “He thought that because I was pregnant we would get back together. We never got back together and I told him that whatever he did or didn’t do for her was his choice.”
That part of Tamika’ story is more commonplace. NBC News observes that “eight of 10 teenage fathers do not marry the mothers of their first children.” Teenage mothers often end up caring for their children as single parents; if they are lucky, they’ll have a support system in their families. Even if they remain in relationships with their boyfriends, it’s hardly the fairy-tale romance they may have once dreamed of.
Take the tale of the Marquez sisters, who were profiled in the Washington Post a few years ago. At the ages of 14 and 15, Edelmira and Angela deliberately got pregnant because they thought it would “force their Salvadoran-born parents to stop trying to keep them and their teenage boyfriends apart.”
At the time of the article, Edelmira’s boyfriend was in prison. Angela’s boyfriend was living with her and their daughter—as well as Angela’s mother, her younger brother, and a friend—in a two-bedroom apartment in Maryland. Angela had dropped out of school, and Edelmira was struggling, missing one day after another. “It’s not that I don’t want to go. I like school,” she told the Post. “It’s just we wake up too early. Sometimes I wake up, take a shower and, once it’s time to leave, I’m like ‘Nah, I’m just going to sleep.’” After school, the Post explained that she “almost never opens a book. When she says she’s doing well in a class, she means she’s not failing it. She doesn’t worry about how she’ll do on the PSATs or SATs. She has no idea what the tests are for.”
The majority of teen parents and their children have a very tough time, starting even before the babies in question are born. Multiple studies over the years reveal a mind-boggling litany of facts and statistics that do not bode well for children born to teenage mothers—beginning before birth, when many teenage mothers-to-be fail to obtain adequate medical care for their developing infants. LiveStrong reports on the “higher infant mortality rate among babies born to teenage mothers,” citing smoking during pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and the teenage mother’s high risk of premature birth. These factors can also contribute to “low birth weight, complications during pregnancy, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).”
Heartbreakingly, the AACAP (the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) also observes that “babies born to teenagers are at risk for neglect and abuse because their young mothers are uncertain about their roles and may be frustrated by the constant demands of caretaking.” Even the most well-meaning teenage moms can find themselves unprepared for the demands of parenthood, and the ensuing events can lead to tragic consequences for their children.
A fact sheet published by the Florida State University Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy (CPEIP) reveals that the “children born to the youngest teen mothers are at greater risk of being an ‘indicated case’ of child abuse or neglect (and being placed in foster care) than are those born to older mothers.” (Interestingly, CPEIP also observes that according to a study, the “living situation of the teen mother was the single most predictive variable in terms of maltreatment,” noting that “adolescent mothers living with a related adult were much less likely to abuse or neglect their children than were those living apart from related adults.”
A high risk of compromised health beginning after conception, the possibility of a childhood rife with abuse and neglect—it all translates into a child’s potentially bright future snuffed out before they even have a chance to begin to shine.
When Langston Hughes wrote his famous poem “A Dream Deferred,” in which he posed the question “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” he may not have been referring to teen moms—but he could have been. When it comes to the family dynamic of teenage parenthood, there are many dreams that remain unrealized; the dreams of both the parents and the children.
Teenage fathers do not escape unscathed; Time reports that they “usually have lower incomes, less education and more children than do men who wait until at least the age of 20 to have children,” adding that “one reason for this is that a teenager who has got his girlfriend pregnant often compounds his first mistake with a second one: dropping out of school.”
Indeed, Tamika Hall-Frye notes that the father of her oldest daughter, Sachielle, “dropped out of school because he was ‘having a baby’.” She adds, “to date, he has nine children, all with different women, Sachielle being the oldest. He doesn’t have contact with most of them.”
Young women (and men) can transcend the sad statistics of teen parenthood, but they’ll have to fight extra hard for their futures. The first step, of course, is avoiding the predicament of teen pregnancy to begin with. “Teenage pregnancy is avoidable at all costs and unless you put yourself in that situation, it’s something you don’t have to deal with,” advises Hall-Frye. “Educate yourselves about safe sex, abstain from sex if possible. Your partner should never pressure you into sex and if they are then they are not the person for you.”
To young girls who find themselves pregnant, Hall-Frye has encouraging words. “It’s not the end of the world. It may seem like it, but it isn’t,” she says. “You have the will and the power to direct your life in any direction you choose. It takes time, focus, determination and motivation. Make sure to access all available resources to you and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Every woman has the right to dream of being a caring, patient, loving mother, just as every child born deserves the realized dream of a happy and rewarding childhood upon which to build a fulfilling life as an adult. For parent and child alike, this can mean an unhurried development from the often-turbulent teenage years into life as a responsible adult; graduation from both high school and college alike; strong relationships with friends and family; and finally, a baby who is planned for and wanted.