Teen Moms and False Intimations of Tragedy

Hugo Schwyzer

While Will Okun — and a lot of other well-meaning folks — see young motherhood as “tragic” and “irresponsible,” for working-class teenage mothers it is often a considerable accomplishment.

This short Will Okun piece in the New York Times on teen pregnancy has gotten some strong reactions, here and here and here for starters. Okun teaches English in inner-city Chicago:

It happens too often. A female student approaches my desk, says “Mr. Okun?”, and and whispers the two words no adult wants to hear from a teenager: “I’m pregnant.” I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to shake her with anger. What have you done? Life is not hard enough already? Is it over, have you given up? What about finishing high school? What about college? What about your own dreams? What about enjoying the last of your own childhood? How can you parent a child when you are just a child yourself? How will you support your baby, how will you support yourself? Where is the man, will he be here next year? Will I see you and your baby coldly waiting alone for a city bus that will not come? Please look me in the eye and tell me you know what you have done.

Although her news disappoints me, I try to react without emotion or judgment. “What are you going to do?” I ask. But if she has already told me she is pregnant, we both already know. “I am going to have it,” she replies. I used to argue for abortion, which only enraged us both. At this point, what is done is done. All I can do now is offer her my unconditional support. I will give her a referral to counseling and pre-natal care and keep my personal frustrations and opinions to myself.

Inevitably, a few months later I will be invited to take photographs at the baby shower. I go because I like the student and I want to show that I support her and her family on this joyous occasion. But, in some cases, are we celebrating tragedy?

Well, Will, you get points for no longer “arguing for abortion.” (Just FYI, bud, there’s a rather nasty history of well-meaning whites encouraging poor women of color to have abortions. Glad you’re no longer one of them. Eugenicists are often well-meaning do-gooders.) But man, Will, you really don’t get it.

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Let me be clear I don’t think teen pregnancy is a “good idea.” That said, I’ve spent more time than you might imagine with teenage mothers and their extended family. My wife and I have two nieces, both of whom became moms before they were eighteen years old. My wife and I will meet our newest great-nephew this coming weekend. Neither of our nieces are married to the fathers of their children. Both young moms are now living with relatives, both are working. And when it comes to parenting, my nieces are pretty damn good mothers. They are surrounded by a multi-generational community of experienced care-givers. Their children are not being raised in isolation, but with a surprising amount of community support.

I’ve been to baby showers for many a teenage mom in my day. I’ve also quietly helped pay for an abortion for a teenage girl who wanted one and who confided in me. Though I do everything I can as a mentor and a youth leader and a teacher to encourage a culture of informed decision-making (especially around sex), I understand that a very large number of teenagers are going to have unprotected intercourse for a very wide variety of reasons. And when some of them get pregnant, as they invariably will, there are no perfect options. Abortion is one choice (it was the one my girlfriend and I chose when we were teens with college plans). Adoption is another. And having the baby and keeping it is the third.

What Will Okun — and a lot of other well-meaning folks — see as “tragic” and “irresponsible” is often perceived by working-class teenage mothers as a considerable accomplishment. Yes, conceiving a child is easy. Keeping a baby is hard work. One false assumption Okun makes is a typical one: that most teenage girls who get pregnant and keep the baby have no idea what they’re getting into. In reality, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas point out in their brilliant Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (which I reviewed here) most teenage moms have a pretty good idea of just how tough it’s going to be. Of course, no one who isn’t a parent can ever really know what it’s going to be like, but for girls from poorer families who have often been care-givers for much of their young lives, the chances are good that they have a better idea of how tough it’s going to be than do a lot of older, middle-class women (who may come from very small families where childcare was outsourced). Most girls who do have children as unmarried teens had older friends and relatives who made similar decisions — the idea that these young mothers-to-be are deluded, ignorant of how much work lies ahead, is an elitist fiction.

As a community college professor, I have a great many single mothers in my classes. Some are still in their teens, going to school part-time while another relative watches the baby. (Sometimes, babies come to my class. More than one sleeping infant has heard me lecture on the French Revolution.) Some single moms come to college in their twenties or thirties, after their own children have started school. In one women’s history class a few years ago, I had by my count eleven women who had children; only one was married to the father of her child. These women were black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. They had all had tough times, endured deprivation, been forced to grow up very fast. They had also persevered, and not infrequently, their study habits were better than those of their classmates. Single mothers know how precious each free second is. They tend to use their time very, very well.

I’ve been to a lot of community college graduations where mothers in caps and gowns (ranging from age 18 on up) are greeted by screaming and excited children after receiving their associate’s degrees. On my bulletin board in my office right now is a picture from last June’s graduation; a woman of 30 beaming beneath her mortarboard, her three children (aged 14, 12, and 7) all around her, their faces lit up with pride. This is not an image of tragedy.

Do we need more and better sex education? Yes. Do we need bold spiritual, economic and political solutions to the problem of poverty? You bet. Would a lot of young women be better off if they delayed having children until they were older and more stable? Probably. But is young unwed motherhood a guarantor of sustained misery and dependence? No. Does it mean the end of dreams? No. Having a child when you’re young and poor and single does change everything. Having a child when you’re young and poor means you’re going to have to work very, very hard. But rather than shaming or bemoaning the choices these young women make, we can rejoice in their courage — and we can partner with them to raise their babies.

The young women (from youth group or my classes) who come to me to tell me that they’re pregnant do so for many reasons, but mostly — I think — because they want to know that they will have my strong support as they go through whatever it is that they are choosing to do. I’ve noticed a common thread in how these conversations go: at the moment she tells me she’s pregnant, the young woman will rarely meet my gaze, as it’s too difficult to face me and risk seeing what she fears will be my ire or my disappointment. But once she’s gotten out the words, she’ll usually glance up and study my expression, looking for signs of my true feelings. If my words don’t match my expression, she’ll see it — just as I expect Will Okun’s students see his true feelings on his face.

I have dreams for my students. But my dreams for their lives are not always their dreams. My plans are not God’s plans. And though I can exhort and encourage until the cows come home, when all is said and done all I can do as a teacher, a mentor, and an uncle is love exuberantly and unconditionally. And I am quick, always quick, to remind the mother-to-be that she has not closed the door forever on possibilities for her own autonomy and her own success. I worry that when Will Okun’s students read his words, they will wonder if in their teacher’s mind, that door is closed forever.

This piece originally appeared on Hugo Schwyzer's own blog.

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