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.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”