Like Gov. Sarah Palin’s daughter soon will be, I was once a teen mom. It’s a
label I’ve carried around for awhile — even though I’m now a married
twenty-something, I still watch countless people do the mental math to discern
my son’s age minus my own. I got pregnant weeks before my eighteenth birthday
and my son Ethan was born before I turned nineteen. I barely finished high
school, but nevertheless continued with my education, eking out a high school
diploma, then a couple of years at community college before transferring to the
Big Ten University where I got my degree. I did all this without going on
welfare, without succumbing to full-blown homelessness, and not letting the
surprise of pregnancy remove me from my goals.
How? I had a lot of help.
The truth is that many teen parents, especially if they’re from wealthy,
stable families with lots of resources, like Bristol is, are great parents who raise happy
and healthy kids. Bristol
is not at a disadvantage. She is particularly lucky that she
appears to have her parents’ full support, and I find Palin’s
forthrightness truly admirable considering the negative stigmas surrounding
teen pregnancy. Ironically, Bristol will benefit from
Palin’s fundamentalist base of support. The religious right’s belief that
getting married and starting a nuclear family, even coercing her into a shotgun
marriage, is "doing the right thing," will bolster her decision and her
experience as a young parent because she will have support from her community.
The thing that bothers me is that the only teen parents I know who were
considered "unsuccessful" are those who have or had no help at all, quite
and me. They had abusive authority figures that labeled them failures before
they even started parenting; intermittent help that was given and rescinded
with no way to predict which day would bring what; unhelpful, contrary, or
absent parenting partners; little education and no hope for upward movement;
and poor parenting models on which to operate their own parenting styles. Mostly they struggled to find affordable
housing and cheap, stable daycare providers, and their lives with their children
were unstable as a result.
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A lot of criticism capitalizes on this trend, saying in effect "Hey, unwed
mothers! If you had more money, childhood poverty would be less of a problem!"
Could Palin use her platform to combat this kind of pontificating, and to back the measures that can help out young pregnant women who don’t have the
privilege of their parents’ and their community’s support?
A young parent’s wish list looks a lot like any other parent’s wish list. It
would guarantee the health and safety of their children while still providing
opportunities to parent and child to gain independence on a long-term
First, young parents need the scaffolding of outside hands, knowledge, and
yes, sometimes money, to ensure that they and their children can succeed and
not be derailed by this enormous life change.
Young parents need contacts with peers who share similar circumstances, and
with whom they can collaborate.
Young parents need stable, affordable daycare so their children are
well-cared for while they work and go to school. Likewise, they need stable, affordable
daycare that doesn’t come after waiting over six months on a waiting list – as
you know, work and school don’t wait for parents.
Young parents need to be able to guarantee their children a life free of
Young parents must have the resources and education available to feed their
children fresh, affordable, and healthy foods, so they have the energy and
brain power to get through the day.
Young parents need support for their own education, not only during high
school but also in college and in the trades, so they can gain financial
independence for the duration of their lives.
Young parents need information about how to plan future pregnancies in a way
that makes sense for them, financially and socially, and access to
organizations that can help them assert their right to control their
Young parents need to know about their rights as workers; for example, when
I was fired for being pregnant at my cafeteria job (they worried that I would
slip and fall and bring a lawsuit against them), I did not know that I had
legal recourse. All I knew was that I’d
lost my only income.
Young parents need safe, affordable housing in which to raise their
children. Moreover, their housing should
not be yanked out from under them based on their marital or partnered
status. Marriage isn’t magic. Marriage
doesn’t protect you from finding out your partner is a lying, cheating,
alcoholic loser. People don’t become single parents because they stupid, they
became single parents because they can’t predict the future, one of the reasons
that the "you should have known better" approach to single mothers is so
infuriating. Nobody enters a marriage planning to divorce, nobody enters a
relationship optimistically anticipating a nasty break up, and endless nights
of arguments and crying jags are not elements of a good relationship or stable
household or happy childhood.
There are existing government programs in place to provide the services
necessary to fill in the gaps for young parents, but when you’re actually
navigating the system there is nothing more humiliating than opening up your
life to a bunch of strangers for scrutiny who may or may not greenlight your
access to the things you need to make a family.
Being a single, teen mom admittedly is not the ideal arrangement to raise a
child in, but it need not be disastrous. More often than not, it’s anything
but. When we moralize single parents
into metaphorical and literal ghettos, and our policies match our expectations
for their failure, we cannot be surprised when end up with incapable parents
and unhealthy, maladjusted children.
We can give young women a chance to be great parents if our policies match
our purported goals for future generations, goals that capitalize our chances
for happiness and opportunity. Will our
presidential and vice-presidential candidates support us, too?