Analysis Maternity and Birthing

Teen Motherhood: When “Reality TV” Doesn’t Fully Reflect Reality

Avital Norman Nathman

The media has recently latched on to the idea of the “teen mom,” elevating her to star status—both in dramas and on reality TV. These shows feature teen pregnancy, but they do so in an unrealistic way that fetishizes and glamorizes it. The stories of the girls I spoke with at The Care Center are much different from the ones shown in half-hour snippets on TV and splashed across tabloid magazines.

At 16 years old, Yasmin Figueroa found herself pregnant with her first son, Carlos. Her second son, Yulian, came along only two and a half years later. A mother of two at age 18, Yasmin had dropped out of high school to care for her sons. She was also living in a rocky relationship with her sons’ father.

One day, she was at a bus terminal, and all that changed. Yasmin saw a poster for The Care Center, an organization in western Massachusetts that works with teen mothers to help them get their GEDs and move on to college. For Yasmin, it was an easy decision.

“I grabbed their number and I called,” she said.

Soon after, Yasmin and her sons moved into her aunt’s apartment. Yasmin began taking courses at The Care Center, joining almost 200 other young mothers who had dropped out of high school. Many of them had not even made it through freshman year.

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Yasmin’s story is all too common in the city where the center is located. Just east of the Berkshire mountains, Holyoke, Massachusetts, has seen the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state for the past five years, a rate higher than that reflected in national trends.

The United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy among developed countries. But, over the last 20 years, it has seen a steady decline in the rates of teen pregnancy and in infants born to teens. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that thirty percent of girls become pregnant before the age of 20. The media has latched on to the idea of the “teen mom,” elevating her to star status—both on reality TV shows and in dramas. Shows like ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Lifetime’s The Pregnancy Pact, and MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom focus on teen pregnancy and parenthood.

These shows portray teen pregnancy in an unrealistic way that fetishizes and glamorizes it. The stories of the girls I spoke with at The Care Center are much different from the ones shown in half-hour snippets on TV and splashed across tabloid magazines.

Kritzia, who gave birth to a daughter at age 18, and took college courses through the center, said, “The show’s interesting. They go through struggles. But I think we go through more struggles. I mean, they get paid for the show. All of them have cars, all of them have apartments, all of them have … something.”

Most of the center’s students are from Holyoke and nearby cities, an area of Massachusetts where both economic and educational success has eluded many for decades. This region’s population is mostly Latino, a group that consistently experiences the highest rates of teen pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s most recent figures, the teen pregnancy rates for Latina girls rose to 126.6 births out of 1,000 women, compared to the national trend of 41.9. Most of these girls also struggle with the seemingly insurmountable challenges of living in poverty.

Many of these young women want to burst the stereotype that teen mothers are burgeoning “Welfare Queens.” While a few may be on some sort of aid, many are not. The ones who do rely on aid are trying to come off it. In fact, according to researcher Gretchen Sisson, whose work focuses on teen pregnancy and motherhood, teen parents cost less to the state than do any other age group. “There is a misconception about teen mothers and welfare,” Sisson said. “They are not looking for a handout. They are not looking to be a burden.”

The girls agree that people view teen motherhood, overall, through a judgmental lens.

“I think it’s messed up a lot,” said Jennice, an 18-year-old mother of one. “They think that we’re not going to do anything with ourselves. They think, ‘Oh, their mom is just going to raise her kid.’ But it’s not like that. They just judge us so much.”

Rebecca, who dropped out of school in her senior year to give birth to a daughter, agreed. “We’re frowned upon a lot,” she said. “People give us dirty stares.” She recounted a story in which she and some friends were at the mall, and an older woman admonished them for committing “the biggest sin.” Rebecca has a response to these judgments. “There are people that are way older than us,” she said, “that can’t raise their kids or keep a job.”

The girls I spoke with expressed anger over how they are perceived. Jennice aired her frustrations:

They judge us upon age, and it’s not like that. I mean it’s not good for a 16-year old, 15-year old to have a baby at a young age … But who sits here and says ‘I’m gonna get pregnant at 16?’ We all think, oh I’m gonna get married, or I’m gonna graduate first, go to college and then get married. And nothing ever turns out that way. It’s like sometimes you gotta commit mistakes to do good in life, you know, and maybe that’s what happened to us. We got pregnant, we didn’t want to, but we’re here. We’re at The Care Center, struggling to get our GED, and we’re going to do it.

Sisson, who wrote “Finding a Way to Offer Something More: Reframing Teen Pregnancy Prevention,” in the Journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy, says that, in most cases, teen mothers do better than do their peers who are not mothers. Sisson’s research shows that among young women who drop out of high school, teen mothers are more likely to complete their GEDs. And in their twenties, they spend more time in the work force than do their peers who are not mothers. Sisson wrote:

“By their early thirties, [former teen mothers] are actually a bit ahead of their peers in terms of earning. Any disadvantage they had by getting pregnant is counterbalanced by the fact that they work harder. We know that by talking to them that the one reason they work harder is because they have children.”

Despite the instinctual drive to succeed that many of these young mothers possess, they still need help to see their hard work pay off. Organizations like The Care Center have been instrumental in helping them become self-sufficient. Many of these girls deplore the lack of support at their previous schools, even before they became pregnant.

“I didn’t even have the idea of going to college until I came here,” Katzia said. ” …  School never pushed me to go to college. All that crap about No Child Left Behind? They left everybody behind in my class, I swear. If you passed, it was by luck. I made it all the way to senior year, and I failed the MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System], so I couldn’t graduate or whatever. I also failed math class, but nobody ever offered me extra help or anything.”

The Care Center also offers child care, transportation, counselors, and nurses. Besides GED preparation, it offers college courses and an array of academic programs far beyond what these girls would have received in high school.

The girls can take photography, art, and poetry classes, as well as yoga and rowing. At local Hampshire College, they can try their hand at farming or glass-blowing. They also can take a multidisciplinary college course offered in collaboration with Bard College. The Clemente Course in Humanities, which has been profiled by the New York Times, provides a real-world introductory college environment.

The Care Center constantly reminds the girls that they’re worthy of everything the program provides.

“Here, it’s like, ‘do good, try new things.’ They let you know you’re smart,” said Jennice.

These young women have high hopes for the future. Kritzia wants to be a phlebotomist. Rebecca has wanted to be a social worker since she was a young girl. Yasmin wants to become a pediatric nurse. Jennice has her sights set on becoming a medical examiner who performs autopsies. Before entering The Care Center, many of the girls had no idea where they would end up. Yasmin joked that she would probably end up behind the counter at McDonald’s. The other girls nod and laugh, but there’s a somber realization that Yasmin’s joke is not far from the truth.

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