The teen pregnancy prevention (actually teen mom shaming) ads making headlines in New York City are offensive and are part of a system that consistently degrades teen moms. The public service announcements promote unfair treatment of young women who need support. They enable people who have a personal agenda against teen moms to effectively use their disapproval to make the moms’ lives much harder than they need to be.
When teens become parents, they instantly become victims of discrimination, judgment, and stereotyping. They are expected to drop out of high school, apply for welfare, neglect their children, and accomplish nothing to be proud of. For most teen parents, expecting a child comes with stares, negative comments, mistreatment, and bullying. Without a doubt, teen parents in schools are discriminated against not only by their peers, but by school staff.
What happens when the very people who are supposed to ensure you are in a safe and stable learning environment are the ones making your education a depressing experience? I can tell you what that’s like because it happened to me. At 17, I discovered I was pregnant. Nervous, anxious, upset, and scared: that’s how I felt during the first few weeks of secrecy. After missing many days of school from morning sickness and prenatal appointments, I decided it was time to tell my school nurse about my pregnancy. In a disappointed and bitter tone, she asked me if I had considered an abortion, and when I said, “Yes, but I decided not to get one,” she looked away in disbelief. By the end of the week, all of my teachers knew I was pregnant. Some gave me puppy dog eyes but said nothing, some avoided eye contact when I asked to use the bathroom, and one pulled me aside to tell me that I had made a huge mistake. The students gossiped, but they did it behind my back. The teachers, oh the teachers, they showed their disapproval to my face.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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I couldn’t handle it. I was the only girl in my school who was having a baby, but not the only girl who got pregnant—some chose to leave secretly and others aborted. I finished the school year and transferred to a different school. My new school was much larger and had a much higher number of pregnant and parenting students. While I was nervous to be the new girl (who was already six months pregnant by the beginning of the school year), I was happy to know there would be a better support system during my senior year of school. My new high school had a health clinic and a designated liaison who worked with teen moms in the school. I never realized how much of a pivotal role in my life this woman would make.
The teachers knew nothing about me prior to my first day. All they knew was that I was new at the school and pregnant. Their expectations were extremely low. After my first day of school, I went to my guidance counselor’s office to ask why I was no longer in honors classes. My classes were boring and slow-paced and covered material I already knew. Her response was that she questioned whether I would even graduate high school, so it would be safer to put me in easy classes that I could easily pass than to put me in challenging classes. In shock, I walked away from her office. I came back two months later to ask her if she would help me apply for college. She told me that it would be best to focus on graduating school—then, if I did, maybe I could enroll in a community college. Again, I walked away with my head hung low.
The subtle events were a little bit easier to tolerate and move on from, but there were some blatant moments of discrimination that made me want to burst into tears. When I returned to school from maternity leave in February 2006, I made the decision to exclusively breastfeed my child. I would carve out two 20-minute sessions of my day to pump milk in the nurse’s office while my classmates enjoyed their homeroom and lunch periods. Apparently, one of my teachers thought this was a way for me to escape student life and avoid the work that all my other classmates were doing. She would refuse to let me leave her class if my breasts were engorged. Intimidated, I didn’t argue. One day, as I sat in her class with swollen breasts and in extreme discomfort, I raised my hand and asked her if I could leave. She said no. I begged. She said no. A few moments later, my breasts began to leak. I was wearing breast pads, but my breasts were so full that they began to leak through the pads. The teacher looked over, pointed at me in front of a class of 18-year-olds, and said, “You’re leaking breastmilk.” My face turning beet red. I ran out of the room and cried in the nurse’s office.
This wasn’t the only incident. I missed a lot of school, and it infuriated my teachers. What annoyed them the most was that my absences were legitimately excused. After returning to school one day after an absence, I handed my teacher my doctor’s note. She looked at it, looked at me, and asked why I had to miss an entire day of school because of one appointment. I told her my daughter had an appointment. She almost laughed and told me that appointments don’t take eight hours. Furiously, she told me that I would have to come after school to take the quiz I missed. I agreed. She reminded me, in front of my entire class, that I chose to become a mom in high school and that I would not get special treatment. As I sat in my chair, I thought about all the things I wanted to say to her. See, she didn’t know my daughter was also born with congenital hypothyroidism. We spent days in the hospital before she was even a week old. During infancy, we were in the hospital on a weekly basis for the first few months, and with blood tests, labs, and several visits to different specialists, appointments did take eight hours. And as an 18-year-old balancing school and parenthood, this was in no way easier than taking a math quiz. School was much easier than my home life. But I didn’t say anything. I went after school and aced my quiz. It was the only way I knew I could piss her off.
School was hell for me. When the teachers don’t want to see you succeed, you feel as if your mere presence in the school is unwanted. I genuinely felt as though my success and my good grades angered the people who wanted to prove that teen parenthood put young people on a path to failure or that their scare tactics would become null and void if I became the teen mom who graduated and went to college. It was the only explanation.
We know that bullying has become an issue for students. There isn’t one person who is more likely to be bullied than another, and as a society we agree that students should have access to education without the worry that they will be discriminated against or bullied. Yet, it happens every single day. Teen parents are no exception to this rule. If school staff and “support” people are purposely making a teen parent’s life harder and making it more difficult for young parents to acquire an education, they are violating Title IX rights and are bullies. Title IX protects students attending schools that receive federal funding (all public schools receive some federal funding) from discrimination on the basis of sex or pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, or recovery therefrom.
If you are a teen in Massachusetts and feel you have been discriminated against because of being pregnant or a parent, contact the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy at 1-800-645-3750 x 115.