“How did you become a teen mom?”
I never quite understand how to answer that question.
My immediate response is usually, “Sex—unprotected sex, to be exact.”
However, the real answer is far more complex, and some individuals may see my reasons as “excuses” so I usually don’t bother to explain it. But I will now.
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As a poor colored girl living in a white low-income trailer park community, I was the strange embodiment of two teen pregnancy stereotypes: a young woman of color living in rural, white, low-income America.
Circumstance #1: I was lonely, had low self esteem, and the attractive older male neighbor didn’t make me feel as lonely and unlovable.
Circumstance #2: Comprehensive sex education isn’t taught in lower-income communities like it is in higher-income communities. My abstinence-only-until-marriage “education” taught me that condoms always fail, sex outside of marriage is something un-ladylike girls do, and my female purity is important to god—a god I didn’t have any relationship to. If I even had questions about sex, sexuality, and relationships, I was a rogue and sinful human being. This same education has been found to have positive correlations with teenage pregnancy, births to teenage parents, and higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in youth.
Circumstance #3: Birth control was not accessible to me, and the public school teacher in charge of my sex “education” told me it didn’t work.
Circumstance #4: The economic structures in place that force parents to chase low-paying jobs and be out of the home more hours than not made me and several other children in the United States latchkey kids. Because of this, my mother wasn’t always available to talk. This lack of relationship between parents and their children is a common side effect of the latchkey phenomenon.
Included in the role of this latchkey child was my parent’s expectation that I would take on more of the household responsibilities to make sure things still ran smoothly. In taking on very adult responsibilities with little-to-no supervision, my teenage instinct to test the limits kicked in, and I figured since I was treated like an adult, I was ready to engage in “adult activities.”
Circumstance #5: My forced nomadic upbringing—attending approximately eight elementary schools spanning three states, the constant shuffling of my family, and the fact that I was never asked what I wanted for dinner, let alone how I felt abut moving—taught me to go along with whatever was happening and not question why. And so it was in my relationships.
Circumstance #6: Ads, commercials, public service announcements—just about everywhere I looked I learned that teenage parents are garbage, low-performing students, drug dealers, or addicts, and since I was none of those I figured teenage pregnancy didn’t happen to “people like me.” I didn’t bother or know how to protect myself from unintended pregnancy or STIs, so I continued having unprotected sex because my secular, public school teacher falsely taught me that condoms and birth control are largely ineffective.
I became a teen mom because of all of these factors—some of which I had nothing to do with, and some of which I did. Any of these realities in isolation may not have resulted in my parenting as a teen, but put all of them together in the way that so many young people of color have to face, and you have a recipe for not only teen pregnancy, but poverty, miseducation, and chaos. The problem isn’t “America’s youth today” as public campaigns and some corporate foundations would have you believe. The main problems are absent parents chasing pennies on the job, educational disparities and misinformation, adults who scapegoat youth while they hold the policy-making and financial decision-making power, and the lack of opportunity for poor youth and youth of color.
Why is it that youth are bombarded with inaccurate information about sex by adults and are then taunted by those same adults whenever “it” (pregnancy) happens to them? Instead of attacking teenagers (especially low-income teenagers, as I was) and blaming parents that society perceives as failing and whichever scapegoat we have been trained to hate, how about we channel these energies toward federal and state governments, pushing them to stop funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that have been proven ineffective?
While I take personal responsibility for having sex, the United States uses taxpayer dollars to fund abstinence programs that set children up for a future they may never have intended. While young people like me get side-eyed, some major private and public organizations and institutions are spending millions of dollars on inaccurate, disrespectful, and hate-perpetuating ads about teenage parents with apparently no plan of actually advocating for something useful like the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, access to contraceptives in all communities, or support for teenage families.
How’s that for an answer?