Commentary Sexual Health

What I Learned by Parenting a Text Message ‘Baby’ for a Day

Martha Kempner

The "egg baby" has gone high-tech: Youth advocacy group Do Something has a teen pregnancy campaign that purports to teach young people what it's like to have a baby via text message. Unfortunately, the campaign fails, in both concept and execution.

Do Something, a youth development organization that wants young people to help “make the world suck less” through advocacy, has relaunched its Pregnancy Text campaign, which is running now through June. Here’s how it works: You go to the website and “impregnate” a friend’s phone by entering their name and cell number. Then, for 14 hours the next day, you and your friend will receive demanding but adorable texts from virtual babies.

The goal of the campaign is to get teens thinking about what their lives would be like if they had a baby. A press release from the organization calls the campaign “the 2014 take on carrying an egg around school.” Well, I never thought egg babies were a good way to teach teen pregnancy prevention—not only is an egg nothing like a baby, but programs that focus on how hard it is to be a teen parent do little to educate kids and do a lot to stigmatize teen parents. Having now carried around my pregnant (or is it parenting?) phone for a day last weekend, I can firmly say that the 2014 take on the “egg baby” is little improved.

The concept of the egg baby pre-dates my high school years, in the late 1980s—though in my school they did give students a five-pound sack of flour, which kids used to put baby clothes on and carry around wrapped in a blanket. The more modern equivalent of this is an infant simulator often sold under the brand name Baby Think It Over. These computerized dolls have to be “fed,” “changed,” “burped,” and “held” by pressing a button or turning a key. The chip inside the doll can record how long it cried before its needs were attended to so that the teacher can know how good a parent each student really was. I suppose the dolls are more realistic than eggs or flour, which could be easily ignored, and the chip forces kids to be honest. (How many eggs do you think have been broken and secretly replaced with an identical twin over the years?) But within just a few minutes of starting the project, the message kids get is that having a child who needs constant attention is annoying and time consuming. What do kids get out of that, and how exactly does it help prevent pregnancy?

The research into whether infant simulators “work” is mixed, in part because there is a lack of agreement on what it would mean for these projects to “work.” Is it enough for participants to realize that having a kid is hard, or do we need to see that kids who’ve taken home a “baby” are more likely to stay abstinent or use contraception? Or should we really be following them until they’re 20 to see if they’re less likely to have a baby as a teen?

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One set of girls studied in 2010 at an urban middle school in a lower-income Hispanic neighborhood actually reported that the experience made them want to become teen parents more than they had in the past. The researchers in this study speculated that since the young girls had experience with babies, “they also knew that real babies provide some positive payback for all the hard work: a human response to being cared for and loved, such as a genuine smile.”

For the most part, however, researchers find that young people who take home a computerized baby agree that taking care of it was difficult, that they are not ready to be a parent at their age, and that they want to wait to have a baby. But most young people in these studies went into the project knowing that teen parenting was hard and that they wanted to put parenthood off until they were adults. The experience of taking home the computerized baby may cement that belief, but it’s not clear that it translates into any pregnancy prevention action—whether it is delayed sexual behavior or increased contraception use. As one participant in a 2004 study put it, “That baby shows you what it’s like to have one, but it doesn’t show you how to prevent it.”

The central problem with the text message baby is that is shows you neither. Granted, my text baby arrived on a Saturday, when it had to compete with two flesh-and-blood siblings whose demands, though not as well-scripted, were much more immediate. Still, it barely registered as a nuisance in my day. The first text at 6:30 a.m. failed to wake me up. When I did wake up, I had two texts: one to tell me the baby was hungry (“WAHHH. Oh good, you’re up! I haven’t eaten for like 3 hours…in baby times that’s a week. Bring me breakfast!”), and a second apologizing for spitting up on my shirt on my way out the door (“I know you’re running late but—GRRRGLRBARFFF. Oops, sorry about your shirt. Rappers spit rhymes but I spit up.”) Two more texts followed throughout the morning, one about poop and a second pointing out that babies cry for no reason.

I got the afternoon off after I replied to a text message that said, “Why do your teachers keep looking at me like I don’t belong here? See if one of your friends can babysit. Text me their # and I’ll ask,” with what was supposed to be my husband’s cell number. (My apologies to whoever has the number I accidentally punched in and got an undoubtedly confusing text about babysitting.)

The baby was back around 3:15 p.m., peeing, pooping, and asking to be entertained and fed. At 7:30 p.m., it asked for a lullaby and fell asleep. (What I wouldn’t give for my real kids to be asleep at such as civilized hour!) Minutes later the wrap-up text came in, saying, “Being my parent was hard, but you’re done! I’m a baby, but if you want real info about the issue, txt WAIT (tips on waiting), SAFE (safe sex), RIGHTS, or PARENTS.”

I have to disagree with that text message; being the parent of a text baby wasn’t hard.

I understand the desire to use texting to communicate with young people. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with teenagers knows they rarely put down their phones. But not everything can be done in short, cute sound bites, and this campaign just didn’t work for me. If pretending to be a teen parent for a day is going to do anything, it has to be a somewhat realistic experience. According to the studies I mentioned earlier, the thing that got most noticed by teens who took home computerized dolls was sleep deprivation, because the dolls require middle-of-the-night attention. In one study, some teens reported changing their sleeping habits for the weekend they had the doll, and others reported being exhausted beyond belief. Other teens in that study reported having to change their schedules and missing events with their friends because of the doll.

The texts, while witty, barely register as an interruption and can be ignored entirely without consequence. They didn’t force me to change my habits, miss events, or even stop what I was doing.

The other goal of the campaign is to get kids talking about teen pregnancy. This is a good objective, but I’m not sure the texts are substantive enough to start a meaningful conversation. It is interesting to note that one of the studies on Baby Think It Over Dolls found no increase in parent-child communication about teen pregnancy when the doll was home. If having a doll that actively cries in the middle of the night can live in a teens’ house for the weekend without starting a conversation between the students and their parents, I doubt the text campaign can. As for friends, it may get teens talking, but I don’t see the conversation going further than “What did you sign me up for?”

That’s just not enough—nor are the short replies I got when I texted for more information about waiting and safer sex. One text told me to talk about my desire to be abstinent early in a relationship, while another told me that if I use condoms, lubricated ones are the way to go. Neither are bad pieces of advice, but little tidbits like this are nowhere near sufficient. To have an impact, conversations about teen pregnancy prevention need to provide much more information and spur real critical thinking.

As with any program that focuses on how hard it is to be a teen parent, I also worry about stigmatizing teen parents. The “look at how hard their life is” message can be empathetic if done correctly, but in the absence of deeper discussions it can simply come across as finger-pointing or relishing in the notion that “my life is better.” Empathy can come from going through the motions of teen parenting—in fact, some of the kids who’ve done Baby Think It Over reported a new-found respect for teen parents. The lighthearted texts won’t do that, and the texting campaign does not provide a space for deeper discussion. The campaign website, if users choose to explore it, does link to a site run by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, called Stay Teen, which includes a letter to teen parents that reads in part:

On another note, we know that our message might unintentionally offend teen parents—we hope that you don’t take our message the wrong way. While your experiences as a teen parent may be very positive, we know that the majority of teen moms and dads have an incredibly difficult road ahead for themselves and for their children. We are by no means trying to insult teen parents, but are instead hoping to help all teens realize the consequences of having children too early.

That is a noble but difficult path to walk, but I don’t think this campaign has done it.

There is a role for texting in teen pregnancy prevention. Organizations can answer simple questions via text, like where to get a condom or what to do if you miss a pill, and can help young people find services. There also may be roles for online interventions to prevent teen pregnancy. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America recently released digital tools designed to take kids through decision-making processes around both delaying sex and using contraception. Two of these tools (one for younger teens and one for older teens) ask teens to think about their future goals for education, career, family, and living situations, and then pose a few questions about how having a baby as a teen would get in the way of these plans. These tools are based on research that shows teens who have future plans are less likely to become teen parents. Moreover, looking at the impact of early parenthood on future plans seems better than focusing on how diaper changing may get in the way of your social life, especially because most teens already realize they don’t want to have a baby right now.

Do Something is a good organization that aims to empower youth to make the world a better place; other current campaigns are focused on preventing bullying, getting schools to donate uneaten cafeteria food, reminding moms to get mammograms, and hosting dance parties for senior citizens. I believe the same good intentions behind these campaigns drove the organization to create Pregnancy Text. Unfortunately, the campaign fails, in both concept and execution.

Culture & Conversation Family

Only Through Becoming a Parent Have I Been Able to Let Go of My Grief at Losing My Own

Sharona Coutts

Having a baby has brought me back to the present in the most profound way I could ever imagine.

Today is my 21st birthday, of sorts.

Twenty-one years ago today, my father died. Twenty-one years ago today, I watched the perspiration puddle in the dent below his Adam’s apple for the last time. I watched him lick his parched lips. I saw the crisp hospital sheets sag with his sweat—sweat from his poor body, riddled with cancer, emaciated, aged, and somehow bloated, all at the same time.

Days earlier, when I brought his dictaphone to the hospital, with the miniature tapes that used to go into answering machines, I held the recorder to his mouth and—because I, his 14-year-old baby girl, asked him to—he said, slowly, carefully, effortfully, while looking me straight in the eye: I love you, Sharona. I. Love. You.

For the last time.

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I was 14, and it was the end of childhood. Childhood had been ending for a while, during the months of illness, false hopes, and horrible disappointments. The tumors were in his kidneys, and they were growing. They were shrinking. They were back. They were in his chest, his brain. The radiation was working (“Look, my girl, they drew a target on my head!”); it wasn’t working. I learned gallows humor. I learned to pretend there was nothing unusual about finding my father marooned on the staircase at home, unable to make it to the top. Both of us choking back sobs as I said, “Wait, Dad. Wait,” and walked myself—calmly, steadily, like you’re meant to do when walking around a swimming pool—next door, and softly explained to our neighbor, Mr. Wood, that we needed his help. Alarm shadowed his eyes, and Mr. Wood grabbed his keys and my hand, and back we went to our house. The three of us sweated and grunted our way up the stairs, around the landing, into my parents’ room, and laid my dad in bed.

Then Mr. Wood—Tony, to my dad—stood there, awkward, silent and sad.

“I’ll see you round, Terry.”

“Yeah, see you round, Tony. Thanks mate.” Breathless. Relieved. Humiliated.

“Yeah, no worries, mate.” A hesitation. A shattering pause.

And he left, because Tony is a decent man, and he knew we needed to be alone.

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Iska Coutts / Rewire

People try so hard to be kind to grieving kids, but they’re bad at it. They don’t know how. They do things like invite you to the movies, but end up taking you to see Casper the Friendly Ghost. Then they’re speechless afterward, because what kind of an idiot takes a kid to see a movie about a little boy who died, the day after her father died?

Kind idiots. That’s who. We’re all idiots in the face of that sort of meaningless tragedy. Because it shouldn’t happen. And yet it does, all the time. And still, we don’t know what to say, or do. Or whether saying or doing are what’s called for, what’s wanted or needed—because we also find it so terribly hard to ask, and of course, how is a child supposed to know what she wants or needs, other than for none of it to be true?

It’s the powerlessness that does it, breaks your confidence in the order of the world. The helplessness. The total lack of agency. Oh, of course, you can fool yourself by talking yourself into and out of all sorts of mental and emotional contortions. This will make me stronger. The brightest candles burn out first. Ultimately, what reveals itself is that time is both the oppressor and the savior: You must wait out the grief, but you don’t know how long it will hold you hostage. And you don’t know how damaged you’ll be once it’s done with you. And there is very little you can do about any of it.

For me, it turns out, it took about 20 years. There were ten years of numbness, of deep denial. I was crushed, I remember, when Australia added a digit to the beginning of all phone numbers, some years after my dad died. I was distraught thinking that he wouldn’t know our phone number if he came back. If he came back. I caught myself in that delinquent thought. Consciously, you know these things—he’s dead, he’s gone, he will never, ever be back—but your subconscious rebels, riots even. In dreams, in daydreams, and sometimes, in little jabs that wind you as you go about your day. Your subconscious refuses: This loss, I will not accept.

The next ten years were a mix of depression, anxiety, and an all-encompassing bewilderment that these emotions were now cascading over me, unmitigated, untidy, unpredictable. I did and said things that I found excruciatingly embarrassing, because I could no longer hold myself under such tight, absolute control. Like water in an old pipe, the emotions had found ways to leak out at weak points. At times, I felt my structural integrity was compromised. I was, in short, afraid that I was about to collapse. Therapists would ask, “And what would happen if you did collapse?” and I would stare at them, in disbelief at the premise of the question: That will not happen. Cannot happen.

We are given a tiny sliver of time in which it is generally acceptable to display the symptoms of grief. Six weeks after the death of a loved one, few people will realize you are sad because of grief. Six years later—or 16 years—gushes of grief can seem mad and unhinged. You’ll get more sympathy for a broken bone than a broken heart. People will wonder: When will you “get over” the loss?

In writing personal pieces like these, there is always a judgment about what to say, and that is really about how much to hold back. I take the view that it is necessary to hold most of it back. Not for shame or fear, but because there is a province of the self that is sometimes better left untrammeled. It’s as if there are parts of the self that risk oxidation by exposure to the air; like a delicate, old artwork, you’d see them for the instant before they cracked and flaked away.

What I wanted to share here is a celebration. Not of my 21st birthday as a child of grief, but a different birthday: the birth of my daughter late last year. For me, it has only been through becoming a parent that I have been able to let go of the grief over my own parent.

Why?

Don’t I wish he were here to see me as a mother? To know his grandchild, to give her all the things I forbid him to give her, and to teach her dirty jokes that will lead teachers to place her in detention and make me laugh hysterically when I find out why?

Of course I do. Of course, of course.

But it’s not about that. It’s about a radical shift in outlook, and one that I suspect is a key to forcing grief to move out of the way, to the extent you can. Maybe just to move it enough so that some light gets past its shadow.

Having a baby has brought me back to the present in the most profound way I could ever imagine. In fact, I couldn’t imagine it; it has taken me by surprise. Because I know she will need to eat, and I will feed her, I know I will see her every few hours. And I actively, constantly, intensely look forward to that. I look forward to changing her diapers, because I can blow raspberries on her belly and possibly, hopefully, make her laugh. She will need her nap, and then she will wake up, and she will look for me. And I will be there. She will need a bath before bed, and to be nursed and hugged and held and loved. And I will be there.

Never in my life have I lived so joyously in the present, looking forward to every increment of the day. To be able to share it with a partner who is just as overjoyed and present is more than I ever hoped to have. I know that my daughter will have a love for her father just as strong as mine was for the one I lost.

My message for those who grieve is bound up in this. We are taught to mourn, to pine, and never to forget.

While grief will hold onto you for as long as it wants, try not to hold onto it so hard. There is no honor or reward in gripping the memories of lost loved ones so tightly that your knuckles are white and your soul is sore, and you grow tired. Better to focus on what you do have, on the small things, the tiny things—whatever can or does bring you joy. That, after all, is what any parent wants for their child—that they live a joyful life, not one that longs mostly for what isn’t there.

Analysis Law and Policy

Patel Oral Arguments Suggest a Dangerous Precedent for Prosecuting Pregnant People

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Attorneys for the State of Indiana argued it is entirely reasonable for the state to bring felony charges against women who try and terminate their own pregnancies.

Read our other articles on the Purvi Patel case here.

Almost three years ago, the State of Indiana first charged Purvi Patel with both feticide and neglect of a dependent following Patel’s home delivery of what state doctors testified was a 25-week-old fetus. Today, there is still no clear picture of the events leading up to those charges. Based on the conflicting evidence presented at Patel’s seven-day trial, it’s not clear what Patel knew about her pregnancy, including how far along she was. It’s not clear what exactly happened that day in Patel’s bathroom. And, most importantly, there is no clear picture of whether the delivery resulted in a live birth.

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But on Monday, lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office argued to the Indiana Court of Appeals that none of those unknowns matter. Patel’s charges of feticide for unlawfully terminating her pregnancy and neglecting a live dependent were not contradictory. Quite simply, argued Indiana Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender, if there’s evidence that a person’s conduct contributed to the death of a fetus or a severely prematurely infant born alive that then dies, that person faces possible felony prosecution both for feticide and criminal neglect of a dependent—setting a disturbing potential precedent for pregnant people throughout the state.

The Indiana feticide statute makes it a felony for a person to “knowingly or intentionally terminate a human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” The statute is silent on whether a self-induced abortion falls under this category. Indiana prosecutors argue that it does and told the appeals court Monday that the jury verdict against Patel proved them right.

The state made a similar argument with Patel’s conviction for felony neglect of a dependent. According to the state, by taking abortion-inducing drugs, Patel created a situation that put her “dependent”—in other words, her fetus—in harm’s way. Once delivered alive, the state argued, Patel had a legal duty to immediately seek medical attention on its behalf, including clamping her umbilical cord immediately after delivery to prevent neonatal blood loss and calling 9-1-1 for emergency care. It made no difference, prosecutors said, that the medical evidence was contradictory as to whether there was a live birth at all, or what, if anything, Patel understood was happening at the time of the delivery.

Patel’s attorneys may disagree with the inferences made by the jury, state attorneys argued, but that doesn’t mean the law grants the court grounds to overturn the jury verdict.

It wasn’t clear to me at the end of oral arguments that the three-judge panel was buying the State’s argument. The judges pushed Meilaender hard on where the law should draw the line between taking nonprescribed abortion medications that produce a live birth where the baby then dies—as the state argued happened here—to drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, or taking any other host of actions that may help contribute to a miscarriage. The judges seemed to agree that it would be excessive to prosecute pregnant people for smoking, for example. The judges also appeared skeptical about the argument that the feticide statute doesn’t require the fetus to die in utero, and that even a live birth can and should be prosecuted under this statute if the accused person’s original intent was to terminate a pregnancy outside Indiana’s stringent legal abortion requirements.

But it also wasn’t clear they bought the argument of Patel’s attorney, Lawrence Marshall, that the state hadn’t met its burden of proof when it convicted her. Marshall stammered to keep the judges on point, refusing to answer whether federal constitutional precedent, from Roe v. Wade to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, would protect many other people from unchecked pregnancy policing under feticide laws. (Spoiler: The simple answer is no—as Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, to name a few, show).

The heart of the state’s negligence case against Patel rests on her alleged failure to seek care for a live birth. Yet Marshall could not specifically and directly answer the judges’ concerns that Patel, after allegedly cutting the umbilical cord during delivery, should have also immediately clamped or kinked it to prevent any blood loss to the fetus she just delivered. He did not note that it is unreasonable to expect any woman immediately following an extremely premature delivery to have the presence of mind to do such things, lest she face felony prosecution. He tried to point out that there was medical testimony at trial that at 25 weeks, severely prematurely born infants have only modest survival rates even when born at hospitals and immediately transferred to neonatal intensive care units, and tried to argue the state couldn’t prove that Patel had any idea a live birth had even happened. But all those counters appeared to fall flat on a panel of judges clearly willing to consider, and perhaps even accept, that Patel’s failure to kink her umbilical cord and call 9-1-1 immediately post-delivery was sufficient to convict her for felony neglect of a dependent.

Throughout the trial and the appeal, the state compensated for its lack of direct evidence about the situation by trying to redirect the jury’s focus to Patel’s “character,” which, prosecutors argued, helped inform the decision to convict her. Patel was in a relationship with a married man. Evidence at trial showed she had been texting back and forth with a friend concerning the pregnancy and her desire to terminate it, in part because of fears her conservative Hindu family would not support her. That’s both sexually provocative and naive, argued the state in its appellate brief—provocative because she was acting outside religious and social norms, and naive because “family would have loved her regardless and would have welcomed the baby, as it is their religious belief to love a child even if born out of wedlock and their religion is opposed to killing anyone or anything.”

Meanwhile, the state argued, the evidence that should be weighed in Patel’s favor did not matter. That included evidence at trial that showed Patel believed she was only about 12 weeks pregnant—not about 25 weeks—when she took the unprescribed abortifacient. Not important, argued the state. All that matters is her fetus was old enough to fall outside Indiana’s limit on 20-week abortions. Evidence at trial showed that Patel tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to navigate Indiana’s web of anti-choice restrictions before ordering abortion-inducing medications online; but that just demonstrates Patel had the right criminal intent to support the jury’s conviction, said Meilaender, not that those regulations are difficult for non-lawyers to navigate on their own.

In other words, argued Meilaender, the details that should normally be necessary to support a criminal conviction—details such as what Patel knew, and when—just don’t matter in this case.

Those details do matter. That’s why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected nearly identical arguments in the prosecution of Jenni Linn McCormack, an Idaho woman who also terminated a pregnancy and was criminally prosecuted for it. Expecting patients to understand the intricacies of abortion restrictions or face criminal prosecution at its very core unduly burdens abortion rights, that court ruled.

It will likely be months before the Indiana Court of Appeals issues its opinion. And I’m not going to make any guesses about how this case turns out. But I will say that, despite all the unknowns in the Patel case, there are plenty of knowns that ultimately affect Patel and pregnant people in Indiana as a whole.

We know that Indiana law does not mandate sex education be taught in its schools. The Indiana Department of Education recommends its inclusion as part of a school’s comprehensive health education program. But that’s it. And for those schools that decide to offer some form of sex ed, there’s no requirement that the information provided be unbiased and medically accurate, let alone do anything other than stress abstinence-only sex ed. And of course, parents in Indiana have the option of opting out of sex ed entirely for their children should they so choose.

We also know that legal abortion in Indiana is extensively and severely restricted. First, any person seeking an abortion must receive state-mandated counseling that includes information designed to discourage the patient from having an abortion. That counseling must be done in person. Indiana law then requires a patient to wait an additional 18 hours after that counseling session before an abortion can be performed. That means, effectively, patients must make two separate trips to an abortion clinic to have the procedure. A patient must also undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion and during that ultrasound the provider must offer her the option to view the ultrasound image.

Indiana law also prohibits the use of telemedicine for medication abortion. Also, Indiana bans abortions after 20 weeks, with only a very narrow exception of when the patient’s life or physical health is at risk.

And if that patient can navigate the consent and waiting period requirements, how will they pay for the procedure? In Indiana, abortion is covered in private insurance policies only in cases of life endangerment, rape, incest, or the severely compromised health of the pregnant person. Individuals have the option of buying a separate abortion policy, but that, of course, is at additional cost.

What do Indiana’s sex ed requirements and abortion restrictions have to do with Patel’s conviction and appeal? Everything. Just like the fact that Patel, like Bei Bei Shuai before her, is not white and is not wealthy. A lack of comprehensive sex education means it’s increasingly likely other patients will, like Patel, have very little apparent understanding of the pregnancy process, particularly early on in pregnancy when indicators such as a missed period can be mixed. An increasingly draconian set of abortion restrictions means more and more patients like Patel will find themselves unable to access a legal provider or afford an abortion at all, which means that more and more patients like Patel will be forced into either attempting to self-terminate an unwanted pregnancy or carrying it to term.

Attorneys for the State of Indiana tried to tone down the “canary in a coal mine” aspect to Patel’s conviction. But there really is no denying it. During Monday’s arguments, they were pressing for the right to bring felony charges against women who terminate their own pregnancies. They insisted those prosecutions are exactly what the Indiana legislature intended when passing its feticide statute and further, such prosecutions advanced the state’s “significant” interest in protecting “unborn human life.”

Combine those arguments with the unavailability of comprehensive sex ed and the anti-choice restrictions in Indiana, and it’s clear that Patel’s case is absolutely a test case in the limits, if any, of state power to regulate pregnancies and their outcomes. Should Patel’s conviction be upheld, then the courts will have sent a very strong message to the the people of Indiana: The state expects and demands a healthy, live birth with each pregnancy, and failure to produce one could result in felony charges.