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

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

Analysis Politics

Experts: Trump’s Proposal on Child Care Is Not a ‘Solution That Deals With the Problem’

Ally Boguhn

“A simple tax deduction is not going to deal with the larger affordability problem in child care for low- and moderate-income individuals," Hunter Blair, a tax and budget analyst at the Economic Policy Institute told Rewire.

In a recent speech, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested he now supports policies to made child care more affordable, a policy position more regularly associated with the Democratic Party. The costs of child care, which have almost doubled in the last 25 years, are a growing burden on low- and middle-income families, and quality options are often scarce.

“No one will gain more from these proposals than low- and middle-income Americans,” claimed Trump in a speech outlining his economic platform before the Detroit Economic Club on Monday. He continued, “My plan will also help reduce the cost of childcare by allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of childcare spending from their taxes.” But economic experts question whether Trump’s proposed solution would truly help alleviate the financial burdens faced by low- and middleincome earners.

Details of most of Trump’s plan are still unclear, but seemingly rest on addressing child care costs by allowing families to make a tax deduction based on the “average cost” of care. He failed to clarify further how this might work, simply asserting that his proposal would “reduce cost in child care” and offer “much-needed relief to American families,” vowing to tell the public more with time. “I will unveil my plan on this in the coming weeks that I have been working on with my daughter Ivanka … and an incredible team of experts,” promised Trump.

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An adviser to the Trump campaign noted during an interview with the Associated Press Monday that the candidate had yet to nail down the details of his proposal, such as what the income caps would be, but said that the deductions would only amount to the average cost of child care in the state a taxpayer resided in:

Stephen Moore, a conservative economist advising Trump, said the candidate is still working out specifics and hasn’t yet settled on the details of the plan. But he said households reporting between $30,000 and $100,000, or perhaps $150,000 a year in income, would qualify for the deduction.

“I don’t think that Britney Spears needs a child care credit,” Moore said. “What we want to do is to help financially stressed middle-class families have some relief from child-care expenses.”

The deduction would also likely apply to expensive care like live-in nannies. But exemptions would be limited to the average cost of child care in a taxpayer’s state, so parents wouldn’t be able to claim the full cost of such a high-price child care option.

Experts immediately pointed out that while the details of Trump’s plan are sparse, his promise to make average child care costs fully tax deductible wouldn’t do much for the people who need access to affordable child care most.

Trump’s plan “would actually be pretty poorly targeted for middle-class and low-income families,” Hunter Blair, a tax and budget analyst at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), told Rewire on Monday.

That’s because his tax breaks would presumably not benefit those who don’t make enough money to owe the federal government income taxes—about 44 percent of households, according to Blair. “They won’t get any benefit from this.”

As the Associated Press further explained, for those who don’t owe taxes to the government, “No matter how much they reduce their income for tax purposes by deducting expenses, they still owe nothing.”

Many people still may not benefit from such a deduction because they file standard instead of itemized deductions—meaning they accept a fixed amount instead of listing out each qualifying deduction. “Most [lower-income households] don’t choose to file a tax return with itemized deductions,” Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), told Rewire Tuesday. That means the deduction proposed by Trump “favors higher income families because it’s related to your tax bracket, so the higher your tax bracket the more you benefit from [it],” added Blank.

A 2014 analysis conducted by the Congressional Research Service confirms this. According to its study, just 32 percent of tax filers itemized their deductions instead of claiming the standard deduction in 2011. While 94 to 98 percent of those with incomes above $200,000 chose to itemize their deductions, just 6 percent of tax filers with an adjusted gross income below $20,000 per year did so.

“Trump’s plan is also not really a solution that deals with the problem,” said Blair. “A simple tax deduction is not going to deal with the larger affordability problem in child care for low- and moderate-income individuals.”

Those costs are increasingly an issue for many in the United States. A report released last year by Child Care Aware® of America, which advocates for “high quality, affordable child care,” found that child care for an infant can cost up to an average $17,062 annually, while care for a 4-year-old can cost up to an average of $12,781.

“The cost of child care is especially difficult for families living at or below the federal poverty level,” the organization explained in a press release announcing those findings. “For these families, full-time, center-based care for an infant ranges from 24 percent of family income in Mississippi, to 85 percent of family income in Massachusetts. For single parents the costs can be overwhelming—in every state annual costs of center-based infant care averaged over 40 percent of the state median income for single mothers.”

“Child care now costs more than college in most states in our nation, and it is an actual true national emergency,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO and executive director of MomsRising, told Rewire in a Tuesday interview. “Donald Trump’s new proposed child care tax deduction plan falls far short of a solution because it’s great for the wealthy but it doesn’t fix the child care crisis for the majority of parents in America.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner, whose organization advocates for family economic security, said that in addition to the tax deduction being inaccessible to those who do not itemize their taxes and those with low incomes who may not pay federal income taxes, Trump’s proposal could also force those least able to afford it “to pay up-front child care costs beyond their family budget.”

“We have a crisis … and Donald Trump’s proposal doesn’t improve access, doesn’t improve quality, doesn’t lift child care workers, and only improves affordability for the wealthy,” she continued.

Trump’s campaign, however, further claimed in a statement to CNN Tuesday that “the plan also allows parents to exclude child care expenses from half of their payroll taxes—increasing their paycheck income each week.”

“The working poor do face payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, so a payroll tax break could help them out,” reported CNN. “But experts say it would be hard to administer.”

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton released her own child care agenda in May, promising to use the federal government to cap child care costs at 10 percent of a family’s income. 

A cap like this, Blank said, “would provide more help to low- and middle-income families.” She continued, “For example, if you had a family with two children earning $70,000, if you capped child care at 10 percent they could probably save … $10,000 a year.”

Clinton’s plan includes a promise to implement a program to address the low wages many who work in the child care industry face, which she calls the “Respect And Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators” program, or the RAISE Initiative. The program would raise pay and provide training for child-care workers.

Such policies could make a major difference to child-care workers—the overwhelming majority of which are women and workers of color—who often make poverty-level wages. A 2015 study by the EPI found that the median wage for these workers is just $10.31 an hour, and few receive employer benefits. Those poor conditions make it difficult to attract and retain workers, and improve the quality of care for children around the country. 

Addressing the low wages of workers in the field may be expensive, but according to Rowe-Finkbeiner, it is an investment worth making. “Real investments in child care bring for an average child an eight-to-one return on investment,” she explained. “And that’s because when we invest in quality access and affordability, but particularly a focus on quality … which means paying child-care workers fairly and giving child-care workers professional development opportunities …. When that happens, then we have lower later grade repetition, we have less future interactions with the criminal justice system, and we also have a lower need for government programs in the future for those children and families.

Affordable child care has also been a component of other aspects of Clinton’s campaign platform. The “Military Families Agenda,” for example, released by the Clinton campaign in June to support military personnel and their families, also included a child care component. The former secretary of state’s plan proposed offering these services “both on- and off-base, including options for drop-in services, part-time child care, and the provision of extended-hours care, especially at Child Development Centers, while streamlining the process for re-registering children following a permanent change of station (PCS).” 

“Service members should be able to focus on critical jobs without worrying about the availability and cost of childcare,” said Clinton’s proposal.

Though it may be tempting to laud the simple fact that both major party candidates have proposed a child care plan at all, to Rowe-Finkbeiner, having both nominees take up the cause is a “no-brainer.”

“Any candidate who wants to win needs to take up family economic security policies, including child care,” she said. “Democrats and Republicans alike know that there is a child care crisis in America. Having a baby right now costs over $200,000 to raise from zero to age 18, not including college …. Parents of all political persuasions are talking about this.”

Coming up with the right way to address those issues, however, may take some work.

“We need a bold plan because child care is so important, because it helps families work, and it helps them support their children,” the NWLC’s Blank said. “We don’t have a safety net for families to fall back on anymore. It’s really critical to help families earn the income their children need and child care gives children a strong start.” She pointed to the need for programs that offer families aid “on a regular basis, not at the end of the year, because families don’t have the extra cash to pay for child care during the year,” as well as updates to the current child care tax credits offered by the government.

“There is absolutely a solution, but the comprehensive package needs to look at making sure that children have high-quality child care and early education, and that there’s also access to that high-quality care,” Rowe-Finkbeiner told Rewire. 

“It’s a complicated problem, but it’s not out of our grasp to fix,” she said. “It’s going to take an investment in order to make sure that our littlest learners can thrive and that parents can go to work.”

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