Mother’s Day offers the perfect opportunity for all of us to explore what motherhood means and looks like to different communities. One of the best ways to do this is to read books written by different parents, especially young women who had their children in their teens.
I gave birth to my child at 15 years old. Reading books written by my peers allows me to get something I rarely find in popular media: an affirmation and validation of a young mother’s experience from a young mother herself. So here are six books I recommend, all written by former teen mothers.
Hear from researchers, writers, and one doctor about how they overcame many challenges, with their children by their side, despite society telling them they were destined to fail. These books challenge readers to see young motherhood through a more honest and empowered light.
Beyond these books, I look forward to the day when there are even more stories reflecting other experiences not yet well-documented, including those from teen parents with disabilities, teen parents who do not identify as cisgender, and teen parents who didn’t take the traditional “college to success” route but still found their lives fulfilling and their relationship to motherhood an experience all their own.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Tracey Engelbrecht, The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No: Memoir of a Teenage Mom
In her memoir, South African resident Engelbrecht shares her experience of becoming pregnant at age 15 and navigating a very traditional school—where uniforms, silence, and unwavering obedience were strictly enforced—along with the relationship she had with her parents. Engelbrecht recounts what it was like when she found out she was pregnant and how she quietly went through the motions of school as her body and emotions swelled up with each passing day. For example, although the principal of her school, Mr. C., said she could finish the school year and complete her exams, she had to hide her pregnancy from the school’s governing body “because they may not be so accommodating,” Engelbrecht wrote. At times relatable, witty, hilarious, heartwarming, and heart-wrenching, The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No is a quick and necessary read.
Melanie Watkins, Taking My Medicine: My Journey from Teenage Mother to Physician
In this nonfiction book, Watkins takes readers through her life from struggling teen to becoming pregnant to graduating from the Stanford University School of Medicine with her son by her side. Life seems to be on an upswing when Watkins is accepted into Stanford, but medical school is hard to stay in and even more difficult when you’re a single Black mother dealing with almost crippling self-esteem issues, poverty, and mental health challenges. Fortunately for Watkins, while reaching new heights typically comes with a new set of challenges, it also frequently comes with relationships that help guide you toward who you are outside of what society tells you to be. Taking My Medicine will have you cheering with every page—and refusing to give up on your dreams despite what family, friends, and society may say. As Watkins wrote, “My only strategy was to use what had brought me through so much turmoil: Be myself.”
Nicole Hannans, Glori: A Different Story
Relationships we experience in life affect us in more ways than we like to admit, and Hannans’ memoir is a testament to this truth. Growing up in a tense household demonstrated to Hannans what romantic relationships could look like when they are void of mutual respect and trust. She escapes the tense situation at home, but ends up finding an abusive boyfriend and becoming pregnant. Determined to live a life full of love and light, Hannans triumphs through difficult situations, gets into college, finds love, and discovers how to share love in order to help others. Glori shows readers that with stubborn tenacity, community support, and self-resolve, you can come to leading the life you’ve always imagined for yourself.
Katherine Arnoldi, The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom
In the graphic nonfiction book The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom, author Katherine Arnoldi perfectly captures the challenges and triumphs of being a single teenage mother. Arnoldi and her daughter are a team that struggles through surviving layoffs, abusive relationships, and homelessness, ultimately thriving in their own ways. Readers get to witness Arnoldi go from sleeping in dangerous locations with her child to finally getting her own place and becoming the mother she always knew she could be. I especially enjoyed this book because it veered away from the traditional chapter book model. The images in the book evoke emotions such as fear, anger, and joy that allow you to see and feel the story.
Jenna Vinson, Ph.D., Embodying the Problem: The Persuasive Power of the Teen Mother
A lot of research exists about teen mothers, but Vinson is uniquely positioned to examine the human side of unexpected pregnancies for young people because she became a mother in her teens.
For some ten years, she has been researching the effects of public service campaigns, feminism, and political rhetoric, and in Embodying the Problem, she takes readers through the creation of the teenage pregnancy prevention movement in the United States and its unintended consequences. Teenage pregnancy prevention rhetoric has been used in political realms to reduce access to state-sponsored aid; has been gendered in focusing solely on the female body, despite the fact that it takes more than the pregnant person to get pregnant; and oftentimes has used racial and ethnic stereotypes to perpetuate the notion that teen pregnancy is one of the reasons for the demise of “American values.”
Through analyzing various ways that young mothers resist the harmful narratives about them and their children, Vinson’s work binds data and stories to highlight how young parents simultaneously live within a stereotype and defy it at the same time. “I hope my book—which brings attention to young mothers’ counter-stories and acts of resistance that demonstrate the damaging consequences of this kind of story—makes feminist-oriented advocates and organizations think twice before circulating tragic tales of young motherhood,” Vinson told me in an interview earlier this year.
Deborah Davis (Editor), You Look Too Young to Be a Mom
This anthology of stories reads like a novel that a group of young mothers wrote together. Each story is written by a teen mother and tells part of her personal experience with becoming a mother, navigating motherhood, and finding how to win in her own ways. The book is formatted in eight parts with each highlighting relationship dynamics, educational pursuits, pregnancy, and other experiences a young mother may encounter in her life.
The editor, Davis, has worked for six years with at-risk teenagers and as a doula (birth coach) for pregnant teens. On Davis’ website, she describes the stories and contributors as, “the real experts on teenage motherhood, and in this book they offer real stories, real insight, and real inspiration.”
This book captures the universal truths of teenage motherhood as well as the nuances contained in each expert’s story. We don’t hear enough from young parents on their own lives, and that’s what makes this book so impactful.