mention in your introduction that—like so many mothers
today—you gave birth to your first child in your mid-thirties.
Can you share a bit more about your background and the personal
experiences that inspired you to put together an anthology about
grew up in suburbs of New York and Boston, and I was a teenager
in the 1970s. My mother urged my sisters and I to “save yourselves
for marriage,” but that guidance didn’t make much sense
to me when it seemed that the prevailing morality of the 70s was
that sex was cool, that there was nothing wrong with having sex,
and so why wait? The pill was becoming popular, John Lennon and
Yoko Ono had protested the Vietnam war by making love for weeks
on end, and the Boston Women’s Health Collective published
the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, so there was
information about sex all around me. Yet, because we weren’t
having any frank discussions about sexual issues in my home, I
had a lot of questions and confusion.
I don’t recall seeing
any pregnant students in my large high school of 2,700 students,
but there must have been plenty of girls in a school that size
who were conceiving. They must have been leaving school, possibly
being sent away to homes for unwed mothers. I didn’t get
to know a pregnant teen until my early 20s. A 17-year-old girl
in a community service program I directed stopped attending, and
I heard that she had gotten pregnant. Concerned about her, I went
to see her, wanting to offer some sort of help. But when I got
there and she said nothing about being pregnant, I felt too embarrassed
to bring up the subject myself. Hoping she’d bring it up,
I said, “You look like you’ve gained some weight.” She
shrugged and stayed silent, and I left feeling ashamed at my insensitive
attempt to connect with her.
Fifteen years later—after
I’d published two novels for young people, taught many writing
classes, married, birthed a child of my own, and gained confidence
in talking about difficult topics—I trained to be a childbirth
educator and doula (a woman who provides continuous support, information,
and advocacy to a birthing woman). Several of my doula clients
were teenagers having first babies. I was struck by how different
they were from the negative images of them portrayed in the media.
My clients were resourceful, eager to learn, strong when giving
birth, and fiercely loving of their children. Yet I witnessed them
being treated harshly or impatiently or disrespectfully by doctors,
nurses, and hospital intake workers, not to mention strangers on
the street. And my clients told me stories about critical teachers
and unhelpful guidance counselors.
I realized that I hadn’t
seen anything written by teen mothers about what they went through.
I found books that quoted teen mothers briefly, but much of what
I found written for and about young moms was negative. I then spent
one school year teaching a writing class once a week to teen moms
in an alternative high school. Their powerful stories convinced
me that a whole book of teen moms’ writing was needed.
essays in You Look Too Young to be a Mom capture the
unique voices of a diverse group of young mothers—from
those who were raised in average middle-class families to those
who grew up in the projects. How did you manage to collect such
a wide range of stories?
placed my call for submissions on many, many web sites. I also
sent it to dozens of schools, agencies, community programs, colleges,
and even a prison that had a women’s master’s degree
writing program. I placed several print ads in parenting and writing
magazines, and I told everyone I came into contact with about the
project. Quite a few women heard about the book by word of mouth.
stories in your anthology speak volumes about the power of teen
mothers’ will to thrive despite the obstacles they encounter.
But when I mentioned how uplifting and enlightening I found this
positive spin on teen motherhood to a thirty-something friend,
she said, “Aren’t teen moms who get their lives together
and escape the failure cycle just the exception to the rule?” What’s
the reality? Are teen mothers more likely to flounder than to
good news for those who fear that young mothers will flounder.
Recent sociological studies are showing that while teen parents
often experience some rough years when their children are young,
generally they eventually do just fine. So, yes, there will be
more floundering initially as the young mothers juggle school and
parenting and work—not to mention the critical attitudes
aimed their way and some very real discrimination in our public
schools. Over time, however, young parents tend to establish stable
families and lives.
role has the media played in perpetuating cultural anxiety about
the social and personal consequences of teen motherhood? Are
you at all concerned that the upbeat, non-punitive message of You
Look Too Young to be a Mom may be misrepresented by those
inclined to depict teen mothers as the scourge of society?
example of the media’s perpetration of negative consequences
is in the use of statistics. For example, a statistic that is frequently
tossed around and misconstrued concerns the high numbers of teen
moms who don’t finish high school. Many pregnant teenage
dropouts are impoverished economically. If you compare them to
similarly impoverished teenage girls who don’t get
pregnant, you’ll see that the dropout rates are similar.
In other words, pregnant teens who don’t finish school aren’t
dropping out simply because they’re pregnant but because
of poverty-related issues. The high dropout rate is being reported
out of context, without an adequate explanation of the complex
factors contributing to it.
As for the book’s
message being misrepresented, I’m not concerned. First of
all, because as I’ve traveled around the country talking
to different groups, I’ve seen almost none of that happening.
And second, because I’m seeing that when people take the
time to read the book, they come to understand that the very existence
of teen parents offers all of us the opportunity to be kinder,
more patient, more compassionate and understanding. Just today
I talked with the members of a mother-daughter book club and one
of the mothers, who had only begun reading the book, said, “I’m
afraid that you’re going to glamorize teen motherhood.” Her
teenage daughter, who was sitting next to her and had read much
more of the book, turned to her and said, “No way! These
stories aren’t glamorous at all. They make it look really
addition to negative stereotyping, what are some of the greatest
challenges facing teen mothers in North America? How can the
broader mothers’ movement respond effectively to the concerns
of young moms?
of the young mothers I’ve heard from say that the greatest
challenges they face are the negative attitudes and assumptions,
nasty stares, and discrimination aimed at them by others. In an
interview by the Christian Science Monitor, anthology
contributor Jackie Lanni said, “Being a teenage mom is like
being a woman in corporate America. You have to work twice as hard
to get half the credit” (The Christian Science Monitor,
May 19, 2004). Other mothers have said it’s the lack of support,
lack of information and resources, lack of positive role models,
lack of respect, and lack of access to education. One woman said
the biggest challenge is Republicans.
I think the education
issue is a huge one. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU)
has been involved in a lawsuit against the New York City Board
of Education for discriminating against pregnant students who want
to attend the regular high schools. The NYCLU had interns pretend
to be pregnant high-school age women and call the 28 high schools
to ask about enrolling. Only six of the 22 schools would allow
the “students” to enroll. The other schools advised
them to apply to the schools for pregnant and parenting students
or to simply drop out and get their GED. Such discrimination is
against the law under Title IX, and yet it’s happening all
over North America. Pregnant and parenting students and their parents
need to know that the students have the right to attend regular
high schools. This is important because sometimes the GED programs
and schools for pregnant students don’t provide adequate
preparation for higher education.
U.S. is alone in its failure to provide basic supports to working
parents, such as extended or paid parental leave, universal access
to health coverage and affordable high-quality child care. How
does this affect the ability of teen moms to complete their education
and secure jobs that offer living wages and good benefits? What
other policy issues are front and center for groups aiming to
improve the lives of teen mothers?
I mentioned above, not providing pregnant and parenting students
with access to high-quality education is a huge problem. And it’s
compounded by the lack child care within or near the schools. New
York City alone has 12,000 new teen mothers every year, yet its
high schools have space in their child care programs for about
800 to 1,000 children. Teen parents need all the basic supports
mentioned—paid leave and health care as well as child care.
As a society, we are shooting ourselves in the foot not to support
new mothers of all ages, and young mothers in particular.
Other important policy
issues for teen mothers include comprehensive sex education programs,
starting in elementary schools and continuing up through high school.
Studies show that abstinence-only programs are far less effective
in preventing pregnancy and STD; financial aid and student housing
for pregnant and parenting college students—not just graduate
and married students; universal health care; more health clinics,
including contraceptive services, in schools; and easier access
to benefits for parenting minors who cannot live with a parent
can teen mothers and teen mothers-to-be look for support, online
and in their communities?
For contact with a community
of savvy, well-informed young mothers I recommend Girl-Mom.com.
This web site also has an excellent list
of federal government and educational resources for young parents.
Below is a sampling of
resources suggested to me by young mothers. While this list does
not cover the entire country (that list would be enormous!) it
shows the kinds of organizations and agencies that exist in many
cities and towns.
mmo : june 2004