Because my last crappy semester left this responsibility to his father, I took Ethan to his piano lessons for the first time tonight. He’s in the next room practicing right now, thrilled that he’s finally moving past the basic basics and beginning to get to the recognizable basics. He plays with the keys like I did when I was his age, making up songs, turning the exercises into peppy songs with jazz and blues beats. The kid loves music almost as much as his mom does, and this soothes me. I have a kid I not only love but like, one that shares at least one major interest with me.
When he was a little baby, fresh home from the hospital, I’d often load him into the car and take long drives, listening to music and weaving through the country roads. I chose the quietest music in my selection, some Cowboy Junkies, some Elliott Smith, some Jeff Buckley, and off we’d go. It was a miserable time for me, so I’d cry as we traveled the straight Indiana roads, knowing he’d be lulled to sleep by the vibrations of the moving car.
Part of what made the time so miserable was the painful transition I was making from child to adult, or at the very least from childhood responsibilities to adult responsibilities. The other part was the unfair judgement placed on me by family, peers, and outsiders. I dealt with some nasty commentary as I moved about my world sick and pregnant, one woman even remarking to a friend within earshot at a coffee shop that people like me were the reason she hated welfare. The most painful things came after E was born when everyone’s expectations of me were significantly lowered. I still had shreds of hope for myself — I knew I was smart and that I could be successful, maybe, if I had the help I needed to make the most of my chances.
I wrote about this a bit when I wrote about my educational experience shortly after graduation. The inspiration for my thoughts was an article in the Detroit Free Press about a woman who’d had a child at fifteen and recently graduated with her master’s degree in social work, intending to work with teen mothers. The quote that took my breath still does:
“People say I should be proud because of what I’ve accomplished as a teenaged mom,” Johnson said last week. “It’s so hard to live with everyone else’s low expectations.”
When people congratulate me for all I’ve done despite my circumstances I am reminded that I’ve only done what I would have been expected to do regardless considering my family history, class, and educational status. Sure, it was difficult. Sometimes it is still difficult, but I know no other kind of adult life. I had no other expectations for myself than to move through the college experience and get a degree — maybe another — and planned on doing so as long as I had the resources necessary to get me here.
So as I drove Ethan to piano lessons tonight I was pleasantly surprised to hear Desiree Cooper, author of the Freep article, reading a piece on the same single mother and commenting about the status of teen pregnancy long after the teen years.
How long should we punish teen moms in order to make examples of them?
Johnson, the once-teen mom featured in the story, relates an account of working with teen mothers in NYC and how they reacted with surprise and shock to find that she herself gave birth as a teen. They had always been told they could be successful, but they’d never seen it in person.
I, personally, have no role models other than a peer or two, did not know if I or we could make it. Luckily I had a few who believed in me and provided me with the resources necessary to get through college, but I wonder if I’ll ever escape the stigma of having been a teen mother. Even now, six years past Ethan’s birth, nearly 25 years old, I still feel the sting of judgement from outsiders as Johnson does. She, at 29 with her master’s, still fights the judgement levied at her by her peers, family, and coworkers, and by all accounts she has everything to be proud of.
This is the madonna-whore dichotomy at its worst. On one hand we are praised for making sacrifices to parent our children, on the other, publicly shamed for the sluts we clearly are, sometimes in the same breath. You cannot have teen parenthood without uncomfortable tangles of “family values” and “deviant” sexuality.
As I listen to Johnson’s story, I can’t help but this that the problem with teen mothers has something to do with our unwillingness to forgive them. We can continue to deride them for their mistakes or we can help them overcome the past and show them, by our example, what love is really all about.
Pop quiz: Who are those who are so eager to cite statistics about the failures of teen mothers and “fatherless families” AND remain skeptical of birth control for teens and family planning for single adults? Bonus points for citations.
Did you think I’d leave you with a feel-good message of love and redemption?
UPDATE: Another perspective on this NPR piece by the kindly blogger at American Family. She herself was the child of teen parents.
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