When Do You Stop Being a “Teen Mother”?

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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24 comments for “When Do You Stop Being a “Teen Mother”?

  1. Marksman2000
    January 18, 2006 at 2:58 am

    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.

    Just makes you wanna throw your arms around the world, doesn’t it?

    It seems to me, Lauren, that you’re in a bind. On one hand, you have a beautiful home & garden (no pun intended), some family nearby, and a son in school, at your present location. On the other hand, you have to deal with small-minded people in a little community which doesn’t offer that much professional opportunity insofar as employment is concerned. It’s not easy, eh?

    The fortunate ones are those who couple great jobs with a nice place to live. The rest have to move to Pittsburgh or Detroit. Hehe…

    Good luck, Lauren.

    You have something to say and, obviously, people want to listen. Write a short story and endow yourself a voice on the page.

  2. January 18, 2006 at 7:51 am

    What a beautiful post with a refreshing perspective.

  3. January 18, 2006 at 8:54 am

    I’m not sure if our present society and culture will go the way of easing up on teen parenthood. Some folks won’t budge their brains and until we have more discourse on what we think families and marriages ought to be/could be, we’ll continue to hear others bemoan young/unwed parents as if it were such an anomaly. It’s easier to bitch than it is to go out and help someone make a transition to parenthood, be a mentor, or offer financial and emotional support.

    … 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 often think about the fact that my mom was 20 when she had me. I don’t know where we’d be if she did not have the support of her parents.

  4. January 18, 2006 at 8:57 am

    “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.”

    I know who eager cites stats about the failures of teen mothers and “fatherless families”, but I don’t know if they are skeptical of birth control for teens and family planning for young adults. I have a page on my web site that knocks those teen mom stats and “fatherlessness” garbage to the curb. Here it is.

  5. January 18, 2006 at 9:14 am

    I was talking to my sister in law a few months ago, who had a kid with my little brother when they were still in high school. And she was telling me about her daughter, who’s seven now, asking her how old they were when they had her. And my niece’s response upon hearing about their young ages: “That’s disgusting.” Which we all laughed about. I dunno your post kinda reminded me. It’s supposed to be a cute story. I wonder what her reaction will be when she finds out they weren’t married at the time.

  6. January 18, 2006 at 9:43 am

    I just wrote a post about that same NPR story. It made me furious. I am the daughter of a teen mother who was 17 when I was born. Sure, parenthood was a struggle for my mom (isn’t it a struggle for everyone?), but she managed to finish college and raise two kids despite the expectations that she would fail. My mom was treated like a pariah and she will probably carry that shame to her grave. It is so unfair because she was a great mother and a great success by any standard.

  7. January 18, 2006 at 10:02 am

    There is a pronounced difficulty in detaching sexual character from actual character. Fundies especially seem to conflate the two all the time. No doubt that most teen mothers, had they been given a choice, would elect to have their baby later, or with a different person. This, somehow, is warped into perceived sexual impropriety, as though only insatiable nymphos or whole-football-team-servicing cheerleaders have working ovaries or regular sexual impulses. Say what you want about the circumstances that lead to teen pregnancy–and sure, some of them are out of sheer ignorance–but generally speaking, it’s an impulse that we all have, and most of us act upon, and which a few females end up catching most of the hell for. Something about the patriarchy, anyone?

    The tendency of people to be so congratulatory to “successful” teen moms (where “successful” is indicative largely of economic performance and not maternal performance, the two often being considered mutual exclusive) has a lot to do with their perception of the baby as a burden. Were you to ask Lauren, or Johnson, I expect you would encounter nouns like “blessing” instead (albeit somewhat inconveniently timed). But no one says, “It speaks so highly of your character that you’ve been able to get a master’s degree despite bringing life into the world.” No one asks, “What do you plan on doing once you have your little bundle of joy?” No, it’s always giving birth to a ball and chain (which is something of an apt comparison, when you think about it, but only on a physical level).

    Fundies, I’m sure, feel the need to villanize such people because to do otherwise would be to promote sexual promiscuity; individual teen mothers only gain acceptance in fundy/rightwing circles when they act like penitant sinners, expressing guilt for apocryphal wrongs and validating the existing stereotypes. I can only imagine how many young mothers, out of desperation, have accepted a plea bargain, as it were, from their communities or families, willing to play the role of the regretful whore in exchange for support. What a sad, sad, thing.

  8. January 18, 2006 at 12:17 pm

    My mom told me about this story as there is also a young woman close by us who got 2 master’s degree’s, one in chemistry.

    I don’t think the “congratulatory” attitude ever stops because what also counts is whether or not you’re married. I had peanut when I was 23, moved in with my parents when he was 6 months old and went back to school when he was 2.5. Whenever anyone learns I’m a newly graduate single mom, they almost always respond with, “Wow Nut, I don’t know how you did it. I couldn’t do it.” or “Great job! You accomplished a lot being a single mom and getting your degree!”

    If I had been married or without a child, like you said Lauren, my expectations would have never changed and that’s very irritating.

  9. January 18, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    Sorry, that post may sound condescending. What I also meant to say was I do agree with you about the teen pregnancy thing. At what point does a woman stop being a teen mother and move on to just being a mom? Ethan is still alive so you must be doing something right.

  10. January 18, 2006 at 12:45 pm

    I don’t think the “congratulatory” attitude ever stops because what also counts is whether or not you’re married.

    I was going to write about that last night, but my host went down and I opted for bed. One of my friends, a fellow single mom, is finally regarded in her family as being an adult with a good a responsible life. Of course she hasn’t done anything different in recent times other than score herself a man that has promised to marry her. /snark

    (BTW, this guy is awesome, and a single dad with full custody himself — love him)

    I predict that we’ll carry this status around until some guy comes along to legitimize our relationships, lifestyles, and parenthood with their traditional-looking-good-enough presence. That and it’s much more difficult to spot the slut-mommy when she’s married to a man.

  11. January 18, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    Ethan is still alive so you must be doing something right.

    Word. Sometimes that’s enough. ;)

  12. Rebecca E
    January 18, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    I think I used to be more judgemental than I am now of young mothers; I thought of myself as such a “good girl” when I was a young teenager, and getting pregnant wasn’t something that could happen to someone like me. I was smarter than that, was from a middle class family, and I didn’t even drink. After needing to obtain emergency contraception, I had to reevaluate my views, as I saw that not only could it easily be me, it wouldn’t be the end of my world, either. But a big part of that was having a supportive family and a committed boyfriend, which would have helped to make it possible to continue my college education…

    The idea of “making an example” of someone, a teen mother or whoever is picked out for ostracization, dehumanizes the “example,” supposedly for the benefit of others. (It really goes hand in hand with the Crisis Pregnancy Centers mentioned earlier on the blog, who go out of their way to make sure that a woman gives birth, so that they can decry and turn their backs on her.)

    I’m a writer, and I’ve been working on a story in which one of the characters – the heroine, in fact, a “smart, good” girl – has an unplanned pregnancy and child at 18, and dealing with it in a way that’s not trite, preachy, or judgemental is HARD.

  13. piny
    January 18, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    The idea of “making an example” of someone, a teen mother or whoever is picked out for ostracization, dehumanizes the “example,” supposedly for the benefit of others. (It really goes hand in hand with the Crisis Pregnancy Centers mentioned earlier on the blog, who go out of their way to make sure that a woman gives birth, so that they can decry and turn their backs on her.)

    It also sets up a profound inequality: our moral edification is more important than that woman’s survival, not to mention the life and quality of life of her child.

  14. January 18, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    Thanks for this articulate post. I too am the child of a teenage mom and agree with everyone’s comments above – low expectations, and yet a wonderful mother, and raised two kids by herself while working full time and going to school. I compared her to my friends’ parents growing up and knew that I was growing up in a home at least as encouraging and loving, and certainly more open-minded and tolerant than most of them. I think my own attitude about teenage or single mothers owes a lot to her image – and why should she have had to be 200% better than anyone else for my attitude to be “not bad”?

    For what it’s worth, in my admittedly anecdotal experience, every teenage mom I know had her child with the first guy she seriously dated and slept with. Several friends of mine confided in me that they believed they couldn’t get pregnant the first time they had sex – and these are girls who are 17 – 19! For these women I am sure it is adding insult to injury that they’re then generally perceived to be sluts who were too stupid to use birth control, or maybe just too busy screwing guys. They’re all very Christian and this perception that they were suddenly stuck with had to be really hard for them to deal with.

    And I don’t know how you restrained yourself in that coffeeshop Lauren; if I were in your position I’d probably be in prison by now. x_x

  15. David Thompson
    January 18, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    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.

    Where’d you get the gas money? I used to go riding around on random back roads around that time. Of course, I didn’t have any kids riding with me and I didn’t bawl my eyes out doing it either. I’m surprised you didn’t run into anything.

  16. January 18, 2006 at 10:47 pm

    You know, I’ve always been fascinated by the conundrum that single mothers, teenage or not, really present our society. There’s the urge to punish the singleness, of course, but the “common sense” response is “what about the child?” I’ve heard so many people frame help for single mothers as necessary for the children, something I find fascinating because women the very same age are still considered worthy to be invested in by society all on their own, suggesting that we do consider women who have sex before marriage valueless on the whole.

  17. January 19, 2006 at 8:54 pm

    I had my son at 18 and am now (nearly) 30 and I STILL get those odd congratulatory comments.

    Of course, there are those insulting comments, too. The ones that a person would never ask any other mother. I have my MA and work in a fabulous institution doing what I love, yet my mom’s new boyfriend asked if I was surprised I got to go to college. NO, I am not surprised. I MADE that happen because I was going to do it anyway. My brains didn’t go out with the placenta.

    I also still get weird comments about how “great” it is that I didn’t choose abortion. I tend to be bitchy about it and remind people that had circumstances been different, I may not have chosen to parent and I’m happy that I had that choice.

    This is a fantastic question. Thank you.

  18. three martini breakfast
    January 20, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    Interesting point; I guess I had never really thought about it as a lowered-expectations issue. I have a close friend who had a baby as a senior in high school; we’re both in our early 30s now. She finished college in 5 or 6 years, I forget, is now well-settled in a professional career, and has been a great mom throughout. She also married when her daughter was about 4, and before she finished her degree, so the relatively short time that she spent as a “single mom” may have made her experience somewhat different.

    Anyway, I’m not sure what “expectations” society would have had of her without a baby – college may or may not have been part of it, as she came from a working class family where parents and older siblings did not have degrees. But I don’t think it was so much that society’s expectations suddenly changed, or became “lower,” as that it became obvious that what she wanted to do was going to be much more difficult in the short term than it would have been without a baby. I was so proud of her when she struggled through those early years and finished her degree (in no more time than a lot of our non-parenting friends took, by the way). I don’t think it was condescending to be impressed that she got there while dealing with obligations that made it much more difficult. (Not that it isn’t difficult to combine parenting with other goals at any age, but I do think it’s tougher when you are young and trying to establish yourself than when you already have an education and a job.) I don’t think being impressed had anything to do with thinking less of her judgment/abilities/whatever – just a rational recognition that it was tougher for her than for others, and that it was tougher for her than it would have been had she not also been a mother. And obviously I’m only speaking for myself as a close friend; that doesn’t mean that others’attitudes toward her were similar. I don’t remember her being treated badly by others, but I wasn’t around all the time and I’m sure there are things I don’t know about. Would be interesting to have that discussion with her sometime.

    Getting somewhat back on topic: I certainly agree that her success more than 10 years ago is no longer something to be hashed over and praise doled out. Honestly it’s not a part of her life that I think about often anymore (at least until this post came along). I would never describe her as a “teen mother” today (nor would I have after she turned 20). I do think those experiences had a lot to do with making her the person she is, but I don’t think they should be a label that still remains attached (although she is very frank about her experiences when explaining to her teenage daughter and daughter’s friends why they should not repeat them). I guess I just wanted to give a different perspective on what some posters above see as excessive praise of “teen moms” coming out of low expectations or stereotypes.

  19. January 20, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    Martini, something that might affect her experiences is her choice to get married. I wish I had written about it in the main post, as I indicated in the comments, but I think marriage “legitimizes” our choices and successes in certain spheres, often the spheres that would otherwise condescend to us.

  20. three martini breakfast
    January 20, 2006 at 4:00 pm

    Yeah, I think that’s probably true where “society” is concerned; my point was more anecdotal – ie, that I honestly don’t believe my attitude toward her “success” (or the attitudes of any others that I personally know about) had anything to do with low expectations. Also, I’m talking mostly about my/others’ feelings about her situation before she got married, although I realize that wasn’t entirely clear in my post. (And there certainly were people who viewed her marriage with relief/condescension, as in, “she’s lucky to have found a man who will have her with that BABY.” Disgusting.)

  21. cam
    January 20, 2006 at 11:20 pm

    This kind of attitude just infuriates me. I think it goes beyond just teen moms to single moms of all ages. I was in my late 20’s when I became a parent. The favorite comment I used to get from married mothers of my son’s classmates when they’d ask for directions to my home for playdates: “I didn’t know there were apartments in that area.” When I would respond that they were single family homes, they’d frequently ask how I could afford to own a home by myself. I always wanted to smugly reply that they seemed to exist just fine on 1 salary so that they could be stay at home moms. Point is, the low expectations are for all single moms, not just teen moms; although women who haven’t finished their education usually have a tougher time financially, regardless of how much professional or financial success — or more importantly, how successful they are in providing loving, nurturing environments for their children — they are still looked down upon, pitied by many for their “plight”, and shamed for their decision to be a solitary parent. I earned a graduate degree, was established professionally, sent my child to private schools, owned my own home, raised a great kid; still, people were always surprised at my “successes” without a husband and “praised” me for being a ‘tough cookie’ who overcame the odds. How could I possibly be happy without a husband?

    Regardless of the struggles when my child was little, I’d give up all of my professional successes, all the trappings of my fairly ordinary middle class life, just to be a mom and to experience all of the joys that have come with motherhood. Being a parent is central to how I define myself. Even without the ‘successes’ that others recognize that I’ve earned ‘despite being a parent’ as they might say, I would still be stigmatized for being single and not recognized for the most important success: being a good parent.

    Further evidence, although antecdotal, that the bias is towards sex & children without marriage: in my experience people who have been quick to pity and/or condemn the single mother, are often the same people who praise single women who choose to adopt children. I rarely hear someone condemn them for making a decision to adopt, often lauding them for their altruistic intentions to ‘rescue’ a child from Russia, China, wherever. Yet, if the single mother has a natural child, the opinions frequently are different. What an uppity woman to think that she can have a child on her own — after all, we know what she had to DO to get pregnant in the first place!

    Forget the narrow-mindedness of those who want to shame single motherhood; our children will know that they were raised by great parents.

    Lauren — I too had many long drives on Indiana country roads, crying like you. My child is a young adult now, so we weren’t traversing them at the same time; but I hope that eventually society gets past the stigma and that, in the future, women younger than us don’t have to drive for hours crying because the choices they have made are not approved of by others.

  22. January 21, 2006 at 3:53 pm

    “Young woman” is a four letter word in the USA.


    1. Teen girl is denied contraception and/or sexual education.
    2. Teen girl is being pushed on to date (by media and peer pressure, sometimes family as well) and be “popular” lest she is a failure.
    3. teen girl gets pregnant and due to point 1, she has to complete the pregnancy to term.
    4. teen girl cum teen mother sees all of her bridges being cut, support network disappearing, being just thrown out in the cold. All her aspirations have to bow to the harsh reality. Her own existence is considered a failure of her family.
    5. teen mother is being ostracized for having fallen into the trap.

    Looks like a setup to me.
    Maybe the problem is just that someone REALLY hates women.

  23. gmm
    January 22, 2006 at 1:42 am

    Pregnant teen mother at religious school in mid to late 90’s must stand in front of her all her high school classmates and tell them how sorry she is for letting THEM down by getting pregnant before she was married. Then she gives up the baby because her parents cannot have a teenage mother in their home. Or, rich parents make 14 year old give up her baby, then banish her to a private school to live in a dorm- Mid eighties. Late 80’s, a mother makes her daughter go to a Home for unwed mothers because she is embarrassed by her daughters teenage pregnancy and the child is adopted. Late eighties again- abortion sought because aunt of young parents baby does not want to disturb parents with her problems”Please don’t ever do That to us!!”. 2001- some religious whacko asks a young mother if ALL her children are by the same father- would some man be asked that question? Probably not. If you look at them they look like mini me versions of each other, but apparently once a fallen woman always a slut…Yeah- two partners in almost forty years, before the age of twenty.

    My point- people are absulutely sick and wrong sometimes, and it should be illegal to make people feel like shit over a baby. The thought that people want to punish younger women parents is sickening.

    Education is important. It can happent to ANYONE. I have always expected my children to let me know what is up and to know that whatever they decide in regards to sex and all better be handled with brains as well as experience from someone older and wiser, and even if it is not me but a trusted friend or family member that they seek info from that is okay.

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