Twenty-nine years ago I gave birth to my son. I was eighteen years old and everywhere I looked headlines warned of the perils of unwed teenage motherhood. This was the cover of Time Magazine in December 1985, and it was by far not the only magazine or newspaper to run such cover stories.
Politicians made teenage parents, specifically mothers, out to be the number one threat to economic security of America. The war on teenage mothers that began in the 80’s only gained momentum as the 90s rolled in.
Newt Gingrich proposed, in his Contract for America, that we build orphanages for the children of teenage mothers. “America should tell them, ‘We’ll help you with foster care. We’ll help with orphanages. We’ll help you with adoption.’”
Jonathon Alter of Newsweek Magazine said, “Every threat to the fabric of this country—from poverty to crime to homelessness—is connected to out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy.” This was the common belief.
The American public ate this up, the Right and the Left alike believed that the children of teenage mothers were doomed to lives of poverty, abuse, lower I.Q.s, health problems, and later on they would be doomed to drop out of high school and end up in prison. The lucky ones that escaped prison would surely end up becoming teenage parents themselves or drug addicts or both. The war on teen moms was also the era of “crack baby” hysteria.
Being pregnant and then trying to be the best parent I could be to my baby in this sort of atmosphere was difficult. People would come up to me and ask me how old I was or if I knew who the father was. They would say things like, “so you know how this happened, right? Not gonna let it happen again I hope.” When I gave birth at the large teaching hospital in my state I was assigned a social worker that tried to talk me into giving my son up for adoption. After he was born they assigned me a visiting nurse under the guise of offering postnatal support, but it turned out it was a home inspection and assessment of my parenting. I didn’t understand this when I agreed to allow the nurse to visit the home I shared with my mom.
Soon after my son was born he began to have breathing difficulties. I would take him into the doctor always explaining how he would have difficulty breathing at night or in certain situations. Time and again the doctor would say some version of, “It must be tough to try to take care of a baby at your age. You should get out more, quit focusing on him so much. He’s perfectly healthy.” But he wasn’t perfectly healthy and it took two years, of me holding him upright each night so he could sleep without choking before they listened.
When he was five the parents of his best neighborhood friend asked me my age and after doing the math everything changed and their daughter was no longer allowed to play at our house. Jason could go there, but she couldn’t play in our house or yard. And then one day the dad came over to tell me that Jason was doomed to become a sexual predator. According to this man, who was a prison guard and claimed to know about such things, Jason was doomed because I was so young, because I let our son hang out with the lesbian woman next door, because I let him play naked in the back yard, because he was a wild and energetic kid, and because he liked to pee off the back deck. This neighbor stood on the front porch of my house and told me I needed to get help for Jason.
At the age of six the “professionals” told me that if I didn’t put Jason on Ritalin he would end up in prison. The psychologist made continued references to the negative impact my age had on Jason’s development . At this point I began to lose all confidence in myself.
I could continue with these stories, but you get the picture. I looked very young for my age and was often mistaken for his big sister. By the time I reached the age of 30 or so, things began to change and for the most part people respected me as a parent…as long as they didn’t ask my age and do the math.
So what has happened to this child who was born to a child? Well it’s true that he never graduated high school, because he never went. I pulled him out of school in first grade and he became a lifelong unschooler. He never ended up in jail or prison, and he doesn’t wander the streets in a drug fueled haze. He’s married, has a cute condo, a dog, a cat, and is a stay-at-home dad to his own little boy. He was twenty-eight when baby Leo was born so he couldn’t even carry out “the legacy of teen parenthood” properly. My boy is a failure as the son of a teenage mother. He completely sucked at being a hopeless drain on society. He didn’t live up to his bleak potential in any of the ways predicted, although had he become a teenage parent that would have been completely fine with me.
The journey that my boy and I have made has at times been painful and sad. There have been tears and shit and not enough money and hard times, but it has also been wonderful and beautiful and I wouldn’t trade any of it. I’m proud of my kid and I’m proud that I was, and always will be, a teenage mother. I wish society had supported and empowered me as a mother, but we got the last laugh.
Jason isn’t the exception to the rule and he’s not “one of the lucky ones.” Children of teenagers are just as likely to grow up to be amazing as children of older parents, especially if those teenage parents had someone believing in them.