Keep in mind this is just one reason. More reasons to come…
May was National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. The stated goal of National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month is to reduce the number of children born to teenage mothers. Sounds like a valid cause, right? If you said yes you probably aren’t or weren’t a teen mom—or dad/parent if you happen to be trans or genderqueer. Although if you’re queer and a pregnant or parenting teen then you pretty much don’t exist in the eyes of the mainstream, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the moment I want to talk about this campaign is really about. The National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Campaign isn’t actually concerned about the number of births to teenagers, it is in fact only upset that those teenage parents are not married. You may be thinking, that’s not true. It’s not the 1950’s any more. Marriage isn’t what this is about. Sorry, you’re wrong. Marriage is what this is about. This whole campaign isn’t about teenage parents, it’s about UNWED teenage parents. Don’t believe me?
Check this out. This is a direct quote from their site:
Reducing teen pregnancy can improve child wellbeing by increasing the chances that children are born into two-parent families and, in particular, families with married parents.
And then they go on to give the following Key Data bullet points, which seem to be very concerned about the marital status of teen mothers.
- The majority of teen mothers (88% in 2010) were
unmarried when their child was born.
- Of those teen mothers who were not married when
their child was born, only about one-third (34%) went
on to marry by the time their child reached age five.
- Furthermore, more than one-third (38%) of teens who
were married when their child was born split up by the
time their child reached age five, and 42% of those
who were cohabiting when their child was born split
up by then.
Feel free to check out the entire document here which focuses on the fact that these teens aren’t married. It’s all very heteronormative too. It mentions partnership in terms of mothers and fathers, but did you know that lesbian, bisexual, and gay teenagers (there’s no data on genderqueer or trans teens which is a whole other issue) are two to seven times more likely to get pregnant or get someone pregnant than straight identified teenagers? It’s true. And since these days 62% of teenagers identify as “not straight,” that’s a pretty huge oversight by this organization that cares so much about micromanaging the sex lives and life choices of teenagers.
Being a young parent has its challenges, there’s no denying that. I know, I was one, but being a parent at any age has its challenges. And how many of us actually have children under society’s stereotypical ideal situation? You know, between the ages of 25 and 35, in a stable heterosexual marriage, a middle to upper middle class income, savings, a nice house in the suburbs or a fancy apartment in the city, no mental health challenges or physical disabilities. As a country we love to talk about diversity, but in reality we don’t feel comfortable with things that fall outside our 1950’s fantasy of home and family.
The teen birthrate was sky high in the 1950’s. In 1957 the teen birthrate was 96 births per 1,000 for girls aged 15-19, but in 2014 the teen birth rate was 24 births per 1,000 teen girls, so why are people freaking out now? Because in the 50’s about 80% of pregnant girls got married and today only about 15% do. It’s all about marriage.
It should be noted that in the 50’s girls who, for whatever reason, did not marry were almost always forced to give their babies up for adoption. The was the very beginning of the Baby Scoop Era (more on this in a later essay).
If a teenager gets pregnant and decides to give birth to a child, but chooses not to marry then they instantly become a target. Politicians and policy makers on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as every day citizens, love to bemoan teen parents as the single biggest domestic threat that this country faces. In 1994 Newt Gingrich went so far as to propose placing the illegitimate children of teenagers into orphanages stating that they would be better off there than being raised in a single parent household. While we may not be proposing orphanages today, not a lot has changed when it comes to how we view teenage parents.
Did you know that 85% of adults overall say teen pregnancy is an important problem (55% of those 85% say very important) when compared to other social and economic problems in their community? This statistic is taken right from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy’s twitter feed. It didn’t list the “other social and economic problems.” It’s hard to believe that teen pregnancy has 85% of adults wringing their hands and clucking their tongues with worry. What about police brutality, poisoned city water systems, racism, homophobia and transphobia? What about our broken health care system? What about the exploding for-profit prison system? What about the growing class divide? Or the completely broken foster care system? What about the skyrocketing numbers of homeless adults and children? And come on, global warming?
People like to blame teenage pregnancy for most of the above mentioned problems. They haven’t figured out yet how to blame teen parents for global warming, but I’m sure it won’t be long. Teen pregnancy is at an all-time low and yet politicians and policy makers freak out about is the children of teen parents supposedly cost us tons of money because of their rates of incarceration, drug addiction, homelessness, use of the foster care system, health care costs, and (get this) lost tax revenue. Here’s a direct quote from their website: Teen childbearing in the United States cost taxpayers (federal, state, and local) at least $9.4 billion in 2010, according to an analysis by The National Campaign. Most of the costs of teen childbearing are associated with negative consequences for the children of teen mothers, including increased costs for health care, foster care, incarceration, and lost tax revenue. How do they even measure lost tax revenue?
It’s interesting that teen child bearing is at an all-time low and yet it’s still being blamed for all the social ills that are at an all-time high.
One thing the campaign leaves out of these statistics is that teen parents are actually doing better—they’re more self-sufficient and earning higher wages—by the age of 34 than age-mates of similar socioeconomic backgrounds who delayed child bearing. (1) In the short-run the teen parents may struggle more, but in the long run they do better. When kids are locked into family cycles of poverty often times having a child is motivator to try to improve their circumstances.
It’s all so frustrating.
So what should we do? It’s simple. It’s so simple that it’s almost funny. All we need to do is change that campaign to the National Campaign to Prevent Unwanted Pregnancy and then we educate all humans of childbearing age, teenagers on up, about their bodies, sexuality, and birth control. We provide free or very low cost birth control to anyone who wants it without restrictions. We make abortion safe, legal, and easily accessible. And let’s not forget that queer kids and adults get pregnant too, so let’s be sure to include them in all of this. Of course we need to address poverty, racism, the still very broken healthcare system, addiction, the disgusting foster care system, and all the other social problems that are apparently less important than unwed teenage parents, but for now let’s just start with education and family planning. These are important, but there is one more critical element to lowering the rate of unwanted pregnancies.
Let’s stop shaming teenage parents and start supporting them. If people are so worried about the children of teenage parents, I can’t help but wonder how they think that shaming parents is going to help these children. I can’t understand how undermining the confidence and sense of self of an entire demographic of parents can possibly have a positive impact on their children. It is possible to simultaneously work to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies while at the same time working to support and empower young parents. The two are not mutually exclusive.
When a woman in her mid 20’s, 30’s and even 40’s gets pregnant they are congratulated and celebrated, but when a teen gets pregnant shame is piled on them almost from day one. People don’t support teenage parents in any way that will actually help them to succeed in life. And please let’s not equate success with college graduation and high paying job, because there are a million ways to be successful that do not include college degrees and wealth. I really don’t care about lost tax revenue. Human beings should not be valued according to how much they contribute to our capitalist society.
Teenage parents love their kids just as much as older parents do. They want to be recognized and valued as parents and they want their children to be recognized and valued. Is that really too much to ask?
(1) V. Joseph Hotz, UCLA and RAND Susan Williams McElroy and Seth Sander, Carnegie Mellon University