I have teen pregnancy on my mind today. In case you haven’t heard, today is the National Day to End Teen Pregnancy, and 16 years ago, I was a pregnant teen. I always knew motherhood would be an important part of my life, and when I was 18 and found out I was pregnant, there was a voice inside of me that said, calmly and clearly, Now is the time.
I had heard dire predictions about teen pregnancy at school assemblies, seen billboards, and watched after-school specials that warned me of its perils. Girls who look like me were routinely warned against what would happen to us and to our kids if we became parents too soon. From low birth-weight babies to high drop-out rates, our kids were likely to be on the losing end of every childhood measure.
So while I felt ready to become a parent, my community looked at me with doubt. All through my pregnancy, I felt the presence of stigma like it was another person in the room, sucking up all the air. When people noticed my belly, their response was often to look away or change the subject. Even my mother kept grumbling about how she would have to “raise this baby.” I was prepared to prove her wrong.
When I felt the baby move, I kept my excitement to myself, not feeling comfortable inviting my family and friends to touch my belly and feel him kick. Disconnected from the people I cared about, I kept my head down and focused on finishing my freshman year of college and preparing, mostly alone, to become a mom.
I had a long and difficult labor, and when my son Andres was born, I was overwhelmed with emotion and exhaustion. When he was a few hours old, I was alone with him in my hospital room when he began to cry. I changed his diaper, gave him a bottle, rocked him and sang to him. Sore and tired as I was, I pulled myself out of the hospital bed to walk him around and bounce him. I couldn’t soothe him, and as he continued to cry, my heart was racing. Even though I was scared and unsure, I wouldn’t call the nurse. I was determined not to be the young mom who didn’t know what to do.
And I kept up that determination. When the first semester of my sophomore year started a week after Andres was born, I was at my desk, ready to go. I look back on that semester as a blur and still don’t know how I did it … learning how to care for a newborn, keeping up with my studies, and getting food on the table while maintaining the appearance that I had it all under control.
When I look back on those frightening moments in the hospital room and being too afraid of the nurse’s judgment to push the call button, I wonder about how many young moms and dads hesitate to reach out for help and support when they need it?
Now that I am well into my 30s and have seen my friends have babies at every age, I know that all new moms struggle with uncertainty. Most of us have both a powerful love for our new babies and a nagging fear that we won’t know how to be good mothers. The women who thrive in motherhood are usually those with trusted networks of support and the humility to ask for help when needed.
When I see the dismal statistics and negative images our communities are bombarded with, I wonder how many of the negative outcomes are caused not by the age of the parents, but by the stigma heaped on them and the isolation that results? We all know there is nothing inherently wrong with giving birth at 18. Humans have been doing it throughout time; President Barack Obama’s mom did it, every 30-year-old I know has a mother who was “young” by today’s standards.
In a generation, the “proper” age to become a parent has changed. Economic security sure helps in raising kids. Having a partner does too. But 40 percent of babies in the US are born to mothers who are not married, and their ages range across the board. The Great Recession has taught us many things, including that we can’t count on financial security at any age.
Maybe instead of a National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, with statistics and images that demonize young parents, we could have a National Day to Support Young Parents? We could have a day when service providers, teachers, ministers, and the media celebrate all of the great achievements by young parents and their kids. We could enjoy a day when we are honored for all we have taken on, and all that we have succeeded in doing, when the folks around us ask us how they can best support us, instead of telling us what we should have done differently.
Things worked out well for my family. My mother stopped rolling her eyes, and is now the proud abuela of my two wonderful children. I completed my education and went on to be the director of Young Women United in New Mexico, a career that lets me work with young women and mothers locally and to be a leader in the national movement for reproductive justice, while being an active part my community and extended family.
The research and data on teen pregnancy and parenting didn’t tell my story. My kids will be statistics. They will be included in their high school graduation rates, most likely continue on to college, and I expect that they will be included in the rates of happy, well adjusted, thriving adults. If they decide to become parents, I will be overjoyed to be included in the numbers of proud abuelas.
Adriann Barboa is the Director of Young Women United in Albuquerque, where she was born and raised and lives with her son Andres (15) and daughter Amarisa (11). Adriann received the New Mexico Business Weekly’s 2011 Women of Influence award and YWU recently reserved NM Public Health Association’s Community Award.