by Deborah Davis
If I have learned anything from hearing the stories of more than 200 women who became pregnant as teenagers and chose to raise their children, it is that young moms can be terrific. If you are a pregnant teenager and have decided to have the baby, there's a world of possibilities ahead of you.
That may not be what the people around you -- parents, teachers, friends, even strangers -- are telling you. Are you hearing comments like, "You've gone and ruined your life"? That's nonsense. No one can predict your future. No one has a crystal ball that shows what will happen to you from here.
So, why are young parents in our society regarded negatively? One reason is that you are at the juncture of three societal hot buttons: teenage-hood, motherhood, and sexuality. It's a triple whammy, because our society doesn't appreciate or understand teens, is not supportive of mothers, and has tremendous confusion concerning sexual issues. Add in that many young parents are short on money in a culture that denigrates the poor, and you've become a target of others' ire for a fourth reason.
Many of the negative assumptions and attitudes aimed at young parents, however, are unwarranted, unfair, and sometimes downright cruel. Recent studies are showing what quite a few young mothers have known all along: teen parents may have a rough start, but most eventually do well, creating stable families and learning to be good parents. You may have a lot of growing up to do, but you can do it along with raising your child. The important thing is to believe in yourself, take care of yourself and your baby, find the people who can love, support, and believe in you, and be aware of your rights.
Believing in you
It's time to make a list. Write down your every asset as well as every flaw. Count up your assets, and then look at your flaws. Which ones can become assets? You mouth off to people? Maybe that shows you're not afraid to speak up for yourself -- a quality you'll need as a mother. Your child will need an advocate in all sorts of situations. Perhaps you need to learn to speak up in a more respectful manner, but don't underestimate the importance of using your voice on your own and your child's behalf. Do you have trouble finishing things? Get easily distracted? Maybe you're interested in many things. Appreciate that. Then make a list of small goals you'd like to accomplish in just one or two areas. Give yourself a deadline. Tell someone you trust about the deadline. Start small, finish one thing, pat yourself on the back, and move on to the next thing you want to do.
Can't figure out what your assets are? Ask someone you trust to help you identify them. Or seek out counseling. Everybody has strengths and talents. To recognize and support your child's assets, it really helps to know your own. A trusted friend or a good counselor will help you do that. Contact your school counselor, HMO, or a local counseling agency to find out how to get counseling.
Taking care of yourself and your baby
Prenatal care. Prenatal care. Prenatal care. If you're planning to continue your pregnancy and you haven't yet gone to see a midwife or doctor, now is the time to start. Now! Most pregnancies go smoothly, but sometimes there can be medical complications that threaten the health of the baby or mother. There's important information a pregnant woman needs to know about diet, exercise, sex, and more. The earlier you start prenatal care, the better your chances that you'll have a smooth pregnancy, a healthy baby, and a more comfortable labor.
Are you uninsured and wondering how to pay for prenatal care? You may qualify for Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income families. I highly recommend reading "Your Government, Your Rights" by Allison Crews. Allison's article includes information about applying for Medicaid and other forms of government aid like food stamps and housing assistance. Some people feel ashamed when applying for government aid, yet asking for help when you need it is a responsible thing to do!
Not sure whether to choose a midwife or doctor? You don't have to choose the first one you meet. It's best to visit several, if possible, and choose the person you feel most comfortable with. You can also change mid-pregnancy, if necessary. Even if your insurance or HMO assigns you to someone, you can ask to meet other practitioners if you aren't comfortable with that person. Licensed midwives, nurse-midwives and family practice doctors tend to be more comfortable with normal birth, and best of all, they can usually spend more time with you during your prenatal appointments than obstetricians. That means they'll have more time to answer questions. Licensed midwives who attend home births are often the most generous with their time at prenatal visits, spending 30-60 minutes or more with a client, and home birth is as safe or safer than hospital birth. Of all birth practitioners, the licensed midwife's approach to birth is probably the most empowering to the birthing mom. These days, with nurse-midwives and doctors practicing in large groups, it's rare to get the practitioner you prefer at the birth itself. Choosing a home birth midwife ensures that the person you see at prenatal appointments will also attend you during the birth. For a list of licensed midwives in your area, visit Mana.org. Whomever you choose to attend you during your pregnancy and birth, it's helpful to find someone who cares about your emotions as well as your body.
Finding a supportive community
As a pregnant young woman, you aren't alone. In the United States there are nearly 500,000 new teen mothers every year. If you're feeling like you don't fit in with your old friends anymore, it may help you to get to know other women who are starting a family while young. Check out online communities of young mothers at Girlmom.com and other teen mom web sites. You should be able to tell within a few visits if the moms who visit there are like-minded individuals. The best sites encourage everyone to share their experiences and discourage giving unasked-for advice or judgments.
While online friends are great, you may also long for some face-to-face pregnant or parenting friends. Your birth practitioner may be able to connect you with other young moms. Some cities have childbirth classes for younger parents. Many school districts have special schools or programs for pregnant and parenting teens. While there can be drawbacks to leaving your regular school to attend a program for parenting students (see next section), you may also benefit from being around other young women who are facing the same new challenges, responsibilities, and adventures as you. Being around other big bellies can be a great comfort when you look down at yours and wonder just how big and uncomfortable it's going to get. And knowing others who are giving birth can help you to get ready to give birth yourself. You might even offer to help a friend at her baby's birth -- be there to take pictures or rub her back or be by her side when her boyfriend needs to take breaks. Both of you can benefit from the help you can give.
Know your rights!
You will also need to know about your rights and how to stand up for them. You may already be aware that in the United States of America, Title IX promises every teenager the right to a public school education, without regard to race gender, or physical ability. But did you also know that under Title IX a school cannot discriminate against a pregnant or parenting student? If you want to attend your regular middle school or high school, it is your legal right to do so. It is against the law for school personnel to insist that you drop out or get your GED or attend a special school for pregnant girls, if that is not what you want to do. Some students who planned to take college-track courses are told that they must attend a special school, where such courses are not available. You have the right to stay in the school that best suits your educational needs. For a list of legal aid organizations in the U.S. and Canada, go to Intraspect.ca.
Remembering your dreams
I love hearing young mothers talk about the advantages of having kids early in life: lots of energy for chasing toddlers around the playground, quicker and easier births, greater tolerance for lost sleep, more openness to learning, and -- a favorite of many -- the energy and youthfulness to play with their grandkids. Some also mention the pluses of being in their early 40's when their kids are grown, allowing them the time and health to travel easily or embark on new careers.
Being younger doesn't make everything easier, of course. The young moms I know often feel overwhelmed as they juggle parenting, school, work, and some sort of social life. Yet many say that the biggest challenge isn't the juggling act -- it's dealing with the negative attitudes of people around them. And sometimes, in themselves.
Which brings us back to who you are and what you want. What do you love? What do you believe? What were your dreams before you became pregnant? What are your deepest dreams now? Ask yourself what you hope to be doing five years from now. What kind of person do you want to be? I've met teen moms who stay at home with their kids, who go to college, who graduated high school or college with honors, who went to graduate school. Some young mothers have educational or work goals that they've taken steps to fulfill. Others have less visible but equally vital goals such as finding the courage to speak up for their beliefs regularly or learning to see themselves and others with greater compassion and higher regard. Some find satisfaction in crafting a life that includes breaking a family cycle of violence or secrecy or pregnancies that came earlier than planned.
During a recent interview of three former teen moms, the interviewer asked, "What advice do you have for young mothers?"
- "Be proud of yourself," said one woman.
- "Know that your family is valid," said another.
- "Ask for help-and if you don't get what you need, keep asking until you do," said a third.
I would add what I say to all mothers, whatever their age: Trust your instincts. Follow your dreams. And have fun with your babies. They don't stay little for long!
Deborah Davis is an author, editor, and doula. Her most recent book is You Look Too Young to Be a Mom: Teen Mothers Speak Out on Love, Learning, and Success (Perigee/Penguin 2004). Her previous books are The Secret of the Seal and My Brother has AIDS, both novels for young people. She lives in Seattle with her husband and son.
Copyright © Deborah Davis. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.