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PARENTS AND BABIES by Elizabeth Stapleton

Typical of the graduates from the alternative high school where I taught for a handful of years were Calvin and Sondra, who visited many times after graduating, seeming to have few other places to go. In his second year as a senior, after years of our cajoling him through his fear of the future or sheer laziness or whatever had held him back, Calvin, by this time 20, had finally decided that he really wanted to finish high school and had begun working at a more or less normal pace in his courses, which meant double time compared to his usual pace. He sustained his efforts despite the drama of his personal life, in which an old girlfriend with whom he’d had a brief reconciliation had turned up pregnant, upsetting his current girlfriend and classmate Sondra, a proclaimed virgin, a hardworking student, and a fairly bright girl who wanted to go to college. She’d broken it off with Calvin briefly but then decided, “We love each other too much.” Within a few months, Sondra was pregnant, too, and Calvin had split with his other “baby mama”; by the following fall, five months after they had graduated and less than a year after Calvin‘s first child was born, Sondra delivered her baby.

Nearer the start of the baby drama, just after Calvin’s first baby was born, he had arrived at school with baby pictures, tiny snapshots of a wrinkle-faced infant with a pink hair band askew on her head, and passed them around. He was a proud, sheepish papa—especially sheepish as none of the rest of us had known before that very day about the other girl or the pregnancy. I tried to keep my mouth from falling open and mildly praised the tiny girl, congratulating him. One of my other students, Jerry, a quiet young man who seemed perpetually bemused by the daily dramas around him, eventually asked, “What does Sondra say about this?”

“Oh, she’s just fine with it,” he assured us. “She was at the hospital right after Ariana was born. She held her and changed her diaper and everything.” Jerry and I exchanged looks: is Sondra crazier than we ever could have thought? There had been the gloomy malingering the year before, the collapse in the hall when she claimed she was faint and couldn’t breathe, the pouty refusals to respond when people spoke to her on a “bad” day, but this? We’d thought her self-respect and self-confidence stronger.

A few days later, when Sondra was in class, I pointedly repeated Calvin’s assertion about her good relationship with his child, but Sondra laughed and said she’d never been near that baby, that hospital, or that other girl—“Do you think I’m crazy?” Jerry and I looked at each other again and could not stop shaking our heads, wondering which of them was scrambling to keep his or her world afloat with fantasy. What dream of a future could any of these children have? If not of college or work, what, the lottery? Then I remembered Calvin’s claim a few months earlier that he had been admitted to one of the state universities, effective as soon as he graduated, where he’d be given a full basketball scholarship for as long as they could keep him before he went on to the NBA. This he’d told us as fact, although our school had cancelled its basketball season twice for fights on the court, Calvin had no other visible outlet for his athletic talents, and he read and wrote at about the sixth grade level.

The fall after they graduated, news came that Sondra’s baby had been born, and when he was about six weeks old she came to show him off. My heart fell when I saw him. This baby did not seem to have awakened from the sleep of the womb, struggling against the light as though confusion at being alive had persisted beyond the time it does for most infants. His head was tiny for his body, and it lolled to one side even when Sondra held it supportively. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t challenge or advise her, leaving that to the pediatricians she promised she was taking him to for regular checkups. I asked Fatima, our art teacher, later that day if she’d seen the baby, and she lowered her voice and asked, “What’s wrong with him?” Sondra and Calvin continued bragging as though they’d noticed nothing amiss, holding onto their vision of the happy, healthy new family, on its way to something easily superior to the stable, steady middle-class existence they were vaguely aware I and other teachers enjoyed. I saw Calvin’s sister, a cashier at Target, around the same time, and she told me that he was still not working. I was not sure what we’d done for him, whether all that patience had helped him at least achieve a minimal education or encouraged the sloth or indecision that so far had led him only to irresponsible parenthood.

It was all a juggle and a conjure, and as hard as it will be for students with real prospects for college to maintain their dreams, how will Sondra and Calvin, with so much less, survive on theirs? I don’t know what our smiling nods and welcoming arms, bearing curriculum maps and manila diplomas with bright gold seals, really did for them. We avoided reality as much as our students did, in our work and maybe in our personal lives as well. We framed ourselves as saviors, or at least “facilitators” to salvation, without investigating where our children really were and where they were going with our help.

When I was a teenager, back in the 70s, most of my cadre was sexually active, but almost no one had a baby. It was a rite of passage for young, hip women who considered themselves mature enough to have sex to visit the Free Clinic for an exam and birth control, usually the pill. Some girls’ parents actually arranged their doctors’ visits, and some girls went too far too fast and had abortions, but I believe both these occurrences were rare among the teenaged girls with whom I drank wine, smoked pot and looked for opportunities to flirt and gain what we considered normal experience. A little behind the curve, I didn’t make my own clinic visit until I called at my college health service, having had a pregnancy scare after only the second time I had had intercourse. “Are you sexually active?” the nurse asked when I requested contraceptives, and I remember wracking my brain with how to answer. Not familiar with the terminology, I couldn’t imagine: how much sex was considered “active”?

I was horrified at my own stupidity at allowing myself to be vulnerable to a pregnancy, remembering the only girl I’d known when I was in high school who’d gone to a “Home” for unwed mothers to give her baby up for adoption. We had always laughed at the local TV commercials reminding us of this alternative: a desperate-looking girl at a pay phone implored, “I’m pregnant! Can you help me?” In answer, a kind but coolly professional switchboard operator informed, “Yes, we can help you.” The camera would return us to the girl, sitting sorrowfully in the shadows with her head down and hands in her lap, then looking up at the camera and stretching a hand towards it beseechingly. “In this time of need, remember Methodist Mission Home,” the narrator intoned mournfully before fade-out. It was so similar to all the ads we’d seen for funeral homes that we’d imitate them, the shamed grief and the condescending charity, even as we suspected an unplanned pregnancy would be as tragic as the ads implied for most of our families and so for ourselves. Convinced that our parents’ moral abhorrence of premarital sex was a mistake, we were nevertheless unwilling to try their love and patience by bringing them unwanted grandchildren. What we did in private was our own business, we believed, but babies were an unavoidably public matter, despite any confidentiality of clinics or homes. In all that time, I only knew of one teenaged friend who had and kept her baby.

At the school where I taught, the number of pregnant and mothering students seemed to burgeon with every year I taught there. Percentages (which were not tracked) would have told us little, as it wasn’t clear how much our childcare center drew those with children to enroll at the school in the first place or how much its existence encouraged students already enrolled to pursue or accept or at minimum fail to avoid pregnancy. Past some initial embarrassment or private family crisis, most of our young mothers and many of the fathers would speak of their impending parenthood with pride. Some of these students’ parents bravely took on all the responsibilities of raising a new child in the family, but seldom did the teens themselves hesitate to call on government services for healthcare and nutritional needs. One teacher overheard students offering advice to another on how she could have childcare expenses reimbursed if she wanted to go to a party without her child. The childcare center’s mandatory parenting classes were something to be endured, as was school itself: most of our students seemed remarkably incompetent to parent, to succeed themselves, or even to make the connections between how and why delaying parenthood would be possible or preferable.

Of course, there were exceptions to this rule. Selena, one young mother, was a feisty and independent-minded young woman who regularly exasperated and amused me. She used to tell me she was going to take me to the mall. “Those clothes you wearin’—you need help,” she’d explain.

“This is what ‘old’ people wear,” I’d joke with her. “And besides, if we go to the mall, who’s paying?” She’d shake her head in mock disgust. A couple of times we ended up in the office with our disciplinarian Sam, together with Selena’s mother, a weary looking single mom who worked as a chef and was reportedly an alcoholic. We’d review the fact that yes, Selena did have to do the assigned work, and no, she could not leave class on any whim. She would smirk and toss her head, but when we prodded she’d agree that she wanted to do whatever it took to graduate. Most days, she was committed to her work, completing assignments carefully and keeping herself at a remove from the teenaged social experiments around her. One month she wrote a nine-paged typewritten horror story for class, working and reworking the details and correcting errors long after her classmates had called it a day with a couple of pages.

Once, in an unusual foray into banter with other girls, Selena wrinkled her nose and offered, “It’s disgusting for anyone over thirty to have sex.” Overhearing, I laughed but kept to myself my observation that quite a few people over seventy would be sorry to hear this news, not to mention the thirty-five-year-olds. I suppose her own sexual experiences had not been fulfilling, and the resulting birth of her baby boy had done nothing to redeem the act in her mind. Her little boy, Patrick, was nearly two, and she dressed him neatly each day in a tiny oxford shirt and elastic-waist jeans. One day I held him for her at an assembly while she retrieved his diaper bag from the child care center. Plopped into my lap, he twisted around to look at me quizzically but then snuggled back into my arms and took in the visiting dancers, young, uncertain teenagers from an alternative middle school pulsing acrobatically to the African beats their teachers had trained them in. I tapped my feet in time to give him a rhythmic jostling and resisted the urge to kiss the soft top of his head, not wanting to take liberties. He was a sweet kid, generally well behaved, and Selena followed every prescription our child care directors gave her, reading him books daily, conversing with him, and taking him to the pediatrician for regular checkups and vaccinations. But one day she asked Katie, my friend and another of the social studies teachers, did she think it was too late to give him up for adoption? After all, Selena was still only seventeen.

Marco and Tara used to play footsies in my class. The shy smiles they ventured when near each other were the closest things to romance I ever saw at school, as they beamed and blushed and gradually worked their way into outright snuggles and lap-sitting I had to put a stop to. Marco was handsome, bright, and charming, unusually well-spoken and socially adept for my students, and on track to graduate at seventeen. Tara was responsible, polite, and thoughtful. I still own a photograph she made in Fatima’s after-school photo club, which was sponsored by the metropolitan anti-drug tax. It’s a self-portrait of her dark silhouette before a bank of windows, her lean hips canted gracefully while purposeful arms and hands, elbows uplifted, steady the camera before her face.

But then Marco stopped turning in assignments, and then he stopped coming to school regularly. When he came to school at all, he would skip class, lie about his whereabouts to his teachers, and smart off to them when they questioned him or tried to get him to work. He’d had it with being told what to do: he had his own increasingly complicated life to manage now, a whole world of matters outside the school walls as well as within them. He ended up in the in-school suspension program, where he alternated between frequent absences and feverish attempts to salvage his on-time graduation. Finally, and unremarkably, Tara announced her pregnancy. It turned out that Marco was trying to make as much money as possible—how, we were never entirely sure—before the baby was born. Although she was a year younger, Tara ended up rushing her credits and graduating ahead of him. Marco would follow soon, they were sure, and as planned, the following spring, after their baby’s birth, he “walked.” They were in love, and they were planning to marry. But before they could, and before either could land reliable work, Tara was pregnant again.

Tanisha, tiny and energetic and with an energetically filthy mouth that regularly landed her in the disciplinarian’s or principal’s office, found herself pregnant by a boy who’d dropped out the year before, and then she gave birth prematurely at seven months. Her infant girl spent six weeks in the NICU in a nest of tubes and wires and then went home to the Section 8 housing Tanisha shared with a friend. Once the baby got a little bigger, our child care center accepted her, and her care worker learned to handle the special monitoring the baby still needed daily. But barely six months later, Tanisha dropped out, and a year after that the news came that she had been arrested and her daughter hospitalized, in intensive care again, after ingesting a portion of crack cocaine left on her mother’s coffee table.

And Regina, who’d been raped repeatedly by a cousin when younger but believed what happened in families was no one else’s business, was pregnant by the boyfriend whose family she now lived with. And Lorie, whose hyper-religous mother’s and grandmother’s vigilance had somehow failed, got pregnant by her former boyfriend. And Athina had baby number two just twelve hours before graduation and arrived, a triumphant superstar, in a wheelchair to collect her diploma with the rest of the class. Just over a year later, she had a third. Areana, six months along and in a rage over a teacher’s order that she stop cursing in class, refused to leave and ended up handcuffed and removed by our security officer—then threatened, with her mom, to file charges over the incident, with the argument that pregnant women should not be expected to act rationally. Raina’s mom threatened to file charges because her daughter’s counselor, hearing rumors of the girl’s pregnancy, asked Raina if they were true, and Raina and her mother framed the questioning as harassment. One result was that our administrators admonished the counselor not to ask such questions in the future. Elena, smart as a whip, graduated high school, passed several community college courses, and was made manager of a clothing store during the time she had her two children and married their father, but she confided to some teachers that her husband did not believe in using birth control, and with the second child she had to drop out of school.

Only Selena admitted she was sorry for what she’d done, and only Teresa, who loved her baby but also, judging from her talk, loved sex, spoke proudly of wearing a Depo Provera patch and being responsible. “It’s a big job,” she preached. “And I love little Darian, but I am NOT ready to have another one. You’re crazy if you don’t use something—I was crazy once, but once was enough!” She was the only student in seven years I ever heard encourage other girls to use birth control, and teachers were discouraged from discussing—more accurately, forbidden to discuss—the matter at all. So I sympathized when, the Friday before Mother’s Day, as our administration distributed roses and coupons and door prizes to the student mothers, a fellow teacher grumbled, “Why aren’t they giving flowers to the girls who didn’t get pregnant?”

As it turns out, getting pregnant young when you have an uncertain future may make evolutionary sense. Procreate early and often! and that way, even without the support of a partner or a stable economy, someone is liable to survive. The hankerings to parent are as little considered as the sex drive itself: satisfy that itch, couple and pant and part, and later on the baby, oh sweet cooing babe! will be there for you regardless of any resources, financial or emotional, you have or don’t to care for him. Section 8 housing was good enough for Mom, so it’s fine for Mama’s child, and if she hasn’t gotten her diploma, a job, good childcare, or a co-parent, well, it couldn’t really make that much difference, could it? Teenagers can mimic the “delayed gratification” admonitions of those around them with their words and even their intentions, but the less modeling of responsible behavior they see and experience by those closest to them, and the less recognition they receive of their own families, cultures, experiences, and personalities, the less pressing it will seem to follow the norms touted by educators and social workers, so that these less mature and self-aware desires control their actions.

As we might expect, studies that survey attempts to reduce teen pregnancy don’t find much more success in sex education programs that focus on birth control information than in those that strictly teach abstinence, so my school’s failure to provide contraceptive advice for its students was not the critical factor in its girls’ rising pregnancy rate. What’s culturally accepted, whether in teens’ home neighborhoods or within their peer culture, trumps any externally devised format for social engineering. Add to the mix some young people’s desperate attempts to find what they see but have never known as a normal family life, with reliable love and care within and respect from the outside, and the lure of babies means even those without the usual teen disease of irresponsibility often end up with babies One recently touted prospect for curbing teen pregnancies is based on an economic appeal. Teen pregnancies have reportedly been cut when adolescent girls are taught economic independence and the math of delayed gratification: with increased time before a first child and between children come the maturity, education, and job experience that translate into a higher standard of living throughout life. Teenaged girls can, apparently, hear and understand this information and so determine for themselves a better future than mere prohibitions or judgmental prescriptions would contrive. Programs deemed successful by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTP) generally rely on three or more strategies to foster healthy attitudes and behaviors in teens, including visualizing adult careers for themselves, finding opportunities for peer and adult relationships, compassionate case management by knowledgeable adults, cultural awareness and pride, and frank, thorough information on sex and birth control. The school where I taught attempted to provide career education and relationships with responsible adults, but beyond canned appeals to “self-respect” (and little acknowledgment of teenaged girls’ sexuality), there was no thoughtful, organized approach to reducing pregnancies.

It’s difficult, however, even for people with no political predispositions to know just what works, or how, when, or why. Statistics for “successful” programs usually show slight improvements in several areas of behavior for teen participants but simultaneous decreases in at least one other area. Co-curricular athletic participation, for example, was found to help teen girls avoid pregnancy but possibly encourage teen boys to become parents, and many programs deter unprotected sex within the first six months after their completion, and so overall, but after that find that sexual activity returns to previous norms. Developing relationships marked by open communication is generally acknowledged as a means of helping teens grow up healthy and make wise decisions, but sometimes it is parent-child dynamics that are seen as holding more sway, sometimes relationships with peer mentors, and sometimes the presence of professionals who are in a position to monitor teens.

As the NCPTP has reported, studies usually look at small numbers within a certain population, limited controls (to prevent cross-influences from other programs, for instance) and a general scarcity of duplication. People argue that preventing even one unwanted pregnancy is a success, but when public moneys and passions are in the offing, the debate can become fractious. As usual in such debates, anyone can manipulate the statistics into evidence for his argument. The competing ratios and deciles reflect the fact that, as with any matter of human upbringing, each teenager is different, each teen’s life on a unique trajectory influenced by a million factors.

As adults, we can’t all agree what our goals are for teenagers: that they refrain from all sex? from sexual intercourse? from unprotected sex? from unplanned pregnancy? All we may be able to agree is that all children deserve good parents—and that few teenagers have the resources to be the best. Our own experiences and what we’ve seen happen to young parents and their children inform this belief and establish it as a crucial one for us to impart. Decisions about which pregnancy prevention programs to fund must begin with a look at how well each program allows for teens to be seen as whole human beings who need Truth with a capital T: they want to know who they are and need to understand what their lives and their children’s lives can be, and how choosing when to become a parent affects all of these. Programs that mimic the milieu of a healthy, enriched lifestyle, with all its complexity of self-awareness, supportive relationships, and opportunities to shape their own lives, are harder to define and study, but extrapolating from findings of simpler programs show us that in the long run these holistic programs are those that will go furthest in changing the culture of teen pregnancy.

Down the block in my prosperous middle-class neighborhood lived a cheerful Catholic family with three lovely blonde daughters. They attended one of the nearby parochial schools, where they participated in sports and theatre and fundraising, for which they’d appear at my door twice a year selling flower bulbs and garbage bags. Their parents took them camping nearly every weekend in summer, to football games on Sundays in fall, and shuttled them to their array of extracurriculars in between. When my daughter was small, they’d baby-sit for us, and later they became reliable pet-sitters.

One spring day the oldest turned up pregnant, and their loving but shell-shocked father broke the news at an Easter potluck another neighbor was hosting. “Give that man another beer,” our host commanded sympathetically: parents and former teens all, we knew any of us could end up in his shoes. His daughter’s dismayed beau was several years older, and there was no talk of marriage, but the young man and his family wanted to raise the child. Our neighbors, however, insisted on adoption, debating only whether open or closed was better. To this, our other neighbors from across the street had resounding advice: “Open is the way to go.” Their own two children had regular contact with their respective adolescent birth mothers but enjoyed the stability, luxuries, and abundant love of two middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated parents who had the time, money, and perspective to share their advantages.

I found myself explaining this concept to Kashmir, another sixteen year old, just weeks before her maternity leave was to begin. Kashmir had a temper that other girls had found notoriously easy to manipulate with catty comments, but she’d come a long way in learning to keep herself from reacting, and she was usually sweet and hard working. Her home life had seen some upheavals, but she had support, particularly from a grandmother whose message on her answering machine always gave me solace when I reached it: “Please leave us a message, and I hope you’ll have a blessed day,” she’d recorded, a standard greeting in those parts except for the warm inflections that made me believe she really meant this good will for whoever called, as she did for her boneheaded, good-hearted granddaughter. I’ll confess I also liked Kashmir because she was fond of telling me I was one of the best teachers she’d ever had.

Kashmir was frankly baffled when I explained about my neighbor’s daughter, her counterpart in the ‘burbs, healthy and moneyed and part of an intact family. “But why doesn’t she want her baby?” she pressed. “Why doesn’t her family keep it?” I explained the party line: it’s hard on everyone for teenagers to be good parents. But later I found myself thinking about the differences in their circumstances and the unquestioning acceptance of the “right” way to do things on either side, and I wondered, why indeed? The answers are complicated, the intentions nearly always honorable, and yet the long-term consequences of giving up a baby, as for keeping one, deserve continual reassessment.

And now my own daughter has reached puberty, high school, and her first, tentative romantic relationships with boys, all in a time when the average age of first sexual intercourse has dropped below seventeen. I joke that we will have to lock her in her room until she’s twenty-five, but in reality I keep an eye out and talk about abstinence and condoms. “Yeah, I know, I know about all that,” she assures me impatiently, but I repeat myself, any occasion I have, in case the time comes when she has to make quick decisions and welcomes that internally ready repertoire of choices. I can only hope she really does know, because beyond that, the choices will not and should not be easy.

[This is an excerpt from a longer work. Names and some identifying information in this story have been changed.]

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