Teen pregnancy is one of those topics people rarely discuss, and it is associated with way too many stigmas. With the stats backing these negative stereotypes, teen parents and families don’t get a fighting chance from the very start.
It was an uphill battle for me when people heard I wanted to start a family young by choice. In her book Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families, Nicole Lynn Lewis shines a light on teen pregnancy and breaks down the systemic barriers facing teen parents and families, showing these obstacles don’t have to be there.
Whether accidental or planned, teen pregnancy doesn’t have to be taboo. In the following article I will share my own experience as a teen mom and review Lewis’ book.
Becoming a teenage mother
I started trying to conceive at 18. I had family help, but for the most part, I moved ahead on my own. There were services available, but I felt bad for using them because I asked for this. I bought into every possible stereotype about black women and assistance. I strongly believe I could have succeeded sooner had I not been so ashamed and short on awareness. At the end of the day, I was doing what I was supposed to—providing, working hard, and improving my life.
Today, I have 3 children and both my dream careers, as a writer and a doula with my own business. I’m married, and we have a beautiful home. I love my household, and it’ll continue to grow. I’m a senior finishing up my college degree in human services, something entirely different from my original planned field of study (more on that below).
I love learning about societal issues and helping people break down barriers. I wouldn’t change wanting a family young for anything. The stigmas were overwhelming as most people assumed I fell pregnant by accident due to lack of knowledge and carelessness. Even until this day, some assume I say I did it on purpose to save face. The idea that people would want to have families and children at a young age is frowned upon.
I won’t deny it came with its own set of challenges. I do feel they were a combination of lack of societal support and age-related issues. That said, I still hope to continue changing the narrative around young people having children and families, whether on accident or on purpose.
Teen pregnancy facts
At present, teen pregnancy rates in the United States are trending downward. The teen birth rate falls to a new low every year. The CDC indicated that in 2017, the birth rate for mothers aged 15-19 was 18.8 live births per 1,000 women. This was a drop of 7% from 2016. In 2018-2019, the birth rate fell by 4%. By 2019, statistics show that the teenage birth rate within this group stood at 16.7 births per every 1,000 women.
The reason for this downward trend isn’t entirely clear, but there has been a rise in comprehensive-based education (versus abstinence-only education) and greater access to birth control. There have always been disparities in many of these social issues, and teen pregnancy is no different. BIPOC communities face teen pregnancy at a higher rate than white communities.
The author of Pregnant Girl does a great job of exploring the issue of systemic racism and the role it plays in teen pregnancy. Teen risk-taking in communities of color—especially due to environmental factors, poverty, familial issues, lack of access to extracurriculars, and safe places—often leads to issues like substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, and teen pregnancy. These problems stem directly from major social issues that can be changed with advocacy to make more people aware. Equitable access to programs that gear young families toward success would make a difference in this nationwide narrative.
Preventing teen pregnancy
At the end of the day, teen pregnancy isn’t always the goal, and there are many healthy ways to prevent it, especially if it’s simply a result of teen risk-taking. Solving some of these systemic issues with education and advocacy is a crucial part, but what can we as parents do?
- Keep the lines of communication open with our teens. Having open and honest conversations with teens about their body lets them know you are a line of support. Having someone to talk to about sex can help curb curiosity. I remember having so many questions about sex, and, to my detriment, my peers were the ones teaching me. Discussions are going to happen, and we should be our children’s first and safest line of defense.
- Let teens have ongoing comprehensive sexual education. Abstinence-only education has long been proven to produce the opposite effect. When we equip our young people with the information to make informed choices about their bodies, the rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teen pregnancies decline, which is the long-term goal.
- Promote preventative health care. Although this is part of comprehensive sexual education, it deserves its own bullet point. In 2021 especially, we must talk about the use of condoms to prevent unintended teen pregnancies and STIs and vaccines such as HPV vaccine. Furthermore, STI testing should be a regular part of health care.
Pregnant girl: A story of teen motherhood, college, and creating a better future for young families
Nicole Lynn Lewis takes a look around her at the age of 19 and 5 months pregnant and fails to recognize herself and her life. As she sits contemplating the lowest point of her life, she feels the out-of-body experience of being THAT pregnant girl. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and even though she did what America calls “all the right things” (for example, birth control), she fell pregnant again. She found herself juggling college and an infant while dealing with the systemic stigmas and obstacles before her. This is the reality of many in our society—the overlooked population of teen parents.
The painful clarity that I was now instantaneously different—inherently bad. Other. I was one of those girls, eroding the American family and American society and disappointing everyone who ever cared about me. It happened quickly and without question or hesitation—the transformation from good to bad girl, from right to wrong, from destined for greatness to destined for failure.-Nicole Lynn Lewis
These words ring so true to me. Pregnant girl was hugely empowering. As someone who has been there, I found that it helped bring peace to certain aspects of my journey while offering support. I’d venture to say that the author’s reflection on her journey helped me get rid of some stigmas I was still struggling to shake off.
I vividly remember that feeling of failure and the perception of “here goes another one.” I was a double major at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG), the closest and best music school. I came from high school with credits including first chair in my local symphony and my school orchestra. I was an amazing writer, so I was also majoring in English. I picked up French so well that I made it my minor. I wasn’t a newbie to the campus as the teachers at UNCG had already seen me in several competitions in the previous years.
I don’t say all of this to brag but to highlight the immense pressure of having an entire small city rooting for me and then feeling that I’d failed them.
The nuance of this work directly correlates with the nuance that exists in a subject like teen pregnancy. Societal issues such as intergenerational poverty, violence, and systemic racism are often root causes of teen risk-taking and thus teen pregnancy and early parenting. Lewis dives deep to shed light and educate others while also striking down the stigmas people attach to pregnant teens.
I truly believe this is a pivotal piece that can help those who are or have been teen mothers. Not only is it a story but a call to action. This book guides us to what we can do to make resources accessible in order to promote success for these families. Young families deserve equal access regardless of the moral high ground from which people view their decisions.
It took a huge amount of courage for Lewis and others to share their stories and advocate for themselves and others like them. Parenthood is enough of a challenge as it is. As Lewis notes, it’s time we as a society came together to advocate for change in support of teen parents facing these extra obstacles while feeling like outcasts.
Best tips for teen parents to make it through
Carrying a baby at a young age changes your life and outlook. The one thing that weighed on my mind the most is that I wasn’t afforded what I thought were the luxuries of people who were “actually old enough to be parents” because I saw myself as less than.
Here are some tips for young people who have to overcome the challenges of becoming a parent in early adulthood:
- Seek local resources: Don’t be afraid to research your local resources. They are there to be used. During pregnancy, a woman deserves the very best medical team. Access to food such as stamps and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program is beneficial. If you need help finishing college, the organization founded by the author, Generation Hope, is a great place to start.
- Have or create a support system: My parents died at an early age, and my partner’s parents aren’t super involved other than his stepmother. Therefore, I’ve had to create a support system from scratch, but it doesn’t make it any less special or effective. Support systems don’t have to be huge, and everyone doesn’t have to be deeply involved. Every person has their own function within the system.
- Stay positive: Parenting at any age is not for the faint of heart. Stay positive and always celebrate the small achievements along with the big ones.
- Forget the naysayers: In my years of motherhood, I’ve learned something extremely important—people will always have something to say regardless of what age you are when you begin your parenting journey. So, ignore the naysayers and always do your best because that’s all that can be asked and expected of you. You don’t have to do things the way your parents or grandparents did. Follow your own path.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Pride can get the best of you because you are fighting against statistics and negative societal expectations. All the noise around young mothers can often deter them from asking for help. Don’t let this be the case with you. It doesn’t mean you are any less, and you’re still proving them wrong. Seek help if you need it, and make sure it’s not at the last minute.
- Self-care: For young and old alike, self-care is a must of parenthood. As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup, so always take care of yourself first.
Call to action for society
Lewis’s memoir features another character that might go unnoticed: society. In telling her story, she also beautifully weaves in a call for more. So, what can we do as a society for these young people who deserve more from us?
- Educate: The first step to addressing any problem will always be educating yourself and others. Most community members don’t even understand the struggles of pregnant students and the obstacles that lead up to “this symptom,” as Lewis names it. Looking into what systemic racism is and its effects on society as a whole and researching adverse childhood experiences would be a great start. It’s important to share what you’ve learned with others and get the conversation going.
- Support: Let’s dispel the myth that supporting teen mothers and pregnancies will lead to more pregnant teens. It’s false. Every person deserves support regardless of when they enter parenthood and how. This type of thinking has done an extreme disservice and allowed a population of students to go unheard and suffer unnecessarily.
- Share resources: It’s easy to think with the existence of the internet has made resources easy to find and utilize, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Help share local resources and make sure that those in need have access to them. Sometimes, those who know about the resources may not have the means to utilize them for some reason, say, transportation barriers. We can help by making sure these resources are readily available in the communities that need them.
Teen pregnancy is a topic fraught with stigmas and stereotypes. Exploring what it means to be pregnant and looking at your options through a black lens, Lewis breaks it all down in her book Pregnant Girl, which comes highly recommended.
If you have time to read and teenage children or w2ork with teens, it’s a great read that sheds light on important issues. It resonated deeply with me as I looked back on my own experience. As a society, we have a job to do in removing the stigmas of teen pregnancy and early parenting so we can provide better support in all areas.
What advice would you give a pregnant teen? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
- Circumstances leading to teen pregnancies prior to the completion of school vary.
- There's a negative outlook often unfairly presented to teen mothers.
- With the right support, young parents faced with similar choices and obstacles can also pursue their goals.