Laurie Toby Edison

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Teen Mothers: Defining and Determining Their Own Communities

Laurie and Debbie say:

Probably because May has Mother’s Day in it, it’s also “National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month,” which might as well be called “National Hand-Wringing Month.”  To talk about teen mamas, let’s start by remembering that the teen birth rate has declined almost continuously over the past 23 years. In 1991, the U.S. teen birth rate was 61.8 births for every 1,000 adolescent females, compared with 29.4 births for every 1,000 adolescent females in 2012. In addition, nearly 20% of these teen births are young women having second babies, so the number of teen mothers is even smaller.

Many of these teen mothers are 17-19, ages that at the younger end are considered adulthood in many cultures, many places around the world, and many communities in the U.S. At the older end, these women are simply adults. Marriage at 18 without parental permission is legal in 49 of the 50 U.S. states, and with parental permission it can be legal as young as 14. Many teen mothers are married. Laurie was not far out of her teens (21), and married, and a successful businesswoman who had been financially independent for years, when she had her first child, and (to say the least) has no regrets.

Nonetheless, the most talked-about and criticized case is the unwed pregnant teen, who chooses to have and raise the baby. People make this decision based on all kinds of familial, cultural, and financial influences, and it is a decision that is frequently shamed and rarely respected. Mary Louise Kuti-Schubert and Natasha Vianna have something to say about what this is like.

Before our high school graduations, we were juggling the internal and external difficulties of being teens while flourishing into devoted young mothers raising babies. It was incredibly hard to be a teen and harder once adding the role of loving caregiver, but we also knew it was rewarding. We imagined how difficult it would be to give birth and raise a child, like any parent, but were dedicated to our mamahood….

From needing to use a WIC card at the grocery store only to face rude stares or having to leave school early to pick up your child only to be greeted by glares of disappointment that it took you so long to arrive, there was always something. There is this high expectation that we need to do it all alone, yet we are held to these low expectations of what we’re actually capable of doing.

This is the classic description of a “double bind,” a rope around your wrists that tightens painfully whichever direction you move in. Move towards your schooling, and you’re a bad mother (“we knew you’d be a bad mother; you’re too young”). Move toward your baby and you’re irresponsible (“we knew you couldn’t hack your schoolwork with a baby”).

Kuti-Schubert and Vianna conclude, as so many people in double binds have concluded before them, that building, maintaining, and relying on community is the only answer:

Having the ability to virtually connect with mamas and allies who were ready and willing to listen and support us have been a crucial part of redefining and improving our community. We aren’t limited to our physical environment but can turn to each other at any time for some guidance, for some advice, or just to talk.

And through our experiences, we know there are times when the support we needed to keep pushing only came from one person or one organization, but this patronage helped us so much. Our motivation to be good parents could be fully ignited when we have that boost of confidence from our community and ourselves.

What young mothers need is two-fold: respect, and support. That’s why it’s so terrific to see these young mothers speaking for themselves, demanding and expecting the respect they deserve, and creating and nurturing their own support.

Thanks to Veronica Bayetti Flores at Feministing for the pointer.

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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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