Misconceptions About Teenaged Mothers
Even as single motherhood has become commonplace in our society, and the stigma against out of wedlock births has disappeared, another prejudice has come to replace it: the bias against teenaged mothers.
Here are a few misconceptions about teenaged mothers:
- Teenaged mothers are less educated than other mothers.
- Teenaged mothers come from broken homes or are the result of bad parenting.
- Teen pregnancies are all unplanned and result in unwanted babies.
- Teenaged mothers are welfare recipients.
- Teenaged mothers did not have strong father figures.
- Teenaged mothers end up having too many children.
And, finally, last but not least:
7. Mature mothers, women who have waited to become mothers until their social position and career are established, make more reliable mothers than teenagers.
Theodosia Burr Alston
While some teen-aged mothers fit the negative stereotype, these descriptions are not all accurate for most teenaged mothers, and there certainly are, and have been, teenaged mothers in America about whom none of these assumptions are true.
I would like to focus on two historical figures from the American past to illustrate my points. These are both women I admire very much, and each of them became a mother when she was a teenager.
1. Many teenaged mothers are quite well educated
Theodosia Burr Alston was the daughter of Aaron Burr. She was educated at home by her father and was able to write fluently in Greek and Latin, as well as French and English. Aaron Burr was ahead of his time in believing that a young woman should be given the opportunity to receive the same education as a man.
When Theodosia was seventeen years old, and her father was about to become Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, (both had received the same number of votes in the electoral college while running for president), Theodosia married Joseph Alston, the governor of South Carolina. They honeymooned at Niagra Falls, the first American couple ever to do so. Their son, Aaron Burr Alston ("Gampy" for short), was born in the following year.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Some might argue that Theodosia came from a privileged background and was not a self-made woman. Many parents, when trying to deter their children from following the examples of celebrities, point out to them that what a rich and famous person may do is not acceptable in a person from a more humble background.
My second example lays to rest the notion that successful teen pregnancy is something open only to the privileged class.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was the daughter of a hard working frontier family. While growing up, Laura had no luxuries. Everything the family used, they had to hunt, fish, catch, build, grow and make. Except for sugar and coffee and some kinds of flour, almost all their food staples were home grown. Except for gingham cloth which they did purchase, almost all their clothes were home made. They built their own houses, cured their own meat, hunted their own venison and made their own butter and cheese.
Nevertheless, in this frontier home, there was also time for music, reading and book learning.
Charles Ingalls, Laura's father, played the violin. On cold winter days when nothing else could be accomplished out of doors, the family sang together, told stories, read the Bible and studied other important literary and historical works.
Much of Laura's education was acquired at home, although she did attend public school in DeSmet, when she was able. At the age of fifteen, Laura earned a teaching certificate and began to teach in one room school houses, where some of her pupils were older, bigger and rougher than she was. When she was eighteen years old, Laura married Almanzo Wilder and the couple began to homestead together. Laura's daughter, Rose, was born when she was nineteen.
2. Many teenaged mothers come from good homes
Both Theodosia Burr Alston and Laura Ingalls Wilder came from loving homes where their parents offered an appropriate mix of affection and discipline. Aaron Burr doted on his only daughter, but he did not hesitate to correct her when she made a mistake, whether it was a question of Latin grammar or appropriate decorum when acting as hostess to guests of state in their home. Theodosia's mother died when she was only a child, and Aaron Burr did not remarry while Theodosia was growing up. He took his role as a father very seriously.
Charles and Carolyn Ingalls were loving parents who did not hesitate to correct their children if they thought their behavior was inappropriate. Despite a strict upbringing, Laura was given the freedom to go out into the world at fifteen and earn a living. Laura was raised to be responsible and self reliant, and her parents trusted her judgments. She met her future husband during the period when she was teaching, and her parents did not interfere with the courtship.
3. Many Teen Pregnancies are Planned, and Most Babies Born to Teen Mothers are Wanted
I don't know that the teen pregnancies of Theodosia Burr Alston and Laura Ingalls Wilder were planned, but I'm pretty sure that they were not unexpected or unwelcome. In those days, couples didn't work hard tracking ovulation charts or wearing unusual underwear in order to ensure fertility. They did not know exactly when a pregnancy would occur, but it was common knowledge that pregnancy usually followed naturally within about a year of getting married. People who married were people prepared to start a family.
When we hear of teen pregnancy today, the prevailing assumption is that young women are interested in becoming sexually active, but have no desire to have children. When a pregnancy occurs, people think, it must be the result of carelessness. No teenager would actually want to get pregnant.
I can tell you from introspection that this is not necessarily true.
When I was nineteen, I had just graduated from college with a B.A. in foreign languages, and I was about to start law school. My grandmother took me on a special trip to Paris as a treat. In a park, we came across a group of little children. At the sight of those children, my heart almost overflowed with feeling, and I was overwhelmed with the desire to have a baby. It was a really strong emotion, and it never really went away. Not ever.
When I told my parents about it, they didn't take my desire to have a baby seriously. They thought I was too young, and I should just concentrate on my studies. I didn't agree with them, but I did as they said. My parents had nothing to worry about. I didn't even have a boyfriend.
However, a friend of mine, who was a year older, did have a boyfriend. She married at nineteen and had a baby seven months later -- a baby that was not premature. She had been the valedictorian of her high school class and was enrolled in college at the time, though still living at home. She was smart, well educated and came from a loving home. My parents were sure that she had simply gotten carried away with pre-marital sex. My view was different. I thought then, and still think now, that the only people who weren't planning that pregnancy were her parents.
My friend is still married to the same man. They have four children. The eldest of those children married before my daughter was born.
I had to defer my dream of becoming a mother for many years. When my daughter was born I was thirty-eight. I turned thirty-nine two weeks later.
I am very lucky to have my daughter. I just don't think the twenty year wait was absolutely necessary.
5. Teenaged mothers often have strong father figures in their lives
BothTheodosia Burr Alston and Laura Ingalls Wilder had strong fathers who were very much involved in their lives when they were growing up. Charles Ingalls became a good father-in-law to Almanzo, and Aaron Burr doted on Gampy.
My friend, the valedictorian who married at nineteen, also had a loving and involved father. Her parents had a good marriage and are still together.
Choosing to become a parent early doesn't necessarily indicate a girl has had trouble with either parent. Sometimes it just means that her parents set a good example, and she wants to follow in their footsteps.
Even though I didn't get to realize my dream to be a young mother, I, too, was motivated by my parents' good example. They were both great parents, and I couldn't wait to get started down that path, myself.
6. Teenaged mothers can be financially self-sufficient and do not necessarily constitute a burden on the public
Theodosia Burr Alston was married to a wealthy plantation owner who was also the governor of South Carolina. She was clearly not on the dole. Her father had a plan to make her Empress of Mexico, but that's a different story.
Laura and Almanzo were hard-working, self-sufficient homesteaders. They went through many hard times, but they were good parents, and they always provided their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, with what she needed when she was growing up.
Despite managing to save money for their retirement, the Wilders found themselves in financial difficulty later in life, due to the stock market crash of 1929. It was their daughter Rose who supported them and helped them get through this rough time. It was also Rose, a journalist and writer, who helped Laura to edit and then publish her Little House series of books. If not for Rose, the daughter Laura gave birth to when she was only nineteen, none of us would ever have heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
7. Women who give birth to their first child when they are teens do not necessarily end up having more children
I am concerned about overpopulation, and I have noticed that some of the hubpages dealing with this issue talk about how the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to use contraception to prevent pregnancy while she pursues a career. Education for women is the best way to lower birth rates, the argument goes, and the better educated a women is, the more she will postpone motherhood. The unstated implication is that the later motherhood is postponed, the fewer children women will manage to have, due to age-related fertility issues.
In fact, a woman who has an early pregnancy will not necessarily end up having more children. Theodosia never had another child after Gampy. When her son died in childhood of malaria, she was inconsolable. Sick herself, she boarded a ship to go visit her father in New York. The ship was lost at sea, and Theodosia was never heard from again. Her line died with her.
Laura Ingalls Wilder did give birth to another child after Rose, but he died in infancy. Rose was her only grown child. Rose left no children after her, so I think that we can safely say that Laura and Almanzo, despite their early union, are not guilty of overpopulating the planet.
7. Young mothers are more likely to survive long enough to see their children to adulthood and self-sufficiency
It can be argued that if people are going to make responsible choices about bringing children into the world, it is better for a woman to have her children early rather than late. Later pregnancies are more likely to result in birth defects, underweight babies, and pre-term delivery.
Despite the major advances in fertility treatments in recent years, waiting too late to become a mother puts both the child and the mother at great risk.
A case in point is the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who gave birth to her daughter Lucy Jane when she was forty-eight years old. Lucy Jane was extremely premature, despite the drugs that Wendy had been given to keep her from going into labor too early. For a while it was touch and go for the baby, who was in intensive care. Nobody can dispute Wendy's dedication as a mother, or the fact that her involvement helped Lucy Jane to thrive and overcome her problems. Eventually, Wendy was able to take Lucy Jane home, a beautiful, healthy baby. And then, less than seven years later, Wendy Wassersteinn died of lymphoma, a disease she probably succumbed to in part due to the drugs she was given in order to allow Lucy Jane to come into the world.
When I heard this story, it hit me pretty hard. I was thirty-eight when my daughter was born, and Lucy Jane and my daughter are of similar ages.
What would happen to Sword and Bow if I died unexpectledly?
After Wendy Wasserstein died, there were some hateful commentaries on the net, suggesting that this had happened because Wendy was "selfish". The commentators seemed to equate choosing to be a single mother with choosing to be single. There was the implication that if Wendy Wasserstein had wanted to, she could have married someone earlier and had a baby the normal way. Her deferral of parenthood, it was suggested, came from an unwillingness to compromise over the choice of a mate.
However, when Laura Ingalls married Almanzo Wilder, she wasn't compromising. She was in love, and the life they made together, despite all its trials, was a dream come true.
The problem with Wendy Wasserstein's choice to become a mother when she did was not that she was single. It was not that she wanted to be happy. The problem was that she was too old. At that age, she should have been a grandmother. Despite her best efforts, Wendy wasn't able to be there for Lucy Jane.
The Special Needs Child and the Older Parent
Lucy Jane Wasserstein is probably going to be just fine. She is living with her uncle and his family, and they will see to it that all her needs are met until she is ready to take responsibility for herself.
If I die tomorrow, my family will do the same for my daughter. Being orphaned is not good, but children survive such an experience, and even if there is no father, there is usually a family member who will look out for the child until the child is able to stand on its own as a self-sufficient adult.
The case of special needs children, however, is quite different. I know. Bow is my special needs child, and he will need help long after I am gone. Bow is a chimpanzee, but there are humans who face the same problem.
In the news recently there has been a lot about Sarah Palin, the current governor of Alaska, and McCain's choice of a running mate.
Some of the criticism has been centered on the reproductive choices that Sarah Palin has made, and about the choices of her teenaged daughter, Bristol.
Two facts bother the critics:
(1) Palin's daughter Bristol is seventeen years old and five months pregnant. She and the father of her child plan to marry after the baby is born.
(2) Palin's infant son Trig was born with Down's Syndrome. She was aware of the condition before he was born and chose not to have an abortion.
As I understand it, Bristol's unborn baby is healthy and without any special disabilities.
Of the two issues, the first seems entirely unproblematic. What Bristol and her boyfriend are doing is not so different from what teenagers throughout history have done when starting a family. Bristol Palin is not significantly different from Theodosia Burr Alston or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Whether the young parents marry before the birth, after the birth or during the birth makes no difference. Even if they don't marry at all, there is little danger that the child Bristol is carrying will be abandoned, malnourished or in any way mistreated. The parents are taking responsibility for the child, and there is no danger that the burden of caring for this baby will ever fall on the public.
The same cannot be said about Trig. In all likelihood, despite the best intentions of the Palins, Trig will need support and care long after his parents are gone.
Even though Sarah Palin is healthy and though she may have a long, productive life ahead of her, like Wendy Wasserstein with Lucy Jane, she will probably leave her youngest child before he is ready to support himself. This is because the lifespan of Down's Syndrome children has increased through medical intervention. In previous centuries, a Down's Syndrome child often did not survive to adulthood. Therefore, the burden of caring for such children, while it may have been heavy, could still be carried by parents during their lifetime.
Sarah Palin already had four healthy children when Trig was conceived. Given her policy against abortion, it seems odd that she didn't consider using ordinary contraception to prevent a fifth pregnancy this late in her life.
Contraception is less controversial than abortion, and it is a good tool for sexually active people to use, whether they are married or not, to avoid unwanted or problematic pregnancies. While I am less concerned that Bristol didn't choose to use contraceptives, I am far more concerned about Sarah Palin, since as an older mother, she must have known the odds for a Down's Syndrome baby in her case were higher.
The Burden of a Parent's Choice
I support the right to choose, including Sarah Palin's choice to maintain her pregnancy and give birth to her son. My concerns about Trig do not stem from a prejudice against people who look different, act different, or have a different number of chromosomes from me. All those things are true of Bow, and I am as dedicated to him as Sarah Palin is to her special needs child.
The legitimate public concern about every Down's Syndrome baby is: who will care for it when it is grown and the parents are no longer able? A perfectly acceptable question to ask Governor Palin is this: "What measures have you taken to ensure that when you are gone, other people and their children do not end up having to earn money, against their will and without their consent, in order to support your child?"
That was always the real issue behind the stigma attached to illegitimacy. It is the hidden reason that people still frown on teen pregnancies. It isn't that anybody really cares about anybody else's reproductive or sexual activity. What people want to know is: who will support this child?
Everybody has the right to have children. Nobody has the right to have them at somebody else's expense.