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In Another Era, Teen Mom Was Cautionary Tale

By Donna Britt
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page B01

Every high school, I bet, has at least one Cheryl Saunders. A girl who isn't just one of the prettiest around, but one who has the nerve to be smart, popular and even nice.

Like lots of girls at my Gary, Ind., school back in the '70s, I wondered what it would be like to be Cheryl: gorgeous, intelligent and blessed with a longtime adoring boyfriend. So I'll never forget learning that the girl who had everything was going to have something completely unexpected:

A baby. At 16. More than three decades later, my 10th-grade best buddy, Sharon Brown, remembers that we spoke of the news "in whispers." Cheryl getting pregnant was "like someone dying," she recalls. "It was devastating."

Other girls, we thought, had babies. Wild, sly or thoughtless girls whose pregnancies caused them to disappear into "night school," a mysterious netherworld that absorbed kids who fought too often, committed petty crimes or found themselves "expecting."

If Cheryl was pregnant, we realized, it could happen to anybody.

I thought about Cheryl the moment I heard "Baby Mama," the R&B song by "American Idol" winner and unwed mom Fantasia Barrino. In a recent column, I admitted appreciating the song's embrace of women who could use a hug. I also cited disturbing statistics about millions of children whose lack of contact with their fathers contributes to them dropping out of school, committing crimes and abusing drugs and alcohol.

Although some readers felt that my column was too kind to teenage mothers, others felt that I was "judgmental" toward women who choose motherhood without husbands. Both sides had a point.

No smart person would deny that happy, well-adjusted single parents can be better caregivers than miserable couples. Few would suggest that responsible adults never should choose single parenthood.

I just can't get past a line in Barrino's song: "Nowadays it's like a badge of honor, to be a baby mama."

A badge of honor? I remember when it was more like a badge of shame -- and a pretty effective deterrent. I wouldn't want today's teen mothers to face the oft-crushing stigmatization of that era, but two things kept many girls I knew from having high school-age sex:

The specter of our parents' faces if we became pregnant. And Cheryl Saunders.

I had to track her down. The voice on the phone was warm and precise, with a businesswoman's perfect diction. Cheryl Williams is an assistant professor of business at Concordia University, a Christian college in Irvine, Calif. A former volunteer with pregnant teenagers, Cheryl said she'd love to discuss differences between "baby mamas" today and in the 1970s.

Becoming pregnant at 16, Cheryl recalls now, "was ignorance -- it was only the first or second time we fooled around." Terrified, she went straight to her "pretty strict" parents, who, after the pregnancy was verified, said: "We love you. Don't feel bad about yourself."

They then called the family pastor, who told Cheryl: "God loves all of us."

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