By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
In the hit movie "Juno," cheeky teenager Juno MacGuff wants nothing to do with her baby once it's born. "Can't we just, like, kick this old school?" she asks the prospective adoptive parents. "Like, I have the baby, put it in a basket and send it your way, like Moses and the reeds?"
That about sums up Hollywood's attitude these days toward being young, single and pregnant by mistake. It's no big deal. Just have the darn thing. Then you can find, as Juno did, some rich young professional woman who will happily take it off your hands. Or, like Alison in "Knocked Up," you can raise it with the doofus who's the father. (Now, there's a relationship that will last.)
And, of course, if you're real-life Jamie Lynn Spears, you can just hand the baby over to Mama so you can get on with being a teenage Nickelodeon star. And then be idolized by other teen celebs like "All My Children" actress Leven Rambin, who gushed to a reporter, "I love Jamie Lynn! I just think it's awesome that she's having a baby."
Awesome for whom? In all the media hoopla over young, single mothers (did we mention "American Idol" star Fantasia Barrino? Or pregnancy themes in "Degrassi" and "Gossip Girl"?), little attention has been paid to what happens to the babies.
Researchers know considerably more about this than they used to, and the news is anything but awesome. Hollywood can have all the fun it wants, but the prospects facing the children are decidedly unfunny.
Juno's baby may be among the lucky ones: Adoptive parents who clearly want a baby and have the emotional and economic resources to support one can give a kid a decent chance. But most babies born to single parents don't get adopted. Most don't have fathers around to help out. Their moms are more likely than married moms to move around, live with multiple partners, drink, smoke, suffer from depression and struggle financially, according to various analyses of federal statistics.
The babies are more likely to be born premature than babies in two-parent homes, which sets them up for health problems. They fall behind in elementary school more often than other children, continue to lag in school, drop out of high school and, if male, get in trouble with the law.
Of course, a single mom can raise a remarkable child. She can surround her child with other caring adults, including, hopefully, the father. She can closely monitor the child's progress in school and his or her friendships. But doing these things while supporting the family financially "takes a lot out of the mother" and, by extension, her child, says Jennifer Manlove, a senior research scientist at Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center.
Natalie Nichols, a former teenage mom, remembers such days well. A straight-A student living with her parents outside Boise, Idaho, Nichols gave birth to a baby boy named Mackenzie at 17. Thirteen years later, she winces at some of the things she did back then. She left the baby alone in their house once while she walked to and from the post office two miles away. She cursed at him frequently.
He was an early talker because she talked to him a lot, she says. But once he started elementary school, he had problems and eventually started seeing a counselor.
"I tried to be the best mother I could be, but I was so young," she said in an interview. "My kids [Mackenzie and a little brother who followed] were well fed and clothed, but I was not nurturing their emotional growth."
Nichols's memories prompted her to become a volunteer parent on the upcoming NBC reality series "The Baby Borrowers." In that series -- not as entertaining as the recent young-mom movies but a whole lot more real -- Nichols and her husband turn over two of their children -- first a baby and, later, a toddler -- to a teenage couple for three weeks. Viewers get to watch not only the baffled teens and the parents (who observe everything remotely via a closed-circuit TV system) but the babies themselves, who cry as often as they smile. A screaming, teething little boy or a little girl who vomits her breakfast brings home to the teens that their little experiment is not just about them.
"The hardest thing to realize," Nichols said, "is that as a parent your every single act or word is creating the mother, father, wife or girlfriend and member of society that your child will grow up to be. I'm still trying to fix what I messed up."
It's a conundrum. Few of us would want to bring back the shame that pregnant girls of the past endured, even if it would keep some girls from "getting in trouble." Girls and young women who become pregnant need our support, not our derision or indifference.
But how can we slow the growth of unwanted pregnancies, which, according to research, have increased slightly and now make up one out of three pregnancies? Or the growth of births to unmarried mothers that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have jumped 20 percent since 2002, to 1.64 million annually, a record high? Many young people are by nature focused on themselves. How can we expand their focus to think about what would happen to a child that they brought into the world?
Sixteen-year-old Sydney Greene, gathered with other teens in a downtown Washington office to watch a preview of "The Baby Borrowers," is not optimistic.
"People think more about STDs than babies," she says.
"It's not a lack of compassion on their part," says Marisa Nightingale, senior director for media programs at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "Just dealing with yourself in high school is a big deal."
Perhaps teens -- and young women in their 20s -- can be made to see that there's a simple way to avoid the whole issue: Make sure they don't get pregnant by using contraception every single time they have sex or by not having sex in the first place.
Unfortunately, a lot of young people think of sex, pregnancy and babies as separate items. Heck, some older people do, too. "They're like the people who get excited about planning a wedding but don't think about what it means to be married," Nightingale says.
She continues: "At all ages we could benefit from a deeper understanding of how unplanned pregnancy can affect children. Leaving it out of the conversation is to everyone's detriment."