One of the adolescent mother's brothers described the change in the family this way: "They started giving her respect. She started trying to better herself. We tried to help her." The grandparents paid for baby-sitting while the mother finished high school. Her brother and sisters and her mother care for the baby.
These families are confronting a crisis. They are troubled families, but something very healthy is happening within them. "It's clear the infant gets a better deal by remaining in the family of the mother," says Dr. Salvador Minuchin, director of the family therapy center of the Philidelphia clinic. "The family network is functioning very much like models in other cultures in which the family units is the extended family.
"This system needs to be looked at in terms of benefits and deficits. Then we need to look at who is benefited and who is disadvantaged and in what ways. If the target is the infant, I think for the first year there is no doubt that there is benefit to having the extended family situation. If we look at the adolescent, there is benefit when they stay in the home. They tend to finish school. The deficit is the family tends to create difficulties for the couple to form. When the mother and infant remain in the family, the family retains control over the life of the adolescent and prevents formation of new family."
The arrival of a new baby in the family creates what Minuchin calls the honeymoon. "It seems that the adolescent becomes much more responsible, that the problems she has had with the family recede, and there is a period of harmony, of nurturing to the infant." The honeymoon could be over as swiftly as the baby turns into a toddler and the adolescent mother gets into fights with her own mother and siblings over disciplining the baby.
Unwanted children have cost us billions over the years as we've tried to care for them through adoptive and foster homes and institutions. What we have here are wanted children, children conceived in a climate that once suggested abortion, children whose mothers have chosen to keep them and whose families have chosen to help. Black families have done this for generations while white families have somehow rationalized that it is more virtuous to give away than to receive.
These wanted children will cost us billions, too, over the years. Many of the mothers haven't finished school, have no training to support themselves or their children. These are mothers and families who depend on such programs as Aid to Families With Dependent Children, Medicaid, Work Incentive, food stamps, material and child health clinics, parent-teaching courses, subsidized day care.
These programs have traditionally focused on the mother and child as isolated problems, not as members of a larger family. They have never drawn on the wisdom and experienced of the grandmother or sensed the potential for family conflicts between grandmother and mother. The Teenage Pregnancy Act just passed by Congress for the first time mandates that the various programs seek to involve the fathers of the children and all other family members whenever possible.
Research in Baltimore and Philadelphia is showing us that the longer these unwed mothers stay with their families, the more inclined they are to finish high school and train for jobs. Public sentiment has come to a point where unwed mothers feel they can keep their babies. Clearly, their families have come to a point where they are willing to let the adolescent mother bring her baby home and are willing to help.
Work being done at the Family Impact Seminar showcases the change in attitudes over the past 20 years and the new realities. And it also argues that public policy needs to catch up to public sentiment, that there must be changes in expensive social welfare programs that fail to draw on the strengths of families, that offer financial incentives to teenaged mothers to set up their own households and reduce funds and services to mothers who remain at home. They simply don't make sense any more.