After we wrote about Colorado’s success in cutting teen pregnancy rates, more than 100 people responded to our questions about their experiences as a teen parent or as the child of teen parents.
Storyline will continue to feature individual stories over time, but to read these responses as a whole, one entry after another, is to be deeply moved by their honesty. These words of mothers and fathers — some still raising toddlers, many looking back at their experiences with the perspective that only comes with time — are wrenching, inspiring and challenging. They’re odes to parenthood, love letters to sons and daughters, expressions of regret – not for the lives of their children, but for the limits of their youth.
Above all, they are testaments to perseverance.
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“We do not hear the success stories often, and when we do, it almost seems people fear that by telling them, we are somehow encouraging other teens to become parents,” writes Christina Martinez, 34, who writes Life, Interrupted, a blog that offers support to young parents and who is part of the #NoTeenShame campaign on Twitter. “I don’t look at it that way. I think by sharing our triumphs, we are encouraging other young families to dream big and aim for success and balance.”
The stories of readers serve as a reminder that generalization is easy but the details of individual lives are much more complex.
“It’s the idea that we are so broken that help is beyond our reach,” writes Tanya Robinson, 37, of South Carolina., who placed her two children up for adoption. “There are those that think still, that being pregnant as a teen eliminates most, if not all, of our ability to think responsibly. We understand that being pregnant so young adds tenfold to the issues that we face as a teen. We also understand that by choosing to carry a baby full term means that we become a part of a systematic statistic, not only in our communities but also in society as a whole.”
The desire to avoid becoming a statistic ran through many of the responses. In some cases, it fueled a streak of defiance, a lifting of the chin and setting of the jaw that said: Judge me all you will; I will prove you wrong.
“There is always that feeling that you failed,” says Margarita Serko, 32, of Los Angeles, whose daughter is 13. “Failed your family’s expectations for you, failed yourself, became another statistic, another single mother on the block. I was fortunate to have been surrounded by an extremely supportive family. But every time explaining to people that ‘No, I’m not a babysitter, and this is not my sister,’ I would get the pity look. The truth is that I was more fortunate and happier than they were. I had a little anger, my engine, my fuel that was giving me endless power to move forward and achieve.”
Responses came from those who lived in poverty and those who did not, from those with families who supported them and those with families who ostracized them, from women forced into unhappy marriages and women who married high school sweethearts and, years later, are still married.
We heard from women who wished they had been able to make time and find money for college and those who went on to get multiple advanced degrees. Readers offered reflections from across generations, parents of the ‘60s, as well as those of the 2010s. In that way, the stories also served as reminders that teen pregnancy is always viewed through evolving social norms and economic contexts.
But across all generations, to be young, pregnant and single is to be a target of judgment. These mothers have never forgotten the high school administrators who refused to allow them to walk with the rest of the class at graduation, the teacher who set a desk outside her room because she did not want to teach a pregnant girl, the baby shower denied, the turned back of a onetime friend.
“We live in a society that prefers to pass judgment on people they have determined make poor choices rather than a society that values helping people overcome their prior choices,” writes Alicia Brown, 33, a registered nurse, graduate student and mother of a 15-year-old and 16-year-old.
Sometimes the harshest judges were the parents themselves.
“The saddest thing about being a young parent is that you have nothing to offer your children but yourself and you are only partially formed,” writes Kimberly Kattas, 46, of Ohio, who married at 15, divorced at 23 and had six children by the time she was 21. “By the time you’re mature enough to be ready to parent, and cherish the chore of parenting, your children are grown. And you’ve made all the mistakes that you can never take back no matter how many times you apologize, or how understanding your now-adult children are — you only have that lame excuse, “’I was only a child myself.’”
But if it all the responses had to be reduced to the most dominant theme, it would be this: My child gave my life focus. My child saved me from myself. My child was my strength.
“She made me want to be better,” Candice Schmitz, 29, of Mount Washington, Ky., says of her 15-year-old daughter, Becca. “She made me want to be a better person. And I had to do that for her.”
Readers offered much encouragement to young parents, and Michelle Robles, 37, of Yonkers, New York sums it up nicely. Robles is an administrator of special education for the New York City Department of Education. Her daughter, Maylene, soon will turn 20 and is in college.
“You can choose for your life to crumble around you and watch your dreams go down the drain, or you can choose to stand up and press on,” she writes. “You decide when it’s over. Life is full of challenges, and having a baby is one, but it is not the deciding factor to your life story.”