On Becoming a Teen Mom: Life before Pregnancy

On Becoming a Teen Mom: Life before Pregnancy

by Mary Patrice Erdmans, Timothy Black

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In 2013, New York City launched a public education campaign with posters of frowning or crying children saying such things as “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen” and “Honestly, Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you.” Campaigns like this support a public narrative that portrays teen mothers as threatening the moral order, bankrupting state coffers, and causing high rates of poverty, incarceration, and school dropout. These efforts demonize teen mothers but tell us nothing about their lives before they became pregnant.

In this myth-shattering book, the authors tell the life stories of 108 brown, white, and black teen mothers, exposing the problems in their lives often overlooked in pregnancy prevention campaigns. Some stories are tragic and painful, marked by sexual abuse, partner violence, and school failure. Others depict "girl next door" characters whose unintended pregnancies lay bare insidious gender disparities. Offering a fresh perspective on the links between teen births and social inequalities, this book demonstrates how the intersecting hierarchies of gender, race, and class shape the biographies of young mothers.

Editorial Reviews

Adolescent Research Review

"Informative . . . the book reveals the important role of research in understanding phenomena that people believe they already understand, and how empirically based findings can make a difference."

CHOICE - Y. Besen-Cassino

"Written in accessible language and full of rich interviews and personal narratives . . . A valuable addition to sociology and gender collections."

Women's Review of Books - Ruth Sidel

"... first-rate, illuminating... On Becoming a Teen Mom examines the lives of teen mothers prior to pregnancy... [and] analyzes the factors and circumstances that contribute to unmarried young women having babies..."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283428
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/06/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

On Becoming a Teen Mom

Life before Pregnancy

By Mary Patrice Erdmans, Timothy Black


Copyright © 2015 Mary Patrice Erdmans and Timothy Black
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95928-6


The Distraction


Ivalesse was born in Connecticut, raised in Puerto Rico, and returned to Connecticut when she was 13, becoming pregnant two years later. The interview was conducted in a weave of Spanish and English. Ivalesse and her two younger brothers were adopted when she was young. Her adoptive mother had a ninth-grade education and her adoptive father finished sixth grade (she refers to them as her mother and father). At the time of the interview, Ivalesse was 20 and had two children. Her story illustrates many of the themes developed in subsequent chapters: strict parenting strategies, child sexual abuse, partner violence, impoverished and neglected neighborhoods, inadequate schools, and barriers to contracepting.

I was sexually molested when I was a child by a friend of my family. I had to be less than six years old. He used to molest my brother too. Every time that guy used to come, we used to hide each other. I haven't seen him for like so long and honestly I don't want to see him. I tried to black it out. It's like I put it to one side of my brain, decided I don't want to be bothered with that section; it's like I don't want to remember anything. What I want to do is, I want to forget.

* * *

My mother's really caring for her children, she's really loving, you know, she's there when you need her. She never turns her back on you no matter what. She's what we call the perfect mother because she, she's, she's everything. She's the head of the family even though we have my father.

My mother would never hit you, she talks and she lets you know you did it wrong. My father is the one that likes to hit. He's the one, if he gets out of control, he'll hit you with whatever he finds—one time he actually hit me with his hand and he had a big ring. He slapped me right on the mouth and I got cut. My mother's more of a calm person, she knows that hitting you is not going to solve anything. What it's going to get you to do is catch that anger, hold it inside so you're going to hate them.

My mother has to see what's going on with a situation, but my father, his word is the last thing. I used to clean the kitchen and mop the floor every single day, and my mother let me go out to a friend's house three streets away, and so one day I said, "I'm done with the kitchen will you let me go out with my friends?" My mother was like, "yeah sure it's no problem," but when [my friends] came to pick me up, [my father] didn't let me go. So, my mother wanted to give me a little more liberty, but him, no. I think that's one of the reasons I got my boyfriend and had my children, you know, I didn't have any liberty. I didn't have any privacy, [my father] is coming to check all your drawers, whatever you have there. And I don't think that was fair you know.

* * *

I'm in high school now; this is my senior year. I'm going to graduate as a CNA [Certified Nursing Assistant] and [with] my high school diploma, so I'll be able to get a job and then go on to college. The high school I'm at doesn't have books. They're so behind. They actually have come out in the papers that we're the worst school in Hartford. They don't have the supplies for the school, um, the teachers are, well, you know, high school is supposed to educate for two stuff in life: it's either to confront the real world outside the school, [or] for college—and we're not getting that type of education.

I'm a pretty good student, not an honor student, but a pretty good student. I was supposed to graduate last year but I didn't have enough credits, so the only reason I go to school is to get those three credits—math, USA history, and civil rights and biography—so I'll be able to get my diploma. That's all I really care about. My certification for CNA I'm done with.

I took general courses until my sophomore year. In my sophomore year, this teacher was doing a presentation about the Allied Health Group and one English teacher tells me, "You should get into the Allied Health. That'd be good for you, you have a kid and when you finish school you would be able to have a job and then if you want to go on, you would go to whatever college is here." It was not a bad idea. And actually, because that teacher, I have my CNA certification when I graduate.

I never dropped out. When I got pregnant [at age 15], I was in eighth grade for my daughter; then for my son I was in high school already, so I didn't drop out because they [my parents] were like, "If you drop out of school you aren't going to be anybody. You're going to be working in a factory and we don't want you to do that. We want you to go to college or if you don't go to college, just please finish school, things are going to be so much easier for you." So that's what I'm doing, I was like, hey it's true if I don't want to work in a factory when I just make what, $7.00 an hour at minimum wage. No. I prefer to have a job that pays well and, like, CNA is a job that so many people depend on you and it's in the health care. It's a pretty good job. Then you go to college and you get to be an RN. So those are the plans that I have right now. Just keep going. I have to do for my own, nobody else is going to do it for me.

* * *

Luis is my husband. [He is the father of both her children; they are not legally married.] He is in jail. This is his second time. He was in for 10 months; he violated the probation so he's back in again. He always calls or he writes. I go to see him like twice a week, depends what days I have off. He's in the Young Man's Institute and thank God it's not that far, but what I do is one day I bring his son and the other day I'll bring his daughter. So he gets to see them. His daughter actually gets to talk to him.

I met him at West Side Middle School. We were in seventh grade. He's older than me by a few months. In science class I noticed he was looking back and so one day he decided to ask me out. I started laughing. I was like No. And after that we started just being friends. We used to talk, we used to make fun of stuff. I think it was for his birthday, at school, I kissed him and after that I was trying to help him out with schoolwork and everything so he started coming to my house. I started showing him to my parents, you know, he was my friend and everything and then he asked me out and since then our relationship started. We used to do everything. We used to play like little children outside. We used to talk for hours. We used to get together in a group, all our friends and stuff like that. So it's been six years now.

* * *

I went to the doctor because I always had a regular period and he comes and tells me, "Well, you're pregnant." I started laughing in his face and I was like, "I'm sorry I'm not having any children right now, I'm too young." Luis was scared, he didn't know what to do, he didn't tell his mother. He didn't want anything to do with me, so um, after a while we started realizing, hey, this is no joke. It's like ok you have to be more mature and even if you're 15, you have to grow up years older and that's what I did. I was like okay this is no joke and I have to do it myself, and that's what I do. That's why I go to school.

My mother was crying, she was like, "How you could do this to me?" My father wanted to kill him [laughing]. After a while it changed. Hey there's nothing we can do. What's done is done. I think parents have their own faults because if you don't have communication with your children, I mean, how are you going to tell them what sex is all about. If you don't do that, they are going to find out on their own. I think that's what happened with us. I discovered everything on my own; I think that's one of the problems.

* * *

Hartford's not good. I just want a place where I can prosper and my children can move forward. Hartford doesn't have any jobs, they don't have programs for children. I don't have any neighbors. I live in a building that is next to the highway and I only had the factory next to me [laughs] and the people came to fight over here. The projects are there, and the police are always there. They burned a car or they stole a car or they take all the parts of the car. One time a girl fell asleep, the little boy knocked over the lamp, there were clothes on the floor and they caught on fire. One time it was a couple selling drugs here; they took them. Another man who lived by himself had problems with alcohol, he started a fire. And then another couple had a fight in the parking lot of the factory and they were talking, rubbing in each other's faults in each other's faces and I cannot sleep. Of all the places, they come here and I have to wake up at seven o'clock in the morning because I'm opening [at Walgreen's]. The police came and took them, they come here all the time. That's why I don't want to be here.

* * *

This month I started to cashier at Walgreens. It's only part-time because I go to school. I started working when I was 16, in a factory. That was a summer job only. I was a machine operator and maintenance [laughs] so I have tried everything. A job is a job, it doesn't matter how low it is or how honorable, it's a job. You can always earn a little money.

In Walgreens I get eight dollars an hour. I like it but you are always angry because you have to work with a lot of customers. The people yell at you, they fight, they think that everything is your fault. You try to be nice, try to have smile on your face, but sometimes you cannot. It's really different in a hospital, because in a hospital you give a smile to a patient that's sick, that person appreciates you way more than a person that you give a smile in the store, they don't care. So it's a real difference. I get more satisfaction in the hospital.

I think as long as you have a job, the more beneficial it is for you because then you're responsible, you're able to work. I don't ask nobody for money, I am the one who gives the money. I don't ask nobody for money I just try to make it on my own.

* * *

When I was 18 I got pregnant again so I had an abortion because I couldn't have another kid. When I got pregnant with my son [at age 20] that was the difficult part, you know, for [my parents] to still help me out. They haven't turned their back on me. So that's pretty good. I think I'm really fortunate to have my parents, you know, help me out.

If I could be young again I would try to take life slower, not to live it all at once, because I think that's what I tried to do. The boyfriend—that's normal—but having children—I should've wait, I should've.


On June 2, 2008, Nick Carbone, a 71-year-old former deputy mayor of Hartford, Connecticut, was brutally beaten by young street ruffians on his way to breakfast. Three weeks later, a photo of Carbone appeared on the front page of the Hartford Courant, his face still swollen and scarred, with an article identifying the factors that he believed "fueled urban violence: predatory lenders; teenage pregnancy; incarceration; the release of inmates into the city; failing schools and judicial systems." There were teen mothers—sandwiched between predators and criminals—listed as one of the "root causes of urban poverty." A few months later, Bill Cosby made an appearance at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford and placed a number of social problems—burgeoning black incarceration rates and an overburdened foster care system—on the shoulders of black teen mothers and absent fathers.

Why teen mothers? Where does this idea come from? Not, it would appear, from the numbers. Only a small percentage of teenagers are actually having babies. In 2008, 4 percent of teens 15 to 19 gave birth. Nor has this rate been increasing. Beginning in 1991, the rate declined continuously until 2005, when the teen birth rate was less than half of what it was when it peaked in 1957 (see figure 1). And although the rate increased slightly in 2006 and 2007, it continued to decline in 2008 and by 2010 it was at its lowest in recorded history.

The decline in the teen birth rate is a result of fewer pregnancies, and not more abortions. Both pregnancy and abortion rates have been declining in tandem with birth rates (see figure 2). Abortion rates have declined steadily since the late 1980s, and the percent of pregnancies that were aborted declined from roughly one-third in 1990 to one- quarter in 2008. In that year, only 7 percent of teens 15 to 19 had a pregnancy and the pregnancy rate was at its lowest since 1976. So, where is the problem? Fewer teens are getting pregnant, fewer teens are having abortions, and fewer teens are having babies.

One reason for the concern is that, despite the decline, the US teen birth rate remains considerably higher than most advanced industrialized countries: three times the Canadian rate, seven times the Swiss and Danish rates, 11 times the Dutch rate, and even two times higher than predominantly Catholic countries like Ireland and Poland where abortion is illegal except under extenuating circumstances. But then, the United States does not compare well with these countries on a number of measures—poverty, inequality, incarceration, medically uninsured, or infant mortality—and these issues do not evoke the same moral outrage as teen motherhood. In short, teen birth rates are lowest in areas where there is less inequality and higher welfare benefits; and compared to other advanced industrialized nations, the United States has higher rates of inequality and lower levels of welfare support. And, not surprisingly, higher rates of teen births.

Perhaps what underlies much of the preoccupation with teen motherhood is that most of the births are out of wedlock and represent what Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) defined as "the calamity of illegitimacy in our generation." At the peak of teen motherhood in the 1950s, about 80 percent of teen mothers were married; by 2007, over 85 percent were unmarried. This upward trend in unmarried teen births started in the black community (bolstering narratives of black urban pathology); however, as sociologist Frank Furstenberg pointed out, "black women were only at the vanguard of a new pattern of family formation" since both white women and nonteens, especially women in their 20s, are now increasingly having children outside of marriage. By 2007, 40 percent of all children in the United States were born to unmarried women and less than a quarter of these births were to teenagers (see figure 3). On this issue, European comparisons do not set off alarms. In the same year, at least one-half of births in Sweden, Norway, France, and Iceland were to unmarried women.

Despite this growing trend, unwed mothers are not equally distributed across class lines; they are more likely to have lower incomes and less education. Marriage is still considered the norm for college-educated, middle-income adults, and this contributes to the continuing negative attitude toward unwed mothers. In a 2008 national survey, two-thirds of the respondents believed that the trend in "more single women having children" was a "bad thing" for society.

Perhaps another reason teen mothers attract attention is because they have been commodified in television programs such as 16 and Pregnant and its sequel, Teen Mom. The emotional traumas that often accompany unintended pregnancies create drama that sells products. The commodification of "celebrity" crisis was blaring on one magazine's headline: "TEEN MOMS IN CRISIS" (all in caps with fire-engine yellow block letters). Underneath was written, "Accusations of neglect for Amber: 'The baby nearly fell out the window!'" Stakeholders and the general public have suggested that there is a "craze" among high school youth because Hollywood has "glamorized teen pregnancy." We find no evidence, however, of a "craze" in the declining teen birth rate. And while these programs may create celebrity for a few teen mothers, they do not glamorize their lives. These shows are morality tales, not fairy tales. In most episodes, the fathers of the babies leave or talk trash about the mothers; the pregnant teens get fat and argue with their parents; and once they have the baby, the programs are a reminder that a baby is a pooping and crying full-time responsibility. In fact, studies have shown that teens and parents believe these shows depict a negative image of early, unplanned pregnancies, and one study even suggested that the show has contributed to the downward trend in teen births.


Excerpted from On Becoming a Teen Mom by Mary Patrice Erdmans, Timothy Black. Copyright © 2015 Mary Patrice Erdmans and Timothy Black. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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