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Great Expectations for Young Mothers

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The Gloucester school teen pregnancy spike in teen pregnancy rates is the latest fodder for the media’s reporting of an increase in the number of teen pregnancies in both the U.S. and the U.K. The first such rise in more than a decade, it has been called ‘disturbing’ (1) that in 2006 the teen birth rate in America increased, for the first time in 15 years, according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

The “trend” has been blamed on Hollywood—both the personal lives of the stars like Britney Spears and her 16-year-old pregnant sister Jamie—as well as movies such a “Knocked Up”, “Waitress”, and “Juno.”

Worldwide, rates of teenage pregnancy range from 143 per 1000 in sub-Saharan Africa to 2.9 per 1000 in South Korea. After a decade of abstinence-only sex education, the US teen pregnancy rate is 53 per thousand, twice the rate of any other industrialized nation (WHO).

Are the concerns warranted?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), single mother births are surging among women ages 25 to 29 but teenagers account for only 23 percent of these births.

Looking at the larger picture, teen marriage and childbearing was the norm and still are in much of the world, from 13-year old Juliet Capulet to 15 year-old Pocahontas. “Most of us would find our family trees dotted with many teen marriages. Marital durability has more to do with the expectations and support of surrounding society than with the partners’ age.” (2)

David Popenoe, author and director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University seems to agree, reporting that “in the developed nations the situation is different. The networks to help the teen mothers, composed of grandmothers, large, extended families, intimate neighborhoods, and working fathers, are seldom in existence….Under modern conditions, teen pregnancies are considered not a blessing but a curse.” (3)

Is adoption a solution?

Rep. Larry Liston believing that a lessening in the stigma of pregnancy outside of marriage is part of the problem, was criticized for commenting: "In my parents' day and age, (single teen parents) were sent away, they were shunned, they were called what they are. There was at least a sense of shame. There's no sense of shame today. Society condones it. I think it's wrong. They're sluts. And I don't mean just the women. I mean the men too."

His comments drew heavy fire, leading to an apology. Yet, despite all of the hullabaloo, the American teenage pregnancy rate was actually at an all time high in the 1950s.

Pregnant teenagers face many of the same obstetric issues as women in their 20s and 30s. However, teens are known to be prone to poor nutrition, insufficient pre-natal care, premature births and low birth-weight babies. U.S. rates of premature births climbed steadily during the past two decades reaching an estimated 12.8 percent of births in 2006, government figures show. More than 540,000 babies were born premature that year.

Adoption—which can only occur after the birth—does not prevent or even reduce these risk factors. Conversely, delaying childbirth increases several risk factors for infertility. Fertility treatments that result in multiple births and older mothers contributed to the rise.

For mothers between 15 and 19, age in itself is not a risk factor, but additional risks may be associated with socioeconomic factors. Concern is raised that teen mothers will not finish school and will therefore be subjected to – and subject their children to – a life of poverty. However in a five-year longitudinal study that compared the lives of adolescent mothers, 116 of whom chose to parent and 76 of whom chose to place their first child for adoption the two groups differed little in educational attainment. No significant group differences were found in the psychological measures of well-being. Although relinquishers are more likely to be employed, their earnings at the five-year follow-up do not differ from those of partners. The authors conclude that the decision to parent or relinquish does not set the course for these young women's lives. (4)

Amidst all the concern over women having their children while they are young and fertile – “babies having babies” – there is little concern about women who wait too long and face infertility, take fertility drugs and have large families all at once in their 40s or 50s….a “trend” that might be considered at least equally as “disturbing” in terms of the health of the mother and the child as well as the cost to society, as premature high-risk births require millions of dollars in medical treatment at birth and special education for the school life of the child.

Young mothers are often told that they are being selfish and should allow others—more mature, married, and financially “stable”—to raise their child. The irony in this is that neither marriage status, nor finances are guaranteed to remain as they are – one of the realities shown in the film “Juno.” Are young mothers anymore selfish to want to have their families when they are younger and complete their education and career later in life, than those who chose the reverse, risking not be around to see their child graduate college?

Perhaps it’s time to reorder our priorities. The exact window for chronological perfection is 20-30. But as with weight few of us fall within the ideal. While no one would advocate fourteen year olds or younger parenting, neither is 40 or older optimal. Each has benefits and challenges. Single mothers by choice, of a more “appropriate” or acceptable age, are also struggling with finances, day care and many of the same issues as are younger moms. And, when they cannot succeed in becoming pregnant, they adopt – taking a child from another single mother.

The uncle of Jamie Lynn Spear’s baby’s father in an interview calmly recognized that it was not the best idea for her to be pregnant. But he said, “It’s also not the worst thing that could happen.” With support, the best can be made of an untimely situation. Fantasia Barrino, for example, went from single teen mother to winner of American Idol to Broadway in the starring role of Celie in The Color Purple.

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Mirah Riben is a human rights activist with a focus on families, children and adoption reform. She is author of two internationally acclaimed books - "shedding light on...The Dark Side of Adoption" (1988) and "THE STORK MARKET: America's (more...)

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