Teen Mothers - Mothers Week on BTR


Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The third season of 16 and Pregnant will end soon, but according to the latest tweets by cast members of sister-program Teen Mom, MTV might be ready to feed its hungry audience with the latest season of the hyper-popular series by June.

Three days ago on The Dr.Oz Show, the stars of Teen Mom, Maci, Leah and Kailyn discussed the “glamorization” of teen pregnancy that, according to the show’s critics, is a side effect of the MTV series. Does the show raise teens’ awareness of the risks and the problems deriving from irresponsible sexual intercourse or does it depict teen pregnancy as an alluring and desirable condition, even as a gateway to celebrity?

Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s sister and one of the first American teen moms to earn a spotlight in 2007, recently turned 20 years old. OK! Magazine owes its best selling issue to Jamie Lynn, when she gave the magazine an exclusive photo of her newborn child, Maddie, for a reported compensation of $1 million.

On that occasion, before MTV started airing shows such as 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, both in 2009, the issue of glamorizing teen pregnancies was brought up by Newsweek in an interview with OK!’s executive director Rob Shuter. He was asked about the message he thought OK! was sending to its young readers through a cover that read “Being A Mom Is The Best Feeling In The World.”

“We don’t set out to be the moral authority. We try to present the facts and let our readers decide,” Shuter replied.

The media’s approach towards famous teen moms came up again when The Associated Press reported that 20-year-old Bristol Palin was paid $262,500 by The Candie’s Foundation for her appearance in the foundation’s PSAs.

Bristol Palin, daughter of former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose pregnancy was announced while her mother campaigned with John McCain in 2008, is now a teen ambassador for the promotion of sexual abstinence for Candie’s. According to Forbes, Palin’s fee amounts to seven times the sum Candie’s granted to educational programs for the prevention of teen pregnancies.

In one of the announcements in which she appears, Palin says that hadn’t she been born into such a wealthy and supportive family, her condition as teen mom “wouldn’t be pretty.” Reading the claim of Candie’s campaign for abstinence, she instead invites teens to “pause before they play.”

Once again, discussion on the issue plays on the opposition between what is alluring and glamorous about teen motherhood versus what is not. The focus of campaigns such as Candie’s is on the benefits of sexual restraint rather than on the importance of sexual health awareness and education.

According to Planned Parenthood’s Reducing Teenage Pregnancy Factsheet for 2010, the U.S. needs a long-term teenage pregnancy prevention media campaign that addresses the consequences of sexual behavior.  “At present, most major networks do not air commercials or public information campaigns about sexual health.  An analysis of the sexual content in television, magazines, music, and movies popular among young teens found very rare depictions of sexually healthy behavior: 12 percent of all popular media content was sexual in nature, but less than one-half of one percent discussed or portrayed sexual health,” the report states.

Ashleigh Hill, social worker with runaway and homeless teenage mothers at The Night Ministry in Chicago, firmly believes in the importance of sexual education as a part of a holistic education.

“Most of my clients got pregnant and have had multiple children with no formal sex education and it scares me because it makes them and their children unsafe. It also debunks this idea that if we teach people a lot of things about sex, they’ll go out and have it. They have it anyway,” Ashleigh tells BTR. “Maybe they’ll have less or safer sex if they’re trusted with the truth.”

Ashleigh believes that the media coverage of teen moms is not representative of the majority: “Even when the media is showing how hard it might be to be a teen mom, it’s still somehow glamorized.”

About the Candie’s PSA, Ashleigh comments: “Palin is right that her privilege and money makes it easier. She probably has no lack of free childcare and could pay for very good care, if she needed to. She doesn’t have to fight so hard, which is not the same as so many other girls.”

Sydney, 17 and mom of 1-year-old Skylar, knows that very well.

“Sometimes being a teen makes it harder to support your child because often jobs won’t hire anyone under 18 years old. That’s probably the only things that my age affects in the raising of my child. It may not seem like a lot but it definitely affects me. Currently, I am living with my mother and she helps me with the financial part. Being underage, I can’t get my own place but I do what I can to help my mother,” Sydney tells BTR.

The life of a teen mom balances adulthood and childhood with difficulty. “I’ve seen so many girls stay up all night with a crying baby, only to get up at 6 a.m. in order to eat and leave with enough time to drop their child off at daycare and get to school. In addition to all that, there’s homework and studying that has to be done in order to get through school. I honestly don’t know how so many of my clients do it. I know they state again and again that their children are blessings to them but it’s also incredibly hard,” Ashleigh tells BTR.

Social stigma is hard to fight, even when you are doing your best to succeed as a mother and accomplish important goals for your own life as a teen, such as finishing school, working or going to college. “We always warn our clients they need to keep in mind that, no matter how wrong it is, they will be judged more harshly because they are teens. Some people see them as a drain on the public aid system and think they should have been more responsible and avoided pregnancy,” Ashleigh states.

The financial burden of teenage pregnancy on taxpayers is an issue to take into serious account. According to a report published in 2004 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the social cost of teen childbearing on the American Public Sector amounts to $9.1 billion a year. The sum comprises health care and foster care for children of teen mothers,  total tax revenue losses due to lower earnings of parents and children themselves when they are adults and offsetting public assistance savings costs for teen mothers.

Nonetheless, not all teen moms are living on food stamps, relying on public housing or welfare payments. As 19-year-old mom and blogger mytimesnevercheap writes on her Tumblr: “I graduated high school, I am enrolled in college, I work, I pay my own bills, I am a single mother therefore I take care of my daughter alone, I am not white trash, I don’t exploit my daughter and myself on Teen Mom so don’t treat me like one of those girls.”

Teen mothers on Tumblr are a very large group: ”I follow at least 280 teen moms or moms in general on Tumblr,” Sydney tells BTR. Most of these girls don’t look at all like the MTV reality-moms and feel the need to discuss it.

”I haven’t watched any of those shows,” Sydney says. “I think they are insulting to teen moms such as me because they only show teens who are complete wrecks and don’t know how to handle motherhood. Granted, I understand the media wants an entertaining show because no one wants to watch a teen successfully raise their child, but I consider those shows absurd.”

The real teen moms, as opposed to those on television, find it very useful to relate with each other online, to access information and advice on parenting that otherwise would be hard to collect. It’s hard to learn how to be a mother through MTV, but on Tumblr, teen moms can share their experiences. It also helps to know that you are not alone.

“The only reason I have a Tumblr,” Sydney continues, “is to broadcast my story, my advice, my opinions and to see how other moms are handling their lives. Tumblr does help me. I often ask my followers questions and them being mothers themselves; have amazing advice that have helped me in several situations.”

Written by: Francesca Giuliani