Some Thoughts On Teenage Pregnancy
A residential services charity gives teenage moms and pregnant teenagers a place to live. “We give the girls a place to live where no one will judge them,” the woman began her spiel to me and my Americorps friends.
But then she went on, “Sometimes the girls come back to us two, three times, each time with a new baby! I don’t understand it. ““Once, I can understand. You get carried away in the moment, and well… ooops. But two or three times just can’t be an accident. I’ve wondered about this for a long time. Why do they do it? I think it must be about the men, at some level. Maybe they have babies because they think it will make their boyfriends value them more.”
A few days later we were talking about prejudging people, and a friend made an acute observation. “That woman began her speech by saying she never judged the young woman. Then she spent the rest of her speech doing just that,” my friend said. I turned around and stared at her, my mouth twisting in thought. When I thought about it, she was absolutely right. But why hadn’t I noticed the same thing?
We are so used to judging people in bad situations, that most of the time we don’t even realize we are doing it. Judgement is everywhere. The people working at Alternatives for Battered Women also spoke out against judgement. “The friends and families of these women usually judge them very harshly. It’s always, ‘You’re such an idiot not to leave him.’ They don’t understand, it’s not that easy or simple.”
A pregnant teenager was in the library the other day, and my coworker, Ms. V, called her over to give her a few words of advice. I couldn’t hear any of the conversation, except for a stray phrase, “So the next generation will do better than this one.” It’s the girl’s expression that lingers in my memory, a mixture of shame and gratitude, eyes bright with barely leashed tears.
I don’t really know anything about teenage pregnancy. I’ve heard some stories from my friend Kara, who volunteered at Planned Parenthood for their rape crisis hotline. On her way into the building, protestors would see her and shout, “Dyke!” and “Baby-killer!” Kara is a fiery feminist with a lot of courage. I don’t know if I have that much courage.
On the bus this morning, a pregnant teenager sat next to me. I was staring out the window, daydreaming, not paying attention to anything around me. My reverie was rudely interrupted when I was enveloped by her noxious cloud of perfume. I nearly gagged on the stench of bubblegum. She was dressed in the hottest of hot pinks, a matching purse covered with flowers. “What a tasteless color,” I thought. Then I noticed her condition.
I remember my supervisor saying, “Why do these boys want to go around with their butts hanging out of their pants? They’re saying, ‘Notice me!’ They’re letting their pants fall down because they want people to pay attention to them.” A generation is being ignored, someone told me. I certainly would have ignored her, if her perfume hadn’t been so loud.
Suddenly I saw the tasteless pink outfit in a new light. She dressed herself in the color of Pretty Princess backpacks little girls wear to school before they outgrow Disney and fairytales. Her clothes were like a gallantly colored little flag being waved against a tide of encroaching darkness. A bright color, a strong scent are ways of saying, “Notice me. I matter!”
Every month Americorps members meet for “Member Development Day.” This October we watched a documentary, called, “Juvvies,” about teenagers being tried and sentenced as adults. They interviewed one inmate who had an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. “I didn’t ask for the baby to come,” she said, “But the baby didn’t ask to die.” A couple tears rolled down her face. “I kilt him,” she said, in the helpless confusion of someone who cannot bring herself to believe, This is me, this is my life.
But was it any easier for the other girl? They asked her, “How do you feel, knowing you will never watch your son grow up?”
“I feel terrible,” she replied, watching her baby play, with a terrible longing in her eyes.
“How will he feel, growing up with a mother in jail?” they asked her, and she couldn’t answer.
Driving around town with my parents this weekend, I saw the protestors Kara had told me about from the car window, holding up their tattered collection of signs. “Stop Baby Killing,” said one of the signs. If they want to stop baby killing, why are they standing around holding signs? Babies aren’t killed because there aren’t enough people to hold signs. The world has plenty of righteous indignation. What we lack is the imagination which makes compassion possible.
All of us are so young. A bare hundred years? That’s not enough time to grow up. We’re all children– all of us are children. There should be someone to look after us. But there isn’t. Only ourselves. We’re all a bunch of babies looking after each other.
They told me, working in this neighborhood, I would be working with rough, tough, mean kids. But so far they don’t seem any different from the kids I went to high school with. The same stores of carefully cherished dreams. The same teasing, the same sensitive egos, balanced by an overwhelming sense of camaraderie among themselves. I’ve been warned about fights and gang violence, obscenity and insolence. But isn’t that also an expression of that mute cry, “Notice me! Notice me!”
“I will not be overlooked. I am important. I matter.”