By Matilda Kreider
I’m sitting in a classroom in my high school with a girl I’ve known since middle school, preparing for an interview. We are the same age and we grew up in the same town, but our lives exist on different planes. I’m still just someone’s daughter, but she is someone’s mother.
With that knowledge in mind, I expect things between us to feel strange, but they don’t. Charlene is as kind and easy to talk to as I remembered, and with no baby in the room, it is easy to forget how different our lives are. Halfway through the interview, though, Charlene’s mother walks in with baby Valeria, and suddenly the room expands to fit two new generations.
Teen motherhood is treated like a curse more than a blessing, but to be someone’s parent is still a remarkable joy, as evidenced by Charlene’s mom, who is glowing while watching Charlene, and by Charlene, who is happily holding Valeria on her lap. The presence of her baby has transformed Charlene into a Wonder Woman type, constantly giving Valeria attention while still giving thoughtful answers to my questions.
Why do we reduce these special kinds of teenagers to anything less than they are? Balancing school, jobs, and children and still trying to sneak in something fun that resembles the average teenager’s life is incredibly difficult and should be admired, not put down. But there’s a reason we discourage teens from following this path.
Becoming a mother during the teen years is undoubtedly difficult. Though older mothers are not guaranteed to be more prepared for motherhood, they are more likely to have completed their education and reached financial independence. The burdens of child care and financial support often fall upon the families of young parents while the teens themselves are trying to stay in school or earn an income.
Charlene’s mom, also named Charlene, doesn’t seem like she holds a grudge for the extra burden, but Charlene tells me that she was terrified to tell her mom about her pregnancy. Her mom had had her at the later age of 27, and she had done a lot of things to try to prevent a teen pregnancy from happening. “I thought she’d, like, kick me out of the house or something, but she didn’t,” Charlene remembers. “She would just cry every time she would look at me.”
When she first learned of her pregnancy, Charlene seriously considered other options; she didn’t have a good relationship with the baby’s father, and it didn’t seem right to bring a child into the world into a bad situation. After deciding against an abortion, she considered adoption but then realized, “I didn’t want her to think [that I didn’t want her] because I always told myself if I gave her up for adoption that I didn’t give her up because I didn’t want her, I gave her up because I couldn’t care for her. I was in high school, it was hard, no one was there to help me.”
Of course, she is now happy with the decision she made, and it isn’t quite as hard as she expected, perhaps due to the addition of a new, more committed boyfriend. “My mom is there, you know, my boyfriend’s there for me and everything. And, you know, it’s easy now.”
Raising Valeria on a day-to-day basis may be easier than Charlene expected, but everything that comes along with being a mother could stand in the way of what she wants for herself. Charlene knows that she is going to have to make sacrifices to achieve her goals, and she only hopes that Valeria will come to understand her decisions. Compared to the average teenager whose career goals involve making a lot of money, her motivations really are noble. She knows even more than the average teenager that education is less a rite of passage and more a ticket to a better life.
“I know some teen moms, they just drop out of high school, and that’s the worst thing you could ever do,” she explains, her tone final. “Because if you go to school and get an education, you can give her everything you could want, everything she wants. If you don’t have an education, you can’t get a career, you can’t give her what she wants or what she needs. It’s gonna be hard.”
Either way, it’s going to be hard. For young mothers like Charlene who hope to get an education, the odds are not stacked in their favor. Only 40 percent of teen mothers complete high school, and only 2 percent earn a college degree before the age of 30. Yet the teenage idealism is still there in Rodriguez, who looks at her future the same way that any teenager does. She thinks realistically about what may have to change, but she doesn’t foresee failure in any scenario.
“In all honesty,” Charlene declares, “I think I will be able to finish college because if they have daycare, I can always put her in that. And I have some other people that can help out.” That kind of simple, practical approach may be indicative of her naivete, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work, especially with a mother as dedicated to education as Charlene is.
If many teenage mothers approach education with that mentality, why are so few of them successful in obtaining high-level degrees? It could be that the right support is not there for them; in a country without paid maternity leave or affordable childcare, it is certainly not easy to work, study, and parent all at once. If one out of the three has to go, it’s not going to be the job or the child. There will never be more than 2 percent of teen moms graduating college if nothing changes on a societal level; schools and workplaces should be encouraging young parents to achieve, not making it harder for them to do so.
For her part, Charlene thinks our high school is doing a good job helping her get to graduation. She’s enrolled in a program called Horizons that allows students to attend school for only half the day and follow a different curriculum, and she credits the program with keeping her in school. Still, our high school limits all students to 13 absences for each class period per 90 day semester, and though Charlene has no chip on her shoulder about this, it would be reasonable to be frustrated. 13 absences is fair for a teen who just wants to stay home and sleep, but it seems stingy for a young parent who might need to stay home with a sick child or to give her mom a day off from babysitting duty.
Sadly, a lack of education is harmful to more than just the teen mother herself. Nearly two-thirds of families started by teen mothers will be poor, and the children may not escape this cycle of poverty; two-thirds of children born to teen mothers will graduate high school, compared to 81% of children born to older parents.
As a mother, Charlene expects more for her child. When asked about her hopes for Valeria, Charlene looks down at her and seems to think out loud, saying, “I hope that she does not go the same way I did.. That she goes to school, does well in school, goes to college. I hope she does what she desires. Whatever she wants she should be free to do. I hope everything goes well for her when she’s growing up.” To hope that no obstacles fall in your child’s way is only natural for a parent, but teen mothers have more to be concerned about than any other demographic.
This dire outlook could make one wonder if girls like Charlene have “ruined their lives,” as the oft-repeated warning goes. A baby is a blessing, but a baby born to a teen mom is a crisis- what a strange way to be brought into the world. With big dreams of getting her degrees and buying herself a house, Charlene doesn’t seem to think her life has been ruined, but she is very open and honest in saying, “I don’t think you should be a teen mom because it’s pretty hard for me, and if it’s hard for me, then I guess it would be hard for any other teenager.” She doesn’t regret having her baby, but she wishes the timing had been different.
Though the statistics are not a comfort, Charlene seems confident that she’s on the right path. One day, she hopes Valeria will be grateful and “understand the fact that she has a good mom with her and her mom did everything she could because I’m trying to do everything I can.”
Though that sentiment is the most mature thing I’ve ever heard come from a teenager, I’m reminded that Charlene is really a kid when she compares her journey to something straight out of driving school. “If you get in that right lane, don’t go left, because everything will just go downhill,” she advises. “But if you go downhill, just know if you have the right support, you can get back up there again. Because that’s what happened to me.”
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published as part of my Capstone project, a magazine called "Introducing..." and has been adapted for The Buzz. It is a particularly prevalent piece in a school with a student body that typically contains 4-5 student parents at a time.