For approximately 15 years, 11 months, and 30 days, I’d dreamed about my 16th birthday. I would wake up to a taller, curvier body. Perhaps my curfew would be extended, and maybe I’d even be allowed to borrow my mom’s car. Of course, none of that happened.
Instead, my 16th birthday brought with it a firm and incredibly prevalent belief among others that I’m a teenage mother, simply because of my age, race, and location. So incredibly prevalent, in fact, that most people ask if I have children before they ask if I am in school.
Although frustrating, it’s not surprising that this question comes first. In the last five years our teenage pregnancy rates have fluctuated between 5%-10% (resources report different statistics because most surveys are taken in school or at clinics where attendance is not guaranteed). However, although these rates seem to be low, Rochester is a large community. To breathe a little life into these numbers, three friends of mine gave birth over the last week. Another four found out they were pregnant. However, we convey our acceptance of this epidemic ( and yes, it is surely an epidemic) and allow it to be the norm when we lower our standards so much that every young woman is assumed to be a mother before a student.
I wouldn’t be as surprised if only the members of my own community jumped to this conclusion, no matter how inaccurate it may be. But only because in urban, poverty-stricken communities that have large populations of minorities, we are more likely to see an increase in teenage pregnancy over our more wealthy counterparts. However, the people inquiring about my ovaries and uterus are generally not limited to race, age, income, or gender. I have answered this question for those who have tinged it with judgment and have felt slightly ashamed, even if I’m not a teen parent. It’s embarrassing to represent a community so stigmatized, and even more embarrassing when I am stigmatized along with it.
So, how did we get here?
I have mentioned that a community that expects no more from its young women doing being a base for this epidemic. Instead of instituting programs and standards to keep youth from being idle (a large component of teen pregnancy), we wait until they are parents and then create programs. We have taken a reactive approach to this issue instead of a proactive (and more effective) approach.
Additionally, our abstinence-only health education did not prepare many students for the realities of sex. As a member of Safe Sex Inc., while teaching our peers about sexual activity, we encountered countless young men and women who did not understand how their actions could set them up for pregnancy. Many of these youths did not know how to put on a condom. A pro-active approach, which we are now seeing in our schools, would be to have a more holistic health education that speaks to the diversity of sexual backgrounds in any given class. Our one-size fits all approach did not work.
Finally, teenage pregnancy saw its popularity peak in the 90’s when most of the current generation was born. However, many of our parents never sought out the information to fully understand how they became young parents, nor to use it to keep us from being the same. And those who did understand may not have been comfortable talking about sex with their children.
Yet, we have now reached reproductive age. Our parents have shied away from us, whether from embarrassment or lack of knowledge. Our school district, desirous to not impede on our families and their responsibility, have opted for abstinence-only. Where does that leave us? We are dependent on the bad advice found on the internet, an irresponsible media that glorifies unsafe sex and the consequences of it, and friends who pretend to know a lot more than they do.
However, how do we raise our standards without young parents feeling judged (a common fear in youth culture)? How do we congratulate them on what is surely a blessing without furthering a mindset that is not only harmful to our youth but their children, and our community as a whole as well? It is a fine line to walk. We must create and actively encourage opportunities for community involvement and school excellence. By doing so, we reduce idleness, a large component of teenage pregnancy/parenthood. To see marked improvement, we must be willing to talk about sex. Shying away from it and pushing for abstinence has only gotten us here, into the second round of the teenage pregnancy epidemic. Our reactive approach will only lessen the strain of having a child so young, however, only a proactive approach will stop the problem altogether.