Ever since MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” debuted on June 11, 2009, the show has been plagued by controversy. Though created by Lauren Dolgen, the network’s current Executive Vice President of Series Development, to stimulate progressive dialogue around the topic of teen pregnancy, detractors have criticized the reality program for glamorizing the issue, as well as the teen moms themselves.
But despite stories of girls who may have actually gotten pregnant on purpose just for a shot at their own 15 minutes of fame, we understand that there is nothing lighthearted or easygoing about being a teenaged mother. And in honor of National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, we’ve gathered feedback from moms who have experienced the full gamut of teen pregnancy and can offer the perspective and wisdom that a mother still in the throes of dirty diapers and algebra exams—or even a hit reality TV show—cannot.
It is said in medicine that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and certainly, when it comes to teen pregnancy, a tiny bit of forward thinking is worth months—or years—of frustration and heartache.
While much of the emphasis in teen pregnancy prevention is placed on contraception, Paula Usrey notes that had she been able to address her emotional shortcomings, she may not have conceived her son when she was just 15 years old, more than 45 years ago. “My home life [in inner-city Portland, Oreg.] was very chaotic, which really is an understatement,” she says. “I thought I was in love, but in truth I just wanted to feel loved more than anything. I wish I had sought out someone to talk to about what I was feeling so they could help me sort things out. I never thought about teen moms much; it wasn’t something I imagined happening to me.”
Usrey’s story is even more heartbreaking considering the cultural climate of the 60s when she got pregnant. “During that era, girls who got pregnant were considered bad or deviant,” she explains. “I was sent away to an unwed mothers’ home and was then forced to give my son up for adoption after he was born. Because adoptions were sealed during that era, I never found out what happened to my son. I was told to keep what happened a secret and to ‘forget about it.’ Believe me, although I was silenced, I have never forgotten.”
And it is for this reason that Ursey strongly advises teens to talk to someone about their emotions and circumstances—whether they are just considering becoming sexually active or have already conceived. “My advice is to seek advice from adults you trust,” she says. “Don’t just trust your feelings. Many women get pregnant even when they take precautions. Even though today’s teens have more choices, none of them are easy.”
On dealing with the stigma…
If there is anyone who is openly critical of the images portrayed on MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom,” it is Kellyann Schaefer. “What they show is often not a reality,” says the mother who gave birth to her first child at age 15. “They don’t show you what it’s like holding your head in shame to go to a free clinic to make sure your child is born healthy, or who holds your hand when you’re told your unborn child may have a health-related illness at birth. Or how hard it is to get a job, work and go to school at the same time.”
Now 41, Schaefer is long removed from the early struggles of teen pregnancy. She had to deal with her own shame and embarrassment that led her to leave her private Catholic school and start attending a public school, while losing all but two of her friends. And she had to cope with the initial rejection from her mother who told her that she “had” to have an abortion in order to prevent ruining her life.
But Schaefer’s experiences of having a child while still in high school and ultimately becoming a wife, nurse, entrepreneur and mom of four have given her a clear perspective for other teen moms: “Quite frankly, you can’t give a sh** about what other people think,” she declares. “All your mental focus needs to go into you and your child. It’s the only way you will both have successful outcomes.”
Even still, Schaefer adds, the title of “teen mom”—and the stigma that goes along with it—may follow young mothers forever. It is up to them, then, to resolve to do whatever’s necessary for the good of their family. “There are always people and resources out there that want to help,” she says. “Reach out wherever you can, but it starts with self-reliance and self-responsibility. No one can give that to you. Once you take steps to stay the course—be a good mother, get a job, go to school—you will be surprised how many chances and opportunities will pop up.”
On motherly support…
Regardless of the adult decisions that turn girls from innocent teens to moms-to-be, the reality is that they are still just children who, more often than not, need their moms. And while it was certainly tough for Adeodata Czink to discover that her daughter, an aspiring singer, was pregnant at 16, she still made the tough decision to support her while she raised her baby. “My mother disowned her and her father disowned her, but that gave me an even stronger feeling [to support her],” Czink says. “This is when the child really needed help, not when she was on stage, singing, and everybody adored her.”
Czink notes that her daughter did most of the work in caring for her son, but she was still there to help, babysitting when her daughter wanted to hang out with friends and reminding her when she needed to be back home to nurse. “I tell women to think of themselves,” says Czink, when asked how other moms should deal with their child’s teen pregnancy. “She is in big trouble, where is she going to turn? And when they shun her at this crucial moment, how are they then going to be ‘friends’ again? Family is there to be supportive at a time of need. Was it stupid to get pregnant in your teens? Yes. But it already happened, so the best a mother could do is to be there for her.”
Today, Czink’s grandson is a 19-year-old former junior chess champion who Czink says is “wonderful, handsome and kind.” And, indeed, his success story proves that even when prevention efforts fail and teens become pregnant, there can still be a happy ending when support is given.