Teen-age pregnancy, When the mothers are also children

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I MAGINE for one exuberant springtime moment that you are 15, a sophomore in high school -- all your choices open, your life before you. Then suppose one thing more. You are a new parent, one of more than 10,000 teen-agers in the United States who will become mothers this week.

That single, ordinarily blessed event makes all the difference.

If you are like 97 percent of unmarried teen mothers, you intend to keep your baby. But you have no means of support and no child care available so you can finish this spring term, to say nothing of returning to school next year.

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If he is typical, the baby's teen-age father worries about his responsibility to you and the child -- but not to the point of marriage. What will you do tomorrow, next week -- for the rest of your life?

That is the hard, often heartbreaking question facing a majority of the girls who become part of the troubling statistics on adolescent pregnancy each year. With no diploma, no job, and no money, many find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependency that grimly circumscribes not only their own future but that of their children as well.

Poverty and dependency -- these two complex issues ran as constant threads through a recent three-day conference on adolescent pregnancy sponsored by the Children's Defense Fund at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here. Whatever the topic under discussion in seminars, workshops, and lectures -- education, job training, prenatal care, child care -- the talk kept coming back to money.

Finding ways to help young mothers deliver healthy babies is one short-term problem the speakers took up. The Children's Defense Fund, a private child advocacy organization, has just launched a five-year prenatal care campaign to combat infant mortality.

But the group is also lobbying hard to prevent proposed federal budget cuts that would reduce benefits to poor children and families by $5.2 billion. For the long-term problem that hangs over the young head of the teen-age mother and her new child is how to survive in a competitive society with her mostly minimal skills and her definitely expanded needs. The simple, daunting fact is that young female-headed families are four times as likely as two-parent families to fall below the poverty level. Any normal satisfactions of motherhood get buried in the scramble for the next meal.

Although teen pregnancy cuts across all social, economic, and racial lines, it takes its greatest toll among blacks, where 57 percent of all births are to single mothers. Many of these young mothers are daughters of women who themselves were teen mothers and are now becoming grandmothers in their early 30s.

In the first place it is harder for black women to get a job, and some observers argue that a double standard also imposes harsher social penalties on single black mothers than on single white mothers.

``Black women have a stigma attached to their parenting,'' says Daphne Busby, founder of the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers in Brooklyn. ``Mia Farrow and Vanessa Redgrave had babies, too. They're referred to as `love children.' They call them the new breed of mothers.''

Not that black teens are the only ones influenced by media images of famous single mothers. Farrah Fawcett and Jerry Hall are the latest glamorous examples to legitimize the status of unmarried mothers in the eyes of many girls, white and black.

Double standards, perceived or real, are only one small part of the difficulty. Of far greater concern to many is the lack of involvement among teen-age boys in preventing pregnancies and caring for children they have fathered.

The problem becomes acute among young black men -- a group with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. ``Black America has a father deficit,'' says Roger Wilkins, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. ``Forty-six percent of black males over 16 are jobless in this country. You cannot be a father if you can't get a job. If we are going to have intact black families, we are going to have to put black men to work.''

Mountains of brochures on a dozen long tables outside conference rooms further attest to the variety and ingenuity of public and private programs nationwide to help prevent adolescent pregnancy in the first place.

``One of the best forms of pregnancy prevention may have nothing to do with pregnancy,'' says Joan Lipsitz, director of the Center for Early Adolescence in Chapel Hill, N.C. ``We have made this a useless age group. We must find ways of reintegrating them into the social fabric and making them useful members of society.'' Again and again in speeches and conversations two words recur: self-esteem and options -- giving young people reason to plan for productive futures and delay childbearing.

``It's not as though they don't have aspirations or goals,'' says Malika Wilson-Ahmed, who runs a young mothers' housing cooperative in Brooklyn. ``It's a matter of having the opportunity to attain their goals.''

Other speakers emphasize the need to reassert greater parental authority.

``Perhaps we have forgotten that adolescents are not yet adults. We have responded too easily to their requests for freedom,'' says Lorraine V. Klerman, a professor of public health at Yale University. ``We must change our priorities. The message should be loud and clear: In American society of the 1980s, child-rearing by the immature, the undereducated, and the economically dependent is unacceptable and is to be prevented.''

That message, the conference concurs, must start at home. ``Society talks incessantly about sex,'' says Eleanor Holmes Norton, a law professor at Georgetown University. ``If nobody talks about it at home, there's nothing to counter [that outside influence]. We are the only voices to counter all that is out there.''

Unfortunately, those voices are often silent or absent, other participants note. ``Adults have emptied out of the neighborhoods,'' observes Dr. Lipsitz. ``We are depriving teens of the mentors they need so badly.''

Interspersed among all the discouraging statistics that a conference like this is so resourceful at collecting, there are, of course, heartening success stories -- of individual adults, schools, and programs that are making a difference, and of individual young mothers who are overcoming enormous obstacles to lead self-sufficient, productive lives.

Yet after all the speeches have ended, after all the model programs have been applauded, after all the appeals for money have been made, a conferencegoer is left with a sobering conclusion: Since half of American teen-agers are now sexually active, all these well-intentioned -- and extremely important -- efforts risk becoming little more than fingers in the leaky dike of late-20th-century morality.

Until we repair basic structural flaws in our society -- change fundamental attitudes about youthful sexuality and ``freedom,'' build a stronger case for abstinence than for abortion, adoption, and contraception -- we will go on patching and hoping, hoping and patching, with little significant change in that statistic of half a million teen-agers a year bearing children before they are safely through childhood themselves.

Marilyn Gardner is the Monitor's Home and Family editor.

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