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Teen-age pregnancy, When the mothers are also children

By Marilyn Gardner / March 18, 1985


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.

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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.

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.