Many teens see motherhood as their only source of fulfillment
Tanya is 19, the mother of two small girls. She lives on welfare with her alcoholic mother and unemployed older brother in a low-income housing project in Brooklyn. Though she completed the 11th grade before dropping out of school at age 16, a neighbor and close friend says that Tanya cannot read or write.
When, at 16, she discovered she was pregnant for the first time, she was scared. Her mother, too, had her first child at 16, and she started drinking that same year.
``I was scared what my mother might say or what she might do to me,'' Tanya remembers. ``I didn't know if I wanted the baby or not. I talked it over with my boyfriend and he didn't want me to get rid of it. So I thought about it and I said well, I might as well have it -- everybody make a mistake. So I had her. I wasn't ashamed of her.''
Two years later, Tanya had her second daughter by the same young man. She says they plan to get married, ``as soon as I get my own place.''
Tanya, a very pretty, fashion-conscious young woman, says she wants to finish high school and get a job. But her illiteracy, which she consistently tries to hide, is obviously a major obstacle. When she was offered a job in her housing project last summer, she refused it.
``Maybe she was afraid someone would ask her to read something,'' her neighbor says. ``She's so afraid someone will find out she can't read that she just keeps to herself. She has no friends.''
Her case is extreme: Though the majority of teen-age mothers do not finish high school, not all are illiterate. But Tanya's predicament is a poignant indicator of just how vulnerable a poor teen-age mother can be.
Teen-age pregnancy is a national problem. And, despite such glamourous teen mothers as Tatum O'Neal, it is primarily a problem born of poverty. Because a disproportionately large number of black Americans are poor, it is an especially crucial problem for the black community.
It is paradoxical that those very young women, black and white, who are the poorest, the least educated, often the least nourished, generally the least endowed with societal and emotional supports -- in short, the least equipped to be mothers -- are having babies at such an alarming rate.
Nevertheless, the extensive media coverage that currently surrounds the issue has generated certain myths that are distorting public opinion.
Myth: Over the last few years, the teen-age pregnancy rate in black America has been steadily rising and is now reaching epidemic proportions.
Fact: According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the birthrate among black teen-age girls has declined by 10.1 percent since 1970. Among whites, it has risen by 74.3 percent during the same period.
Myth: Teen-age pregnancy is mainly a black problem. The percentage of black girls who have babies out of wedlock is far higher than that for white girls.
Fact: Among poor black teen-age girls, the Alan Guttmacher Institute reports, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births is 22.6 percent. Among poor white teen-age girls, it is 21.2 percent.
Myth: Blacks have so many out-of-wedlock births because they are sexually promiscuous.
Fact: Recent research by Johns Hopkins University shows that low-income black teenage girls generally have their first sexual experience about six months earlier than their white counterparts. However, low-income black teenage girls have fewer partners and engage in sexual intercourse less often than low-income white teenage girls.
Tanya and her children receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) as part of her mother's welfare allotment. She has petitioned to receive welfare in her own right so she can have her own apartment, but so far she's been unsuccessful. Her boyfriend is a custodian in a school and usually visits Tanya and his children every day.
One stereotype about teen-age pregnancy among blacks is that the young fathers do not take responsibility for their children, seldom marry the mothers, and often lose contact with them altogether. These teen fathers are often depicted as unfeeling scoundrels out to prove their sexual prowess but unwilling to take responsibility for their acts.
But a group of social workers and psychologists at a conference on the black child in Detroit agreedthat the stereotype of the uncaring, irresponsible young black father is misleading.
``It's a myth,'' one participant said. ``I think many teen-age fathers are very supportive and nurturing. The problem is that a lot of young men don't have jobs.''
Sometimes the father's absence arises from welfare regulations, which in many states stipulate that a mother cannot receive public assistance if a man is present in the home. ``The regulations tend to drive men away and break up families,'' says a Detroit social worker.
Paul Smith of the Children's Defense Fund says access to good jobs is the deciding factor in whether a young father takes responsibility for his children and marries their mother.
``When a girl gets pregnant, she and her mother decide whether she will marry the boy,'' says Mr. Smith. ``It boils down to this: `If he's worked for two years, marry him. If not, he's a bum.'''
Smith cites a sharp increase in the marriage rate among pregnant black teen-agers during the late 1940s. ``That was a period when black male high school dropouts had a higher employment rate than whites,'' he says. ``Strong bodies were very welcome in our economy. During those years, the percentage of girls who got married before giving birth was much higher than it is today, in large part because of the employment factor. Since then, we have seen it fall as the employability of the black male has fallen.''
Smith points out that in poor black communities, where opportunities for achievement are few, young men are rarely able to fulfill the traditional adult male role society has outlined for them. Relationships with girls and the fathering of children may be the only avenues open to them that carry the stamp of adulthood. As one Detroit psychologist points out, ``One way to prove your manhood is to have a child.''
Charles Ballard of the Teen Father Program in Cleveland is convinced that teen fathers do care about their children. He is committed to helping them fulfill their role as fathers.
``Fathers who don't take responsibility for their children have not been appropriately fathered themselves,'' Mr. Ballard says.
To remedy this, his staff of six men (all former teen fathers) and one woman provide role models for the young fathers who come to them for counseling.
``Some of these guys have never seen a stable man before. When a young father finds someone who cares, it helps him to learn how to care. Our staff cares for him and loves him -- we're available to him 24 hours a day. Instruction alone doesn't do any good. You have to see love in action.''
Over the past four years, some 800 young men have come to the Teen Father Program to learn how to be fathers. The program involves intensive one-to-one counseling and courses in prenatal and infant care, as well as job and educational referrals.
As the young men receive guidance in personal relationships, respect for their partners grows and stereotypical sex roles are broken down.
``The guys want to be responsible,'' one staff member says. ``They just don't have anyone to pat them on the back or to say, `Maybe this is something you can try.'''
Ballard believes his Teen Father Program (for the most part privately funded) is the only one of its kind in the US.
The effects of teen-age pregnancy are damaging to all concerned -- especially the baby.
Health: Poor teen-age mothers-to-be tend to have an inadequate diet and often receive inadequate prenatal care. As a result, 13.6 percent of infants born to black teen-age mothers have low birth weights, compared with 6.7 percent of infants in the nation as a whole. Low birth weights are often associated with birth defects such as mental retardation.
Education: Some 40 percent of female high school dropouts leave school because of pregnancy. Most teen-age mothers drop out of school when they become pregnant. Many do not return; 61 percent of the teens who give birth have not completed high school.
Income: Some 86 percent of black female heads of households under 25 live below the official poverty line, according to the Bureau of the Census.
Teen pregnancy perpetuates the cycle of poverty by curtailing education and limiting job opportunities. In turn, young, poorly educated parents find it more difficult, and may be less motivated, to encourage education in their own children. The children of teen-age parents tend to be more restless when they start school, and to have shorter attention spans, because their homelife is vulnerable to many stresses and discipline is haphazard.
The Rev. William T. Cunningham, executive director of a Detroit civil rights organization, feels that when ``children have children,'' the mother's natural maturing process is curtailed.
``It's an absolute axiom for us that a mother receiving AFDC who is 15 or 16 stops growing at that precise age when she has her first baby.''
``From that point on,'' Fr. Cunningham says, ``she spends most of her time eating the same kind of food she ate as a child, preparing the same kind of food for others, watching the soaps, having the same kinds of futile, dead-end relationships. She has no work experience, and she's a school dropout. We're talking about a very desperate little human being. The worst person in the world for that little baby is that AFDC mother. We've got to do something about that AFDC woman to give her back some expectations, some human development. We've got to go back and say, `Hey, it's not too late for you because you're 19 and you've got three kids.'''
Sociologists express concern over the incidence of child abuse and neglect among children of teen parents. Such parents, experts say, are often depressed and frustrated and may have less patience with small children than do more-mature parents.
A little girl who grows up feeling neglected and unloved, said one social worker in Detroit, may be more likely to become a teen mother to ``make up for the nurturing she didn't have.''
``When you look at the children whose mothers are teen-agers,'' says Sydney Duncan, founder of Homes for Black Children, ``who in turn are the children of teen-agers, you see children who have no sense of love or caring or structure or order. These are the kids who can put their kids on the street with a dope bag.''
Why do so many unmarried teen-age girls become pregnant?
One reason, of course, is that sexual activity among teen-agers is widespread today. This is cause for concern among many blacks, who deplore the lack of values they perceive in society in general, and the adoption of current low standards of morality by youth.
``We need to give our kids some values,'' says one social worker in Detroit. ``Immorality and amorality are popular because our society makes role models of some people [such as movie and TV stars] just because they have a million dollars. Our children need positive black role models who aren't slipping and sliding in their morals and making babies.''
Another cause of the rise in teen pregnancy is that low-income teen-agers seldom take precautions against pregnancy.
Tanya says she and her boyfriend had never discussed the possibility that she might get pregnant. Even after her first child, their use of contraceptives was haphazard. Now that Tanya has two children, she takes birth control pills.
Tanya briefly considered abortion, but rejected it. That option has traditionally not been popular among black women, though some studies show it is on the rise.
The effectiveness of sex education in bringing down the rate of teen pregnancy was recently demonstrated in a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Of a group of some 700 low-income black junior high school girls who received instruction and counseling in birth control, and to whom contraceptive materials were made available, only one-fifth became pregnant during the study period. Among a group of girls who served as controls and did not participate in the pregnancy prevention program, half became pregnant during that time.
Critics of sex education say it encourages sexual activity. The Johns Hopkins study suggests, however, that there is no apparent causal link between sex education and sexual activity. The study found that, on average, the girls who were taught about sexuality ``lost their virginity seven months later than the girls who were not.''
School-based health clinics are cited as a highly successful means of making contraception available to teen-agers.
The oldest school-based clinic in the US, in St. Paul, Minn., showed a 40 percent reduction in teen births between 1976 and 1984. And the school's dropout rate for teen mothers fell from 45 percent to 10 percent in those years. The expectant mothers received prenatal care at the clinic and were urged to remain in school.
There are about 70 school-based clinics in the US, usually established by local grass-roots efforts. Funding is provided by agencies receiving state or local health department funds or through medicaid.
Controversy surrounds the issue of school-based clinics. Some researchers contend that while they appear to lower birthrates, the clinics do so largely through more abortions, while failing to reduce the numbers of pregnancies. The federal government does not now endorse the clinics' birth control component. And they have been criticized for encouraging sexual activity among teens. Secretary of Education William Bennett has expressed disfavor, saying, ``School-based clinics give kids the wrong message.'' Right-to-life groups also oppose them.
But Debra W. Haffner of the Center for Population Options in Washington, feels that the effect of such clinics is overwhelmingly positive.
``We are conducting a national study of the impact of school-based clinics,'' Ms. Haffner says. ``Preliminary examination of the data shows that such clinics do not cause teen-agers to have sex. The teen-agers using the clinics tend to be from low-income homes and to have a history of poor health care, and sometimes serious health problems. Eighty-five percent of the visits to the clinics are for general health care.''
``There is a real need for them,'' she adds. ``Besides, national studies indicate that less than 10 percent of parents talk about contraception to their kids.''
Despite the challenges she faces, Tanya does not seem to view motherhood as a bad thing. Indeed, her baby girls are her primary source of fulfillment and happiness. She enjoys being a mother, she says, ``having someone look up to me, ask me questions.''
``I think it worked out for the best,'' Tanya says. ``Some young womens can't even have kids. I feel at least I'm lucky to have two. And now I don't have to worry about having any more no time soon. Maybe later I might think about having a boy, but no time soon.''
Like many poor black teen-age girls in America, Tanya knows that -- other than motherhood -- her prospects are limited. She cannot do many of the things society demands of her. For the present, at least, being a good mother may be her only chance to prove her worth and competence. As her children grow, meeting their needs may become more difficult. But for now, her neighbors say she is an excellent parent, who takes her responsibilities seriously.
Why do poor black teen-age girls have babies?
It has to do with how they see themselves and with the limited opportunities available to them. If their circumstances lead them to expect nothing more fulfilling out of life, these young women may see no reason to delay their principal source of happiness and satisfaction. As one black researcher put it, ``Why postpone your only option?'' HIGHLIGHTED STATISTICS: 1) BIRTH CONTROL . . . The 10% decline in black teen-age pregnancy since 1970 has been due primarily to an increase in the availability of birth control; SOURCE: Children's Defense Fund. 2) 20% of child-abuse and neglect cases involve teen-age parents; SOURCE: Institute for Health Services and Policy Research, Northwestern University.