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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.