At this oddly jubilant Hartford baby shower, the unmarried mother-to-be is 16 and set on quitting school.
Amid the streamers and paper plates, the grandmother-to-be sits quietly in a corner of their neat apartment. She was 15 when she gave birth to this young woman whose belly is just beginning to bulge. A generation before, the grandmother-to-be's mother was also a teenager.
I've befriended the family and arrive carrying a gift bag of books and a snoutful of judgment. Here are just a few of the obstacles facing this family:
Bills go unpaid, health needs unmet. The five children all need help at school. There are scant few father figures, and the family is prone to packing quickly to bump one more rung down in a neighborhood of iffy apartments. The mother-to-be announces her baby's father will support her — except he's 15. The grandmother-to-be announces she won't raise this baby, though she quietly tells me she will because she loves babies.
Earlier, the mother-to-be told me she considered an abortion but then decided to build on her mother's shaky foundation and raise the child.
Still, if the baby's a girl, statistics say she most likely will follow the preceding three generations into early motherhood. If the baby's a boy, statistics might damn him to jail.
When you can't see past the end of your own street, this is life.
Whether those high school girls in Gloucester, Mass., really made a pact to get pregnant together is beside the point. Pact or no (the town's mayor says there wasn't one, the school principal now can't remember where he heard it), there were 17 pregnant high school girls at school year's end, roughly four times the number from last year.
Rather than get outraged over a questionable pact, why don't we get mad instead at this: Teen pregnancy rates follow the poverty line, says Rosemary S. Richter, coordinator of teen pregnancy prevention at UConn Health Center's family planning program. In Connecticut, communities with the highest number of births to teens are also the poorest. In Hartford, just under 19 percent of the city's live births are to teen mothers. That's not counting the number of young women who don't carry to term. And that's not just in cities. Small, poor towns also have more than their share of babies having babies.
"Kids who believe they have a future are less likely to become teen parents," said Richter. Kids who can imagine life past age 20 don't take as many risks. They want the nice house, happy family and good career. Without a future, "What's to stop you from trying to create a new life all over again? Maybe you're going to do right when your parents did wrong," said Richter.
The most effective pregnancy-prevention programs teach children there's a big world out there with a place for them in it, like the Carrera model, named after a doctor who developed a comprehensive program for boys and girls, starting as early as age 10. That's both genders. The responsibility for maintaining an uninterrupted adolescence should never rest solely with girls.
Richter says effective programs emphasize school performance, family life, career choices and sex education. Some include a business model and recreation and community service.
That's the first thing Richter thought when she read of the Gloucester girls: They needed a community, and a sense of their own future. Raising a baby is hard, and raising a baby with thin resources is worse.
For my friend at the shower, I imagine the baby — who would be 3 now — was absorbed into the extended family. I'm guessing; I lost them the next time they moved.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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