It started as kind of masochistic voyeurism: they can, and they did, and they didn’t even want to.
But then I started thinking about what this show is saying.
All of the girls are white. This, despite the fact that in this country non-Hispanic white teenagers are among the least likely to get pregnant. With one exception, all of them live in the South or the Midwest: Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee, South Dakota, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. That’s a strong statement about the kinds of teen mothers the audience is supposed to care about.
They have very different socioeconomic situations and very different prospects. All of them, though, have extremely unstable home situations. They are in and out of their parents’ houses, their boyfriends are in and out of their houses and their lives, and there is a disturbing amount of uncertainty about where the mothers and babies will be sleeping.
Even the girls with the most family support (Farrah, Chelsea, Maci) are living on the margins of the middle class, sliding downward in security and stability from where their parents are, moving around constantly and struggling to keep up. Their lives revolve around child care or the lack of it — scene after scene shows a girl trying to study, whether for her GED or for her college courses, while also being the primary caregiver for her child. If Chelsea can’t finish her GED, or Farrah can’t finish culinary school, or Maci drops out of college, they and their children will remain dependent on their families, and Aubree, Sophia, and Bentley will face fewer opportunities as they grow up. A single mother working a minimum-wage unskilled job won’t be able to do for her daughter what Chelsea’s dad is doing for her. Why do we have to make it so hard? Why not provide accommodations for child care in high schools and colleges just like we do for disabilities?
The girls with less family support (Amber and Caitlynn in particular) are in an even worse situation. Amber and Gary’s relationship is clearly abusive, but they’re locked into it in part because Amber (who doesn’t have her GED) can’t support herself financially while also caring for Leah. It’s the classic catch-22 that leads to the Welfare Queen myth: if she works, she won’t be able to afford adequate childcare, and anything that happens to her child while in substandard care will be on her conscience forever; but on the other hand, if she stays home to care for her baby she is dependent on someone else for financial support, an “unproductive” person who is wasting taxpayers’ money. And either way, what happens to the child? Who makes sure that baby eats and sleeps on time, goes to the doctor, and grows up to become a member of society who doesn’t feel totally alienated from the culture that abandoned her mother rather than provide realistic options for her to finish high school?
The entire show is like a constant billboard for some kind of federally funded childcare program. How much would it change all of these girls’ lives if there was a way for them to get some help? Real, during-the-day, day-in, day-out help.
And then there’s Caitlynn. Caitlynn chose adoption for her baby — she took her child out of what she saw as an impossible situation, and it’s heartbreaking to watch her deal not only with her own grief, but with her family’s lack of support for her decision and her loneliness in the face of the open adoption agreement. From her perspective, the adoptive parents (about whom she never has anything but nice things to say) have all of the power. She is not allowed to know Carly’s last name or where she lives. She receives pictures and updates when the adoptive parents choose to give them, and you can see how hungry she is for news about Carly all the time. This is something that she’s not going to be able to put behind her; it’s a portrait of adoption from the perspective of a grieving birth mother, and I wonder if the absence she feels is anything like the absence I feel, the grief for the children I can’t create. Watching this show has really brought up some strong feelings for me about adoption, which I think I’ll have to take some time to work out fully.
Which brings me to the fact that after the voyeurism, after the political implications, I am so invested in these girls’ lives. I want to mother them — not just the babies, but the moms too. I want to tell Chelsea that Adam is bad, bad news. I want to tell Maci to get her head on straight and stop changing her mind about where she wants to live. I want to get Amber into counseling immediately for her obvious depression and anger issues. And Jenelle … Jenelle … she is a mess. All of them are messes, really, but no more than I was at that age. Jenelle, though, is at another level. She is virtually homeless most of the time, she has amazingly bad judgment when it comes to men (but then, whose judgment is good at 18?), she is in trouble with the law, she has lost custody of her child, and I am just on season 1.
*Why yes, it is playing in the background as I type this. Why do you ask?