teen mom

I can’t look away.*

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?


14 responses to “teen mom

  1. Not sure about federally funded day care, but I’m 100% supportive of free contraception! How much chaos and suffering could be avoided if people wait to have children until they are mature adults with schooling completed and some kind of gainful profession established. I would love to see any citizen of the United States be able to get an IUD for free (reversible, works for 5 years) and as soon as some sort of long-term male contraceptive is available, let’s include that too. Would save a TON financially and then there’s the human cost which is immeasurable.

    BTW, even though Caitlynn is going through a tough time, I have nothing but the deepest admiration and respect for her for making the best choice available for her baby, even though it has caused her pain. Actually that’s what being a parent is–putting your child’s welfare before your own. A huge hooray for her.

    • Amen. You took the words right out of my mouth.

    • I agree that Caitlynn made a difficult and admirable choice. I wasn’t trying to imply otherwise — it’s just hard to watch her continuing to struggle to deal with it.

      Regarding day care vs. contraception: sure, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but once the child has arrived no amount of prevention will help. All children should be wanted children, but I think we have an obligation as a society to try to help every last one of them, regardless of how they got here.

  2. I’ve never watched the show but you provide a thoughtful analysis.
    Btw, wv? Your soon to be new home, right?

    • Yes, WV. I’ve never actually been there but my husband arrived yesterday and is already sending pics. I’ve been tearing it up on Google Earth as well, looking at our new town.

  3. Port of Indecision

    I have a hard time tearing myself away from that show too. On prior seasons, there have been a couple of black or Latina teen moms, but you’re right that the show does skew white. Perhaps it’s indicative of MTV’s main audience. I don’t know. But I think one thing that is SO clear watching the show is the dysfunction in those families, that may or may not contribute to their daughters being careless with their bodies and their health.

    Many high schools in the US actually do have day cares for students’ children. I also agree with JS up there about contraception being free and widely available. I have strenuous objections to the religious rights attempts to get rid of sex ed as a biological science lesson (if we keep them in the dark, they won’t do it? Snort. Yeah, Sarah P. That worked great for 2 of your unmarried kids) and make birth control difficult to obtain. It’s a crying hypocritical shame and it stands my hackles on end like very few things do. But you’re right too – once the kids are here, something has to be done with them. And keeping them in the cycle of poverty/dysfunction/abuse/undereducation hardly seems the solution.

  4. Ai yi yi. I haven’t seen it, but can just imagine… The first high school I attended had an absolutely massive dropout rate due to pregnancy. I saw a ton of my peers get knocked up and leave school, and I knew they were in for an extremely rough future. Even with excellent support, it’s insanely hard to be a young parent. BLECH.

    What do you suppose the network is trying to accomplish by airing such a show? I mean, yeah, it’s one of those hard to look away programs, but there’s no shortage of such scenarios. Is it meant to discourage unprotected sex? Encourage?

  5. I’ve never seen the show (but feel like I have, since they are always on the cover of US Weekly), but I really enjoyed reading your analysis. Especially about Caitlynn – I had never really thought about things from the birth mother’s perspective (past the initial grief of handing over the baby). I had considered adoption as an option before Henry (and may in the future, depending on how things go), and reading this give me more to think about.

    Moving to WV! Exciting!!!

  6. I’ve never seen it either, but like Mara, I’ve seen the magazine headlines. My cousin’s daughter — coincidentally (or perhaps not?) a teen mom herself, now in her early 20s with two little girls — also loves the show & posts about it on Facebook. Her situation is not entirely stable either, & I sometimes wish I lived closer so that I could help out more. (On the other hand, I’m sometimes grateful that I’m not involved…!) I just keep thinking there has to be a happy medium between their situations & ours…!

  7. You really are a gifted writer when it comes to providing insight to complex issues like this.

    I wonder, would you consider a post on the book and now movie The Help? Did you read it?

  8. Thanks for this post. I haven’t even heard of this show but appreciate the reflections, particularly on how so many of the women’s problems are related to lack of access to good child care.

    This is sort of beside the point, but I wonder if white teen mothers are greater in numbers than teen mothers of color — even if teenagers of color are more likely to be parents.

  9. Hey G&L. I read this post and I thought of you. There are some beautiful and heavy concepts here I thought you would be interested to read. It is a different kind of suffering but it touched on some old points you have discussed in the past.

    Hope this is ok and you are doing great.

  10. I don’t know what possessed me to start watching this show, because as an infertile it’s like pouring salt in the wound, but like you, I love it, and I totally agree with your analysis of it. It is shameful the way these girls are left with absolutely no support from the community. What a difference it would make for GENERATIONS simply to provide them with childcare!

    Also: I could not love Caitlynn and Tyler more. Totally ironic that of all the kids on the show, they probably would have been the most responsible parents had their family situation been more stable. It does seem that they got the short end of the stick on their adoption – I have several friends who have adopted recently and all of their adoption plans are MUCH more open than C & T’s seems to be. I can understand Carly’s parents wanting some distance and privacy, but still – so hard for birth parents.

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