Shame & Stigma: How It Makes Young Moms and Dads Feel
I found out I was pregnant just two months after my 17th birthday.
As my doctor repeated that my test was positive, I sat there in silence with my mind reviewing all of the reasons this was impossible. How could I be pregnant? I was an honor roll student, I was in a private school, I had caring parents, and I’ve been on the pill for almost two years now. Teen pregnancy didn’t happen to people like me, right?
Unfortunately, I had this negative image in my mind of the type of girl who would get pregnant and she looked nothing like me. So, I had a hard time understanding how this happened, but I had a harder time making decisions about what would happen. After considering all of my options, I chose to continue with my pregnancy.
The next few months got messy fast. Before I even gave birth, my parents kicked me out. I had to transfer to a public school. My boyfriend went off to the Marine Corps. I didn’t get to enjoy my pregnancy like some older women do; no one celebrated it with me. I knew that people recognized my pregnancy as a mistake, but an unplanned pregnancy didn’t promise I wasn’t going to enjoy it. I just wanted to make the best of it, but that never happened. Instead, people talked down to me and asked me private and offensive questions.
Was it planned? Do you know who the baby daddy is? Are you afraid of what your life will be like now?
After being asked these same questions so many times, I thought it would be best to just hide from everyone. Out of anger and sadness, I began to feel hatred and frustration towards the people around me. It took years for me to realize that the pain I was feeling about my life had a lot to do with the way the people around me treated me.
There was a system of people, organizations, and institutions that were working together to limit my happiness and turn my life a teen mom as a negative image. Their priority was to prove that teen mothers were miserable and unsuccessful to show other teens why it was important to avoid teen pregnancy but they didn’t realize that young moms, like me, were seeing and internalizing those types of messages about our lives, too.
Teen parents often experience shame and stigma for their roles as young parents within a larger culture. When a society (individuals, communities, organizations, governments) decide who the ideal parent is and what that parent looks like, anything that doesn’t fit into that image is often seen as “bad.” Our society tells us that the ideal parents are plural, married, wealthy, educated, successful, and in their mid-30s. So, when people within this society look at teen parents, they assume that because of their age, they are incapable of being educated, successful, wealthy, married, or successful therefore incapable of being exceptional parents. This type of judgment often happens unconsciously, so people who are shaming and stigmatizing teen parents do not always realize they are even perpetuating judgment.
Shame, in this case, is when a person or group of people aim to cause negative emotional reactions of another group of people. In this arena, they will often commit to making teen parents feel imperfect and incompetent by reminding them of the negative statistics they face or directly telling them that they’re not capable of being amazing parents. We hear this when people tell us that we make poor choices or are irresponsible people. Yet, shame is hard to recognize. Sometimes we have heard things about teen moms for our whole lives so when we experience it ourselves, it just seems normal. And when we experience shame often throughout our lives, we can often internalize it. If we regularly hear something negative about ourselves, might we begin to believe it’s true?
Stigma is more complex and even harder to recognize. As teen parents, we don’t “fit in” to the ideal of what a parent should be or look like. We are automatically faced with extreme disapproval from others and stereotyped as completely negative members of society. Stigma is what people with power (educators, providers, policymakers) use it to keep us from achieving our dreams, from overcoming our struggles, and from feeling confident about ourselves. If teen parents are suppressed and silenced, then those who have dedicated themselves to preventing teen pregnancy can continue to use our image as scare tactics within our society.
As a young parent, being shamed for the decisions you have made and being stigmatized for your identity makes navigating through the world very difficult. We are more than just young parents; we are sisters, brothers, partners, students, hard workers, friends, and always more than one single identity. Stigma can keep us from wanting to go back to school, or returning for a visit at the doctor’s office, or feeling like we are capable of making the best choices for ourselves and our children. Stigma can pressure us to avoid making ambitious goals or striving to overcome challenges. Stigma keeps us in a place where others can still narrate and dictate our lives.
Where does all the stigma come from? Teen pregnancy became a popular public health issue in the 1970s when our government decided it would be a priority to decrease the number of welfare recipients in America. At the time, the goal was to reduce the number of welfare recipients by promoting these expectations on women to wait until you were older and married to have kids. This plan comes with the assumption that waiting until you were older would decrease your chances of living in and raising children in poverty. There were new campaigns and new organizations that would begin to publicly shame teen motherhood in an effort to prevent teen pregnancy, often funded with millions of dollars. Yet, little effort was made to reduce the injustices that led mothers to live in poverty or teens to become pregnant. In the end, this plan publicly vilified young single mothers and isolated teen moms from society.
Many organizations followed in the path of shaming teen parents as a way to prevent teen pregnancy. We began to see a rise in messages that read messages like, “teen moms are less likely to graduate from high school or go to college,” “teen dads will become deadbeats,” and “the children of teen parents are more likely to experience health and education issues.” What many people were not doing was asking why. Why were all of these messages being used in the media? The messages pushed people to blame individuals for what is a greater societal issue and encouraged support systems, like schools and healthcare systems, to unconsciously become bias against teen parents. Most importantly, these types of messages erase the real stories and lived experiences of teen parents. We rarely hear about the positive aspects of our lives like how our children motivated us to do better in school or how becoming teen parents gave many of us an opportunity to reflect on the impact we want to have on our children and the world.
The hardships young parents and their children face primarily have to do with blatant discrimination. When educators make us feel unwelcome in school and access to childcare is limited to strict absence policies, dropping out becomes a viable option. All children get sick, but young parents can lose their access to childcare or fail their classes for missing school. Many schools and educators in the United States even fail to tell parenting students that there is a federal law that protects them in school, known as Title IX, or even abide by it. Because of the assumption that teen parents are irresponsible and immature, adults and professionals around us may think they are more capable of making the best decisions for us, without us. When healthcare workers make decisions about our health for us, we lose power over our own bodies. When you feel powerless over your own life and body, that feeling negatively impacts our ability to be the best versions of us.
For example, after I gave birth to my daughter, my nurse told me I needed to get on the Depo-Provera shot. Her priority was to ensure that I didn’t have another unintended pregnancy but she never asked me what type of birth control I wanted, if I wanted any in the first place, or if I wanted to or planned to have another child soon. Not allowing me to reflect and make a choice about my body was not okay and I felt like an important decision about my health was made without my consent. After feeling pressured, I quickly agreed to a depo shot but that experience of being silenced and uninvolved in my health choices stayed with me for years.
It has been almost 9 years since I gave birth to my daughter and I have reflected on and dissected the many things that impacted my life as a young mom. Throughout these past few years, there have been some amazing accomplishments. My most important reflection is knowing that my success can only be defined by me and that I should never compare my life to anyone else’s. I also recognized that my voice, my story, and my experiences are important and respected. As young parents, there are people who wholeheartedly believe in our ability to thrive. Most importantly, I learned that I am a valuable woman in our society.
Last year, I shared a TEDx talk on redefining teenage motherhood within our different but coexistent cultures. There are cultural and societal differences when it comes to understanding teen pregnancy. In America, we are often follishly compared to shows created for entertainment, and falsely called "reality," like “Teen Mom” or “16 & Pregnant.” Sharing my story was an opportunity to encourage others to recognize that all of our stories are different and that we cannot and should not ever be compared to anyone else. Our children grow up listening to these comparisons and we have an opportunity to challenge the way we are portrayed.
In these past few years, I have also come to the realization that my daughter is amazing because I was a teen mom. Being a young parent meant I had to work harder, think deeper, and love more. While others continue to narrate narrow stories about our family life, the relationship between my daughter and I is the most honest, open, and loving relationship I have ever had. I demonstrate what a healthy relationship looks like and I help her reflect on why she plays such an important role in our world. I respect her as a person and a young girl so she never feels she is less than someone else. But this message to my daughter is really a message to everyone who is dealing with layered identities and difficult periods in their lives.
Feeling the need to push back against the shame and stigma that affects young parents and their children, I recently partnered with 6 young moms across the country to develop a campaign that would elevate the realities of what teen parenthood really looks like. With the support of a few amazing organizations, we launched a campaign called #NoTeenShame. The idea was for us to come together and virtually talk about the ways teen moms are portrayed on TV, how we are talking about in public spaces, and what our lives are like. Through #NoTeenShame on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, we encouraged young parents to share their stories and feel proud to be young parents in public spaces.
— Megan J. Smith (@RepealHydeArtPr) November 12, 2014
— Alexandra Elizabeth (@MsAlexandraV) June 2, 2014
Being a successful teen mom is doable and me saying that isn't going to make teen girls go out and get pregnant #noteenshame
— Ligeia (@kelsylockett_) May 14, 2014
Tweets and posts from across the country encouraged people to see that we aren’t all living the same exact lives. Yet, these conversations around shame and stigma also encourage the people around us to recognize the role they play in either supporting or suppressing us. This movement helps us recognize that there have been people and systems that have failed to support us, but that we can change that for each other.
When I was 17 and pregnant, I wish I had known that I didn’t have to challenge a stereotype just to prove others wrong. I wish I had known that holding myself to my own expectations and definitions of success was all that mattered and that enjoying my role as a parent at a young age would help my child feel loved and important. I hope that through this post, others recognize their role in ensuring that all young families feel valuable and respected.