The Truth Behind the Trope: Understanding the Realities of Teen Parenthood and Teen Pregnancy Prevention

What do we know about teen parents? Take a moment to make a mental list (or, if you’re motivated to get out⁠ a pen and paper, I won’t stop you) of all the facts and statistics you’ve heard.

In case you’re coming up short, I’ll give you a few:

  • Most teen parents drop out of high school.
  • Only 2% of teen parents will graduate from college by age 30.
  • Many teen parents will end up on welfare, costing tax payers billions of dollars nationwide.
  • The children of teen parents are more likely to fail a grade in school. Their sons are more likely to go to jail. Their daughters are more likely to become teen mothers themselves.
  • The relationships of teen parents almost always fail, leaving teen mothers to be single parents.

You can read more here or here or here or watch any episode of 16 and Pregnant that features Dr. Drew. He’ll usually cover most of these points before the hour is up – while interviewing young people who are actually parenting.

Beyond these “facts”, we hear plenty of other messages on what The Candie’s Foundation calls “the devastating consequences of teen pregnancy⁠ ;” their print ads tell teens they won’t move out of their parents house if they have a teen pregnancy; they’ll be spending $10,000 a year on their baby; they’ll have to breastfeed every two hours or come up with money for formula. The Candie’s Foundation isn’t the only organization putting out these types of messages – most teen pregnancy prevention, sex⁠ education, or public health organizations presume that their audience will immediately understand that teen pregnancy is harmful to young people, their children, and their communities as a whole.

Even the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy says that teen pregnancy is:

...risky for all of those involved. Compared to women who delay childbearing, teen mothers are more likely to end up on welfare. The children of teen mothers are at significantly increased risk of low birthweight and prematurity, mental retardation, poverty, growing up without a father, welfare dependency, poor school performance, insufficient health care, inadequate parenting, and abuse⁠ and neglect. (From Halfway There: A Prescription for Continued Success in Preventing Teen Pregnancy)

And if the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy says it’s a huge problem, they must be right… right?

Well… not really. You might have heard the saying that "there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." When it comes to teen parents, the statistics’ metaphorical pants are definitely on fire. First, we have to recognize that the young women who become teen mothers are different from some other young women. Not radically different, not different in a way that means we can marginalize or demonize them, but different in that: a) they chose to have sexual⁠ relationships as a teenager (most of them – some pregnancies are the result of sexual abuses or assaults; b) they probably didn’t use birth control⁠ when they were having sex (maybe they didn’t learn about it, maybe they couldn’t access it, maybe they couldn’t afford it, maybe they wanted to get pregnant, or maybe they did use it and it failed, as all methods can); c) they chose not to have an abortion⁠ (again, presuming they made this choice themselves, and had affordable access to safe abortion if they had wanted one).

Of all the teenaged women in the country, which young women are most likely to meet all of these criteria? Demographically, we know that it’s women and girls who grew up in low-income communities that have the highest likelihood of becoming young mothers.

Why is this? As I said earlier, it takes money to avoid parenthood if you’ve decided to have sex: you have to be able to afford birth control (and/or abortion), and sometimes that can be really expensive. It also helps if you went to a good school with a comprehensive sex education program, and we know that schools in low-income communities rarely have the resources needed to give students the educations they deserve. (Surprisingly, not all teens know they can get a ton of free sex education here at Scarleteen – provided they can afford or access a computer.)

But there’s also something else, and that's the extent to which young people have big plans for themselves that will conflict with parenthood. Are you planning on going to college? For some young people, the answer is an immediate "Yes!" because their parents went to college, their older siblings went to college, all their friends are going, and between their family and financial aid, they will be able to afford a post-secondary education that will help them pursue their dreams and find a decent job. However, for some young people, the answer is "I don’t know" or an ambivalent shrug, or even a straightforward "no." Maybe no one in their family has gone to college, maybe their school doesn’t have a college counselor that can talk to them about the application process and financial aid, maybe they just know they can’t afford it or what it might be able to offer them. They see their parents working jobs that don’t require a college degree. They expect to have a mid- to low-paying job, because that’s the type of job everyone around them has.

Now imagine there are two 16 year-olds, one who knows she’s going to college – she’s got a whole plan mapped out, and she didn’t even have to map it out all by herself. That’s just what she expects because that’s what everyone she knows does, and that’s what her parents expect of her. Then there’s the other one, who doesn’t expect to go to college, but she does expect to work hard at a job so she can contribute some money to her parents. That’s just what she expects because that’s what everyone she knows does, and that’s what her parents expect of her.

Both young women want to be mothers one day. Both are having sex with a boyfriend.

The first young woman has that college plan, though – and having a baby would really get in the way. It’s really hard to go to college with a new baby, and she knows that. Plus, she doesn’t know anyone who had a baby in high school. Her parents would be mortified if she got pregnant. Having a baby now would change the trajectory of her life. It’s an unacceptable risk. One night, when her boyfriend’s condom⁠ breaks, she goes to the pharmacy and buys emergency contraception⁠ . She decides if she’s pregnant, she will have an abortion. She talks to her doctor about going on the birth control pill so that she won’t have to worry should the condom break in the future.

The second young woman has a different plan. She’s going to graduate high school and get a job in the preschool where she now works part-time, and maybe eventually become a teacher there. It’s an hourly wage job, and she knows most of the women who work there already have children. Her cousin was a teen mom, and her mother had her older brother when she was 17 years old. She knows teen moms work hard and pinch pennies, but she’s going to be doing that anyway. If she has a baby now, she can count on her parents’ begrudging acceptance, and she knows that her mother would help with babysitting. She doesn’t want to live with her parents forever, but she’s not planning on moving out when she turns 18, anyway. One night, when her boyfriend’s condom breaks, she decides to wait and see. She doesn’t know much about emergency contraception, and she doesn’t have $60 to spend on it anyway. She doesn’t think much about abortion – she doesn’t think she’d be comfortable with the idea, but since she doesn’t know if she’s pregnant yet, she won’t stress about that at the moment. It’s a risk she’s willing to take: she definitely wants to be a mother someday, and if she is pregnant now, she knows she’ll find a way to deal with it.

Not-so-surprise ending: A few weeks later, the first young woman breathes a sigh of relief when her period⁠ arrives on time. The second young woman takes a test, and the plus sign appears. She’s pregnant.

Now, don’t over generalize: if you’re having vaginal intercourse⁠ , there’s a chance you’ll get pregnant, even if your dad has a vault the size of Bill Gates’. And, of course young women in low-income communities have hopes and dreams for their future. But the material privilege that a person has, the likelihood that they feel they’ll be able to achieve their goals, and the examples provided by people in their community – each of these things contributes to the decisions that they’ll make, the risks that they’ll take, and the different paths they’ll choose when faced with the same dilemma. We can conclude one thing very clearly and concretely: low-income women are more likely to become young mothers than middle and upper-income women.

What does this have to do with all those statistics we hear about teen pregnancy? It means that when we compare teen mothers to all other mothers and say, "Hey! Look how badly they’re doing!" we’re not really being fair. A woman who grew up in poverty in the United States is likely to live in poverty as an adult, too (despite what we hear about The American Dream) – and poverty itself is a huge risk factor for many adverse outcomes, including the outcomes listed in those statistics at the top⁠ of this page. When we compare teen mothers to older mothers, we’re also almost always comparing poor or poorer mothers to mothers with more resources, and that’s a problem. So, let’s look at some better comparisons:

  • When we compare sisters (one who was a teen parent, one who was not), there is no association between poor infant and child outcomes based on maternal age. 1,2,5,8
  • In low income communities where teen motherhood is common, young maternal age is a protective factor against low birthweight and infant mortality – the children of teen moms do better! 3,4,9,10
  • When comparing women who became teen moms and women who had miscarriages as teen, there was no effect on future martial status, future hourly wages, and teen moms were less likely to live in poverty. 7
  • Once young mothers are over the age of 22, they are less likely to receive public assistance than peers who were not teen parents – teen parents do not necessarily increase the burden on taxpayers. 6,7
  • While young mothers are slightly less like to earn a high school diploma, they are more likely to complete a GED than peers who don’t complete high school, and they seem to work more hours in early adulthood to compensate. 7

None of this means that being a teen parent isn’t really, truly, incredibly hard. But hey – all parenting is a challenging. Newborns need to be fed in the middle night no matter how old their mothers are. Toddlers need to be constantly chased around just as much if their mom is 37 or if their mom 19. Some teenagers might not be up to the task – some adults⁠ in their thirties or forties aren't either. Let’s not ridicule, stereotype⁠ or misrepresent young parents as a justification for preventing teen pregnancy!

So now you’re probably scratching your head and asking: why, then, should we prevent teen pregnancy? For that, I invite you to stay tuned.

Gretchen Sisson is the author of Finding a Way to Offer Something More: Reframing Teen Pregnancy Prevention. You can follow her on Twitter @gesisson.

1. Furstenberg, F., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Morgan, S. P. (1987). Adolescent mothers in later life. New York: Cambridge University Press.
2. Geronimus, A. (2003). Damned if you do: culture, identity⁠ , privilege, and teenage childbearing in the United States. Social Science and Medicine, 57, 881–893.
3. Geronimus, A. (2001). Understanding and eliminating racial inequalities in women’s health in the United States: the role of the weathering conceptual framework. Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, 56(4), 1–5.
4. Geronimus, A. (1996). Black/White differences in the relationship⁠ of maternal age to birthweight: a population-based test of the weathering hypothesis. Social Science and Medicine, 42(4), 589– 597.
5. Geronimus, A., & Korenman, S. (1993). Maternal youth or family background? On the health disadvantages of infants with teenage mothers. American Journal of Epidemiology, 137(2), 213–225.
6. Hoffman, S. (2008). Updated estimates of the consequences of teen childbearing for mothers. In S. Hoffman & R. Maynard (Eds.), Kids having kids: economic costs and social consequences of teen pregnancy (2nd ed.). Washington: Urban Institute Press.
7. Hotz, V. J., Williams Elroy, S., & Sanders, S. (2005). Teenage childbearing and its life cycle consequences: exploiting a natural experiment. The Journal of Human Resources, 40(3), 683–715.
8. McCarthy, J., & Hardy, J. (1993). Age at first birth and birth outcomes. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 3, 373–392.
9. Rauh, V., Andrews, H., & Garfinkel, R. (2001). The contribution of maternal age to racial disparities in birthweight: a multilevel perspective. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 1815–1824.
10. Rich-Edwards, J., Buka, S., Brennan, S., & Earls, F. (2003). Diverging associations of maternal age with low birthweight for Black and White mothers. International Journal of Epidemiology, 32, 83–90.