News & Politics

“16 And Pregnant” Portrays a Grim Reality -- But Does Pregnancy Actually Benefit Some Teenagers?

MTV's reality show paints a dire picture for girls who get pregnant in high school. But new research disproves teen mom stereotypes and even predicts some positive outcomes.

Jenelle is a party-loving high school junior in Oak Island, N.C., with blond hair and a metal stud above one side of her mouth. Andrew is a slim, smooth-talking former model with a fondness for alcohol. They’ve been together three years.

Jenelle thought unprotected sex with Andrew would be OK because they’d tried it before and nothing had happened.

Now they’ve got a baby on the way, and Jenelle’s determined to keep it and stay with Andrew, too. “We’re in it forever now,” she predicts.

For the stars of the first episode of the recently completed second season of MTV’s reality show, “16 & Pregnant,” you couldn’t come up with two less-qualified parents. As they demonstrate their shallowness again and again — Andrew glibly blames his joblessness on the fact that “the economy sucks right now from depression” and Jenelle’s only plan for the baby is that she’ll show it a good time at the beach — you almost want to beg Jenelle to dump Andrew and give the baby up for adoption.

For 40 years, teen pregnancy has troubled policymakers and scholars. Researchers have associated children born to teenage mothers with lower birth weights, lower educational achievement and lower earnings. Pregnancy and motherhood also often interrupt both the mom’s and the dad’s schooling and career plans and mires the child in poverty.

Sarah Brown, chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, has said part of the reason for the organization’s creation in 1996 was that “too few Americans understood the central role that teen pregnancy plays in child poverty, out-of-wedlock childbearing and welfare dependency.”

Federal funds go to support programs for broadcast messages encouraging men to use condoms and for counselors and teachers to discourage kids from having sex or to use contraception if they can’t wait. Tax dollars also expanded Medicaid-subsidized contraception. All have proven cost effective, paying back many times the funds allocated in healthier, more prosperous and less troubled kids and families that will not need help from the government.

Partly because of such programs, from 1991 to 2008, teen pregnancy and birth rates fell by a third. About one out of five sexually active teen girls will become pregnant this year and 400,000 teen girls will give birth. While that represents progress, many teen girls and boys still misunderstand fertility and contraception, and the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate of comparable countries.

Recent studies show why some teen girls may welcome pregnancy — and why it may be better for everyone if Jenelle and Andrew stay together.

For one, early motherhood provides girls from the poorest neighborhoods a path away from delinquency and drugs and toward a better life, one new study shows. It partly confirms what earlier qualitative studies have demonstrated for decades: For poor teen girls, pregnancy has an upside.

Either because of commitment to their babies or having to stay home at night, “motherhood is pulling a lot of these women away from the pattern of being criminal,” says Derek A. Kreager, assistant professor in the department of crime, law and justice at Penn State University and co-author of the study.

He cautions that no matter how much good pregnancy may do for the moms, the babies born to these moms are more likely to have problems.

A second paper introduces a special series of articles on children and families, and it suggests a role for policymakers. With four out of five single mothers in committed relationships when they get pregnant, the authors write, the couples should undergo counseling on marriage and relationships to help keep them together.

“We believe that the birth of the child should be viewed as a ‘magic moment’ when both fathers and mothers may be highly motivated to work together to improve their relationship and co-parenting skills and deal with other problems that may limit their ability to support their children,” according to the four scholars who wrote the introduction to a special issue of The Future of Children, a periodical funded by the Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Services to parents in such “fragile families” should be immediate, intense and focused on the couple in their role as cooperative parents, they wrote.

Supported by her hardworking single mom, Barbara, Jenelle doesn’t fit the first study’s definition of poor or disadvantaged. But Jenelle fulfills her billing on the show’s website as a “beach bunny who loves partying.”

As her due date approached, unfortunately, Jenelle’s dream of a future with Andrew came undone. He denounced her in a phone call for going out with her girlfriends and called her “a piece of crap.” Later he got himself thrown in jail on a DUI charge and informed Jenelle by calling her when he was already drunk again.

After the baby was born, Jenelle turned out to be less willing to do much of the work. Instead, she tossed the baby like a grenade into her 56-year-old mother’s life. Things deteriorated from there.

Over her exhausted mother’s protests, she often slipped away from the house and child care chores like an escaping convict.

“Imagine being in prison,” she explains to friends in text-message-deep thoughts. Being the mother of a newborn “is like being in prison.”

While you can’t represent the complexity of teen pregnancy in a reality show like “16 & Pregnant” or MTV’s “Teen Mom 2,” which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m., they are kind of Juno-lite, touching superficially on deeper truths about why teens get pregnant and what it means.

Some of what it means for the mothers is good.

Prior studies had never conclusively isolated the positive impact of early motherhood on delinquency, crime and drug use by teen girls in poor neighborhoods. Kreager and two co-authors, Ross L. Matsueda and Elena A. Erosheva, faculty members in the departments of sociology and statistics, respectively, at the University of Washington, set out to test the idea and dug into an existing database known as the Denver Youth Study. First presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 2008, their paper appeared in the February 2010 issue of the journal Criminology.

Using data on 500 women gathered from 1988 to 1999, the three modeled various effects and isolated contributing causes. Kreager, Matsueda and Erosheva found that motherhood for women under 20 significantly reduced delinquency and marijuana and alcohol use.

Marriage, they determined, always had a smaller effect on delinquency and crime than pregnancy.

“That was striking,” Kreager says. “In the general population, marriage for men is the way you settle down.” But in the poor communities, which he studied, “marriage is unlikely and it’s not stable and the person you’re married to may be part of the problem.”

Teen pregnancy is often viewed as a loss of control, but Kreager and his co-authors look at the problem of pregnant teens in the light of age-graded life course theory, which holds that modifications in individual behavior may occur through new experiences or social circumstances.

Other researchers had previously helped dissolve the public stereotype of teen pregnancy as a simple lack of discipline or control, showing that the girls saw motherhood as a rite of passage to adulthood and marriage as a prize in the distant future. One study found that having a child motivated the mother to stay in school and work hard for a career, with the hope of landing a good man with a job.

Picture a typical month for a poor girl in a city, where, although she may go to school, her life is a jumble of joblessness, food stamps, boredom and drugs. Older men around her tend to pressure her for sex; marriages and husbands, as far as she can see, come and go. She’s more interested in relationships but pregnancy, she believes, is inevitable and likely to come early.

Seen in this light, bearing a child has less to do with a girl’s lack of control than with the limited alternatives available. It also helps explain why so many teen moms are poor.

Scholars have zeroed in on other reasons girls want babies, such as the prestige, the chance to demonstrate love or commitment and the desire to replace someone they have lost or may lose.

There’s another motive for some girls to have babies that I see: to strike a blow against their parents, who often are fearful that the work and expense will fall to them.

Near the end of the MTV episode, after several profanity-filled outbursts at her mother, Jenelle admits that raising a newborn “is a lot harder than I thought.”

With Andrew largely out of the picture as a source of support, Jenelle saw herself going it alone with the baby — meaning, with a ton of help from Mom.

That provided a nice ending to the “16 & Pregnant” episode, but since the show, Jenelle has made other brief media appearances. There was the bonus coverage on MTV of her first date after Andrew. She also showed up in an Internet video smoking pot with a pal. Not very motherly.

When a teen girl decides to bear a child, of course, she limits her partying and libidinal playtime and invites respect as the creator and nurturer of a new life. That could be what a “bad” or rebellious teen craves — to fulfill an unconscious dream of goodness — and settle down one day, if not with the baby’s father, then with another man.

I’d pay a little more on my taxes to keep that dream of family life alive with counseling for these clueless new parents, to give them a greater chance of sticking together through the burdens of night-feedings and diapers and rent.

In a follow-up interview taped when Jenelle’s baby was 7 months old, Jenelle and her mother sat together grimly facing MTV’s camera. Neither expressed any holy hope or sacred idealism about the baby’s future: Everything was about the mother-daughter struggle, and the work dumped on Barbara.

They’re getting counseling, and Barbara has been made a legal guardian of her grandson, she and Jenelle explained, so that if Jenelle fulfills one of her frequent threats to run away, Barbara can make medical and educational decisions and Jenelle can’t be charged with neglect.

Since we’ve reduced teen pregnancy with effective programs, I think we can afford to recognize that the problem has many dimensions, not all of which are destructive to the mother. Without endorsing teen child-bearing, we can see why poor girls and perhaps some living above the poverty line find salvation in motherhood. That there are complex motives behind these “accidents,” where the mother may find focus, receive support, give and get love — and, just like a teenager, stick it to her parents.

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