How Should Families Support Pregnant Teens?

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How does family life change when a teenage child becomes pregnant? Amy Dickinson, Chicago Tribune advice columnist, offers suggestions on how parents can be most supportive.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Almost every parent looks forward to the day that they become a grandparent, but not necessarily when their son or daughter is still in high school. Still, it happens. You come home from work one day, your teenager says, mom, dad, I'm pregnant. On earlier programs, we've spoken with teenage mothers about how their babies changed their lives. Today, we want to hear from the parents of teenage parents. How has your child's child changed your life?

And who better to help us navigate this familiar mine field than "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson. We want to hear your story about your teenager's baby, too. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later, we continue our series on This American Moment with Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition. What does this election mean to you? You can drop us an email now. Again, the address is talk@npr.org.

But first, parents of teenage parents. Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated column,"Ask Amy," for the Chicago Tribune. She joins us now from the studios at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And Amy, welcome back.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Advice Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you've been off the air a little while because of the conventions and also, our congratulations. You're just back from your honeymoon.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. I can't believe it. I feel so elderly, but yes, I am a newly wed. It's true. But Neal, in my defense, OK?

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: It has been 17 years since my last marriage. So I took my time.

CONAN: Good thing you waited and found the right guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Exactly.

CONAN: Well, let's get back to our topic for today, and Amy, I have to say, this would be an easier conversation if we began with the birth, but the fact is that it begins with mom, dad, I'm pregnant, or my girlfriend is pregnant. And what do parents in that situation ask you about?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, you know, I think the most important thing to do is to - the fact is, if a kid can even say that to a parent, that's pretty good because I think there are a lot of teenagers who can't even tell their parents. They can't even get it out, you know, and they wait and they worry and, you know, more often than hearing from parents I actually hear from teenagers...

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: Who fear that they're pregnant, they don't know what to do. And of course the first thing I tell them to do is to tell a trusted adult because sometimes it actually takes another adult to help a teenager sort of break the news.

CONAN: When parents do find out, and eventually they will, though, it's going to be a difficult situation for them to figure out, well, how do I help my child make the decisions that he or she needs to make, and depending on the age of the child, whose decision is it?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, it's - you know, this is - there are all sorts of times during a family's life when you realize how important it is to be able to communicate. There's no time, you know, more important than a teen announcing that he or she is about to become a parent. You know, it's incredibly important to be able to sit and talk and be calm about it. You know, one thing I love about the movie, "Juno," is that it shows this issue and it shows the parents being very compassionate, very open, and really letting - in this case, they let the daughter sort of lead the way. And I think it is hard to know who's to make the choice, but at the end of the day, of course, I think a good parent knows that they have to mentor and guide, but they cannot make this choice for their child.

CONAN: It's an awful situation that a lot of people are in and that first reaction, it's very important but it's very difficult to control, too.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And actually, if a daughter - if my daughter came to me with this news, the first thing I would do would be to take her to be seen. In my case, I would definitely choose to go to Plan Parenthood, where they offer health counseling, adoption counseling, and basically reviewing your choices, that that would be my choice as a mother to take her to get that kind of, you know, start the process of learning about what your options and your choices will be.

CONAN: Well, we want to hear from parents who have been in this situation. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Pam, and Pam is with us from Redding in California.

PAM (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PAM: Hi. My daughter got a teenage pregnancy and she - I often do work in a maternity clinic, so she was given choices and she decided to keep the baby. And that put three generations of women in a home. My mother also lives with me, so you have - I was devastated. I wanted her to go to college and I knew that this was not going to happen with the baby. And it was just so difficult because if I would tell her how to do some things that I thought was right, she would feel, you're controlling me, but then my mother would say, well, why do you let her get away with that?

CONAN: Mm hmm.

PAM: You shouldn't let her do that. Well, she's the mother. I'm not. I mean, we had - her dad and I had talked to her about that and we've said, we will support you any way possible, but we're not raising that baby. That is your baby...

Ms. DICKINSON: Right.

PAM: And you will be responsible to get up in the middle of the night. Don't come to my room and say, you know, mom, I'm tired, can you get up? That's your baby. And I also expected her to get up and go to school and take the baby with her. She had that ability.

Ms. DICKINSON: What grade was she in?

PAM: She was a sophomore.

Ms. DICKINSON: Can I - hang on because I want to hear more, but I just want to interject something. Someone close to me had a daughter who was at a high school where several of her friends became pregnant in their sophomore and junior years. And so this girl was witnessing these pregnancies of her friends and often very involved in their - in the excitement, you know, showers and whatnot. And my friend noticed that the - in the case of these high school girls, they would basically sort of hand the baby over to their mothers who were raising these children, and then these girls were, you know, kind of picking up their life.

PAM: Yes.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, my friend chose to sit down with her daughter and she said, I want you to know something. I know you're seeing a lot of this pregnancy, birth. I want you to know, I will not raise your child.

PAM: Exactly.

Ms. DICKINSON: If you get pregnant, you will raise that child. You will not drop that child off at home and go continue on being a cheerleader...

PAM: Yes.

Ms. DICKINSON: Like it would actually change your life. I'm working, your father's working, and if you have a baby you'll be dealing with daycare...

PAM: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: Childcare, working, and high school.

PAM: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's what your life would be like. You will not be going out at night, you know. And it sounds like you did that, as well.

PAM: That's it exactly. And see, then the friends that she did have that had babies would call and say, let's go do this and she'd say, well, I can't because I don't have a babysitter.

CONAN: Right.

PAM: And they say, well, what's wrong with your mother? She says, my mother is not the baby's mother. I don't have a babysitter.

CONAN: Right.

PAM: You know, and she knew that, so it was OK. I mean, she knew that she - that wasn't going to be happening. She had to grow up. She no longer was 16.

CONAN: And Pam, what about the baby's father?

PAM: The baby's father has - they've always been together. He stayed by her and he - they finally got married when she about seven and they since then had another baby. But the way they parent now is just so different because now there is no you bring home a D or you didn't turn in your homework assignment. They are expected to do the very best every single day.

There's no - there's no in between because she'll say, if you don't get to school and if you don't get an education, then you're going to look like me and your dad. We work hard, but we don't have a (unintelligible). You know, if you don't want live like this then go to college. Get an education. They stress that immensely. But it's been very hard....

Ms. DICKINSON: Quite a remarkable...

PAM: It's been very hard for her. She gave up everything to have this little baby and she was given choices. Not to, you know - I gave her three choices and - but (unintelligible) and then her grandmother, you know, well, then we had four generations. We had a lady in her 60s, a lady in her 30s, a teen and then a baby girl. And it was just funny to see how my mother would say, she can't take that baby out without a T-shirt on. Underneath, you know, like a little dress.

CONAN: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAM: Because to her, every child got a T-shirt. I said, mom, they don't make T-shirts anymore. And then my daughter, you know, she'll go, but why does she have to do that to me all the time? And I said, you know, she's just trying to help. She doesn't really realize. You know, and my daughter had a look. If I said something and she gave you this look, I knew that it was going right over her head. She paid no attention to it. But she's an excellent mother.

CONAN: I was going to ask Pam, also, is the kid a great kid?

PAM: Yes, she is. She is - Both of the children are just the love of my life. I don't know what I do without them. I pick them up every day after school because their mom and dad work. When I get off I pick them up every day and take them home. They start their homework until mom gets home. And she has - these children do not expect a lot like other children. They, you know, if you give them something, they'll say, oh, thank you very much. You know, and it may not be anything. But her mom and dad - their mom and dad have really just crammed it down her throat sometimes too much, I think, that, you know, nothing in life is given to you. You don't just automically earn something. If you want money, you can work for it. If you want a good education, go to school. And you will always (unintelligible) the person who has to take care of the consequences, if you don't.

CONAN: Pam, thank you so...

PAM: And they've known that forever.

CONAN: Pam, thank you so much for the call and that's a remarkable story. Thank you so much.

PAM: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Amy, here's an email we got from Joan in Grand Haven, Michigan. "I had a pregnant teenage daughter 14 years ago. Today I am raising this grandchild and while we love her very much our lives were changed because of this. But when teenagers get pregnant, there's a lot of layers to the issue: the relationship between the boy and the girl, the relationship between the girl and the boy's family, the relationship between the girl and her mom, money, safety and family safety nets. I think part of this discussion needs to be about all the grandparents who are not raising grandchildren." But maybe - she says that's for a different program. But all those issues, boy, you really do need to think about them.

Ms. DICKINSON: You do. And Neal, there are - she brings up a great point. There are over five million grandparent-headed households today. And it's an absolutely very significant issue and it has a tremendous impact not only on these families but on the rest of us. You know, grandparents, this is an issue that went to the Supreme Court. Grandparents, actually, even though they might be raising a child with in some cases a completely absent parent, they don't actually have, you know, legal, parental rights and it's a very shaky - it puts them in an incredibly vulnerable position and I - boy, my hat's off to all the grandparents who are doing what they need to do.

CONAN: "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson is with us. We're talking with parents of teenage parent about their experience. You can join us, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation underway on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Based on numbers from the U.S. Census, more than six million grandparents have grandchildren under the age of 18 living with them. Today we are talking with some of those parents of teenage parents about how their child's child changed their lives, and we want to hear your story about your teenager's baby. Phone us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Amy Dickinson is with us. She writes the syndicated column, "Ask Amy," for the Chicago Tribune. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Shirley, Shirley with us from Cornish Hill in North Carolina.

SHIRLEY (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SHIRLEY: My concern is that people are not aware that grandparents are raising grandchildren and the financial hardship on grandparents is awful. And then you really don't get the chance to experience the picture that we show for - of a grandparent...

CONAN: Yeah, one of the great benefits of being...

SHIRLEY: We don't have - we can't serve them ice cream and send them home.

CONAN: Exactly, especially the send them home part.

SHIRLEY: Yeah. That's what I'm talking about. And so that makes it very difficult. And so you're playing the role, you are a grandparent but you're playing the role of parent and instruction-giver and all of that. And you get no thanks for that because they (unintelligible) with you half the time.

CONAN: And Shirley, talk a little bit more about the financial impact, too, in your life.

SHIRLEY: The fact of it is, most of us grandparents are on retirement. Specifically, I am. A lot of the group that I work with, it's called the National Association of Grandparents and Other Caregivers, here in (unintelligible) County, (unintelligible) North Carolina. So many of us are on our social security and our retirement pay and it's just barely enough to take care of us.

CONAN: Sure.

SHIRLEY: If we didn't have our own home and some of the things that like, that you need in life paid for, we would be under the gun, and this particular state does not recognize you, as one person has said already on the show, nor does the state give you any financial help that you would get if you were taking care of a foster child. These children would have to be put in foster care for the state to take care of them before they would be deemed privileged enough to get finances from the state. So it's a hardship all around.

CONAN: And Shirley...

SHIRLEY: You love the children and you don't want anything bad to happen to them but it's a difficult road to travel.

CONAN: And does it put - and as you said, of course you love the children. But does it put new strains on your relationship with your daughter?

SHIRLEY: No, because they know how I feel, and they are - I have had to take them to court for non-support, but many of them, now, this particular child, she's just now beginning to work. And so I expect my finances to be increased by that a little bit, but all the years that I've done this without that are still here, and that causes stress on other parts of my life.

CONAN: I'm sure it does. I'm sure it does. And didn't you say you work with an organization of other people in your situation?

SHIRLEY: Yes. We have formed an organization with Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where we work under their Resource Center. And we have formed our organization so that we can get the state to recognize the work that we do raising the children, do the same work that foster parents do. We raise the children but we choose not to put them in the care of the state. The state has in its mandate that they can go in and move children out of a site after they've been there for 12 months.

Well, suppose those children - now, there are some foster care places where the children are not receiving good care. But suppose those children are doing well, and they finally found a place that feels like home to them, and they're doing well. And if the state, for whatever reason they might want to do so, wants to go in there and move them, they can move them because they have this written. It's one of their mandates that they can move them. The purpose for that was not necessarily to hurt the child, it was so that they can get people to adopt and do all of that...

CONAN: But, Amy, I'm not in charge of the budget of North Carolina or anywhere else, but nevertheless you would think the state would have an interest in helping families stay together and keeping the kids in the family structure.

SHIRLEY: I don't know the reasoning for not doing it. That's what we can't find out, and it's very hard to get laws passed anywhere that would benefit people without a great deal of struggle. When I heard this program was coming on, I wanted to say something because I don't know how it feels to be one of those grandparents in the pictures of the magazines that I've seen, feed them ice cream, let them do the tent in the living room and then go home to mommy and daddy. I don't know how that feels. I don't know how I would work in that situation. I've never had that.

CONAN: Shirley, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SHIRLEY: All right. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Amy, I just wanted to go back on that one point. You'd think the state would have an interest in trying to keep kids within the family structure.

Ms. DICKINSON: You would, and I think that some states and municipalities are focusing more on that because they see the role that grandparents have in keeping families together. And boy, God bless Shirley and people like her who step in like this. But you know, this is something, you know, they don't - Shirley should go run high schools. You know, we don't show our kids the reality.

You know, some high schools have a health class where they give you a mechanical baby and you bring it home and it cries in the middle of the night. And that's, you know, it's something. But we - I think we don't show children and teenagers the reality of what this is going to look like. One thing I'd like to do is to see if there are any teenage fathers out there who would like contact us. I would love to hear from boys and men about this.

CONAN: Interesting. We just got this email from Steven via his iPhone. "I'm a 20-year-old father, have a two-year-old girl and a three-week-old son. When my wife and I found out she was pregnant, we decided on our own to get married and grow up very quickly. We both finished school. I'm currently in my fourth year of college at a major university, preparing to head to law school. We're on the opposite side of the caller. We had to demand to raise our own children. We both work, raise our family and have lived on our own since we were 18. Our marriage is great. Yes, this has seemed nearly impossible at times but we've been dedicated to being the opposite of what seems to be the standard of teen parents. So far we've accomplished all we set out to do. The most important thing a parent of a teen parent can do is no matter what, support their child."

Ms. DICKINSON: Boy, I love that. I love that, and he's absolutely right. And that's what we tried to say at the outset, is that a parent of a teen parent is in this position, a very tough position of having to pull back, mentor and offer support. I want to tell one anecdote about a teen father. When I was in high school, a boy I knew - he was a very good friend of mine. An affectless young man, I would say, got a girl pregnant. She was 16. He was 17. And against any expectation I certainly would have had, those two, they did not decide to marry but they raised that child who's now, gosh, probably 30 years old. And as teenagers, these two managed to trade off their parenting, support one another while they each went to college. And I have to say, this man, he grow up very fast and he turned out to be a fine parent, really devoted, and at a time when there was no support for men doing this.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get - excuse me. Let's see if we can get Mark on the line. Wait a minute - let's go to Mark, Mark's with us from Salt Lake City in Utah.

MARK (Caller): Hi, how are you today?

CONAN: I'm very well, thanks.

MARK: I'll start off by saying I'm an adoptive parent, OK? And seriously, I've heard of these stories, I realize that there are some of these kids who do seem to successfully raise a child. My inclination, though, is that they're probably the exception in today's world. I think it's harder and harder to find a good paying job, a decent means to supporting one's self. And I do wish that as a society, we would do more to promote adoption in these situations.

CONAN: Adoption certainly one of the options that people should think about when the situation arises. But Mark, we wanted to talk with the parents of teenage parents today. Thanks very much for the call.

MARK: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Ms. DICKINSON: And I think Mark - Mark actually makes a great point because I think we do, you know, anybody who has watched "The Gilmore Girls" for 10 seasons as I did, and loved it, you know, there's this very glamorous portrait of what is possible as a teen parent. And you know, we cling to that, but I agree with Mark. It probably is the exception. I mean, statistics show that teen parents have a very, very rough road. They do not - they tend not to go to college. They tend not to do well professionally, as well as they might have, and it's very, very tough, as the first caller pointed out.

CONAN: Statistically, it's a ticket to poverty. That's not saying everybody goes there but statistically, your odds of ending up in poverty are much, much greater. Let's see if we can go to Keith and Keith is with us from Rochester in New York.

KEITH (Caller): I'd like to weigh in on this as the father of a daughter who found herself in college. At one point, she had worked part time in a mall. To recall the scenario, was going out with a guy who had a reputation as a ladies' man, good-looking guy. But we had heard rumors that the good-looking guy had gotten somebody pregnant, blah, blah, blah. Well, they fessed up, and I said, well, what are you going to do? My wife and I were thinking like, you know, the quintessential, boy white(ph) trash, you're going to have all these problems. Then my daughter said, well, you and mom were 18 and 21 when you got married. I said, yeah, but your mother wasn't pregnant, et cetera, et cetera.

Well, to make a long story short, they've been married 13 years, have five kids. Hard to believe, five kids in this day and age. They own two houses. While he was working they lived at his parent's house so they were able to save a little money. We watched the first baby while they both would work on the weekends. They would save up some money and I helped them out in the down payment on the house. He took another job with a company he had worked for, worked his way up. He got a promotion. Decided to go out on his own and doing fabulously. They joke about it now but there were times when my daughter's goal in life was to buy a nice sports car and be able to put a top down, and this summer, she got a new, small passenger van and she was all excited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And her husband has a different kind of reputation these days.

KEITH: Hard working, and are you insane to have five kids?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: I love that. He went from being a ladies' man to a baby's man.

KEITH: Well, he's the quintessential dad. He's been changing diapers for 13 years. It's like almost a given now.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, you bring up a very good point because couples that stay together have a much better chance at making it in terms of not being in poverty and continuing their educations, as your daughter and her husband have demonstrated. Good for them.

KEITH: They both were very responsible, which - and I think they may have gotten that from each parents, too. But they were able to step up to the plate and accepted their responsibility of parenthood and the good, the bad and the indifference of it. But in the long run, it worked out. And you joke about it now, but I'll tell you, 13 years ago, for the first year, it was awful. Really awful.

CONAN: Keith, we're really glad it worked out. Thanks so much.

KEITH: Take care.

CONAN: We're talking with parents of teenage parents with "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Wendy in Plantation, Florida: "Sometimes the best way to deal with your children is to take the risk that they may hate you in order to do what you believe is right. When my daughter got pregnant, her option was to terminate or be on her own. It killed me but it gave her a life that she has managed very well since and is now a mother of a wonderful two-year-old she is able to care for." And let's see if we can get this email.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, that's great. I'm not sure why adoption wasn't also in her choices, but yeah, good for her.

CONAN: And let's get Tracy on the line. Tracy is with us from New Carlisle in Indiana. Tracy, are you there?

TRACY (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air.

TRACY: Well, I wanted to talk to the fact that if you are a teenage parent, that you have a higher chance of your child becoming a teenage parent, which is exactly what happened to me. I was pregnant at 17. My husband and I got married. We're still married 20 years later, but my 17-year-old daughter now has a six-and-a-half-month-old child. And she was an A-B student, all of those good things that you want your kids to be, and then, mom, I'm pregnant.

I just find that the statistics that they talk about with you, with kids becoming pregnant, I think that sometimes when you step up and do the right thing like my husband and I feel like we did, somehow it lulled my children into a false sense of, well, everything will be all right if it happens. Does that make sense?

Ms. DICKINSON: Tracy, can I ask you a question?

TRACY: Sure.

Ms. DICKINSON: Were you aware that your daughter was sexually active?

TRACY: No. Not with the boy that she was with when she became pregnant, no.

Ms. DICKINSON: But do you feel like - in retrospect, would you have done anything differently in terms of talking to her about sex before she became sexually active?

TRACY: Yes. I mean, in retrospect, you know, we would have went down to the local doctor or health department and done that. And we had had, you know, the sex talk. But you know, it was sort of, brush away, mom, I'm not having sex, I'm not doing this, those kinds of things. So I would have maybe insisted that she do that, regardless of whether or not she said that she was active or not.

Ms. DICKINSON: And part of sex education is also just having talks about emotions and about behavior and about choices. And in your case, it would be a really frank talk, and obviously, you can't rewrite history, but a very frank conversation or series ofconversations about look at my life. I want to tell you my story. Here's what it's been like for me. I want something different for you. And who knows? That might have made a difference. It might have not. But, you know.

CONAN: Tracy, let me ask you. You and your husband defied the odds when you got married and the marriage thrived. Has the father of your daughter's child stayed around?

TRACY: No. They stayed together for a couple of months and we moved to a different state because of my husband's job, and at that point he, you know, just like he couldn't deal with, you know, a long distance relationship, so to speak, although they miss her and they want to see the baby. You know, they haven't quite made the 300-mile trip yet.

CONAN: That outcome seems to be more common.

TRACY: Yes, it does. It is much more common, and my husband, ironically enough, was also raised by his grandparents. We just have all kinds of crazy things.

CONAN: Tracy, thanks for the call and we wish all of you good luck.

TRACY: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll end with this email from Catherine in New Jersey. "Just on that last point you were making, Amy. My 19-year-old got pregnant. I was allowing her boyfriend to stay over. Her older sister, 24, felt it was my fault for not making sure they were using foolproof birth control. They told me the condom broke. She gave birth to a very healthy girl. They're both very involved, both continuing school, living with me but I still cry about what happened."

So embarrassment should not be a reason to avoid important conversations.

Ms. DICKINSON: And letting the boyfriend stay over. Come on!

CONAN: What did you think was going on? Amy, thanks very much for being with us, and we're glad you're going to be back with us on a regular basis.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson. Her column is syndicated by the Chicago Tribune, with us today from the studios at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I'm Neal Conan. Coming up, the next in our series of conversations on This American Moment. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, will join us. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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