As an Adult, Woman Still Judged by Teen Motherhood
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
There are plenty of facts about teen-age girls who have babies. First, there are fewer of them than there used to be. This is especially striking among black teen-agers. Their pregnancy rate is down 45 percent over a decade. Also, young girls who have babies are overwhelmingly poor and at least a third of them are the daughters of teen-age mothers. And although teen-agers who have children are more likely to drop out of school, a black teen-aged mother is more likely to complete high school than a white one. Now, with all those facts in mind, commentator Desiree Cooper would like to tell the story of one woman who had a baby when she was in high school.
By any measure, Nella Johnson can be proud of her life. She graduated with honors from NYU and at 29 earned her master's in social work from the University of Michigan. But there is one thing that people insist on making her feel ashamed of, the fact that she had a baby when she was 15. `I've achieved so much,' said Johnson, `but no matter what I do or how old I am it seems that people will forever see me as a teen mother.'
I wanted to ask Johnson what did she expect? Applause? To foolishly risk her future, shame on her. On the other hand, how long should we punish teen moms in order to make examples of them? If it's teaching a tough lesson that we want, Johnson, like many other teen moms, has had some hard knocks. When she got pregnant as a high school freshman, her family convinced her to keep the baby but she nearly died in childbirth. Her daughter was 12 days old and still nameless before Johnson was well enough to see her. `She was a jewel,' said Johnson, `and so I named her Diamond.'
Johnson says she was ostracized by church and family members who behaved as if she were contagious. When she wanted to run for homecoming court in her senior year, the school wouldn't let her because she was a mother of a two-year-old. `Although,' she said, `teen fathers don't get the same kind of treatment.'
Johnson's family urged her to leave Diamond behind when she attended NYU. She did so reluctantly, not wanting to slough off her responsibility on others. A classmate cried when she found out that Johnson had a toddler at home. `She thought I was just like the other students,' said Johnson. `She'd only read about people like me.'
When she volunteered to counsel pregnant girls at a community center, she got a similar reaction. She said, `They thought I was lying.' People had told them they could succeed, but they'd never seen anyone do it. Johnson decided right then to become a social worker to support girls who find themselves pregnant and saddled by stigma. In her junior year she moved off campus and brought Diamond to New York where the two continued their education together.
As she donned her cap and gown to get her master's degree in December, the achievement was bittersweet. `Just recently a co-worker found out I had a teen-age daughter and she yelled at me, "What were you thinking?"' said Johnson. `I was a teen-age mom 13 years ago. I'm not one now. When will I be able to stop living beneath such low expectations?'
When I listen to Johnson's story, I can't help but think that the problems of teen mothers might also have something to do with our unwillingness to forgive them. We can continue to deride them for their mistakes or we can help them overcome the past and show them by example what love is really all about.
NORRIS: Desiree Cooper is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
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