Enduring high school as a teen mom stinks—and not just because of the baby poop. Many messages intended to promote safe sex or abstinence have the unintended side effect of stigmatizing teen moms. Just ask North Carolina’s own Caitlin Tiller.
Caitlin attends Wheatmore High School in Trinity, NC. When the yearbook committee invited seniors to pose with props that represented their achievements, Caitlin decided to pose with her four month old baby boy. “He helped me get to where I am today. I want everyone to see that you can make a mistake and you can overcome it,” said Caitlin. After giving birth, Caitlin worked harder in school, graduated early, began taking college classes, and now works 30 hours a week at a part-time job. Do you know any 17 year-olds with that kind of resume? I don’t. Last month, Caitlin received word that her senior portrait would not appear in the school yearbook because it risked “promoting teen pregnancy.” School officials justified the ban by claiming that senior portrait props must relate to school. Um, since when do Pokémon, cats, and Gameboys relate to school?
Like many Americans, the school officials at Wheatmore High School associate teen pregnancy with failure. We fear that the deviancy associated with young parenthood may appeal to rebellious teens—and so we hold up pictures of a 15 year-old mom with a squalling baby home alone on prom night as a warning to all. Statistics like these from the National Campaign seal the deal:
“Compared to women who delay childbearing, teen mothers are less likely to complete high school and more likely to end up on welfare. The children of teen mothers are at significantly increased risk of low birth-weight and prematurity, mental retardation, poverty, growing up without a father, welfare dependency, poor school performance, insufficient health care, inadequate parenting, and abuse and neglect.”
We punish young mothers for allowing themselves to get pregnant—when in fact teen pregnancy reflects much larger structural issues beyond any one teenager’s control. For example, poverty and abstinence-only sex education have been systematically linked to higher pregnancy rates. Here’s an idea: instead of reducing poverty by reducing the teen birth rate, we could reduce the teen birth rate by reducing poverty.