It isn't the money that lures teens into motherhood

April 11, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

The conventional wisdom is that young girls have babies because they want $290 a month to spend. And then they have a second child for another $80.

If it were that simple, then all it would take to stop the burgeoning illegitimacy rate would be to stop the checks. No money, no babies. And the chain of societal ills that follow illegitimacy -- joblessness, poverty, crime and yet another generation of single mothers -- would end also.

It is not so simple.

While it is true that this money from the government subsidizes a young woman's decision to have a child, that is not the reason she gets pregnant.

There are other reasons. A spectrum of reasons. And if the government officials who are casting welfare reform don't address these reasons, young girls will continue to have babies outside of marriage.

First, the stigma attached to having a baby out of wedlock just doesn't exist anymore. The specter of a shotgun wedding or of a home for unwed mothers, where the baby you bore went from the delivery room to the adoption agency, sent a powerful message to teens. Say what you will about the medieval nature of that stigma, it helped keep kids in line while letting them know how strongly society felt about the importance of a two-parent family.

Second, young girls don't think it will happen to them. The aura of invincibility that surrounds young people, the powerful feelings that make them do crazy things in cars, is also operative in the bedroom. They don't think they'll get pregnant this time. Or any time.

When you think like that, condoms or diaphragms don't make much sense. They are not just an interruption of pleasure, they are superfluous. "I could rain the sky with condoms day in and day out if I thought it would work," said U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders.

Young girls are careless. The chaotic lifestyle of teen-age girls, especially girls who live in poverty, isn't conducive to taking a birth control pill every morning. And the hormone doses in pills today are so low that missing a day or a couple of days can easily mean pregnancy.

And poor young girls don't have the same information about, and access to, birth control as middle-class teens. Between 1980 and 1990, federal spending on family planning dropped by a third in inflation-adjusted dollars. Baskets of free condoms in the school cafeteria are the worst nightmare of some parents, but those kinds of offerings are so rare as to be meaningless in the fight against teen-age pregnancy.

If a middle-class teen finds herself pregnant, she is more likely to find the $275 to pay for a private abortion. For a pregnant girl from a poor family, abortion hasn't been accessible since federal and state funds were cut off or severely restricted in the late 1970s.

Many of these young girls would not terminate their pregnancy in any case. They want these babies. They want a child to love, and they want a child that will love them back. They are hopeless and depressed and angry, and they believe a pretty little baby will bring light to their days.

Any war against teen pregnancy is waged against this need for love and a host of other primal urges. Hormonal surges arrive at earlier and earlier ages. Children are awash in sexual messages from TV, movies and song lyrics. These kids are too young to make any sense of what they are seeing and feeling, and if parents are not around to do it for them, the result is bound to be a baby.

And making that baby is a rite of passage. It means he is a man, and it means she is a woman. For a girl, the baby is a declaration of independence from her mother. "You can't tell me, I'm grown. I have a child of my own." That is not so hard for many of us women to identify with.

Here is something else we can identify with: If you grow up with lots of dreams, among people who have aspirations for you, then you grow up knowing that a baby will wreck your plans.

If you don't have those daydreams, if the people around you are not gently pushing you toward those goals, then a baby doesn't seem to be such a problem.

If you grow up among people who love you and listen to you and attend to you, then, whatever adolescent angst descends on you, maybe you do not have this aching, empty feeling inside you that only the unconditional love of a little baby can fill.

Surveys show that three-quarters of teens didn't plan their pregnancies. If it is clear that these girls don't want to get pregnant, it is also clear that they don't want enough not to get pregnant.

rTC Young women are having babies before their own growing up is complete. And they are doing it without a husband, without a partner -- a statistical guarantee that mother and child will live in poverty.

Susan Reimer examines illegitimacy in a series of columns that ++ continues today.

Thursday: A view from the chalkboard: A teacher talks about the children of poor, unmarried mothers.

Monday: Just say no to sex. Can preaching abstinence work? Or has the world come too far to re-establish virginity as a virtue among young people?

April 21: Teach your children values. That is a solution, we are told, to illegitimacy and the poverty and crime that result from it. But which values? And how do we know when the children have learned them?

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