Young moms trade their futures for diapers

August 22, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

The brown plaid skirts we wore as part of our uniform didn't hide much - especially since we rolled them up at the waistband to turn them into thigh-high minis. So it became clear after a certain point when one girl got pregnant.

She must have been in denial - by the time I heard the rumors and got a look at her from the side in the cafeteria one day, her belly was as perfectly round as a basketball.

This was at a Catholic girls school in the Chicago suburbs, in the 1970s when abortion was still illegal in Illinois - but there was no chance this girl would keep this baby, or if she did, parade the infant around on her hip or bring him or her to graduation. Her friends did not think this was cool or give her a baby shower.

I remembered this ancient bit of history as I was reading JoAnna Daemmrich's astonishing article in Sunday's Sun about the high teen birthrate in Washington County, which seems to be bucking the trend nationally and statewide of fewer adolescents having babies. Her piece on these girls, as young as 15, excited about their pregnancies, comparing sonogram pictures and proudly bringing their babies to football games and graduation, is about as chilling a story as I've read all year.

It was like reading a dispatch from some strange past, one that was somehow both pre-birth control and post-shame.

But perhaps most troubling was that other missing factor in these girls' world: dreams for themselves.

Maybe the future was better when I was younger.

When my friends and I were around the age of these young mothers, we were all going to be That Girl or Mary Tyler Moore, single working gals with flipped hair, cool apartments and wacky adventures in the world of dating.

Nothing seemed more glamorous than growing up and getting a job in the city - and going out with grown-up men who wore suits and drove sports cars. We figured we'd get married at some point and probably have kids, but just not yet.

Flash forward to the present, and these girls in Washington County seem not to have dreamed of anything beyond their high school romances and working at the chicken-wing restaurant in town.

How did that happen? In the future I grew up with, the world of possibilities was expanding, not contracting for women.

Believe me, my high school was no progressive hotbed. We had a substitute teacher in a class one day who asked us - I still recall her perky voice and self-satisfied smirk - if we ever noticed how "those feminists" were not very pretty. That was about the depth of the discourse on feminism.

Another time, we went around the room telling what we wanted to be when we grew up, and girl after girl said nurse or paralegal rather than doctor or lawyer - and these were the smart kids.

But even as retrograde as my school seems to me now, it must not have been - we all were expected to go on to college and do something other than immediately head for the maternity ward. We may not have been primed to run the world, but we sure weren't expected to tie ourselves down with a baby.

Maybe Williamsport, the town that was the focus of the article, is an aberration: It seems small enough that kids don't want to be seen buying contraceptives in the local stores - although since when have teens not been able to find a way to get something they want - and anti-abortion enough for the girls to not even consider terminating their pregnancies. (Which doesn't explain why giving up the babies for adoption isn't more of an option for them.)

But teenagers of course are vastly more influenced by their own peers than larger political beliefs. In this case, these girls never seem to have heard a disparaging word about their pregnancies, not from their friends, their parents or the high school counselor who keeps a copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting on her desk. Rather, they were celebrated and supported.

It's not that I think these girls should be tarred and feathered and run out of town. Once they're pregnant, sure, support them and give them a way to graduate from high school.

But all the concern and solicitude shouldn't be focused solely on the babies; someone should be looking out for the girls, who obviously haven't done a very good job to date looking out for themselves.

When the climate is such that the community wants to simply preach abstinence, and these girls don't use regular birth control and won't even consider abortion or adoption, then they're really not "choosing" to keep their babies. What alternative have they been given?

As for the girl in my high school who got pregnant, it's probably not fair to her to say what she did. Suffice it to say, she did have real choices, and she made one. She went away, and came back and graduated with the rest of us.

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