The Questions Posed by ‘Teen Mom’

I came late to the ‘Teen Mom’ phenomenon, but when I finally stumbled across an episode, I was riveted. So much so that I’ve spent the last two weekends at my computer, watching every single episode of ’16 and Pregnant’ and its spinoff, ‘Teen Mom.’ Since there are two seasons of each, that’s some 50 shows altogether.

Why on earth would I do this? Professional curiosity, for one thing. I wanted to find out why there’s so much buzz about these shows among people who work with teenagers. Then there’s the fact that we’re in (another) politically reactionary period where serious people actually question the importance of helping girls and women avoid unwanted pregnancies. I wanted to understand the cultural imperative around this issue at this particular, highly fraught point in our history. That is to say, what’s our society telling itself about teen sex and pregnancy, and why don’t about half of our policymakers seem to care?

And finally there’s this: I have a teenage girl at home. Maybe that’s the real reason I sat there for so many hours, both fascinated and appalled.

Needless to say, when I started watching these shows, I joined an enormous club of devotees, both in the field and out. Scores of youth advocates and sex educators use ’16 & Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom’ to amplify their own message to teens: don’t do it! But the real audience, as you’ll have guessed, is teenagers themselves.

My 16-year-old stepdaughter watches the shows with her friends, but when we talk about it, it’s like I become her friend, too. Can you believe Jenelle’s mother? She is so annoying. But come on, Jennelle’s totally crazy, too! OMG! That guy she’s with is the worst! And what about Leah and Corey? They got married! With the twins trailing behind them in a wagon, as bridesmaids! And to think they almost broke up! In the fraught world of dating and sex, the shows give us something to agree on, give us disasters that we feel lucky to have averted. So far, anyway.

Given these shows’ remarkable success, it’s amazing how utterly predictable they are. We see the same story over and over, yet somehow always wonder what will happen next. If you haven’t seen a show, here’s the standard rundown:

  1. In the first episode, we meet the mom-to-be, a regular, fresh-faced girl from some small town in Kentucky or Texas or South Dakota. Somehow she’s gotten five months pregnant, and everyone — family, friends, boyfriend, the girl herself — still seems a little dazed. The young mom-to-be has a brimming life and lots of plans … or did have. Things are going to change for her now, she knows that. But she’s feeling optimistic. Somehow, things will work out.
  2. At some point her incredulous friends will ask if she used birth control. She’ll admit that she didn’t use it, or did use it but somehow messed up. She’ll look sheepish; her friends will look dumbstruck. They’ll say they wouldn’t want to be in her shoes.
  3. The girl’s mom (dad is usually absent) is disappointed, heartbroken or angry. Sometimes all three at once. Typically, she is a single mother herself, and she knows what’s coming.
  4. The new parents set up a crib. The teen mom’s friends throw her a baby shower. The teen dad mumbles a lot and vows to get a job to support the baby.
  5. He doesn’t manage to do this, and begins spending more time hanging with friends. The mom begins to wonder if the dad will really step up to the plate. Friction between the teens and their families sets in.
  6. Finally the baby is born, with cries of pain and tears of happiness all around. The feuding families call a temporary truce.
  7. Within a few days, the exhausting reality of caring for an infant sets in. Mom asks for more help; dad says her life is easy compared to his. Fights ensue. With sad regularity, dad calls mom a whore.
  8. Dad begins drifting away/being difficult/checking in with old girlfriends.
  9. Mom tries to go back to school, but finds out it’s not so easy. She decides to stay home and try to get her GED. That turns out to be not so easy, either.
  10. She gets a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant and watches her friends get ready for college.
  11. Her relationship with dad erodes further, with much angry texting back and forth. Paternity tests are demanded, child custody papers are drawn up. A few marriages occur or almost occur, but they have a half-hearted, flimsy feel.
  12. Finally, at series’ end, we are left just as these too-soon parents are, tired and discouraged. We know they’re trapped in an impossible situation, and they’re beginning to know it, too.

Surely we can be for teen mothers while being against teen motherhood. Can’t we?

As with other reality TV shows, we can rightfully ask ourselves whether ’16 & Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom’ tell the truth or obscure it. Are the shows merely propaganda, cunningly crafted to terrify teens about the disastrous consequences of a too-early pregnancy? Or do they, through sheer repetitiveness, underscore the simple fact that there are only so many ways this storyline can play out? And that few of them, at least in the short term, are really positive?

Some advocates criticize the show for making teen moms look weak or incompetent. I disagree. It makes them look how they really are: in love with their babies, overwhelmed by parenthood, abashed at the sacrifices they’re being forced to make, unsure how they’re going to make their futures work. Most of the teens come across sympathetically, and, more to the point, most seem to be doing a reasonably good job of caring for their babies — better, in fact, than one might expect. Surely we can be for teen mothers while being against teen motherhood. If not, we’re in trouble.

These shows don’t claim to be social science, and it’s obvious the producers haven’t randomly selected their subjects. Most girls are white, from middle or working class families, and bright and engaging enough to hold viewers’ attention. While many of them seem mildly depressed and anxious, only a couple seem truly troubled. A more accurate demographic profile of pregnant teens would look somewhat different, the girls disproportionately black or Hispanic, disportionately from the foster care system, likely to be poor, likely to have school problems or learning difficulties.

If they’re not exactly representative of teen moms in general, it’s nonetheless hard to deny that the shows do tell some essential truths, some of them uncomfortable for liberal-minded people like myself. I think these truths bear closer examination.

What seems obvious, after my headlong plunge into the lives of these teen parents, is this:

  • Education about contraception has done a lot to decrease pregnancy rates in recent years, but it doesn’t always work. Almost all of the girls in these series had been taught about birth control; often their parents had been involved from early on, giving quite explicit instruction. And yet they still experienced accidental pregnancies. They didn’t know that antibiotics made birth control pills less effective, or that they couldn’t put off that next appointment for their depo provera shot. Some assumed that since they had occasionally skipped using a condom before without getting pregnant, they could go ahead and do it again. And their partners were little or no help. One particularly savvy girl even became pregnant a second time.
  •  We’re too quick to ascribe teen pregnancies to hopelessness or indifference about the future. These shows, in fact, seem to argue the opposite. Most of the girls had plans for themselves, and those plans generally included college and career. Many of them — though certainly not all — had highly supportive parents able to supply financial and hands-on help. That almost every one of these girls puts off her plans indefinitely is one of the more heartbreaking aspects of these stories. (Seeing one of the ‘baby-daddies’ do the same, by giving up a basketball scholarship to support his new family, is particularly wrenching, given that both he and his relatives considered the scholarship his one big chance to move up in the world.)
  •  When parents gently but firmly steer their teens to consider adoption, they do. In most of these stories, one gets the sense that adoption was dismissed out of hand early on, even when the young parents-to-be had no obvious means of supporting either themselves or their baby, and family help was going to be minimal. That’s why the stories of young parents who, with great anguish but admirable maturity, did choose adoption are so compelling. One mom-to-be took a hard look at her chaotic home, and despite the tantrums of her drug-addict parents, decided it was no place for a baby. But in two other cases, teens who were initially reluctant to even think about adoption were persistently encouraged by their parents to at least investigate the option. They did, and ultimately decided to place their babies with families who could provide more for them, knowing that in the open adoptions they chose, they could continue to be involved as birth parents.
  •  The safety net we’ve tried to create for these young parents hardly exists. One girl gets early intervention for her baby with development delays, one gets state-subsidized day care, one attends a teen parent program at her high school. That’s it — hardly a ringing endorsement of our reach into the lives of these young and vulnerable families. Mostly, these girls seem to be on their own, cast out into a world not at all interested in their plight. Programs for teen moms are so limited in funding that they tend to target their services to girls who literally have no place else to turn; we’re happy these girls aren’t quite that desperate, while acknowledging that what some of them need is precisely the kind of support these programs offer. (In an urban area with more robust services, the picture might be a tiny bit brighter; perhaps that’s why most of the girls in ’16 & Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom’ are from small towns. The point of the shows, after all, is to illustrate that early parenthood is really hard, not potentially easy).

It would be interesting to see behind the scenes of these dramas, to see which facts get told and which don’t. It would be also be interesting to see what difference the cameras made by simply being there, or whether the eventual financial payoff from appearing on the shows affected the decisions the young mothers made, for instance about quitting high school or holding off on starting a career.

Aside from questions about the mechanics of the shows themselves, we can also (more importantly) wonder about what their actual effect on teens’ sexual behavior has been: have they actually lowered rates of teen pregnancy, or simply turned such calamitous pregnancies into a sad spectacle that titillates its teen audience without actually benefiting them in some practical way?

For now, though, I suggest we ask some more pressing questions — namely, if what we’re doing in this country to prevent teen pregnancy is enough, and whether our current political climate is likely to create more stories like the ones on ‘Teen Mom’ or fewer. You may think the answer to both questions is obvious. If so, we should brace ourselves. Because as the girls in these series would be the very first to say, teenagers are just too young to have babies.

Melanie Wilson is Youth Catalytics’ Director of Research.