Before the sun has risen over the Bronx River, an alarm chimes in 17-year-old Grace Padilla’s bedroom. Sliding from the lower bunk, she pads to the bathroom, flips on the light, brushes her teeth, then gathers up her hair into a short ponytail, which she wraps with a long row of black extensions and knots into a tight bun. She’s quick and efficient, with none of the preening one might expect of a high-school junior. At 6:30 a.m., she goes back into the bedroom to wake her 2-year-old daughter.
Along with her grandparents, her mother, her sister, and her child, Grace lives in a small two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a nondescript brick building in Hunts Point, where nearly half the residents live below the poverty line and roughly 15 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 become pregnant each year. It’s the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the city, more than twice the national average.
“Lilah, wake up,” Grace whispers, leaning in close. Lilah bats her mother away with a tiny hand and nestles up closer to Grace’s own mother, Mayra, who had moments before returned home from her night shift as a cashier at a local food-distribution center and slipped, exhausted, into Grace’s place in the bed.
“Come on, let’s go get dressed,” Grace pleads, pulling her daughter from under the covers as Lilah begins crying, flailing her arms and legs.
“Come on,” Grace begs. She fights to keep her mounting frustration in check and then counts down the seconds before she’ll make Lilah go stand against the wall, her usual form of punishment. “Five … four … three … two … one.”
The threat is enough. Lilah’s body goes slack, her screaming dissipates to a whimper. Grace is able to wrestle her into the clothes she’d laid out beforehand. But the child’s screams have woken Grace’s grandparents, who are now in the galley kitchen, arguing in Spanish. Her grandfather has Alzheimer’s. He accidentally makes decaffeinated coffee, which infuriates his wife.
At 7:20, Grace smoothes a tiny hat over Lilah’s curls, bundles her into a coat, then jostles schoolbooks into a bag. In the empty lot across the street, a rooster starts to crow.
When Grace arrives at Jane Addams High School for Academics and Careers, she joins the daily parade of mothers—pushing strollers, grasping the chubby fists of toddlers, perching bundled babies on cocked hips—making their way to basement room B17, the headquarters of the school’s Living for the Young Family Through Education (LYFE) center. Run by the Department of Education, the LYFE program operates in 38 schools in the five boroughs, teaching parenting skills and providing on-site day care to teen parents who are full-time students in New York City’s public schools. Jane Addams hosts one of the most active branches in the city, with sixteen mothers currently in the program.
While the students sign in on a clipboard, social worker Ana C. Martínez flits among them with her checklist of concerns. Is this baby eating enough? (Yes.) Does that one still have a cough? (No.) When will the heat be turned back on in one young mother’s apartment? (Uncertain.) If it isn’t soon, has she considered going to a shelter? (She has.)
“How’s the baby?” Martínez asks Grace.
“She’s fine,” Grace answers.
Satisfied, Martínez turns her attention to Lilah. “Can I get a hug?”
“No,” the child replies coyly, pretending to hide behind her mother’s legs.
Lilah finally concedes, jumping into the woman’s arms.
Martínez laughs. “We have to play that game every morning, don’t we?”
The girls cluster around a table laid out with bagels and jam, which Martínez serves every morning, both to entice her charges to be at school on time and also to make sure they get enough to eat (“Some don’t at home,” she clucks). She admits that the LYFE program, which serves 500 families and costs taxpayers about $13 million a year, has its naysayers, people who think that it makes life too easy for the mothers and diverts money from students who’ve made more-responsible choices. “But the reality is, teens are having kids, and we’ve got to work with them,” she says. “They’re entitled to an education.”
Grace greets Jasmine Reyes—a soft-spoken senior whose 2-year-old daughter, Jayleen, is Lilah’s best friend in day care—before going over to peer at Nelsy Valerio’s infant. When Iruma Moré enters the room with her 8-month-old daughter, Dymia, Grace beelines for the baby, unwrapping her from a pile of blankets.
“Dymia, Dymia, Dy-mi-a,” she chants, bouncing the child on her lap. “She’s so little,” Grace marvels wistfully.
Iruma giggles. “I try to feed her all the time,” she says, as she drops into a chair next to a locker crammed full of diapers. Though all four of Iruma’s older sisters were teen mothers, she didn’t know her school had day care until her sophomore year. “I started seeing the mothers coming in with their babies and stuff, and I always used to wonder where they take them,” she says. One day, she looked through a doorway and it was like peering into a magic cupboard—a roomful of babies with soft skin and fine hair. Iruma thought she might like to have one of her own. By her junior year, she was pregnant. “I wasn’t using nothing, no protection, so I mean, I knew it was gonna come sooner or later.”