Teen Moms Need Support, Not Shame

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Photo: Cecilia Cartner/Corbis

When Gloria Malone and Natasha Vianna got pregnant as teens, they thought their lives were over. This is, after all, what many teen pregnancy campaigns suggest. “You think being in school sucks? You know what sucks a lot more? A baby — every 2 hours for feeding time,” reads one ad from the Candie’s Foundation. Another says, “You’re supposed to be changing the world, not changing diapers.”

Over the past 20 years, the teen birth rate has declined almost continuously, but the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world. Statistically, teen parents in the U.S. are less likely to finish high school, more likely to experience poverty as adults, and more likely to have kids with poorer behavioral, educational, and health outcomes.  But many teens that become pregnant were already disadvantaged, and the stigma only makes things worse.

Photo: Natasha Vianna, Gloria Malone

Giving birth at 15 and 17 respectively inspired Malone and Vianna to improve the experiences of other teen moms. They founded #noteenshame with five other teen moms from across the country; and what started as a hashtag has become a larger effort to support teen moms, call out campaigns that traffic in stigma, and provide basic information and support to young parents. In addition to challenging shaming teen-pregnancy-prevention campaigns, founding members also consult with politicians around the country on improving outcomes for teen moms and how to create comprehensive sex ed. Vianna, now 27, gave a TedTalk in 2013, worked with Boston politicians to revise and implement a new policy for parenting students, and is the Digital Communications Manager at the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. Malone, now 23, has written for the New York Times, taken on Bill O’Reilly, and created a website for teen moms in New York.

Over a three-way call one evening — “one of the perks of interviewing young parents is they’re home on a Friday night,” Malone quipped — they shared their experiences as pregnant and parenting teens, talked about the shame and stigma they’ve worked to overcome, and articulated what needs to change when it comes to teen pregnancy prevention.

 I’ve noticed a lot of organizations that pose as supportive of teen pregnancy do so only because they’re pro-life. How do you guys identify?

Natasha Vianna: I’m pro-choice and fully support abortion rights access.

Gloria Malone: Yeah, me too.

Vianna: With #noteenshame we try to recognize that all young people deserve access to comprehensive and accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health as well as complete agency and autonomy over their own bodies.

What was it like becoming pregnant as a teen?

Vianna: Prior to pregnancy, I often heard that when you become a teen parent you lose all your friends. But actually, my friends became even more supportive than ever; it was the adults in my life that made things really hard.

Malone: Same for me. My academic adviser stopped talking to me completely. I had teachers not give me assignments; I had teachers who would change the seating arrangements and purposely put me in a tiny desk when I was super pregnant. When I decided to move to a table that was right behind me, they were like, “What do you think you’re doing? You think you’re an adult cause you’re pregnant?” And I was like, “No, I just think I can’t fit in my fucking desk.”

Vianna: I remember going to my guidance counselor’s office and asking, “Why am I removed from my honor’s classes?” and my guidance counselor said, “Well, now that you’re pregnant, you’re not going to be able to do that kind of work anymore,” as if getting pregnant meant losing my brain. Later, I came back to her office to ask if someone could help me apply for college and was told, “It’s unlikely you’ll even graduate, so let’s just focus on finishing high school.” When adults continue you tell you you’re not capable, you start to believe it.  

Statistically, teen moms are more likely to be black or Latina, face socioeconomic barriers, and lack access to comprehensive sex ed. Many are kicked out of their homes when they become pregnant. Do you feel like your experience mirrors that of most teen moms?

Vianna: Yeah. When I told my parents I was pregnant, they kicked me out of my house. I was just 8 or 9 weeks pregnant and I was forced to take whatever I could and move in with my boyfriend that same day. When I secretly shared my pregnancy with my school nurse and clarified that I wasn't sure if I would choose an abortion or carry to term, she violated privacy and told my teachers about my pregnancy and within a week, my whole school knew. I felt trapped and knew that if I chose an abortion, I couldn't hide it like I thought I had to, but if I carried to term, I also knew that the same people who would judge me for an abortion wouldn't have stuck around to support me. 

After moving in with my boyfriend, my parents also stopped paying tuition for my high school (I was in a Catholic high school at the time) so I had to enroll myself in the local public high school where I would start my senior year as the new pregnant girl.

Malone: I’m a black Latina who grew up in deep poverty with my single mother and sibling. Thankfully, I didn’t get kicked out. That said, my family struggled for a very long time with how to support me.

I returned to school maybe two weeks after having my daughter because I didn't want to be failed out of school on account of my pregnancy. My daily schedule was wake up, tend to my child, pack her and my bags for the day, drop her off at the sitter, illegally park my car to be able to go to school, go to school, pick up my daughter, go home, and get ready for work at the local Taco Bell until about 9 p.m. I didn't have much financial support from my family and my daughter's father worked out of town often so all of the child rearing was left up to me, alone. 

Vianna: Yeah, I spent a lot of time alone with my daughter too. Not having love from my family made me feel like I was a burden. I wasn’t asking anyone to support the reality that I got pregnant, but I wished there were people who cared that the isolation and stress I felt during my pregnancy wasn’t healthy for me or for my baby. It took years (and I’m still trying) to unpack the ways in which I internalized a feeling of worthlessness. 

How did that stigma and shaming impact your experience of giving birth and raising a newborn?

Malone: It was very, very isolating. I was in an abusive relationship, but that was the person that was “there for me” when everyone else was turning away.

Vianna: For my entire pregnancy people had been telling me, “this child is going to ruin your life,” “you’re never going to be able to accomplish your dreams.” As I was giving birth I was thinking, Holy crap, I’m giving birth to this person whose life is going to end mine. I had a really hard time bonding with my daughter. I became really depressed, I didn’t want to ask for help or ask those normal questions first-time parents have because I felt like asking would be a reflection of me as a teen parent and not just a first time parent.

Malone: I had no idea that your breast milk had to come in. I was too scared to ask anyone!

Vianna: Exactly. If I was struggling, I’d tell myself I asked for this or it’s my fault for getting pregnant. When my daughter was younger, I would sometimes lay beside her while she slept and I would cry and apologize for not being the person she deserved. It was a horrible feeling to believe that I could never be what she needed, but I'm glad I overcame that. I have a strong relationship with her today. 

It seems like part of the stigma surrounding teen parents is never allowing teen moms to express the positive aspects of their experiences. What were some of the best things about being a young parent?

Vianna: Oh, I love this question. In terms of parenting, it’s great that I can look back at my relationship with my mom and I can remember so clearly what it feels like to be a kid and I can apply that to how I parent my child. Plus, I like the fact that she’s going to be in college when I’m 35. That’s exciting.

Malone: When my daughter is in college, I’m going to be a hot 30-year-old, [laughs], I’m going to have money in my account, I’m going to be traveling, and my friends are going to be calling me saying, “How do I breastfeed?” That’s when I’ll go, “Sorry, should’ve been a teen mom.” [Laughs] But seriously, I love that we’re learning together, that I feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know, let me get back to you.” I love that my daughter has seen me accomplish things. She’s seen me graduate high school, she’s seen me graduate college.

Vianna: Gloria and I were just talking about how our experiences being stigmatized have influenced how we’re raising our daughters.

What do you mean?

Vianna: Maybe I can just give an example. When my daughter was in kindergarten, I picked her up one day and she was immediately like, “I have to tell you something. I got in trouble today.” I asked what happened and she said, “There’s a boy in my class who said girls can’t burp. He kept saying it. So I burped. I got in trouble, but I had to show that girls can burp.” On one hand I was like, hmm, she shouldn’t be burping in class, but, also, high five. It was great to see my little feminist daughter challenging things.

But even on bigger issues she’s really internalized our conversations. This one time, we were eating dinner and she was like, “I heard something at school today, one of the girls in my class told me that it’s impossible for me to be here because you and my dad aren’t married.” I got really nervous, because I wasn’t prepared to have that conversation. I was like, “Well, how does that make you feel?” She was like, “I’m not sure,” got really quiet, and then was like, “Actually, y’know what? I’m fine because I’m the expert on my life and no one can tell me about my life but me.”

Do you ever worry that in trying to counteract the narratives about teen moms you feel like you can’t acknowledge the difficult aspects or that you feel like you’re painting an overly rosy picture?

Malone: No, not really. Recently, I had a woman, 65 years old, email me and tell me that she’s still terrified to say her age in relation to her daughters for fear that people will figure out she was a teen mom. That’s a heavy-ass burden to carry around. Sometimes people think I’m glorifying my experience, but I think they’re just uncomfortable hearing about a teen mom who's successful.

Motherhood was a very politicizing moment for both of you. How has your awareness and experience influenced what you want to see changed?

Malone: There’s a whole system in place to prevent people from getting the help they need because there’s this stereotype that they don’t deserve it. For example, teen moms often get kicked out of their homes, but they’re not allowed to stay in homeless shelters because it’s “a child with a child.”

Vianna: Instead of focusing on teen pregnancy prevention, we need to focus on positive youth development. My pregnancy was this lightning rod for people to blame all of my issues and all of my problems, but the reality is that preventing a pregnancy does not increase opportunities for young people. It does not improve their equitable access to quality education. It does not make their communities safer. As a society, we’re so focused on making sure teens don’t get pregnant before their 20th birthday that we miss out on conversations about consent, healthy relationships, and agency.

If we look at the communities, if we empower young people to make decisions for themselves and give them the tools to make those decisions, we will see a decrease in teen pregnancy because we know that 80 percent of teen pregnancies are unplanned.

You both embrace your position as teen moms. As you’ve grown older, does it still impact the way you’re able to talk about motherhood?

Vianna: Yes. If society is going to stigmatize me and spend millions of dollars to label me and my child as a public health issue, I deserve at the very least, the basic right to share my truth. If we removed the teen aspect and I said, “I’m happy to be a mom,” no one would say, “How dare you be happy to be a mom! You must be lying, and you’re also setting a bad example.”

Malone: Honestly, I would like to see the phrase teen mom disappear off the face of the earth. Why are we the only demographic of moms that are singled out by our age? Why are we teen moms? Why can’t we just be moms?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo: Natasha Vianna