I was born to a teenage mother in 1977. We were “disadvantaged.” I did not know this was my place until I became a college co-ed, immersed within an elite institution wedded to research for research’s sake as well as the genesis of social work.
The Centers for Disease Control’s most recent statistics report live births to women ages 15-19 are on the decline in America. Increased availability of birth control, higher college financial aid opportunities and open discussion of sexuality account for this shift in more maturity for more mothers. Because disadvantaged, black and Hispanic teen mothers account for 57 percent of these births, the CDC and similar organizations make our populations concerned priorities of attention.
I always take curious offense to my background designated as a category of “disease,” study, research and prevention by everything from scientists to academics. Apparently, a teenage black woman outside a certain range of net worth should not reproduce herself. Under not only set terms but the stigma attached to women of color in primary high-risk categories, my very existence should have been prevented or aborted. If it had been, then all the young people and readers I’ve inspired would have never met my work. A teen mother would not have been able to find this writing, have hope and see a better future.
Prior to my enlightenment about the world’s various caste systems, I felt privileged: I had two young parents. Their young ages meant their parents and grandparents were vibrant. I spent my childhood shuffled around a variety of homes helmed by young-at-heart but older and wiser people from different states, different cultures, different work lives, different Christian denominations.
I was so fed I stayed stuffed. I was so spoiled I stayed overdressed. I was so entertained I stayed overbooked. I started off in private Catholic school. If I had been more precocious than I already was, I could have seen my exit from it as a sign of “disadvantage.” Even with a scholarship, the private school tuition was a strain on my large family, but I eventually transferred to a public school with an outstanding academic honors program.
Obviously, given that I am writing this today for a major online women’s network, I have had more advantages than disadvantages in my life. I would not be the person I am today if not for my birth to teen parents. They had more children I learned to diplomatically lead, and also had more of my ancestors alive for me to learn to productively follow.
I do not advocate for any teen woman to become pregnant outside of marriage. I am childless at 38 and have yet to be married, though my mother gave birth to me at 15 and married at 18. My one child I want will have some socioeconomic advantages I have done without: education subsidized by my family or seed money to launch a prosperous adult life. He or she will be at ease in a competitive world of ego battles and asset-listing; he or she may always announce the better zip code we live in or nod to mom’s glamorous novelist life. I will be a stalwart advocate for my child’s education, survival away from home and troubles in ways my less experienced parents could not be.
However, my child will be “disadvantaged” in ways society will never mark or study as such. To do so would validate the existence of a lower caste society wants to view as problematic. My child will not have as many siblings as I am fortunate to have, including their offspring I am honored to be an “auntie” for. They will never know the worn and loving hands of many grandparents, great grandparents and ancestors. They will never hear their stories, watch them praise God in song, observe them create family recipes, or learn early not to fear death due to seeing those they love travel to it often.
And, they will not have me for nearly as long as I will have my own mother. At our respective ages of not yet 40 and barely over 50, I am just now comparing notes with my mom about how to tackle gray hairs or cheap dates or a bad boss. Given our nuclear family’s history of good health, I have no fear of losing my mother before my wedding date, or first child’s birth or even legal retirement. This security against such a loss accounts for my bravery, sprawling spirit and willingness to love for the long haul.
It all started with my mother’s bravery, sprawling spirit and willingness to love me for the long haul, with no awareness we were “disadvantaged” back in 1977.