What It Means to be a Brown Teen Mom
This past Friday I walked into a high school classroom as a guest speaker, sharing my ‘story’ as a young brown woman who was also a teen mom. On my drive there, I was practicing over and over what I would be saying to the room of sophomore students, trying to figure out the best way to convey a motivating and uplifting message while staying true to my own story. Here’s the thing you need to know, though: I was NOT cool in high school! So, the moment I walked into the classroom, I felt myself start to sweat, get nervous, wondering if they knew how uncool I really was. I was a mess and the entire speech I had practiced in the car left me in the heat of my post-high school anxiety.
The classroom teacher introduced me and I stepped up to the front of the room with all eyes on me. My mind started racing and suddenly I began to speak. I began to tell the truth. The truth about how my high school experience wasn’t perfect or easy. The truth about all the obstacles and messages I faced that told me I was incapable. I told the truth about living at the intersection of racism, sexism, and adultism* at age 17 when I first discovered that I was pregnant.
Back up to 17 year old me, talking with my friend who told me that if I took birth control the day after having sex I couldn't get pregnant and the birth control would kick in. Fast forward a month later when I realized my period was late and I took 4 different pregnancy tests (including a fertility test because I didn't even know the difference) and they came back positive. I was pregnant, there was no way around it.
There were some key things I realized as a grown-up when I reflected on my experience:
- The incompleteness of sexual education at the high school level. As I remember, the only sexual education we had was a school nurse showing pictures of highly extreme sexually transmitted infections. Apparently this was supposed to scare us from having sex. I was getting my full range of sexual education from my peers who also were not receiving adequate or comprehensive sexual education.
- Adults do not trust that young women are capable of making important decisions about their bodies and their lives and if you don't do as they say, there will be consequences. When my school found out that I was pregnant and choosing to stay pregnant, teachers and administration were instructed to not speak to me about my pregnancy or acknowledge the situation. My academic counselor suggested I have an abortion if I wanted to go to college in the fall, and I was eventually asked to leave my school while the father of my child suffered no external consequences from the school. I was intentionally ostracized and isolated as part of the schools impromptu policy around teenage pregnancy. Instead of being trusted and empowered around my situation, I was shamed and punished.
- After being asked to leave my school setting and community, (mind you, it was a boarding school and the only parent I could be sent with was my mother who was homeless) I ended up homeless, myself, and pregnant, living out of a faith-based transitional living shelter. During this time, I realized that white people had no higher expectations of me other than to be a poor and undereducated mother, because of the fact that I was brown and so were a lot of the other homeless mothers. There was no empowerment, no one believed in us, no one thought we had what it would take simply because that's what "people like us" did.
I received a lot of messages from people around me, friends, family, teachers, therapists, that I was incapable of not only being a good mother, but also incapable of going to college, of finding love as a single parent, of having important experiences, of traveling, or having community, or anything fulfilling at all. The messages were that my existence would be forever difficult, embarrassing, and unaccepted by a larger society because I failed to be the woman that people expected me to be. I had sex. I sinned. I was soiled, dirty, and as punishment for having sex, I would have a child that I would raise alone. And the shame around those messages held the deepest impact of all. These are messages I would spend lots of time unpacking and healing from in my process of de-stigmatizing my experience as a brown teen mom.
So, What did it mean to be a brown teen mom? I stood there at the end of my speech in front of the sophomore class and a young woman raised her hand to ask me "What advice would you give a young girl who is pregnant in high school. What would you want her to know?" And I looked into her eyes, a brown girl herself and I said, "What I would want any young girl to know is that we are capable of anything. There are obstacles that will be placed in front of us, especially when we're brown or black, but we are capable. There will be people who wont believe in you or your ability to thrive, and if you have a baby, some of those messages will be even more harmful, but we have to know that we are powerful, we are brilliant, and we can do it all. We are capable no matter what anyone tells us. We have what it takes to be everything that they said we weren't capable of. Young mothers are valuable members of our society and they need to know that and feel that. "
Being a brown teen mom meant working harder than everyone and proving to those who doubted me that I was capable. It meant learning deeply about unconditional love. It meant learning how to love myself. Being a Brown teen Mom ultimately meant learning how to navigate a world that never valued what I had to offer and a world that did not love me. But here I am, fulfilled, thriving, educated, happy, and debunking all the myths and stigmas around teen parenthood.
*Adultism: a system of silencing and oppression that targets youth, deeming them inferior or less important. The exclusion of youth voices and the inability to view youth as stake holders in the broader context of our society and communities.