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BABIES AS SOMETHING FUN

The Baltimore Sun

Teen pregnancy news has gone from the mundane to the sensational.

Recent data show that the declines in teen sex and improvements in contraceptive use have leveled off and that the teen birth rate is on the rise for the first time in 15 years.

Unfortunately, that news generated not much more than yawns.

But last week, Jamie Lynn Spears - an unmarried, 17-year-old television star and sister to Britney - gave birth to a baby girl, sending at best a confusing message to all her "tween" fans.

And Time magazine reported that a group of high school girls in Gloucester, Mass., made a pact to get pregnant together, and 17 of them succeeded. The magazine reported that the girls who received positive pregnancy tests high-fived one another in the clinic. None was older than 16.

Sarah Brown is the chief executive officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. She had been feeling pretty good about the success her organization has had in persuading young people that babies need two adult parents, committed to each other and to the decades-long work of raising children.

She wasn't feeling too optimistic last week.

Have you torn out all your hair, or are you just letting it go gray?

When I read the story from Gloucester, I was in despair. And then I got really angry, and that's the truth. And maybe a little bit disgusted, too. My question was, "Where were the adults?" These were young teens. Not one was older than 16.

I think what these girls did is very typical for teen girls. "Let's get together and do something outrageous." But that used to mean sneaking out of the house and meeting in the woods at 3 a.m. to drink beer. The fact that having a baby is just one more girl bonding experience is deeply troubling.

I believe that 15-

and 16-year-olds mirror back to us what their world is like. They are not independent agents, like 21-year-olds are. They teach us a lot about ourselves. It shows us that having a baby is something that has become so debased that it is about the same as getting a tattoo.

Teenagers have always done things that are irrational, and sometimes they did things together that were, unfortunately, risky. Now having a baby is at that same level of silliness.

These girls got this from somewhere. I think they got it from the world around them.

Let's break these two news items apart. Jamie Lynn Spears is a "tween" celebrity. Can you track, or predict, how her pregnancy might influence the behavior of younger teens?

I think the current celebrity culture suggests that you don't have to be married when you have a baby. As long as you look cute and have a photogenic baby shower, it is a good gig.

Look at People magazine. On one page, they write about all the baby bumps. Then you turn the page, and it is about everyone who wore red dresses last week. It is all the same. Having a baby is just another expression of personal style.

It is all just consumerism. It is just something to do. Not more important or with more consequences than if you were one of the stars who wore a red dress last week. It is all the same. It doesn't matter how old you are or whether you are married or whether you have finished your education.

That is a relatively new phenomenon.

The girls at Gloucester High School come from a community fractured by devastating economics. The fishing industry on which the families relied has disappeared. Does this mean that what these girls did might be just a terrible aberration?

I am not inclined to go there. It is possible that that particular community had an unusually high level of distress. But this could be Anytown, USA, because the fundamental issue of not taking pregnancy seriously is something we hear everywhere - not just from communities that are devastated.

This basic issue here of "I need an identity group. I want to feel closer to my girlfriends. I need to be in the 'in' crowd" is a very common adolescent feeling. What is unusual here is that they found this other way to do it. "Let's get together and have babies. That's fun. That's in."

What is also interesting here is that this issue is being discussed in the context of whether there should be contraception in the schools. But these girls were trying to get pregnant. For girls who were seeking pregnancy, contraception in the school would not have made much difference.

What you need instead are an enormous amount of education and conversation.

Taken together, we have celebrity and hopelessness. Aren't those the factors in teen pregnancy that you've been working against all along?

Jamie Lynn Spears isn't hopeless.

We know teen pregnancy is more common in stressed communities, where babies do bring a little bit of joy. Some girls report getting attention from their families for the first time when they are pregnant.

What is striking about the Gloucester High School story is that it was an adolescent girl stunt.

I think hopelessness has a lot to do with "why I don't take control of my own life? I feel terrible, why bother?" But if Juno says it's fine and Jamie Lynn Spears says it is fine and we are looking for a bonding activity, then why not this?

I don't think the idea of having babies together would have happened in an environment where it was understood to be a life-changing decision. If we said, babies need adult parents, they need fathers, they cost money. If we were clearer about all of this, it is much less likely that a bunch of girls would get it in their mind that this was a fun idea. And that's what distresses me. As a culture, we are not speaking clearly about what we know about what babies need.

You seem frustrated and angry in your blog post, likening getting pregnant to a stupid adolescent stunt, like getting a tattoo. Have you taken the gloves off? Is it time to stop speaking in reasoned, conciliatory, inoffensive language about teen pregnancy?

I think I am being very reasonable. Each of these incidents gives people like me and groups like ours an opportunity to say it again, to say it more often, to say it more loudly. To say, "People, this is serious. This has tax consequences. This has social consequences. It is not just about you, dear ones, it is about the children you are having."

For parents, this is a teachable moment. We have to say to our children, "You might be really confused if you are reading these magazines, but your father and I expect you to finish your education, to get married if you want to get married and then to have babies."

How many parents do that today? How many parents are saying, "Babies need two parents, they need adult parents, preferably married adult parents. And this is all backed by very robust research"?

We can no longer assume that our children are getting this by osmosis or in the water. The culture is so confusing that things that all of us thought were absolutely fundamental are no longer widely understood.

Apparently, these things are no longer obvious.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To read Sarah Brown's blog entry on these developments, go to blog.thenationalcampaign.org/pregnant_pause.

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