When Can We Move Past the Whole Shame/Blame Thing?

Alexandra Eisler

Alexandra Eisler

The NYC Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene wants us to get a message: Being a teen parent is hard. The message they’re sending is half right: being a teen parent has its challenges, but the hardest part of raising a child when you’re really young is that lots of adults think teens need to hear they’re doomed. They’ve been saying this for years just to make sure it sticks. And, at least in the case of the latest NYC public service announcements, they also want the children of teen parents to know they’re a burden.

Growing up, I didn’t know many teen mothers. The message I heard growing up was that getting pregnant meant disaster. It was the end of the world, and to make sure we all knew just how bad it was, if one of our classmates turned up pregnant, the gossip would start and everyone would know just what a failure she was. It was awful.

If you asked 17-year-old me if I thought these PSAs would stop teens from getting pregnant, I would have said yes….just as effective as the pictures of wart-ridden genitals in my biology class were at keeping kids from having sex. Right. Of course.

Years later, I learned about my half-brother who is fourteen years older than me and the child of my father and his high school girlfriend when they were 18 (our father left when he was born). I’ve been lucky to get to know him and to build a relationship with him. It’s been incredible to learn about each other and how the differences in our childhoods have shaped us (we share the same absent father, but my mother was 36 when she had me).

He has told me about where he lived growing up, the house his family lived in, and the strained relationships he saw as a child. He said that he heard the same shame-filled messages about how bad it was to come from a poor, single, teen mother, and he thought no matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t escape his “trashy” family. He told me about his mother’s struggles and about her being sent away with him after he was born. He told me about how hard he had to fight to build a life he could feel good about.

As an adult, I know that messages of hopelessness won’t prevent pregnancy. What they will do is set young parents up for not only the challenges of raising a child but to do so believing the world wants to see them fail. When I think about my brother, I see a man full of ingenuity and determination, and I feel angry he heard loud and clear that he was less than. I’m proud of how much he has accomplished and the family he is now raising, and I am grateful to be a part of it.

Our words and actions shape the lives around us. We have a responsibility to educate one another about what it means to make choices–in this case, choices about raising a family. With that responsibility is the power to either punish or support those we care about. Like the wart-ridden genitals of my biology class, using shame and fear defeat themselves, giving way to all kinds of unintended consequences. Be careful what you say, someone is listening.

How do you work with teen parents to combat these kinds of shaming messages?

Alexandra Eisler is the Training and TA Coordinator at Healthy Teen Network.

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