Children Having Children

I am of the demographic who had no reason to know who Jamie Lynn Spears was until her pregnancy hit the newsstands. I knew her sister, Britney, from seeing her in the popular media, but I had never heard of the "Zoey 101" star until what should have been a private family matter showed up in the tabloids.

Apparently, at 16 years old, Ms. Spears became pregnant and decided to keep and raise the baby with her boyfriend. In looking through the most recent reports on this issue, Ms. Spears is quoted as saying that motherhood is "so much fun," as if she were describing a day at a theme park. And this worries me.

Teen pregnancy has been decreasing over the past 15 or so years, although there are still a tremendous amount of children becoming pregnant. Approximately 750,000 young women between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant each year, and while this is at a 30-year low, having peaked in 1990, I think most of us would agree that this is still too high a number. Perhaps when you have newspapers paying big bucks for pictures of your new addition, and you have money put aside from your hit television show ‚Äî enough to be able to reportedly buy a house at 17 ‚Äî motherhood is nothing but "fun." My guess is that if Ms. Spears needs a baby sitter or a nanny she can afford one. If the baby is up all night teething, Ms. Spears doesn’t have to worry about getting to her job as a secretary, food server, janitor, or cashier in the morning. I know that teenagers do know the difference between their reality and that of the celebrities they admire, but do they realize how BIG the difference?

New York ranks number 14 in the country when it comes to teen pregnancy rates. We are among the top five when it comes to those girls choosing to abort these pregnancies. Awareness, abstinence, and better use of birth control have decreased the number of teen pregnancies, but easy access to abortions and the "morning after pill" make the idea of an accidental pregnancy a little less scary. Our county has a relatively low rate of pregnancy compared to the rest of the state, with the most pregnancies occurring in White Plains, and the least in Scarsdale. The 10591 zip code falls around the middle of the list.

The Bureau of Labor estimates that an individual can earn about triple the amount with a doctoral degree as he will with less than a high school diploma. A four-year college degree almost doubles one’s earning potential. And this is where the problem of Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy lies. In this day and age, there is no stigma attached to single motherhood, even for someone as young as Ms. Spears. She will not have to wear a scarlet letter for the rest of her life, nor is she likely, after enough time has passed, to be blacklisted by Hollywood. The problem today is in the economics. If a young girl becomes pregnant in high school, she can kiss her education goodbye. Yes, she may complete the 12th grade, but what are her odds of going to college? And without a college degree she can expect to make about 40% less than she would if she were able to complete that Bachelor’s. Somehow I think this would make motherhood a little less "fun."

In my line of work I hear everyone’s stories, secrets, details they may not share with anyone else. I also teach college classes from time to time and have had single mothers in front of me trying desperately to better themselves in order to take better care of their children. Very rarely is the father of the child involved. I am thinking of one young woman, a high school graduate who did not attend college, who is lucky to be living with her mother and to have a full-time job. Her job pays barely enough to make ends meet, even with her mother’s help, and to say that the father of this child is useless is a compliment. Not only does he not provide child support, he has often taken money from her, almost never paying it back. If anything happens to this young woman’s mother, I don’t know how she and her baby will survive. I have had students bring their babies to class because they couldn’t find childcare. Not only is that distracting to the mother, it is distracting to the rest of the class, and quite frankly, inappropriate. My hat is off to these young women who want to rise up and better themselves, but the cards are stacked against them if they don’t have tremendous support from family, from (ideally) the baby’s father, or unlimited funds with which to get the help they need. Again, teen motherhood is looking, to me, like anything but "fun."

We can try to teach our girls about how difficult it is to raise a child, but how does one really know until she has been there? I don’t have children, so I can’t speak from experience, and can only relay what I have heard. I think the best comment was made by a friend of mine. She has a doctorate, a loving, supportive husband, enough money to pay the bills, and two wonderful children. During a difficult time when her older child was barely sleeping, she confided in me that she understood why so many mothers return immediately to work, because, as she put it, "any job, nuclear physics, brain surgery, is easier than this." Our local high school students engage in an exercise in which they carry an egg around for about a week. This is supposed to simulate parenthood. I joked with one particularly bright and put-together kid who realized how far removed this assignment was from real life, that now that she had completed this training she was qualified to lay an egg. Congratulations! What great pedagogue came up with this idea? If even one girl comes away from this learning experience thinking that this is what motherhood is like, then we are lucky we aren’t encouraging teen pregnancy. Taking care of an egg isn’t so hard, and they don’t need to be put through college, something that these young mothers can’t even imagine being able to do. The current $30,000 or so yearly price tag on college is more than most of these women will ever earn.

I am not judging Jamie Lynn Spears, nor any young woman who finds herself single and pregnant, whether by choice or chance. But I think we are doing a major disservice by allowing a high-profile teen pregnancy to be presented without showing the other side of the coin. Would even one of our SHHS girls be able to buy herself a house if she found herself pregnant? What would she do for child care? Would the baby’s father be willing and able to be a significant part of the child’s life? Rather than sending the students home with eggs, they should at least share in the raising of a puppy. They DO get up in the middle of the night, perhaps more often than babies. They can’t be left alone in places where they can get into trouble. Even a cat would be a more realistic substitute than an egg. Perhaps a gerbil? A parakeet? Something that is actually breathing? And perhaps we should get some quotes from "real" girls who don’t find motherhood quite so much "fun" when their friends are out at a movie or party and they are home washing apple sauce out of their clothes. I am the one who hears confessions of resentment towards an infant because of the burden, responsibility, and work parenting takes, and how impossible it can seem to a young woman who wasn’t quite ready for this reality. Like it or not, those in the public eye are role models, whether because we directly try to emulate them, or simply because we become desensitized to certain aspects of life. Many young girls watch Ms. Spears on television and want to dress like her, look like her, be like her. "If she can do it," they think, "maybe I can too," whether it be to wear a certain outfit or raise a baby. It may not be a conscious decision, just an idea that gets into our collective psyche because it becomes commonplace. A few decades ago an out-of-wedlock pregnancy would be seen as something to handle with discretion for fear of stigma, no matter what the woman’s age. In 2008, newspapers are offering big money for pictures of the baby of a teenager. Even without making value judgments, it just seems that there is something wrong with that.

Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes practices psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.

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About the Author: Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes