Jessica Santos of Clinton felt all alone when she found out she was pregnant at the beginning of her sophomore? year of high school. She was 16 and living on her own. Her mother had passed away. Her father wasn’t talking to her, and her older sister was “mad that I got pregnant first,” she says.
Three years later, Santos, 19, is married to her baby’s father and is close to earning her nursing degree. Santos feels blessed that her daughter Mariah is a healthy, happy toddler. Still, she doesn’t recommend the way she went about becoming a mom.
“Some days I feel like I’m 40 already,” she says.
The plight of teen moms is well documented. Reality shows such as “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Moms” (1 and 2) show the drama and the difficulties of being a teenager while bringing up a child alone. At the same time, the celebrity status of these TV teen moms glamorizes their lives and contributes to the denial that many teens exhibit around the consequences of unprotected sex. While pregnancy rates among teens have fallen in the past two decades, each year in Maine 1,100 teens become pregnant. And they seem to be doing so at a younger age.
“We get a lot of calls from junior high,” says Sharon Abrams, the executive director of the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers in Waterville, which has a Teen Parent School Program on its campus, along with a day care center and alternative education program. “At 11, you don’t have the value system, and you have to be 14 to get birth control.”
Santos agrees the TV shows tend to make teen parenting look easy. She believes the fact that she grew up without a mother to guide her decision-making contributed to her unplanned pregnancy and also affected her during her pregnancy and after Mariah’s birth.
“I envied girls who bragged about their moms (being supportive),” she says. “Sometimes I still wish I could ask her, ‘What did I do at that age?’”
Even teen moms whose mothers are supportive now say they wish their mother had taken a more active role in helping them avoid pregnancy – something both Dr. Phil and the MTV moms agree can make a difference.
Alaina Wolman of Skowhegan became pregnant when she was 15. Shy in high school and lacking self-confidence, Wolman says her pregnancy was the result of bad decision-making, but also a lack of education about sex and contraceptives. Both her mother and father were “super-supportive” when she told them she was pregnant, but because birth control wasn’t talked about, she feels her mom “dropped the ball” when it came to sex education.
Jami White of Oakland had a baby when she was 13. She says she had approached her parents about helping her get on birth control, but they said no.
“To them, birth control was just an excuse to have sex,” she says. “But abstinence isn’t the answer.”
White, 21 now, spent two years in the Teen Parent School Program in Waterville before returning to Waterville High School to earn her diploma. It wasn’t easy being called a “slut” by some classmates, but she’s proud of the fact that she graduated with high honors in 2008. She has another child now and is building a house with her second child’s father. She went to Kennebec Valley Community College on scholarship and is just a few courses away from being a registered nurse. White has gone into area high schools to try to help teens avoid making the mistake she made. She talks about how hard life is being a teenager and having a child.
“All your friends are taking off and going to the beach and you don’t have a babysitter,” she says. “I think they think it’s this cute little baby and that’s it.”
In many ways, Santos, Wolman and White were fortunate to be living in a community where support for teen moms is strong. The Teen Parent School Program in Waterville is one of just a handful in the state providing education and child care for teen moms. Santos and other graduates say these programs make all the difference – and the people who run them in many ways become like family. In Santos’ case, it is the family she feels she never had.
“I remember Jess would walk here, pushing the stroller through the snow (to drop Mariah off at day care),” recalls Bodhi Simpson, the director of the Teen Parent School Program.
“I was determined,” says Santos agrees, who went to school full time, worked at Burger King after school, and studied long into the night to earn a degree from Kennebec Valley Community College. “The hardest part was not getting to spend all my time with her.”
The Teen Parent School program educates about 15 teen moms per school year, providing both traditional subject matter with child care and parenting classes. Two “older “graduates of the Teen Parent Program still feel connected to the program, even though their “babies” are now in their 20s.
Laura Hudson of Belgrade, a former board member, is a vice president and the “chief experience officer” at Kennebec Savings Bank in Augusta. She was bulimic when she became pregnant in 1981. She says the Teen Parent Program saved her life.
“I knew I had no right to screw up someone else’s life,” she says.
Leslie Wilson was 17 when she became pregnant in 1988. She is now on the board of the Home for Little Wanderers. With her son all grown up, she has finally earned her degree and is an accountant at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow.
“I still remember the day Sharon (Abrams) came to my high school to talk to me,” Wilson says. “Our lives have been intertwined every since.”
Abrams, who was the original teacher in the program 38 years ago, has been the head of the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers for the past 14 years. She says the school strives to help teen moms tap the abilities and aspirations they may not have realized they possessed. Teen moms who have support, she adds, are often motivated to overcome the stigma and to provide the kind of life for their babies that they didn’t have.
Wolman is just one of the school’s success stories. Twenty-seven now, she is married with two children. She says the Teen Parent School Program “felt like family” right from the beginning, and provided her a place where she could grow into a now-confident mom.
“Before I got pregnant, I got straight F’s,” says Wolman, who is now an administrative assistant in the Teen Parent School program. “Getting pregnant was the push I needed. “
“I didn’t even want to go to college before I got pregnant,” agrees Santos, as she watches Mariah toddle around the room, exploring her basket of toys, as well as everything else within reach. “I want Mariah to have a better life than I had. And she’ll have sex education, too!”
Moms and daughters
Many women who were teenage mothers, including Alaina Wolman of Skowhegan, left, and Jami White of Oakland, center, say they wish their mother had taken a more active role in helping them avoid pregnancy. Bodhi Simpson, right, is director of the Teen Parent School Program, which educates about 15 teen moms per school year.