Teen pregnancy. It's the cornerstone of both the pro-sex-ed and abstinence-only sex ed movements in education, the plot of one of last year's biggest movies, celebrity and gossip magazines' perpetual field day, and the subject of the alleged motherhood pact made last summer at Gloucester High. The event fed concerns about the glamorization of teen pregnancy, without the necessary steps being taken to prevent it. Of course, movies like "Juno" and celebrities like Jamie Lynn Spears were blamed for making pregnancy appealing to young women, and thus for inspiring the "pact," which was dismissed as hype; the relatively high number of pregnancies for the school was actually a function of the same social factors and biological drive that have always produced teen pregnancy. The girls only formed a "pact" after the fact: strength in numbers.
Glamorization of celeb pregnancy is not limited to Spears, of course, but pregnancy has always been cherished as a remarkable, beautiful event. It's a biological necessity for mothers to adore their children, of course; attachment begin in utero, and dopamine and oxytocin levels ensure that the mother is sufficiently invested in the child to take care of it and raise it in health to maturity. That pregnancy and the child are culturally cherished is evidenced by the rituals and customs related to pregnancy, especially baby showers; furthermore, the pregnancy and the child are treated as one thing. Hence, we have definitions of pregnancy such as "with child" and the long process of selecting a name before birth. This close association is also seen in the rhetoric of the abortion debate, in which abortion is seen as "child-killing." Pregnancy is treated in many ways as the child itself, and American culture, especially American childcare and consumer culture, highly endorses pregnancy and babies.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of this. The biological aspects of child-rearing and maternal attachment alone would probably suffice to continue the human race, but in many societies around the world, child-rearing is a social activity, and the cultural ideas and practices associated with pregnancy, children, and raising children certainly provide significant psychological benefits for both parent and child. Conversely, the cultural endorsement of pregnancy contributes to mothers' psychology. How a woman conceives, and her choices regarding this biological condition, is strongly influenced by existing sociopolitical factors and cultural phenomena.
Let's review how America is a baby nation:
- In times of war, a psychological need for both escapism and happy endings becomes even more pressing. Culture has many ways of serving those needs, from providing light entertainment through popular culture to creating and enforcing patriotic symbols and rituals to assure the national identity and maintain hope of success as well as a connection to all citizens and those who were lost in the war. After World War II, a baby boom occurred, in efforts to cement relationships in uncertain times and to contribute to a "new world" in which life could be rebalanced with death. Needless to say, babies were necessarily celebrated.
- Discourse in the texts of popular culture -- movies, TV shows, novels, poetry, songs -- frequently associates a desire to have babies with love and romance, rather than sex. In fact, it's an observable cultural trend that in such narratives, casual sex produces unwanted pregnancies with their resulting drama, while pregnancies among couples who love each other are either happy accidents ("How did this happen?!") or planned miracles. Natasha Bedingfield's song "I Wanna Have Your Babies" is a perfect example of the love-induced baby fever that stories tell us women should want. Recently, though, women having babies on their own, and gay couples wanting to raise children, have upset this particular cultural idea, but notice the focus on children is still there, and pop culture works have adjusted, with movies like "Baby Mama" and couples like David and Keith on "Six Feet Under" adopting children.
However, the United States is affected by a number of factors that raise incidences of unwanted pregnancy. 35% of public schools teach abstinence-only sex education, if any sex ed at all (Planned Parenthood). It's supposed to be up to the parents to teach kids about STIs, contraceptives, and the mechanics of sex and pregnancy, and to encourage good judgment in how, when, and with whom to have sex, but there's no guarantee this occurs. Teen magazines such as "Seventeen" might pick up the slack in discussing sex, its risks, and contraception; clinics, privately funded or part of schools, might have some brochures about STIs. Meanwhile, prenatal care and contraception are limited in school clinics, the economy is not friendly to young people, who are frequently unemployed or underemployed (10.5% of the labor force under 25 is unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor), and healthcare and prescription prices, and therefore insurance costs, continue to rise. Sex happens, and when pregnancy happens, it seems a function of both a cruel system and an unfortunate set of economic and educational circumstances.
Unintended pregnancies, for both teens and adults, are difficult psychologically because cognitive dissonance occurs for one or more parents: surrounded by a pro-baby cultural ethos and the ideal of romantic baby-making, but trapped by economic hardship, misinformation, or both, pregnancy, this remarkable thing, becomes an unmanageable burden. Feelings of guilt arise, informed by the prevailing notions of naughty and dirty sex and the dichotomy of "good" pregnancy vs. "bad" pregnancy. In countless tales (in movies, in the human interest sections of magazines and newspapers...) of successful teen pregnancy, or of a parent's admission that the unwanted pregnancy was "the best thing that ever happened to me," the decision to keep is hailed as heroic and inspiring, and the baby remains miraculous, as our cultural knowledge tells us. The decision to abort is the unfortunate one, the one deemed "bad" or "sad" in the cultural discourse among both pro-life and pro-choice people. In the end, the glamorization of babies and pregnancy is a double-edged sword: it encourages and enforces cultural avenues for baby-making and child-rearing and contributes to a healthy psychology for parents, but it also emphasizes the lost romantic ideal for young or failed couples and produces feelings of guilt and entrapment in a culture that is skewed towards success but ill-equipped to provide it for everyone.
No one wants to point out the glamorization of Jamie-Lynn as mother. After all, she is always glamorized because she is a celebrity. Of course there's a certain amount of embarrassment involved, as when Keisha Castle-Hughes, who played the Virgin Mary in "The Nativity Story," got knocked up in real life at age 16 -- obviously not as a virgin. And Jamie-Lynn, a Disney star, should remain a role model for young girls. Which is why magazines emphasize that she is enjoying motherhood -- she got knocked up, sure, but she's marrying the father and is taking on the responsibility of motherhood with joy in her heart. And certainly it would be not only embarrassing, but immoral, to show anything of Spears' motherhood besides what we are being shown: to draw attention to the pain, to acknowledge the embarrassment, to suggest we don't believe she can be a good mother, and to imply that she is an example of what the religious right insists is the result of sexual sin, filth-filled Hollywood, and secular education.
Glamorization, therefore, is unavoidable. But this is a better time than ever to promote changes in sex education, to produce honest documentaries for teenagers about sexuality, reproduction, and contraception. But who is there to do it? No successful teen mother, like Spears, would risk being viewed as an ungrateful mother, and lose her image as a happy, responsible parent, by coming forth and encouraging contraception and caution to avoid pregnancy. And the alternate is the unsuccessful teen mother, whose stories are often so tragic, they seem to be pulling the sympathy card without any substance. Inevitably, some jerk sums up their tale: "Well, if you hadn't had sex, you wouldn't be in this mess." The Gloucester girls were characterized by the educators as being at-risk (i.e. "They're socially isolated, and and they don't have the support of their families.") and by their peers as having a "herd mentality" or being unsupervised. The question, then, is can we find a way to encourage smart baby-making decisions, and to establish a discourse supporting not either decision, but the mother herself?
"Abstinence-Only Programs," Planned Parenthood, http://www.plannedparenthood.org/issues-action/sex-education/abstinence-6236.htm
"Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population by age, sex, and race," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat3.pdf
Give the Gloucester Girls A Break: opinion piece