The fantasy and the reality of teenage motherhood

The fantasy and the reality of teenage motherhood

Perri Klass

My first clinic patient is one of the older ones. Seventeen and six months pregnant. Doesn’t look pregnant at all. I measure her uterus with a tape measure, record my results on her clinic sheet.

”Your baby’s growing well,” I tell her. ”But you might try togain a little bit more weight for next month.”

”I don’t want to get fat,” she says.

”But you need to gain weight when you’re pregnant. Your baby needs you to. Are living with your parents?”

”Are you kidding me?” she says, with total scorn. Puts her boots on, adjusts the elaborate web of chains and charms around her neck. Looks at me as if to say, your clothes are dumb, your earrings are cornball, get off my case. Or at least, that’s what I imagine. I was seventeen my- self once, and pretty damn scornful, and I have trouble finding a tone of voice that I think will work.

The next patient is docile. Of course, she’s only fifteen, and she’s here with her mother. The girl is seven months pregnant. As she lies on the table, I find the fe- tal heartbeat with the little ultrasound machine, and smile. ”Hear that?” I ask, and my patient smiles, then looks at her mother.

”Good and strong,” the mother says.

”Do you have any questions?” I ask.

”Am I going to be allowed to be with her when she goes into labor?” asks the mother. ”I know they let the father stay, but he’s not going to be there. Even if he was, he wouldn’t be any use.”

”Oh, Mom,” says the daughter, gently, still smiling.

”Sure, you’ll be able to stay,” I say. ”Are you going to go to the classes together?”

”Yes, we are,” the mother says, and she puts an arm around herspherical daughter, who has just struggled off the examining table. In the little room there’s a palpable and pleasant sense of maternal affection, of a strong mother protecting a rather innocent child. But the obviously mater- nal silhouette of the child makes it all rather convoluted, and though these two listen carefully to all my good advice, I’m not sorry to see them go.

These patients are ten, eleven, twelve years younger than I am. They make me feel deeply naive, because they consistently shock me. I mean, reading about teenage pregnancy in the newspaper is just not the same as spending a morning in a prepar tum clinic like this one, taking care of what seems to be the entire sophomore and junior classes of a nearby high school. As I go out into the waiting room to call my next patient, I overhear the following exchange:

”Did you hear Laurie had her baby?”

”Really? What’d she have?”

”A boy.”

”A boy, that’s great. She used to sit next to me in study hall.”

And mind you, the sophomores and juniors at least look old enough to be in high school. There are occasional twelve- and thirteen-year-olds as well. My next patient, who’s sixteen, is five months pregnant with her second child.

”How does your son feel about the new baby coming?” I ask, idiotically.

”He didn’t tell me. He’s only one year old, you know.”

”Well,” I say, cheerfully, ”have you given any thought to what birth control you’re going to use after the baby is born?”

”I’m going on the Pill.”

”Oh, that’s fine. That’s a good, reliable method.”

”Yeah. I was using it before, after my other baby was born.”

”So how did you get pregnant again?”

She shrugs. I know the possible answers–forgot to take it, meant

to take it, et cetera, etcetera.

”How do your parents feel about the new baby?”

”Oh, my mother’s O.K. My father, first he wanted me to have an abortion. But he’s coming around.”

Why don’t they have abortions?” I ask the obstetrician/gynecologist who’s supervising me. ”When I was in high school, girls who got pregnant had abortions.”

”When I was in high school most people didn’t have sex at all, and I’m only ten years older than you are.”

”Well, lots of people in my high school had sex, but they didn’t have babies.”

That’s the way it is in the college-bound suburbs, I suppose. Asfor why these patients didn’t have abortions, you’ve probably heard (or read) all the reasons. A baby will solve my life, a baby will love me, a baby will make me a grown-up. These girls seem eager to abandon the supposedly privileged state of adolescence, which never turns out to be anything like the way it is in themovies, and they believe that motherhood will better live up to its Hallmark card reputation.

”It didn’t get so much attention when people thought it was mostly black teenagers having babies,” says the doctor. ”Now that they’ve realized it’s all kinds of teenagers, suddenly it’s a media event.”

One morning in the hospital things were quiet up on Labor and Delivery, and I was sitting with an obstetrician and three nurses, watching a TV talk show. Two teenaged mothers, a doctor, and a woman from an anti-abortion group. No one actually talked to anyone else; the hostess would ask one of them a question, she would make a flat statement, and no one would respond. The hostess was trying to get them to commit themselves: Should contraceptives be given out in schools? One of the mothers said she hadn’t known anything at all about contraceptives before she got pregnant. The doctor said you shouldn’t ever give out contraceptives without counseling. The woman from the anti-abortion group said, no, we must not give out contraceptives, that’s not the answer. So what is the answer, asked the moderator. The woman smiled beatifically. We have failed our children, she said, we have failed them on many levels, we have failed to provide them with love and with moral leadership, and that’s where the answer lies.

In the TV room the obstetrician called out: ”Yes, but in the meantime could you give out some contraceptives?”

Debbie is sixteen, and in labor with her first baby. The contractions are regular, every ten minutes or so, and they’re starting to get painful. She has just arrived at the hospital, and one of the nurses has finished setting her up in a labor room.

I introduce myself: Hi, I’m a medical student, I’ll be staying with you while you’re in labor, if that’s O.K. with you.

”I don’t care who you are,” Debbie says, ”just so you give mesomething to knock me out.” She hasn’t been to any childbirth preparation classes, has seen a doctor twice during her pregnancy. One of her friends from high school just had a baby, and warned her that ”natural child- birth” hurts like hell, and the doctors always try to con you into it. Her mother, who should be arriving soon, has told her that there’s a drug you can give a woman in labor that puts her right to sleep, and then she wakes up after the baby is born.

”Um, we don’t give that drug any more,” I say, as gently as I can. ”It isn’t really safe for you or for your baby. But we can give you medicines to make it all easier if you need them.”

Debbie is completely unwilling to believe me. She has been counting on sleeping through labor and delivery, reminding herself that as soon as the pain starts, she will be put out. She’s positive that it’s punitive, my denying her this drug her mother told her she could have. She’s terrified; all her emotional props for facing labor have just been destroyed. She begins to scream at me, curse at me. And for a split second I imagine that I can hear something else in her attack, the furious resentment of a 16- year-old who, without ever consciously choosing, has decided her life. Resenting me? Why should she resent me? She doesn’t know that I’m thinking, automatically, When I was your age, I would never have had a baby. No, she’s just angry with me because of the drug I won’t give her.

Debbie’s mother arrives, along with Debbie’s boy friend, who to my eye looks about 14. And terrified. But his presence, and her mother’s, calms Debbie a little. The doctor comes by and gives her some Demerol. Her mother assures her that she doesn’t need to be put to sleep, the drugs will keep her from feeling pain. Not exactly true, but I don’t correct her.

Debbie’s labor moves along fairly quickly. She’s actually quite lucky: the nurses have lots of stories of teenagers in labor for days. Her boy friend becomes suddenly faint when the bag of amniotic fluid breaks with an impressive gush; a nurse helps him to sit down, put his head between his legs. Debbie is concerned for him, and somehow his trouble seems to help her stay in control. She really manages very well for someone who had no idea what to expect from labor.

After the baby is born, though, Debbie doesn’t want to hold her.”You take her, Mom,” she says. ”You know what to do.”

”She’s your baby, you know,” the nurse says. ”You have to learn to take care of her.”

”Later, O.K. Mom?” Debbie says, with perfect adolescent intonation.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group