By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.
Bristol Palin hasn’t said anything new or different than the other teen moms I have met. When asked, every teen mom I have spoken with has said that she loves her child but it has been very difficult and, if given another chance, she would never have had a baby as a teen. All would have waited until they were much older. Bristol Palin says 10 years older. When I worked on the Navajo reservation, I did a program at a local high school where I invited teen moms to come in and speak to the students. They spent quite a long time talking about how difficult it was to have a child and how their lives, as they knew it, were gone forever. These teen moms advised every student to wait as long as possible.
During her recent interview, Bristol commented on how she is no longer living for herself and how her new life is not “glamorous” at all. And, although her son is not even two months old yet, Bristol has decided that she wants to become a spokesperson for the prevention of teen pregnancy. This teen mom thinks that merely telling a teen to be abstinent is not realistic.
Although the teen birth rate had been decreasing steadily for over a decade, the most recent national data, compiled in 2005 and 2006, documented a 3% increase in teen births from 40.5 to 41.9 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. This increase was seen in almost every age and racial group. During a similar time period, teens surveyed in schools nationwide more frequently reported being sexually active and less frequently used contraception, when compared to the previous decade. Experts in the field have speculated as to why these numbers have begun to increase again. Possible reasons include societal changes, recent high profile teen pregnancies (such as Jamie Lynn Spears and, yes, Bristol Palin), positive display and lack of consequences when sex and teen pregnancy occur in the media, fewer educational programs available, and changing policies within the nation (such as teaching abstinence only as the only alternative).
Bristol is lucky because she has a lot of family support, both emotionally and financially. However, most teen moms don’t have much help, and they face extreme financial difficulties. Teens, who are used to following their own schedule and thinking mainly about themselves, must deal with being awakened multiple times a night and basically being at their baby’s beckon call. They can no longer shower when they want, sleep when they are tired, and eat on their own schedules. Teen moms must also deal with the increased risk of medical problems in themselves and their children. They are less likely to have adequate prenatal care, their babies are more likely to be born early, at a lower birth weight, and to die in the first year of life.
In terms of education, it becomes difficult for teen moms to even finish high school. Only 40% of teen moms graduate from high school, compared to 75% of those who don’t have kids. Plus, teens are more likely to live in poverty, as greater than 75% of unmarried teen moms go on welfare within 5 years of having a baby. Their children also suffer. About 78% of them live in poverty, compared to 9% born to married, women over age 20 who have graduated from high school. These children are also more likely to do poorly in school and drop out before graduating high school.
Unlike other high profile teen parents, Bristol is speaking out. She is telling teens to wait to have kids. And she is telling adults that teaching abstinence is not enough. We need to be discussing these topics at school AND at home. We need to know where our teens are when we’re not home. And they need to know about sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and contraception before they have a sexual relationship. They must be prepared.