Teenagers Today: An Inside Look

By Kelly King Alexander

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brunette girl looking through papers on bed with baby in background
Connie Aramaki

A Mom Too Soon, Continued

But their daughter surprised them, first by breaking up with Emma's father, who abruptly withdrew from Kristen once the pregnancy was out in the open, and then by joining Teen Success, a weekly support group run through Planned Parenthood that helps teen mothers learn about childcare, prevent additional pregnancies, and complete their education. Kristen quit the school band and began playing classical music to her unborn baby. And she steeled herself against gossip when she returned, hugely pregnant, to school in fall 2006 -- an anomaly in the high-achieving student body of nearly 1,800. "They thought I slept around and called me names," says Kristen.

After Emma was born in October, Kristen missed two weeks of school; on her return her grades slipped and her friends drifted away ("We don't have anything in common anymore"). She slept little and breastfed for six weeks while tackling chemistry and Spanish II. She felt ostracized, but too exhausted to care. "I don't think I could have done it," says Pete. "She held her head high and kept her chin up."

The baby was incorporated almost seamlessly into the McManus household, where Pete cares for her by day. He and Joan pay for most of Emma's and Kristen's needs on their $50,000-a-year income. (Emma's father, who is not listed on the birth certificate, has had no involvement with the baby and has not sought recognition.) Joan has found it hard not to "just take over and be Emma's mom," and even Kristen admits, "I used to slip and say 'Go to Mom' when I'm handing Emma to her." Kristen's aspirations for her daughter echo those of mothers everywhere. "I want her to have whatever she wants," she says. "If she wants to be a doctor, she should go for it. If she wants to be a hairdresser, I'll support her in that, too."

Those goals, of course, are on hold while Kristen finishes her own education. She is determined to go to college, and Joan and Pete are committed to helping with tuition and childcare. "We adore Emma, but this situation should not be glamorized," warns Joan, who worries that films like Juno or celebrities like Jamie Lynn Spears may make teen pregnancy look desirable. "She should've been born 10 years from now."

Kristen, who no longer dates and only occasionally goes out, agrees. Even when showing off baby pictures to other teens at school, she is a soft-spoken but firm advocate of abstinence and birth control. "My main point is don't do it," she says of having sex in high school, "but if you're going to anyway, be safe." She sighs, then adds, "I wish I would've waited."

Babies Having Babies

-- After dropping 34% between 1991 and 2005, the birth rate among 15- to 19-year-old U.S. girls rose 3% in 2006 to 23%.

-- 31% of young women become pregnant at least once before age 20; 82% of the pregnancies are unintended. More than half give birth; roughly a third terminate the pregnancy; about 14% miscarry; fewer than 10% of those who give birth put their babies up for adoption.

-- Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the mid-1990s, but 46% of all U.S. 15- to 19-year-olds have had sex at least once. The average age for first-time sex is 17.

-- The United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and births in the Western industrialized world.

-- Only about a third of teen mothers ever complete high school; nearly 80% of unmarried teen mothers end up on welfare.


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