Friday, July 17, 2009

16 & Pregnant: Making a Way Out of No Way - The Miracle, The Mirror

For most of the world, a girl of sixteen - or even younger - having a baby is an everyday occurrence, as it has been throughout human history.

But in the US, due to a variety of factors, over the last few decades it has become the exception rather than the rule, although some statistics indicate a reversal of the trend.

At the moment, however, it is noteworthy enough to get a reality show, whatever that means, and MTV has obliged.

The first episode was notable only for its extreme predictability.

Featuring the same demographic as Engaged & Underage, the girl steps up, the sullen boy sulks, and we can see that this is going to be one of those kids whose contact with his biological father, if there is any at all, will be infrequent, and the best case scenario will be the girl finding a new partner who is willing to help her raise the child.

The second episode took an uncharacteristic step up from the lower socio-economic tier, though barely. This girl was a cheerleader whose babydaddy never appeared, nor was his presence desired by the girl or her piece-o'-work mother, who was able to provide all the additional tribulations that the pregnant teen required.

Unable to afford housing of her own, and coming to rapid grips with the financial reality of parenthood, I got the sense that this young mother's best hope at salvaging her life would be to apply the advantages of the education she had enjoyed and place the baby for adoption.

In Episode 3, the producers returned to their usual demographic pool and selected a plump young couple remarkable in that the babydaddy not only appeared able and willing to be a father, but not utterly miserable about the prospect, and even professed love for the young girl and asked her to marry him, down on one knee, proffering a pink sapphire ring from Wal-Mart that cost $21.34.

The scene where he calls the same Wal-Mart to inquire about returning the expensive video game he had purchased was strangely moving.

Maci, the subject of the first episode of the series, is probably the most representative of what usually happens, and not just with 16-year olds.

She just sort of instantly grew up, and set about doing whatever she had to do. Of course finding out the boyfriend was a worthless crumb o' dung who didn't really give a politician's ass about her or the baby will have been as horribly painful for her as for anybody who has their heart broken, but being a mom, she no longer has the luxury of grieving about it, receiving comfort and support from friends who will stay up all night with her eating ice cream and letting her talk it all out, doing something new and fabulous with her hair, slowly getting herself back into the social scene, being convinced by those supportive friends to accept the invitation from that really nice guy who has always liked her, etc.

She had to go to work and take care of her baby, just like millions of other moms in her same situation - just like many moms of people who are reading this!

There are many shows that take cameras into delivery rooms, and there is a moment, when the baby is placed in its mother's arms, that is so private and so personal that we should so not be seeing it, but see it we do, in show after show.

Something happens in that moment, we look at the mother's face, at her eyes, and we see magic. We see a real live miracle happen right before our eyes, much bigger than the biological miracle of reproduction, of birth itself, a miracle, it has been suggested, that, along with art, is the closest we will get in this life to seeing our Creator.

That light that comes into the eyes of that new mother, when she holds her child in her arms for the first time, is tinged with the divine. It is in that moment that she ceases to be whoever she was, and becomes something much more - it is in that moment that she becomes what she will be for the rest of her life - a mother.

From that moment on, everything she does, everything she thinks, everything she feels, will be about her child. There is nothing she will not do to provide for that child, protect him from harm, comfort and care for him, today, when he is a tiny, helpless infant, and in 60 years, when his hair is gray and hers is white.

That Maci's story was the most "real" is at once a reflection of that totally awesome miracle, and commentary on the sorry way society treats that miracle.

In many ways, we have not progressed a whole lot from the days of the prevailing cultural mores so poignantly illustrated in Rizzo's song in Grease.

(For those unfamiliar, the thinking at that time was that it was the height of selfishness for a girl who "got herself in trouble" to "try to bring the boy down too" by telling him about it. Her life was ruined, of course. That was a given, but why, society "reasoned," should his life be ruined and his future destroyed too? After all, it was the girl who had "made the mistake." He was just doing what came naturally.)

Today, in one way we have gone in the opposite direction, with most people thinking that the girl absolutely MUST tell the boy she is pregnant, and there is more lip service paid to issues of child support and whatnot, but the reality is that in the US, some 90 odd per cent of people living in poverty are mothers and their children in situations where the father opts out of participating financially. Some of those mothers were married to the fathers, some receive token sums of court-mandated money, but the main societal message remains that it is the female's "problem," and the most likely answer to any statistics on the subject will be some variation of the sentiment that she should not have had the children if she didn't have the money to take care of them.

Ironically, in an age where more girls - and more women - have (at least in theory) more reproductive choices available to them than ever before, there has been an interesting trend among the US mainstream demographic in recent years, a sort of regression, if you will, to the pre Roe vs Wade days.

Terminating an unwanted pregnancy has reclaimed a level of stigma and taboo that it had not enjoyed since the 1950s, even in cases where it is obviously the only sane option - for example, in the case of women - and little girls - who do not have the resources, financial or emotional, to care for a child, nor any realistic chance of acquiring them in 9 months.

Ologists hold forth on a variety of fascinating reasons and theories about why this is so, and it is an intriguing subject for debate and discussion.

What's not up for debate and discussion, however, is the reality of those girls, those women, who decide not only to deliver, but keep, their babies, and while all those ologists and hangers-on are enjoying all those delicious theories and lively discussions, those mothers are rushing to get dressed, feed their babies, pack their diaper bags, hurrying to catch pre-dawn buses, drop their babies off, and run to catch another bus, probably several, praying that they will not be late for their first job, whose wage, even when put together with the wage for the second or third job, is still not enough to purchase the basics of survival.

Not one of the girls on the 16 and Pregnant series chose to end her pregnancy.

We have no way of knowing whether this is because so few girls today make that choice, that there were just no candidates who met other casting and production criteria, whatever those may have been, or whether because of the great stigma of abortion, MTV felt that it would just be too controversial.

In fact, all the girls but one elect to raise their babies themselves.

The season finale features a heart-rendingly sweet and together little couple, flowers who have somehow managed to grow up into strong and loving young people despite both having come from dysfunctional train wreck homes.

They are determined that their child will know a different life, and being smart enough to realize that they cannot give her anything more than what they have, which is, it bears repeating, a train wreck, they wisely arrange to have the baby adopted by a a couple who can give her what they want for her, what they are, in fact, determined to get for themselves - one day.

But recognizing that 1) their baby will need it before "one day" occurs, and 2) "one day" is not going to occur if they set out to try to raise a baby at 16, with their only support consisting of their dysfunctional train wreck parents, "All that baby needs is love" insists the boy's fresh-out-of-prison father.

When I mentioned to a neighbor that I was going to blog about this show, her mother offered an interesting perspective.

"I don't like that show," she said. "It romanticizes it too much. That first girl had a hard time, but you look at some of them, their parents are helping them out, a couple of them got to go move in with their boyfriends, it shows them having these baby showers, they have all the cute little clothes, and then they show them in the delivery room, shows their face when they see the baby."

While her view is directly opposed to most of the comments I have read and heard about the show - including those of many teens who assert that the show has made them much more aware of the difficulties of having a baby while still in high school - I was struck by the kingpin of her argument - "it shows their face when they see the baby."

She was talking about that miracle.

Being a parent is the most important job in the world. We hear a lot of lip service paid to that, but we do not put our money where our mouth is. In actual practice, we do not give that miracle the respect, the awe, that it deserves.

The real "reality" is that as a society, that miracle is Maci making a way out of no way, and we are her no-account boyfriend.

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