Lyons: Teenage pregnancy is not a tragedy
If we've ever met, I'm sure you will agree that I look far too young to be a grandfather. Yes, I have some specks of silver in my hair, and yes, they do seem to be increasing in number, but my wife says those little light-catchers make me look more ''interesting'' and ''distinguished'' than grandpa-style ''old.'' I am always the first to admit that my wife is correct.
Nevertheless, unbelievable though it is, I am soon to become a grandfather. Have a cigar.
Oh, by the way, my expectant daughter is 18 years old and a senior in high school.
Oops, now there's trouble! In the eyes of most mainstream commentators, that fact just transformed my soon-to-be-mommy daughter into a social problem: a ''teenage mother,'' a ''single parent,'' one of those ''babies-having-babies,'' the invocation of whom is typically intended to produce head-shaking, hand-wringing, and solemn tones of voice.
You've heard it all before. According to the conventional wisdom of the punditocracy, which increasingly makes the social rules in our cable-news universe, the standard story of teenage pregnancy is always emplotted as a tragedy. Her life will now be ''limited,'' and ''society'' will somehow be dragged down for it as well. In its most reprehensible forms, this new morality tale posits mom not as victim but villain: someone who did a bad thing. And we all know what that was, don't we?
That story is offensive and wrong. Teenage mothers are not automatic tragedies, babies are in fact good things, and any tight-necked pundit who wants to tsk-tsk my daughter's ''behavior'' is more than welcome to take it up with me in the parking lot after school.
Sure, my daughter's life is about to become more complicated, and in many ways more difficult than the lives lived by most of her peers. She knows this, and so do her family members - like yours truly - who are now preparing for some life changes of our own. My daughter still has dreams and goals and plans to pursue them. Tragedy is not on her agenda.
Call her trendy, but my daughter announced her teenage pregnancy just when the subject was once again becoming a national obsession. It started in December when the National Center for Health Statistics released a report showing that between 2005 and 2006 the pregnancy rate rose 3 percent for girls aged 15 to 19, after a 34 percent decline between 1991 and 2005. Even though these numbers were accompanied by a corresponding rise in the overall pregnancy rate - that is, American women in general are having more babies these days - it reignited debates between advocates of sex education and promoters of so-called ''abstinence-only'' programs. The latter, funded to the tune of $176 million dollars a year under the Bush administration, came under fire since it seemed obvious that abstinence-only - the only kind of sex ed taught in 35 percent of American schools - doesn't work.
As it so often does these days, social science immediately merged into pop culture. Not two weeks after the NCHS report, Jamie Lynn Spears, 16-year-old sister of Britney and star of Nickelodeon's ''Zoey 101,'' announced she was pregnant and keeping the baby. You could practically smell the vitriol as the media fell all over themselves in a mad rush to pathologize Jamie Lynn as quickly as possible, characterizing her as both ''sad'' and ''irresponsible'' with just the right amount of ''trashy'' thrown in to clarify the moral of the story: bad role model! Jamie Lynn's public punishment was intended to teach a lesson not to her but to all the other teen girls who might likewise find themselves preggers after meeting a boyfriend at, um, church. (I'm not making that up.)
Yet not all pregnant teens are disciplined to the same extent; it really depends on what they decide to do with their babies. Witness ''Juno,'' the offbeat, now Oscar-nominated comedy about a funky 16-year-old, played by Ellen Page, who carries her pregnancy to term before handing the baby off to Vanessa, played by Jennifer Garner. ''Juno'' met with mixed reception among our national moralizers, with conservatives praising its pro-adoption message while simultaneously expressing concerns over its lighthearted take on the tragedy du jour of teen pregnancy. As Katha Pollitt summed up the paradoxical moral lesson that resulted, ''Teens getting pregnant: bad. Teens having babies: good.'' She might have added, teens keeping their babies: bad.
Juno, you see, did a bad thing by getting pregnant but made it good by giving the child up to a wealthy yuppie living in the 'burbs. Jamie Lynn did a bad thing and made it worse by keeping it. Yes, even though the Spears family clearly has the resources to raise her child, Jamie Lynn betrayed her ostensible responsibilities as a role model to her 'tweener fans, so she is punished in a way that Juno is not. All of this moralizing and disciplining is intended to keep that pregnancy rate down at a time when it seems to be ticking upwards despite the ubiquity of abstinence-only education. Of course, if we were truly serious about reducing unwanted pregnancies, we would make abortion more and not less available to girls and women. That's a no-brainer if ever there was one, but now I'm really showing my age.
My daughter considered both abortion and adoption before deciding to keep the child; as her father, I left such decisions up to her and didn't try to sway her any which way. (This, I learned, is the most psychologically healthy way for any parent to respond to a pregnant teenager.) But after seeing ''Juno,'' I did ask her why she hadn't considered adoption as an alternative, and she said she ''just couldn't do it.'' That feeling is apparently widespread, since less than 1 percent of pregnant teenagers give their babies up for adoption. Of the rest, 29 percent have abortions, 14 percent miscarry, and over 56 percent keep the baby.
If there is tragedy to be found in numbers like these, it should not be located in the supposed moral failings of teenagers - whose bodies, after all, have been hardwired by nature (or, if you prefer, God) to have sex at that age - nor in the hard decisions that are made in the aftermath, whatever they turn out to be: abortion, adoption or keeping the baby. If there is tragedy here, it lies in the cold fact that America does not live up to the responsibilities that are necessary for a village to raise a child.
All children need food, clothing, shelter, health care and education - these on top of love - and if such needs were adequately and regularly met for everyone in this country, as they are elsewhere, there would be a lot less tragedy and a lot more hope expressed in our public discussions about mothers and children.
Hope is the crucial point, for hope is exactly what each new baby represents: the small creation of a new world - new people and new ideas - which will soon replace our old decaying world. Such hope is brought into being by the mother, teenage or otherwise, and it is a gift to all, as was acknowledged in the ''glad tidings'' of the Christian gospels: ''A child has been born unto us.'' (Incidentally, there's another teenage mother for you.)
This country should do a lot more to support all children and mothers alike, so everyone can have the opportunity to achieve their dreams. As for the rest of us, we should be grateful for the birth of every child and see him or her in the way that Native peoples have always viewed babies - as sacred beings.
Yes, even if you look way too young to be a grandparent.
Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe/Mdewakanton Dakota, teaches Native American literature at Syracuse University and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.