Humiliation is Not Prevention

Humiliation is Not Prevention: New York City's Shaming of Teen Mothers

By Valentina Forte - Hernandez, Hamphire College

I walked into the Civil Liberties and Public Policy office one Wednesday to start my day of work when I saw a co-worker looking at a picture of a crying baby. Next to the baby were words that read, “Honestly mom…chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” This image was one of several of New York City’s new ads aimed at preventing teen pregnancy. These ads started to be displayed in bus shelters and on subways in early March, and as the child and grandchild of teen mothers I was outraged.

These ads raise no awareness of how to prevent teen pregnancy. Instead, they tell girls not to become teen mothers and embarrass the ones who already are. They tell the children of teen mothers, like me: “You’re probably not going to succeed and it’s all your mom’s fault.” This message does not educate girls who may become pregnant, it certainly doesn’t help teen moms who are struggling to raise their children and to quote an article from feminist blog Jezebel, “[It’s] basically a middle finger” to all of the awesome teen moms out there, and trust me, there are plenty.

“Chances are he won’t stay with you.” The truth behind these words is that about 80% of teen mothers are left by the father of their child. My father left my mother, and though my mother’s parents were always friendly and supportive to each other their relationship did not last. While there is some fact to their claim, the message that their words send out is that teen moms should be blamed for their choice to have their child knowing they will probably be a single mother. I don’t blame my mom for my dad being unsupportive and I certainly am not upset with her for having me regardless of the prediction that she would be raising me as a single parent. Why should my mom be held accountable for things my dad did – or really – failed to do? My mom may not be fond of my dad but she has done nothing to prevent my father from being a good dad. He has chosen not to be a part of my life; it has been his choice not to talk to me for over ten years. Where is the baby crying about his choices?

The one ad targeted at the fathers reads, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years,” spreading the message that to teen fathers children are simply money down the drain. What potential teen fathers should be told is that they are accountable for their child and they should be supportive of them regardless of whether or not they stay in a relationship with the mother. Teen fathers should be reminded that they have an emotional responsibility, not just a financial one.

“Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year.” This statement mocks teen mothers, obscuring how hard it is for young mothers to get well paying jobs. It is extremely hard for a teen mother to complete her education, especially if she is doing so without support. Without a high school or college diploma it is difficult to provide the estimated $235,000 or more it takes to raise a child to the age of 17. In New York City this estimate is $270,000 and this figure does not include the cost of a college education. Asking teen mothers if they have good jobs provides them about as much help as high school gossip. It makes them feel guilty for something they cannot be held solely accountable for. The real problem is the lack of support for teen mothers, making it hard to complete their education and get a good job that also allows the time to be a present mother. This ad ignores the every day struggle of all of the hard working single teen mothers who have to sacrifice time with their children to pay the bills. It ignores a society where people look down at these hard working mothers while they pay other people to raise their children.

There are many ways to combat teen pregnancy other than pointing fingers and scrutinizing young mothers. We should be teaching safe sex to teenagers, as well as educating teen parents about how to be successful and support their children. We should be showing them what options are out there, not to mention providing more options to help teen parents complete their education and get jobs.

Sooner or later we’re going to have to accept that whether we like it or not, teenagers are going to have sex and some of them will become parents. Instead of denying this truth we should be doing everything we can to ensure that every parent has the resources to provide the best for their children and that every child has the opportunity to grow into a successful, educated adult.

Valentina Forte-Hernandez just completed her first year at Hampshire College. She is passionate about reproductive justice, filmmaking, and creative writing. She is the communcations intern at CLPP and political writer for the Black Sheep Journal, a journal of the Population and Development Program of Hampshire College.

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