Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Teen Brides and Young Moms: Why Still the Stigma?

Whenever I tell people one of my friends is getting married, I get reactions like "Couldn't talk her out of it, huh?" and "I know wasn't ready that young" and, of course, "How old is she?"
I watched a handful of girls from my graduating class get married during my first year of college. This summer I had the honor of being a bridesmaid in a nineteen year old friend's wedding. Just this Wednesday, I helped another nineteen year old married friend register for classes after taking a semester off to work. And since then, my nineteen year old roommate announced her plans to get married this spring. One of my best friends back home got a proposal three weeks after her eighteenth birthday. All four of those girls are enrolled in college and aiming for degrees. I know other married girls who have chosen not to go to college, and I say good on them. If a degree isn't one of your dreams, why not getting moving on another one?
Trust me, teen brides are well aware of the stigma that comes with getting married young. It takes guts to shop for a wedding dress when you're so fresh out of a graduation gown. (Natasha from Confessions of a Teenage Bridge puts this better than I ever could.)
Whatever criticism or well-intentioned, misguided advice you level at them is nothing new. "Are you pregnant or something? You're too young to know what real love is! This is a big decision-are you really ready for the responsibility?" Teen brides hear that all inside their own heads, they don't need it from you.
Despite centuries of human history, young marriage is no longer a social norm. It seems like the most controversial thing a teenage girl can do is have sex inside marriage.
That's not to say sexually active teens no longer face stigma for their life choices. Oh no. In a day when adult single mothers have gained widespread acceptance and sympathy, teenage moms find themselves in the same state they were a few decades ago. Language that stigmatizes non-married women is vanishing from our vocabulary. In my grandmother's day, these mothers were "unwed". Now they're rebranded as single, the unwed no longer differentiated from divorced or widowed women. Babies aren't "born out of wedlock", they're "unplanned". Kids who are born ten years after their closest sibling obviously weren't planned either, but I never hear this term applied to them. During high school, I had an AP student friend who didn't even know what the word illegitimate meant until our history teacher defined it for us.
40% of all American children are born out of wedlock. But only the teen mothers are considered problematic. Mainstream media glamorizes and normalizes teen sex, but not the children who result from it. Teen motherhood was portrayed in reality TV shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Moms, contributing to the family freak show genre, which also includes big family spectacles, like 19 Kids and Counting or Jon and Kate Plus 8.
If unmarried sex no longer carries stigma, why should young motherhood? The difference is age. Just as teens get our very own billboards reminding us not to drink or text at the wheel (though anybody taking those risks while driving can crash a car), ads and awareness campaigns single out pregnant teenagers. Though come to think of it, I see anti-drinking and anti-texting billboards directed at the general public. I've never seen a single poster speaking out against out of wedlock pregnancies as a whole. Just teens. Age, rather than marital status, is considered the source of the problem.

Image result for candies teen pregnancy ads
In 2013, a teen mothers' group made complaints about these ads by The Candies Foundation, an anti-teen pregnancy organization.

Image result for teen pregnancy ads
Candies strives to raise 'awareness' of teen pregnancy (who doesn't know teen pregnancy is a thing?) but offers no resources to young women who are already pregnant or parenting.

Yes, younger mothers face a unique set of difficulties. But an unexpected pregnancy at any age will bring challenges. Young motherhood and marriage are still stigmatized while young sex-a consequence of marriage and a precursor to motherhood-is not. Have sex, kids! But don't do it with your husband, and you're not supposed to produce a baby.
Marriage and motherhood are already a whirlwind physically and financially. They don't need to be socially wrenching too. Pursuing a family is a brave, beautiful choice at an early age, and young women should be supported by friends and family as they embark on this road.

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