Sunday, April 4, 2010

Nothing to do today? Or nothing to do tomorrow?

I’ve been talking to Madisonians about teen pregnancy since January, and no matter whom I interview – teen mom, nurse, epidemiologist, counselor, parent, advocate – I always ask the question, “Why is the teen pregnancy rate so high in Madison County?”

Those who don’t work in healthcare or social services all shrug and say, “I guess because there’s nothing to do.” But I couldn’t accept that answer. There’s nothing to do in suburbs all across America. What makes Madison County different?

Poverty, of course, sets Madison County apart from the suburbs. But what does poverty have to do with pregnancy?

When I first met Melanie, she also said that it must be because there’s nothing to do. Melanie was a teen mother herself, and the daughter she bore at age 17 went on to become a teen mother. In addition to running a teen parents support group at Madison Co. High School, Melanie’s a member of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition, and she’s an active advocate for teen pregnancy prevention in this small community. So I thought she was going to give me more than “there’s nothing to do.” I expected her to have the answer. Nothing to do may explain teenagers having sex, but it doesn’t explain so many of them getting pregnant.

Because Melanie is a major player on my teen pregnancy beat, I’ve run into her many times this semester. Last week we sat down for an official interview. We met in the conference room at the health department before the March Coalition meeting and as the meeting was just getting started, she said to me, “Sometimes I feel like a double agent. I’m supporting the teen parents one day at my support group, and I’m over here trying to prevent teen pregnancy the next.”

I said, “But aren’t you trying to prevent more teens from needing support?”

She said, “Sure, but I wonder if the girls would think I was betraying them. Sometimes I think they don’t even think teen pregnancy is a problem.”

Now we were getting somewhere. It’s not that there’s nothing to do. If girls don’t think there’s anything wrong with having children before they finish high school (yes, children, I’ve now spoken to or heard of many who had 2nd and 3rd children before they were 18; I’ve learned that it’s not just a battle to try to keep girls from getting pregnant in the first place, but it’s just as hard to try to keep them from getting pregnant again), then why would they go out of their way to prevent it?

A couple of days later, I met with Wanda Strickland (pictured above), the nurse at the Teen Matters Clinic.

I asked her, “Is this [the clinic where we were sitting] where girls find out they are pregnant?”


“What is that moment like?”

I was ready for her to tell me about the tears and the terror in their eyes.

“A lot of them are happy. A lot of teenagers want to be pregnant,” she said.

I was stunned silent for a minute – mainly because the following questions I had pre-written were based on the answer I expected to my last question but didn’t get. Now I could only ask, “Why?”

“It’s generational poverty. If you have no goals and your parents have no goals, you set up a whole different standard of norms. For some people the goal is just to survive, to get the rent paid for the week.

“So I ask every kid who comes in here, ‘What grade are you in? Where are you going to college? What’s your goal? Because for some of them, nobody has ever asked them that.”


  1. Unfortunately, teenagers with low expectations and no goals can be found in far too many communities. See "Swamp Nurse," by Katherine Boo, or Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's 2003 book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx.

    As journalists, it's important that we keep telling their stories -- and that when we find something that puts dreams in their heads we write about that, too. That's why I sent out the note inviting coverage of the Albany program that helps local students get into medical schools.

  2. My oldest sister taught middle-schoolers in Oglethorpe County for almost 10 years. She's in Alpharetta now, a place where teens probably DO have terror in their eyes when they hear about positive test results. But her students in Oglethorpe often had an attitude of "my-mother-smokes-pot-and-I-didn't-eat-breakfast-this-morning-why-the-heck-should-I-listen-to-you." Even with discipline and intervention for behavior problems, the kids just didn't care because, as you point out in this blog, they didn't have any further goals. I understand how drugs and poverty are related: people want to escape their living hell. I'm still naive enough to think that if schools put pregnancy prevention and sex education in classrooms early and often, then some of these pregnancies would be prevented. Tradition and religion are challenges in the south. If more 6th- and 7th-graders learned what a condom looks like, how you use it, how to protect yourself, practice saying "no," what a future as a teen mom looks like, and so on... Maybe it would sink in. High school students are less impressionable than the 13- and 14-year-olds. I'm so excited to read your feature story (if you'll let me) and compare the different programs of Madison and Hall and what's working and what's not. A person living close to or in poverty between the ages of 13 and 19 probably DOES see excitement in producing a creature that loves her unconditionally. Unlike drugs, though, reality doesn't disappear for a little while. It gets quite worse.