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I Was Shamed as a Teen Mom, Too

Maryland teen Maddi Runkles' Christian school barred her from walking at graduation. These punishments are harmful—as a former teen mom, I would know.

Shaming pregnant teens is atrocious and unhelpful.
 
 
By Natasha Vianna, Self
 
When I read about 18-year-old Maddi Runkles being banned from walking in her high school graduation because she was pregnant, my heart hurt. I thought back to my own graduation and how accomplished I felt when I accepted my diploma, having given birth to my daughter, Nelly, only months before.
 
[post_ads]Runkles' situation is a lot like mine was. She attends Heritage Academy, a nondenominational Christian school in western Maryland that places a heavy emphasis on abstinence until marriage. Students at the school are instructed to “maintain their purity until their wedding night," said the school's president, David R. Hobbs, according to the Washington Post. These students must sign a pledge signaling their commitment to "abstaining from sexual immorality." Later, Hobbs said in an interview that "the breach of a standard of abstinence is a grievous choice.”

I also received a strictly abstinence-only education. At my Catholic high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was constantly reminded of a religious obligation to remain “pure” until marriage. And when I got pregnant as a junior, I found myself facing a judgmental school system, too.

My pregnancy was a shock, and at first, I didn't know what I was going to do.

[post_ads]Unsure about how to proceed, I put off making a decision about my pregnancy for a few weeks. Once I developed morning sickness, I decided to share the news of my health with my school nurse. She told other people, and within 24 hours, students gathered in her office to gossip about my situation. As I wrestled with the personal and private decision of what to do about my pregnancy, I could feel the eyes of my entire school, teachers and students alike, bearing down on me.
Even worse than the judgments from my classmates were the painful confrontations I had with my teachers. I had always been seen as an intelligent and thoughtful student, but suddenly I found myself inhabiting (in their eyes) the racist, sexist stereotype of a Latina who gets pregnant in high school. Some made comments about my poor moral choices when I walked into their classrooms. Others went as far as ignoring me in class.
       
One conversation with a teacher stood out the most. With a smile on her face, she pulled me into our school chapel to talk about my pregnancy. She mentioned there was a rumor that since I was only seven or eight weeks along and hadn’t been open about my pregnancy, I must be considering an abortion. Despite this being factual, I shook my head in disagreement.
       
Relieved, she reminded me that God could forgive one sin, but that He could not forgive a second. She pointed out that despite my horrible life choice and the statistics I would become, the community would be here to help with the innocent baby.
          
I went to Planned Parenthood that weekend not knowing if I wanted to continue with my pregnancy or get an abortion. It was in that clinic for the first time in my life someone told me I had the power to make the best choices for myself. It was the first time I felt like I had control over my own body and the choices that would stay with me forever. I was able to separate judgment from reality and make a decision. After eight hours in the clinic talking to nurses and counselors, I decided to continue with my pregnancy and become a mother.
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Even though I did exactly what people at my school were pressuring me to do, I was met with more shaming and no help. The administration tried to push me out of school. They emphasized regularly that my body was damaged and no man would ever see me as a whole or valuable woman. They tried to turn my life into a cautionary tale. The stigma of being a teen mom overwhelmed me.
          
The answer to teenage pregnancy is not to humiliate teens for their situation, but to give them the information they need to prevent pregnancy in the first place.
       
Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have the highest unintended pregnancy rate of any age group, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading non-profit that studies sexual health. But that rate is dropping. After analyzing three years of nationally representative data, the Guttmacher Institute and Columbia University found a 36 percent decline in the teen birth rate between 2007 and 2013, according to an August 2016 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
         
The primary reason behind this drop isn't that fewer teens are having sex. Instead, the report found that higher rates of contraceptive use are contributing to fewer teens accidentally getting pregnant.
         
The most effective way to prevent unintended teenage pregnancy, the report concludes, is to provide young people with comprehensive sexual education and safe access to birth control.
         
Without that guidance, young people face a dilemma: preventing pregnancy from occurring without the support necessary to do so.
        
And when teens do become pregnant, it's essential to offer them tools and support to provide the best possible futures for their children and themselves.
     
Due to fear of judgment, I was too afraid to tell my doctor about my mental health struggles. This fear also meant receiving subpar health care for my child when she was diagnosed with a health condition.

Unfortunately, this stigma impacts hundreds of thousands of teenage mothers across the United States and their children, and it can affect the trajectory of their and their children's lives immensely.

[post_ads]Around 50 percent of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by the time they turn 22, while around 90 percent of women who don't have children during their teenage years do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's not just new responsibilities that make teen moms drop out, but the discrimination they face in school. "Approximately 70 percent of teenage girls who give birth leave school, and evidence suggests that illegal discrimination is a major contributing factor to this high dropout rate," according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
      
I know just how true this is. The treatment in my school was so bad that I eventually left and transferred to a public high school where I would soon meet other pregnant teens. But I realized that whether my school was Catholic or public, both sides used isolating, painful strategies. My new high school tried to remove me from honors classes, and my new guidance counselor told me that I wasn’t going to make it to college.
        
People tried to make me believe I'd ruined my life by becoming pregnant in my teens. Many teen moms are shamed into thinking they will never succeed or create meaningful lives for themselves and their children. It’s just not true. Teen parents can have wonderful lives, raise great kids, and even change for the better due to their children.
       
In fact, research suggests that having a child as a teenager can actually help at-risk girls from falling into delinquency and drug use. "Our results provide strong evidence for the hypothesis...that motherhood represents an important shift in the lives of women residing in poor communities and helps pull them away from high-risk behaviors," says a report published in the February 2010 edition of Criminology. "Lives of hopelessness, loneliness, and instant gratification are replaced with a sense of purpose, self-respect, and optimism toward the future."
      
It's entirely possible to be a teen mom and still be a happy, productive member of society.
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Teenage parenthood did change my life forever—in a truly incredible way.
   
Once I became a mother, I found that my daughter's presence prompted me to think more deeply about the impact I wanted to make in the world.
 
So, in 2013, I collaborated with six young mothers from different parts of the country to create noteenshame.org. What started as a movement on social media to help our communities understand our lives became an advocacy and education project to dispel the myths of teenage motherhood. Our ultimate mission is to eradicate stigma from young people’s sexual and reproductive choices.
       
It’s been nearly 12 years since I found myself pregnant in a Catholic high school. In spite of judgmental reactions to my pregnancy, my daughter and I have a meaningful and successful life together. We have a relationship that is based on trust and respect. It's one that includes openness, honesty, and shame-free comprehensive sexuality education so she can make the best choices for her future—just like I did for myself when I had her.
     
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Lifestyle Magazine: I Was Shamed as a Teen Mom, Too
I Was Shamed as a Teen Mom, Too
Maryland teen Maddi Runkles' Christian school barred her from walking at graduation. These punishments are harmful—as a former teen mom, I would know.
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