Girls Having Babies
Three teen moms tell why they got pregnant, and how they've coped.
Thursday, May 7, 1998
This Sunday, on Mother''s Day, millions of Americans will honor the women who brought them into the world.
But will anyone bring flowers to 18-year-old Salinas resident Carmen Lopez, who gave birth to her son Dominic when she was 15?
And who will buy a fancy dinner for 17-year-old Nadia Arvizu of Seaside, who moved in with her boyfriend Alex last year when she was pregnant with their now six-month-old daughter?
And will anyone send a box of chocolates to 16-year-old Bryna K. (not her real name), who became pregnant while a 14-year-old freshman at Pacific Grove High, and who carried her baby to term because she opposes abortion, but who then gave the tiny girl up for adoption?
In many countries around the world, and (not so long ago in this country) pregnancy for mid-teens is the norm. Not so in middle America in the 1990s. Teenage girls are supposed to be in school, preparing for college or a job, not stuck at home caring for a baby. We have sex education. We have Planned Parenthood, we have condoms for sale in public restrooms. And, for those who so choose, abortion is legal--at least, for now.
So when a teenage girl becomes pregnant, she is usually treated with a mixture of contempt and pity. It''s assumed she was either too stupid or too innocent to "protect herself."
How, then, are we to regard local teenage girls who choose to have a baby, either consciously getting pregnant by their boyfriends, or, once discovering they are pregnant, deciding to carry their babies to term?
Both Nadia Arvizu and Carmen Lopez say it was no big deal. Although neither of them planned their pregnancies, they both know plenty of girls their age who have babies, which they raise either on their own, like Carmen, or with their young fathers, like Nadia.
In the local Hispanic community, they say, girls as young as 10 or 11 dream of being able to push their own babies in strollers down the street. And many of these girls don''t plan to wait until they''re in their 20s. Carmen says she was 13 the first time she tried to get pregnant. "The thing is, when I tried, I couldn''t, and when I didn''t try, I did," she says.
Both their mothers had them at a young age. Carmen''s mother was barely Carmen''s age when she became pregnant--by a man who left her, just as Carmen''s boyfriend left her, 16 years later. Nadia''s mother was 19 when she learned she was pregnant. Like Nadia, she moved in with her boyfriend, and they later married--just as Nadia says she and Alex hope to do.
Things were different for Bryna K., however. The Pacific Grove freshman hadn''t planned to become pregnant. A deeply religious girl whose father is a local Christian pastor, she hadn''t even planned to have sex with her young boyfriend. That''s why, she says, they didn''t use birth control. "I didn''t want to admit we were having sex, even to myself," she says.
When she learned she was carrying a baby, however, abortion wasn''t an option. "We''re pro-lifers," she says. "I oppose abortion, in every case." Carrying the baby to term, and then placing her with an adoptive family through a Christian adoption agency seemed her duty, to God and to her baby.
These three girls, and more than 350 like them throughout Monterey County each year, have babies, despite all the social programs and dire statistics in the world (see sidebar). And although they might wish they hadn''t become pregnant exactly when they did, not one of them regrets her decision to have a baby.
The Seaside apartment Nadia Arvizu shares with 21-year-old Alex Salas is filled with family photos. The newest addition on the TV console is a picture of their baby girl, bright-eyed, smiling, six-month-old Natalie.
Nadia and Alex weren''t using birth control when Natalie was conceived. "We were half wanting, and half not wanting" to have a baby, Nadia admits. The very day 16-year-old Nadia planned to get birth control pills from her local clinic, she found out she was pregnant. Her reaction? "I felt kind of happy, but scared at the same time," she says. "I was happy to be having a baby, but scared I wouldn''t know how to be a good mother."
And now? She smiles confidently. "I think I''m a good mother," she states. "Yeah, so far I''ve done OK."
Nadia says she''s lucky to be a junior at Seaside High School, which has a special program to help teen mothers and fathers stay in school: SAPID, or School-Age Parents'' Infant Development. When high blood pressure forced her to remain at home for her last trimester, the school sent a home tutor to help her keep up with her studies.
Now, every morning she drops off Natalie at the school''s nursery, where paid staff care for students'' children while the young mothers attend class. Nadia breastfeeds her daughter during breaks between class, at lunchtime, and during the free period allotted to all young mothers.
And once a week, in a parenting class run by the high school, Nadia and her fellow student-mothers learn about diapering, feeding and disciplining their babies.
Those caretaking details turned out to be easier than Nadia feared, she says. Taking care of her four younger brothers and sisters when she was just a child helped her learn what babies need. But the changes Natalie caused in Nadia''s lifestyle were more difficult than she imagined they would be.
"It''s so hard to find someone to watch her if I want to do something, or stay late after school," she says. But she doesn''t resent that, because she "was never much of a partier" anyway.
Nadia says she has "a few" girlfriends her age who have babies. Others are pregnant. "Most of them are happy," she insists. "They were scared in the beginning, but they''re getting used to being mothers." Of the 10 teenage mothers she knows, eight are still with their babies'' fathers. All five of the pregnant girls she knows are also with the fathers. Young couples in her society stick together, she says.
Abortion isn''t an option, she says, not for herself and not for her friends. "I don''t believe in that," she says firmly. She only knows one girl who had an abortion. "She regrets it," she says. "She did it because her boyfriend wanted her to." Nadia doesn''t know any girls who gave their babies up for adoption, either. "One wanted to, but her mother wouldn''t let her," she reports.
When she was much younger, Nadia says, she and her girlfriends were entranced with the idea of being teenage mothers. "I wanted to see how it would be to be a young mom," she says. "People told me I should have waited, finished school first. I know I should have, but it''s too late now."
Nadia talks straight to her 15-year-old sister, telling the girl to wait longer than Nadia did. "I tell her to wait until she gets married." And her sister seems to be listening. "She tells me she doesn''t want to see herself in the same position I am. She says, ''I''d rather have Natalie be my niece than my daughter.''"
Nadia is attending night school now so she can graduate high school in December, a semester early. Then she plans to stay home with her baby for a few years before continuing on to college, where she hopes to study nursing.
Alex, who is an apprentice electrician, is "so nice with Natalie," Nadia says. "He loves her a lot. We''re thinking of getting married, but we have to save more money for that. I want a big wedding."
The couple plan to have more children, "but not now," Nadia says. "I want to finish school first. There are more things I want to do."
Eighteen-year-old Carmen Lopez got pregnant the summer after her eighth-grade year, when she was just 14. She and her boyfriend Ricardo, three years her senior, had been together since she was 12.
"I was confused when I found out," she says. "I didn''t want it, but I was already pregnant. The scariest part was telling my mom." Her mother had repeatedly warned her not to get pregnant by Ricardo. "But I didn''t want to listen," Carmen admits. "I''d say, just because my dad left you doesn''t mean the same thing will happen to me. But it backfired on me. Everything she''s ever told me has come true. That''s what I hate the most."
When Carmen discovered she was pregnant, she moved in with Ricardo. But he hit her, she says, when she used his name on her welfare application forms. So she left for Arizona to live with her older sister, who was unmarried, 18 and pregnant. She planned to have an abortion there, but decided to keep the baby after repeated phone calls from Ricardo and his parents, who all promised to help her raise the child.
"I came back to Salinas, but I didn''t want to be with [Ricardo] anymore," she says. "He''d keep coming around, and I''d push him away." She spent her fourth to eighth month of pregnancy shuttling between different friends'' apartments, sleeping on their couches. "My mom kept crying and saying it was her fault, even though I told her it wasn''t," Carmen says.
"The day before I went into labor, I found out Ricardo was with another girl. He broke up with her when I gave birth, so I went to his home with the baby when we left the hospital. But that first morning, when I woke up, I said, ''What am I doing here, with him?'' So I left."
Since that day more than two years ago, Carmen has lived on her own, taking care of Dominic and working at Burger King. Her mother watches the toddler while she''s at work, and Ricardo''s mother takes him every other weekend.
Carmen tried to stay in school after the birth, but was continually late to morning classes at East Alisal High. School administrators took her out of regular classes and put her in the Opportunities program for troubled youth, but she couldn''t keep to that schedule either. Now she studies for her high school equivalency diploma in a GED program through the Young Families in Our Libraries Project, a program run in conjunction with the Salinas Adult School at the city''s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Center (see sidebar). She also attends the project''s parenting class every Wednesday afternoon.
Dominic has made her life quite difficult, Carmen says. "Finding a babysitter so I could go to work, putting food on the table, it was hard," she says. "I''d steal food from my Mom''s house. I could never go out with my friends. I was poor. And it''s not easy to find a boyfriend when you have someone else''s kid."
Sometimes, she admits quietly, with tears starting to her eyes, she thinks about how her life would be if Dominic hadn''t been born. "Yeah, I hate to say it, but I do think like that sometimes," she whispers. "But then, I don''t know where I''d be without him."
Lack of love at home can lead young girls to get pregnant early, she muses. It''s a way of gaining self-esteem, she says, of showing the world you have an identity. When she was a young girl, she says, her older sister ran away, and her mother devoted all her attention to the runaway instead of to Carmen. Partly as a response, Carmen dreamed of being a mother as soon as she was able. "I thought how nice it would be to push my baby in his stroller, how my friends would have babies at the same time and we''d all hang out together," she says, shaking her head. "Now it makes me sick when I hear young girls say they want to get pregnant. Believe me, it''s not as pretty as you think it will be."
Partly to express those feelings, and to discourage other girls from following her path, Carmen entered a poster contest this spring sponsored by POSTPONE, a state-run program aimed at discouraging teen pregnancy (see sidebar). She pasted photos of herself and Dominic all over her poster, interspersed with warnings to her peers about the consequences of young love.
"I wrote that when we were young, we thought love would last forever, but then I had the baby and he was gone," she says.
Having another baby is, she maintains, the last thing on her mind. "On my 15th birthday, I was pregnant," she recounts. "On my 16th birthday, I had a three-month-old baby. When I''m 21, and old enough to go to clubs, he''ll be five. I don''t want to start again with a newborn, just when I''m old enough to go out."
And the future? Well, she just turned 18 and is now able to work at Burger King without a permit. Other than that, she has no plans. "I don''t think that far," she says "Just let it come."
Bryna K. was an unlikely candidate for teen motherhood. Raised a devout Christian, her father a pastor in a local evangelical congregation, she accepted her family''s and her church''s dictum that premarital sex was wrong.
That''s why she and her boyfriend didn''t use birth control. She didn''t want to admit she was sexually active, even to herself.
But in January of her freshman year at PG High, when she was 14, Bryna noticed she was skipping periods. By April, when her mother confronted her, she was sure. "We sat and cried together, and we went for the test the next day," she says. When her father returned from a Bible course in Europe, her mother told him the news. "I was sitting in the kitchen, and he came downstairs, put his arms around me and told me he loved me," she says. "I think he was a little teary. They''ve both been extremely supportive."
For Bryna, there was only one choice: She was going to have her baby. "I knew from the very beginning I wouldn''t have an abortion," she says. "It''s wrong. This was a life that God created and I didn''t want to take it away."
That choice made her a part of a small statistical group: white teenage girls from well-off homes who decide to carry their babies to term. Bryna was the only white girl in her Lamaze class for teenage mothers at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. And that''s not because white girls don''t get pregnant, she insists. "The lady at my [medical] clinic told me 18 other girls at PG High were pregnant when I was," she says. Those other girls simply decided to have abortions rather than give birth. "I guess white families aren''t as accepting" of out-of-wedlock childbirth, she says.
One of those girls was a close friend, and Bryna tried to talk her out of the operation. "She had the abortion, and now she regrets it," Bryna claims. "She told me afterwards that I was having my baby for me and for her."
Bryna broke up with her boyfriend soon after she learned she was pregnant. "He wanted to be a part of it, but I told him I wanted to do this on my own," she says. She finished freshman year without most people knowing she was pregnant. "I was small, and I wore big clothes," she says. "But it''s a small school, and the rumors started flying. I didn''t care. It was better that they knew. And once people at school knew, they were very supportive."
It wasn''t that way on the streets of Monterey and PG, however. "When people passed me, first they''d look at my face and see how young I was, then they''d look at my stomach," she recalls. "I''d see their shocked expression. Some would ask me right out how old I was."
Bryna decided quickly that she would give her baby up for adoption through the increasingly-popular open adoption option. That meant she would choose the adoptive family herself, to give her baby the best life possible. In her terms, that meant a young, large, Christian family with at least one other adopted child. She wanted an athletic, musical family, because both she and the baby''s fathers had those skills, and she wanted her child to be given the chance to develop them. "If not for the open adoption program, I don''t think I would have gone through with it," she says.
When she turned to Christian adoption agencies, she was amazed to find out how much in demand she was: a young, healthy white girl from a good home, looking to adopt out her infant from birth. "One social worker told me that if I wanted a family that played tennis on Sundays and had three dogs, I could find it," she says.
But her list was very specific, and she went through dozens, perhaps hundreds of applications from different agencies before finding what she wanted. By that time, she was in her seventh month. She called the Bethany Christian Services in Modesto, received 10 files of prospective parents, and began leafing through them. When she reached number three, her heart began to beat faster.
"They were perfect," she says. "They had one three-year-old adopted girl, who was one of 20 grandchildren. They lived in a great area, the father is a basketball coach and youth pastor, and the mother teaches piano. They even looked like me and my boyfriend."
Several days later, she met the family and decided that same evening that she would give her baby to them. When she found out they had planned to name their first baby girl "Brenna," she believed the match was heaven-sent.
"I knew this was what I wanted, and what God wanted, and that he would provide the right family," she says with quiet firmness. "When we met, it was as if I''d known them all my life."
When baby Brenna was born on Oct. 22, 1996, Bryna''s mother and the adoptive mother were on either side of the laboring teenager. Although Bryna had only planned to spend one night with her newborn, she ended up staying for a second night, to hold the baby in her arms.
"The family was getting a little scared that I''d keep her, but I knew I wouldn''t," she says. "It was very, very hard, but I knew it was the right thing for her and for me. When I saw her, I loved her so much. That made me want to give her away even more, so she would have a good life."
The two families held a communal service in the hospital. A pastor from Bryna''s church spoke, and Bryna handed her baby over to the adoptive family. "Everyone was crying, but it was beautiful," she recalls.
Bryna has stayed very much in her baby''s life. She has visited three times, and will continue to do so until her child is old enough to decide whether or not to continue the constant contact with her biological mother.
Bryna is an extremely mature 16-year-old, who is proud to show visitors her baby''s photograph, and speaks of her in glowing, maternal fashion. Going back to school after her baby''s birth was, she says, "hard" because she "felt so much more grown-up" than the other students in her class.
She also felt much older than the other teenage mothers-to-be in her CHOMP Lamaze class. "It was amazing how immature the girls were," she says. "It was scary. I felt sorry for their babies. I was much more mature, and I wasn''t even going to be parenting."
Bryna''s mother says she''s terribly proud of her. "Her social worker said that young girls who give up their babies for adoption will make wonderful mothers later, because they thought of their baby first," she says. "I know Brenna will always love her. She''ll know her mother chose a better life for her."
Bryna has just started to share her story with others, as an example, she says, of the power of God in her life. She first spoke before her peers at a Christian New Year''s Eve celebration this Jan. 1 in Seaside''s Oldemeyer Center. Then she was asked to be a judge in the POSTPONE youth poster contest, and she spoke of her own experience in front of the other, adult judges.
"When I was pregnant, I got a lot stronger in my faith because God was there for me the whole time," she says. "He performed a miracle in my life, finding the perfect family for my baby. Through my story, I''ve reached a lot of people."
Bryna currently does not have a boyfriend, and says she is abstaining from further sex until marriage. "I''m a lot more careful now," she says. "Any relationship I have will be based on something different."
What was her first "relationship" based on? "Lust," she states. And what will be the basis for her next one? She answers without missing a beat: "Christ." cw