Surviving as a young mom
BRATTLEBORO - Television shows such as MTV's "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant" make celebrities out of young mothers, but in the real world, there is little glamorous about it.
Relationships end, education takes a back seat and young women find they are no longer the most important person in their own lives. Simple tasks like finishing homework or running to the corner store, become challenges.
That's where programs like Youth Services in Brattleboro come in. Youth Services provides individual case management to people 15 to 21 years of age who are experiencing homelessness or unstable housing and has a Young Moms Mentoring program.
"What we know is that the clients that we work with face a huge of amount of adversity having their basic needs met, completing their education, staying out of the legal system, having emotional support from positive adults," said Youth Development Director Bianca Barry.
"All the things that we wish and for our kids, our clients have to work particularly hard to receive."
With this in mind, Youth Services applied for a $6,000 community grant from The March of Dimes State Chapter, which recognizes the high risks faced by young single females that are the heads of their own households. Roger Clapp, state director of the Vermont chapter, presented the award at the Brattleboro Savings & Loan during a brief press conference on Wednesday.
Clapp told those in attendance The March of Dimes was founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 to eradicate polio and has seen refocused its efforts on issues like premature birth.
"Premature birth represents the single leading cause of death in infants in the United States today and I'm proud to say in Vermont we have the best record in the country in reducing premature births," he said.
Clapp told the Reformer the organization in Brattleboro shares The March of Dimes' concerns in regards to promoting general health for pregnant women and their babies.
Youth Services provides young women in the area with an array of tasks in an attempt to better their lives.
Alexa Morrill, 21, told the Reformer young age makes parenting even more difficult because others question your choices and embrace prejudiced stereotypes. And there is a strange stigma within popular culture, which both romanticizes teen pregnancy and perpetuates negativity toward it.
Television shows such as MTV's "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant" make celebrities out of young mothers and pays them large amounts of money to have every second of their lives documented on camera. But Morrill and a few other young mothers in the area told the Reformer programs like these show a distorted reality.
"They show you all the cute parts. The little, squishy baby with the little cute clothes," she said at the Youth Services location on Walnut Street. "No, mostly the baby is messy and hectic and throwing hard toys at your head and throwing temper tantrums. When they are sweet, it's awesome. But other times they are really all over the place.
"What they don't tell you about those shows is that those moms are paid. How those moms got those apartments and stuff is because of the show and how there kids have nice things is the show," she continued.
Morrill also said the programs enhance stereotypes that young mothers are irresponsible drains on society.
"People don't take you seriously as a parent (when you're young)," she said. "They look at you like you don't know what to do with your kid."
Starr Gutierrez, 19, got pregnant with her now-4-year-old son, Xavier, five years ago. She said she doesn't think reality television shows glamorize teen pregnancy but rather convey that teenage years are the only unfortunate time to become a mother. She said there are plenty of cases of teen moms finishing their education and successfully raising children.
Gutierrez also said there is a stigma that any pregnancy within a marriage is a good thing, when there could be substance addiction or abusive relationships involved.
She said she graduated high school on time and in the top 10 percent of her class. She now attends River Valley Community College and would like to focus on behavioral sciences. The Hinsdale, N.H., native is also earning a certificate in medical assistance and hopes to be done within a year and a half.
But Barry said it is not just television shows that try to profit off teen pregnancy. She said Forever 21, a clothing line that caters to young people, often has maternity clothes in its stores located in communities with high rates of young mothers.
"I have been disappointed in some of the choices that some businesses have made," she said. "They target areas where there is high teen pregnancy."
Nikyta Keniston and Jennifer Poland both said they have worked hard to form their own independent lives and defy stereotypes. Both said Youth Services provides them with any assistance they need. Keniston, 22, said she started at Youth Services with she was seven months pregnant with her daughter, Isabella, now 2. She now also has a son, Tommy, 1.
"I was in a hot mess and then I got out of it," she said. "I've benefited a lot because before that I had really bad anxiety so I couldn't make calls myself. My mom would have to do it or my boyfriend would."
Keniston said she is now in therapy for her anxiety and she now knows how to pay her own bills.
"If it wasn't for Youth Services I wouldn't have my apartment and Bella wouldn't be in daycare," she said. "I think Youth Services helps people become independent."
Poland, 21, said she wakes up at 6 a.m. every day to shower and get dressed before bringing her daughter, Cristal, to a friend's house. From there, Cristal is dropped off at daycare and Poland heads to work at the Putney Road Market.
She said she has been a single parent since December, when Cristal's father left the picture.
Poland, originally from Randolph, now lives in the Youth Services Shelter house in town along with Gutierrez and juggles the responsibilities of parenting and working.
She also has a message for all teenager girls thinking about having sexual intercourse.
"Just be smart about it. If you're not ready for a kid, use protection. Seriously, don't be dumb about it. ... You need to be able to handle multiple things at once. If you're not responsible to take care of yourself, you're not going to be responsible enough to take care of another person," she said. "A child keeps you busy 24/7, even if you're not with them because you're always on-call, no matter what."
Barry said Vermont women are fortunate enough to have a generous state system of care, something that is not universal throughout the country. She said there is also a prep program, made possible by a grant from the Vermont Department of Health, aimed at teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infection prevention (as opposed to intervention) taught through curriculum at Bellows Falls Union High School and a variety of other settings.
"We're very excited about that because we do recognize that there is a high rate of teen pregnancy in the area and we'd like to help young women who are interested in not getting pregnant," she said.
Barry said Bellows Falls, Bennington and areas of Burlington have high rates of teen pregnancy, but the state is rather low in numbers compared to the rest of the nation.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.
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