Bristol Palin, baby bumps and American teen culture

by on September 17, 2008  •  In Culture

 The Observer

How a small US town hailed its teen mums

Elizabeth Day

Mariely Robles is proud of her baby bump. She wears low-slung, pink tracksuit bottoms and a tight T-shirt so that her stomach, stretched smooth with child, protrudes nakedly over her waistband. At the convenience store where she is buying soda with her friend, she rests one hand on her tummy. A small, yappy dog dressed in shorts is slung over her right arm. 'He's called Bambi,' she says, with a sweet smile.

Mariely is 16. Her baby – a girl – is due in little more than a fortnight. 'I am happy about it,' she says in a quiet voice. 'I chose to have a baby.' Why? She looks at me vacantly, a smattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose. 'Because … I guess I want to be a mother.'

It is as good an answer as any you will find in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It is an answer that resounds far beyond this small working seaport, an answer that criss-crosses the length and breadth of a country where teenage pregnancy is worn as a curious badge of honour. In America it seems that young motherhood has become something to be proud of, a status symbol that is preferable to abortion, and an ethical choice that speaks of family values rather than family breakdown. Over recent weeks it has even become something of a vote-winner. When John McCain's vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, revealed that her 17-year-old daughter was expecting her first child it contributed to a 4 per cent Republican lead in the polls….

In a country with a strong evangelical streak, there are a growing number of social conservatives who are, like Palin, fervently anti-abortion. Increasingly teenage motherhood is seen as a responsible social decision rather than the shameful consequence of a regrettable mistake.

According to Dr Mike Males, a sociologist and senior researcher at the Centre on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, young motherhood is now viewed as a viable strategy for women lower down the socio-economic scale rather than as evidence of a dysfunctional society. 'Because poorer groups tend to die younger, having babies early in life may ensure that grandparents and extended family members will be alive and healthy enough to help raise children,' he said. Males cites a 2005 study that found that former teenage mothers who are freed from child-raising duties by their late twenties or early thirties have, by the age of 35, 'earned more in income, paid more in taxes, were substantially less likely to live in poverty and collected less in public assistance than similarly poor women who waited until their twenties to have babies'.

The sub-text is clear: that, far from being victims of deprivation and ignorance, young girls are choosing to become mothers in a society that increasingly celebrates teenage parenthood as the wholesome alternative to abortion. Not everyone agrees. In the days after Palin announced that Bristol was expecting, Democratic bloggers accused her of exploiting her own daughter to further her 'regressive' pro-life policies.

Is Bristol Palin's pregnancy to be applauded, or is it evidence of an uncomfortable cultural shift that has seen a substantial and irreversible erosion of women's rights over the past decade? Mariely Robles might not realise it yet, but her baby bump is fast becoming a political issue.

Gloucester is a faded-round-the edges city of clapboard houses and mosquito screen doors. Perched on the edge of the sea, 45 minutes north of Boston, it is a place used to extremes – the 30,000 inhabitants can remember 20in of snow a few years ago and, last week, the pebbled shoreline was buffeted by heavy downpours. It was here, 17 years ago, that six fishermen were sucked under the sea in a tempest immortalised in the book and film The Perfect Storm.

Back in June, the people of Gloucester found themselves at the centre of a different kind of storm. At Gloucester High School, 18 teenagers, aged 14 to 16, were rumoured to have formed a 'pregnancy pact'. At the time Dr Brian Orr, the director of Gloucester High's independent medical centre, diagnosed 'an epidemic'. In a school of 1,200 students, the centre had administered 150 pregnancy tests between October 2007 and May 2008. Members of staff saw girls high-five each other when the results were positive. Some of them broke into smiles. One of them simply exclaimed: 'Sweet!'

The television crews descended en masse, pitching their cameras outside the red-brick school building and hoping to catch a passing pregnant belly on film. One TV studio paid for a baby shower in return for an exclusive interview with a pregnant teen. There was much discussion about what had gone wrong in Massachusetts, a state that prided itself on having the second-lowest teen pregnancy rate in the country.

Gradually the residents of Gloucester became wary of being the focus of attention. It is a tight-knit and predominantly Catholic community that protects its own. People stopped talking. Doors closed. The girls involved – including Mariely Robles – denied the existence of a pact. Four months later, it is almost impossible to get anyone to speak about it. 'You should leave those poor girls alone,' says one woman as soon as she hears my English accent. 'What happens here is no different from anywhere else in America.'

To an extent, this is true – 750,000 American women aged 15-19 become pregnant every year. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the teen birth rate rose in 2006 for the first time since 1991 to 41.9 births per 1,000 – a 3 per cent increase from 2005.

Teen pregnancy rates remain substantially higher in rural, poorer areas – in 2000 birthrates were highest in Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas and New Mexico. Gloucester, with its impressive rows of porch-fronted houses facing out to sea, does not immediately seem to fit the profile. But it is a city with a split personality: the centre of town, with its craft boutiques and seafood restaurants, gives an impression of easy affluence, yet on the outer fringes there are pockets of noticeable economic deprivation. The once thriving fishing industry has suffered from the disappearance of jobs overseas. There is an endemic heroin problem. Teenagers have little to entertain them apart from a drive-through Dunkin' Donuts and the Cape Ann Lanes bowling alley. Lori Mitchell, whose daughter dropped out of school at 16 to have a baby, says there are worse ways to end up than as a teenage mother: 'They could be junkies or prostitutes.'

Single teenage mothers are supported by government measures offering them subsidised housing and fuel assistance. In a city with few prospects, single motherhood is seen as a way out. Kevin Curley, a ruddy-faced former lobsterman with a strong Boston accent, puts it plainly: 'By getting pregnant, these girls can get a free house from the government. A lot of them saw their mothers grow up that way and a lot of them want to do the same. It beats getting a job.'

But it would be too easy to dismiss Gloucester's teen mothers as welfare parasites and dropouts. The longer you spend here, the more it seems that young motherhood is a way of life. 'Sure, all my friends have children,' says Liz Rabbit, the 21-year-old receptionist at the Soft Touch hair salon. 'I'm used to it. I'm the odd one out for not having kids.'

Of the young mothers I come across, the majority appear responsible, engaged parents and – perhaps because of my own inbuilt prejudice – this is profoundly unexpected. Part of the reason there has been such a build-up of resentment in Gloucester is that the teenagers have been caricatured as trailer-trash no-hopers in a way that Bristol Palin has not been. 'It's been made it into a class war,' says Lily Kennedy, a 44-year-old mother of three. 'These [pregnant] girls are actually good, sweet girls from strong family backgrounds who got confused, but they were treated like rednecks in the press. You don't hear that with Sarah Palin's daughter. Instead the Palins have been praised for staying together as a family.'

Most of the teen mothers in question are either still at high school getting above average grades or have already graduated and are now in part-time employment. When I ask them about women's rights, about whether having babies at such a young age will harm their future life choices, it elicits a look of bafflement. 'This is my life choice,' says one of them, pushing a buggy along the street, with dark circles under her eyes. 'I didn't want an abortion and I'm not stopping anyone else having a career.'

Hardly anyone wants to be quoted or photographed: people here are understandably wary of being made scapegoats or stereotypes. Alycia Verga is an exception. A pretty and articulate 21-year-old, Alycia was born and raised in Gloucester and suffered from bouts of depression from the age of 12. She found out she was pregnant while a student at the high school. It was planned, Alycia says, as a way of giving focus to her life. Two years ago she gave birth to Cadence, a giggly, energetic girl who runs around the garden in sparkly pink trainers getting streaks of dirt on her face as we talk. 'She saved my life,' says Alycia, who is engaged to be married but is no longer with Cadence's father. 'I love my daughter to death, and if it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here.'

Alycia is fed up with strangers assuming she must be a bad mother simply because of her age. 'There are a lot of girls who don't take responsibility for their lives, who want to carry on going to parties when they have children and who rely on welfare. But I'm not one of them. I work part-time as a bus monitor because I need the income and I'm supported by my best friend and parents.'

She was pleased that Bristol Palin's pregnancy had been given positive coverage but is worried that 'the media definitely encourages young girls to have babies without thinking it through. A lot of kids here look up to celebrities and a lot of girls become pregnant because they want comfort and love from somebody else that maybe they aren't getting from home. There are so many young parents in this town it makes it look easy'.

Gloucester High School has a free daycare programme for the children of students, a service that is so oversubscribed that there is now a waiting list. But while federal funding is still available for daycare centres, sex education budgets have been drastically slashed over the past eight years because of the Bush administration's policy of funding abstinence-only programmes.

There is now only one sex education co-ordinator in Massachusetts covering 360 districts and Gloucester's local health authorities do not allow the school clinic to hand out contraception without parental consent. It does not take a giant leap of logic to work out why, in a 2007 student health survey, 41 per cent of senior students here admitted they had sex without a condom.

The cultural impact of these political decisions has made itself felt in myriad ways. At Gloucester High, the pupils are offered optional child study classes, but the issue of abortion is barely touched on. Only one of the original 18 pregnant teenagers opted for a termination. 'It's like a dirty word,' says Jacob Smith, 17. 'I am pro-abortion, but I try not to talk about it because it gets me into arguments with my friends. People get kind of angry. A couple of the girls at school just talk about having a baby all the time. They want to get knocked up and have children because they see everyone else doing it and they think it's cute.'

Patricia Quinn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, agrees that it is a constant battle to ensure that teens get access to information about sex from teachers and parents. 'We have to support our teenagers and allow them to make informed decisions. The Palin story highlights the fact that, despite her parents' best efforts to convey their values, in the end it is young people who decide what to do. We look at teens needing three things: the first is comprehensive sex education, the second is access to contraception, and the third is a perception of opportunity.'

Arguably none of these is available either in Gloucester or in Wasilla, Alaska, where Bristol Palin grew up.

According to Mike Males, the Palin pregnancy has highlighted the broader cultural attack on women's rights from both ends of the political spectrum. On the one hand, it has been used by liberals to emphasise the need for sex education, birth control and a woman's right to choose. On the other hand, said Males, the issue of teen pregnancy has also been exploited by rightwingers: 'There's a deliberate demonisation of teenagers in order to impose restrictions on behaviour they deem unacceptable. In that way the Republicans can promote their own socially conservative agenda.'

The anti-abortion movement has made substantial inroads into the political landscape over the past decade. Pharmacists in several US states are now legally allowed to take a stand of 'conscientious refusal' in order to deny birth control, and most states now only allow abortion up to 13 weeks. The situation is exacerbated by the hardline religious groups that have made abortion into an almost apocalyptic issue. 'Women's rights are under fire,' said Males. 'The Palin pregnancy is a symbol of a society that is very uncohesive and becoming more so.'

But in Gloucester the issue of teen pregnancy has, if anything, drawn this community closer together. People here are deeply protective of the adolescent girls who unwittingly found themselves the focus of international attention. Yes, they might have been misguided, they might have been foolish, and some of the pregnancies were unplanned, but perhaps they are no different from the thousands of other pregnant adolescents across America.

The Gloucester teenagers will become parents over the next few months but they will also become a set of statistics; a series of anonymous percentage points to be bandied about by political factions in years to come. She might not know it yet, but Bristol Palin could end up having a far more lasting impact on her country's future than her mother ever will.


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