Amy Benfer is a freelance writer and former teen mom, whose writing has appeared on Salon, MotherJones, and Legal Affairs, among others. You can read her thoughts on The Gilmore Girls, Teen Mom, Bristol Palin, and much more. Amy took the time to respond to questions from blogger Joelle about her own experiences and her thoughts on education, writing, and graduating from the “teen mom” club.
How did you feel when you first knew you were pregnant at 16? What went through your mind? How did you tell your parents and how did they react?
I got pregnant within the first three months of having sex. I was shocked. I knew everything about birth control — my mother, probably worried that the public schools may not have been doing enough — took me to mother-daughter sex ed classes at ten or eleven. When I started having sex, I was scrupulous about using condoms, but hadn’t yet switched to the pill. I knew it was slightly less effective than the pill, but not by much, so I figured I was safe for a few months. Then a condom broke. It was the day after Halloween. We both knew. But it was the only time. What were the chances of one accident becoming a pregnancy? But that was it. I finally took the test two months later. It was just before winter vacation. I waited until the day after Christmas to tell my mother, but by then, she knew something was wrong. It was so absurd: She knew I knew about birth control. At the time she was volunteering at a place that helped pregnant and parenting teenagers. She took me to counseling at the center right away. I spent another month or so going from counselor to counselor trying to decide between abortion and adoption. It never even occurred to me at the time that I might end up keeping my child. Soon after I decided to continue the pregnancy, I started meeting with the couple who I thought would be my daughter’s parents. The woman in the couple was the very first counselor I had met with: She was the director of the center where my mother worked, a counselor for pregnant and parenting teenagers, and, as it turned out, was having difficulty conceiving children of her own. The Salon essay describes what happened next.
Your station wagon story always makes me cry when I read it! Your family sound really close and you clearly appreciate your parents’ support. How do you think your daughter’s upbringing has been different to other children (of older parents)? What were the advantages/disadvantages of this?
Well, my own parents were a stable, two-parent, middle-class family with a professional father and a stay-at-home mother, and they somehow ended up with me — a pregnant teenager. I do think that my daughter has been lucky to have an incredibly wide range of experiences: She has spent most her childhood summers in the suburbs, in the house I grew up in; she has lived in tiny apartments in big cities; she’s been in big city public schools, suburban high schools, college campuses; she has knows people with fancy educations and people who barely made it through high school; she knows a lot about what is possible to do and she also knows an awful lot about what happens when things don’t go well. She definitely has a wider view of the world than I did at her age. But I’m also sure that my childhood was more stable, which may have made me bolder — or more reckless — in that I hadn’t quite figured out all the ways things can go wrong.
There is an assumption that children do better with two parents, which ignores the difficulties of having an ‘unsuitable parent figure’, and I can relate to a lot of the concerns you had about your ex! Did you ever feel these concerns weren’t taken seriously? What do you think would have made managing this relationship easier for you and what advice would you give to other young mums in similar situations?
No one, of any age or gender, should feel pressured into marriage. Children do well in two parent families in which the parents have voluntarily chosen to be together and raise children together, not families in which the partners have been shamed or coerced into being together to fulfill some random expectations based on averages. I have always hated the phrase “broken” family — especially considering that I’ve seen an awful lot of families that seem “broken” by being stuck in unhappy marriages — but I do think there should be more recognition that never-married parents can make a family every bit as “whole” as a two-parent family. Romanticizing the two-parent family, especially for young parents who never planned to raise a family together in the first place, has always seemed particularly dangerous to me. If you are going to be a single parent soon enough anyway, everyone is better off if you have as much as you can already in place: education if you are doing it, a job, a place you can afford on one income.
That said, there’s no getting around that every child has two parents and absolutely anything you can do to have a good co-parenting relationship with your child’s other parent makes every one’s lives so much easier. It’s a huge relief as a single parent to have another person whom you can trust to provide emotional and financial support and someone with whom you can entrust your child so you can get private time. But I know it can be hellish getting there. What advice would I give? Well, work out a parenting plan as early, and in as much detail as possible. If at all possible, do so with a third party — a trained mediator, counselor, anyone who will help keep things calm and neutral. You do not want to be “working things out” by screaming at each other at pick-up time in front of the child or over midnight cell phone calls (though many of us have been there). Put in everything you possibly can: discipline, hours, safety, where the child is allowed to stay, who he or she is allowed to see. And decide beforehand what will happen if any of these terms are violated. You definitely don’t want to be deciding in the moment. As hard as it can be, if at all possible, it helps if your child sees the other parent early and often. If you are very different people — something I completely understand — it probably helps to sort out in your mind the kind of differences that may be infuriating, but are basically differences of opinion, and those that are actually dangerous. You can probably suffer in silence through differences of politics, religion, and weird clothing choices and trust your child to sort if all out for his or herself, but if it’s an issue of physical safety, you should have a clearly enforceable agreement on hand that outlines what is and is not OK and the consequences.
What is it like being a young mum to a teenager? Do you think being ‘younger’ makes a difference as you and your child get older?
When my daughter was little, everyone used to tell me: “Just wait till she’s a teenager! You two will be just like sisters!” (Well, that and the guy I quoted in an early story for Salon, who told me that when she was 18 and I was 32, we’d be hot.) While I love my daughter dearly, I think she would be among the first people to agree that when she was a teenager, we weren’t remotely like sisters (though, as promised, strangers meeting for the first time used to always mistake us for sisters, which isn’t as flattering as they make it seem in all those books).
You are now a successful and brilliant writer! How has being a young mum shaped/impacted on your career?
Well, clearly it has given me something to write about! Actually, to be fair, I spent the early years of my writing career very consciously trying to write about anything but being a young mother. I really wanted to prove that I was a writer first, not someone who happened to write because she had an unusual story to tell (not that being a young parent is actually all that unusual). Each year, however, I always wonder if the time has come to write the long version of the story.
I’ve always been adamant that being a young mum wouldn’t hold me back — and, rightly or wrongly — I’ve been desperate to keep ‘on track’ with where I think I would have been had I not been a teen mum. I read that you felt like this too! What impact do you think this had on your life and where do you really think you would be now if you hadn’t given birth at 16? (If that’s at all all possible to answer!)
When people used to ask me, I would sometimes say, “Well, I didn’t get to be a junkie after all.” Not that I ever felt in danger of having some hideous drug problem, I just wasn’t sure what they were asking. When I was feeling less punchy, I would say, truthfully, that I probably would have travelled more. But it’s almost impossible to know. I don’t think the bare facts — the college, cities and career I chose — would have changed that much. But if anything, I think having a child makes one much, much more focused and determined. You have the incentive to do more for your child, and you simply don’t have nearly as much room to screw up. I have been interested in doing a piece looking at whether being a young parent might make certain women even more determined to do things — finish school, get a job, etc. I strongly suspect that in many cases, it does.
Do you/did you ever try to ‘hide’ that you were a ‘teen mum’ or do you divulge this information proudly? Do you feel that people still make assumptions about you when they ‘find out’? Do you have any good ‘come back’ lines I can borrow?
I try to work the teenage mother thing into conversation as quickly as possible. I have found, over many years experience, that it’s best to own the narrative and present it myself right away. In twenty-one years, I have never had an overtly negative reaction when I have done so. I do have to admit, however, that I catch myself over and over saying, “I had a kid at 16…” and following it right up with “and I went to college with her at 18.” In other words, I definitely use my education as a shield when I feel someone may judge me or my daughter. I mean, I am proud that I did this and all, but it has occurred to me, many times, that this is also can be seen as playing into the prejudice that I am not like those other kind of teenage mothers. I have had people say as much to me, many times, and whenever they do, I try to correct that too. It pisses me off.
I also almost always mention being a parent in cover letters, and definitely in job interviews. I certainly don’t know if this is good advice for everyone — in fact, I can think of plenty of cases when your parental status isn’t any one’s business — but since I am a writer, and first-person essays are part of my job description, it is the only thing that makes sense for me.
I have only broken this rule once. I keep meaning to make the subject of an essay, but have never really gotten around to it. Sometime in my early thirties, I took a job as an entertainment writer at a newspaper and decided just not to mention being a parent to my co-workers (the people who hired me knew, because I had negotiated fiercely for salary and health insurance). I didn’t hide it at all — there was plenty out there, with my byline all over it, for anyone who cared to Google — I just didn’t bring it up myself. At the time, I had spent more than fifteen years with my young parenthood being known as the primary part of my identity and I was just curious to see what would happen if someone didn’t know. Maybe I was starting to wonder who that person who was me and not a teenage mother might have looked like (As previously stated, I never had anyone overtly say something negative, but I was just as sick of people saying, “I could never do that. You must have been so strong.” In some ways being noble, strong, etc. started to feel like just as much of a trap). Well, not much as it turns out. I can’t say that I noticed any difference in how they treated me up front, which I suppose is good to know. I did have one awkward moment when a co-worker joked to me about teen parents, assuming that a well-educated co-worker like me wouldn’t possibly know any and certainly wouldn’t be one. But not surprisingly, I never felt as close to those people. Eventually people did find out — as I said, I wasn’t trying to hide it — and it just confirmed everything I’ve ever felt about the importance of telling your story up front, on your own terms, and right away: The people who liked me assumed we must not be as close as they had thought if I had failed to mention something so important; the ones who didn’t like me were loaded with ammunition to gossip about me behind my back, and did so freely.
Overall, what kind of support do you think is most beneficial to young parents and when do you think they need it most?
My overwhelming prejudice is to strongly support young parents in their education. To finish their education, young parents need money: They need tuition, they need day care, they need a safe place to live. Full-time student-parents — both mothers and fathers — absolutely should have access to all the resources they need to do this well. Not all parents will want to attend a full-time, four-year college, but they should still have access to the education and training they need to enter a job that will provide their families with a decent standard of living.
It is absolutely crucial that teen parents are not treated as if they are broken, damaged, or ruined as parents, as women, as students, or as people. So many cultures, both conservative and liberal, hold up pregnancy as the absolute worst thing that can happen to a young, unmarried woman. They justify and reinforce prejudices against teen parents as part of the greater goal of discouraging teens in general to have sex. But it is intolerably cruel to punish actual parents and their actual children, ostensibly for the greater good of discouraging other teens from continuing in their paths. Teen parents are parents, first, with nearly two decades of hands-on child-rearing in front of them. They deserve their best chance to do right by themselves and their children, without the burden of having to serve as a cautionary tale for teenagers who are not in their position.
What do you think about the way young parents/teenage pregnancy is represented on TV?
The years my daughter was young happily, I suppose, corresponded to the same years that teen pregnancy was in steep decline, and thus people were a little less panicked about it all. The only two shows that I remember treating teen pregnancy in those years were 90210 — in which Andrea, the “smart girl” gets knocked up and eventually goes to Yale with her daughter — and Gilmore Girls. You can also see my opinion of “Riding in Cars With Boys,” the movie version of the memoir by Beverly D’Onofrio — who went to my school with a kid in the seventies.
I have a fraught relationship with any depictions of teen pregnancy: I am both compelled to watch it, and then, once I do, compelled to comment on it endlessly, then comment on other people’s comments and their comments on my comments (and if you have ever dipped in Salon’s comment logs, you know how dangerous those waters are). I have a Google alert for “teen pregnancy” but most days, I can hardly bear to open it, and I have been known to put off watching Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant for whole seasons, right up until my editor e-mails me to write something on it, and I have to mainline the whole thing in a marathon session. I’ve written two pieces on 16 and Pregnant (btw, the executive producer, Dia Sokol, actually went to my college at the same time I was there).
And finally: do you still feel like like a ‘young mum’? Or do you ever get to a point where you actually just feel like a grown up? (This question is just for my own reference!)
Well, I am now the 37-year-old mother of a 21-year-old, so one would assume I would feel like a grown-up. But I still describe myself as a “former teenage mother, ” as if I am an alumni of a special club. Having a child as young as I did was by far the most dramatic thing that ever happened to me, and it permanently shaped my personality and the way I think about my life.
Strangely, people’s reactions to finding out I have a child only get more dramatic the older we both get (though clearly, the parenting part is much less hands-on). I’m not sure how to explain it. Maybe we looked further apart in age when she was clearly a small child and I was clearly an adult woman, however young? Maybe it’s just that people in their twenties and thirties mix more often than, say, people in their twenties do with elementary school children? I still plenty of friends and co-workers in their twenties, and as my daughter enters her twenties, my younger friends and her older friends are getting closer and closer in age.
Before I got pregnant, even as a teenager, I really did think I’d wait until my mid-thirties to have children. But now I live in Park Slope (OK, technically I live in the cheaper, with lower rents, fewer trees and more freeways now known as Gowanus) , Brooklyn, New York, which often feels like not only the parenting capital of the New York, but the older parent capital of New York. Of my friends who have had kids, Alice, my best friend and the one we often refer to as Sydney’s “other father” just had her first child last year, at 36. Of my other friends who have had children, almost all of them have been over 35, and most have been 38 or even 40. It’s weird. Really, really weird. My daughter moved out of our house less than a year ago, and she did so at the moment that many of my friends just started having babies. It is a bizarre juxtaposition to have a grown child at the time when everyone around me is just starting out. It makes me wonder what the next two decades of my life will look like: Will my friends and I actually trade places? Will I really be the childless woman tearing around while they are at home with small children? My professors and other older women used to tell me this might happen. I never quite believed them. But now it seems entirely possible that it might.