Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Adults Could be Learning from '16 and Pregnant' too

This week’s “16 & Pregnant” featured Emily, an Alabama 11th grader, and her shaggy haired boyfriend Daniel.  There were no mean text messages or screaming fights with parents this week. Instead, the hurdles Emily face were more subtle, and raise questions about how families, schools and doctors can help prevent teen pregnancy and help teen moms.

While the episode lacked some of its usual drama, her pregnancy isn't depicted as easy. Emily’s mom kicked her out after finding out she was pregnant, and her dad and stepmom reluctantly let her move in with them. Later, she is forced to enroll in homeschooling after her school tells her they aren’t going to give her more than 10 days of absences after the baby is born. When Daniel doesn’t come to visit very often, Emily says she is feeling resentful but doesn't blow up or demand he take more days off work.

Tthrough all of this, the range of emotion is pretty narrow, varying from slightly uncomfortable to slightly upset to slightly nervous. The most touching scenes are of Emily and Daniel crying after baby Liam is born, and her gruff dad crying the first time he gets to hold his new grandson.

The subdued storyline this week gave me a chance to notice just how young this couple seemed. When Daniel tells the nurse that he is nervous about “everything,” he looks more like he should be skateboarding in the hospital parking lot rather than sitting in a delivery room.

Like last week, the episode left a lot of room for discussion about teen pregnancy. During the after show, Emily says she got pregnant while on birth control pills because another drug interacted with their efficacy. She was too afraid to tell her mom about the birth control, so she didn’t ask the doctor about the new medicine. So, why didn’t the doctor offer a warning with the prescription anyway? If Emily had sex ed, was this ever mentioned as a possibility?

Emily’s school only offers 10-days off excused absences for new moms although her doctor recommended a month of rest after the birth. Teen pregnancy rates in Alabama are slightly greater than the national average at 73 per 1,000 (although lower than in S.C.), so why doesn’t the school have a way for new moms to keep attending school? If teen parenthood has been proven to be the number one reason teen girls drop out of school, then why aren’t there measures in place to help give new moms the best chance of success?

During the show and after show, Emily emphasizes how much Daniel and her dad want the couple to get married soon, but she seems only vaguely interested. While it makes sense that she wants to make her father happy (She is still a teen, remember?), it seems like marriage might not solve all the commitment issues or problems that come with being new teen parents. I’m sure the alternative, being a young single mother, is daunting, but is teen marriage the answer? According to the National Campaign, a third of marriages that begin before the bride is 18 end in divorce within the first five years, and nearly half end in ten years. Maybe there is no clear track that would give Emily, Daniel and Liam the best chance at success.

There has been a lot of discussion about using this show as an education tool for teens, but I think this show could reveal a lot to parents, educators and policy-makers about the consequences of having gaps in education and services to prevent teen pregnancy and support teen parents. Hopefully, they are watching too.

By Elizabeth Benfield, graduate assistant at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, MPH student at the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health
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