Mamas Day 2015: Lifting Up Young Mamas

Friday, May 01, 2015

On this 5th anniversary of Strong Families’ annual Mamas Day Campaign, we are reflecting on this innovative campaign’s origins—young mamas asserting their worth and that they are deserving of respect and support as all mamas are. Over the past few weeks, Echoing Ida writers Gloria Malone, Yamani Hernandez, and Elizabeth Dawes Gay brilliantly articulate the importance of recognizing young mamas  and valuing them by  pulling them from the margins to the center of our concept of motherhood. Our culture recognizes motherhood in very few of its forms, but Malone and Hernandez make it clear: teen mothers are mothers still, and they deserve our respect.

For Seleni, Malone exposes the gulf between the needs and realities of pregnant and parenting teens. Her own pregnancy at 15 introduced Malone to the shame and isolation young mothers face.   

More than ever in my life, I needed emotional support. What I got was the complete opposite. Everyone seemed focused on making me feel that I had singlehandedly ruined not only my life but also the impending life of my unborn child. Society seems to think that pregnant and parenting teens must be punished and used for political prevention campaigns instead of being supported and treated as the full human beings we are. I felt alone, disrespected, and depressed with no understanding that my mental health was important. I didn’t think I had any issues that needed to be addressed. That could not have been further from the truth.

For Ebony, Hernandez shifts the conversation around teen pregnancy from individuals to systems. She unreservedly calls out schools for pushing out young mothers despite their Title IX protections and points out the impossible position in which most students find themselves.

The societal messages about sex and pregnancy are at best confusing and at worst unjust.  Youth are completely inundated with sexualized images to sell nearly every product. However, the prevailing message about sex is “Just don’t do it.” With only 22 states with mandated Sex Education, we send the message that youth are not worth teaching about anatomy, contraception, reproduction, gender identity, healthy relationships and more.  However when young people become pregnant whether by accident, abuse or intention, we fall short of acknowledging the ways that we are systematically failing them and refuse to treat them as equal human beings.
 More than half the school districts in the country are unwilling to teach youth about contraception to prevent pregnancy or about pregnancy options. When youth become pregnant, despite Title IX recommendations, we fail to support their pregnancies, and if they choose to not carry a pregnancy to term, we place barriers to accessing abortion in 38 out of 50 states. If anyone is “guilty,” it’s the adults who are tasked with caring and stewarding the development of youth into adulthood.  Until we have systemically and societally done our part to adequately address the reproductive health-care needs of youth, we have no right to judge them or push them out of school for their choices or circumstances.

Young people agree: their reproductive health needs should be addressed. For RH Reality Check, Echoing Ida writer Elizabeth Dawes Gay unpacks a new survey that shows millennials are starved for accurate, comprehensive sex education.

Seventy-five percent of millennials surveyed support comprehensive sex education in public schools. They want accurate information about their bodies, about sex and relationships, and about how to protect their health. That’s a big deal because one in four of those surveyed were not taught any sex education, and, among those who were, four in ten said their sex ed classes were not helpful to them in making sex and relationship decisions.

Additionally, “According to the report, millennials want access to contraception even more than they want comprehensive sex education taught in public schools.”

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But while we struggle to put these comprehensive sex education policies in place and educate students on their Title IX rights, how do we shift our culture to one that supports parenting teens? Art has the power to move people, which is one reason we started Mamas Day. In addition, a recent article by Malone for SheKnows, she interviews Jendella, a photographer dedicated to humanizing young mothers by capturing their stories.

These young mothers were going to school, taking care of their children, working and carrying on with life like most parents do, however, one thing that was different was the amount of shame and stigma they faced solely because they had their children in their teenage years. Jendella felt a need to share the stories of her friends to counter the negative and stereotypical views of young parenthood and thus Young Motherhood was born. Young Motherhood is a social documentary project that addresses the myths, harmful stereotypes and unhelpful, yet common, misconceptions that surround young mothers and their children in the UK.

Whether it’s creating powerful art or using our words to recognize young mamas, with artists and writers like Jendella, Malone, Gay, and Hernandez sharing stories and spreading awareness, our culture can shift away from the stigma, and our policies will follow. We can’t keep them waiting any longer—young mothers, in all their courage and resilience, deserve our support, not our shame.

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