Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Girls, Their Schools and Their Babies

Written by Susannah Wexler
A January 7th Denver Post article reports that students at East High School in Denver, Colorado asked for maternity leave. Until that point, the district had been working with pregnant students on a case-by-case basis. Among these case-by-case provisions, mothers who missed school after childbirth risked a series of unexcused absences .

A January 7th Denver Post article reports that students at East High School in Denver, Colorado asked for maternity leave. Until that point, the district had been working with pregnant students on a case-by-case basis. Among these case-by-case provisions, mothers who missed school after childbirth risked a series of unexcused absences .

Delivering a 5-10 lb human being seems like torture and not having any time to recover seems even worse. For these reasons, the counselors at East High asked for “mother-friendly” policies and Kayla Lewis, a pregnant high school senior, asked the school board for maternity leave.

This request prompted nation-wide controversy. Immediately after the Denver Post article was published (and the issue garnered attention from national media sources, like, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Fox News), the blogosphere exploded with commentary. While some bloggers, like Vanessa Valenti from Feministing, were congratulatory (“Who said teens need role models when they can be their own?” she wrote on January 11, 2008), some bloggers, and many of their commenters, were not (as a Momania poster notes, “The more you reward a behavior, the more it will happen. By giving recent teenage moms an excused absence, we are ENCOURAGING teenage pregnancy” ).

Like distributing condoms to prostitutes, or needles to heroin addicts, promoting a teenage mother’s health, many believe, will “encourage” “unwanted” behavior. This is ridiculous for many reasons: 1). It assumes that missing a couple weeks of school is a large enough incentive to have a baby. 2). It assumes that teen pregnancy is and should be a moral issue (the thought, I guess, being that, if teen mothers are “punished” for their actions—or face the threat of punishment—they’ll abstain from sex?).

Let’s address the first assumption— that a tiny incentive, like missing a month of school, would encourage a girl to alter her entire life for another human being. Nothing that I have read suggests this (and I have read A LOT on the issue). I also think that most teens know that, if they really want to miss class, there are other ways to do it. Kiss everyone you meet until you get mono or, if you are over 16, drop out.

The second assumption— that, if society makes life even harder for teenage mothers, they will abstain from sex—is ludicrous. Teens are sexual beings. They have hormones; they have desires; and they live in a world where MySpace ads and reality shows throw sexual innuendos at them quicker than they can say, “My boyfriend won’t wear a condom, so where can I find some affordable contraception?”

As an educator, and someone who genuinely cares about young women’s physical and mental well-beings, I honestly don’t know where I stand on this issue. On one hand, I want to give new mothers the opportunity to bond with their children. As MJ Podgurski notes in the article “Supporting the Breastfeeding Teen,” “If the cycle of early parenting is to be broken, is it not imperative that she bond with her child?” If early bonding facilitates guidance—and our society needs well-guided children—why would we stand in its way?

In addition to promoting parent/child bonding, maternity leave also allows mothers to heal physically and emotionally. A 1997 report, “Duration of Maternity Leave Significantly Affects Maternal Health,” suggests that “the typical 6-week-long maternity leave following childbirth may not be long enough to benefit the health of many women.” Even at 7 months post-pardum, 37% of the women studied had three or more cold and flu symptoms and 30% had at least one stiff joint, neck, or back pain . According to Sara Markowitz’s Spring 2005 “Mental Health and Public Policy” research summary, "women with maternity leave were less likely to experience depression than women without maternity leave” . Why would we not want to give young mothers time to heal?

Yet, as I ask these questions, I also know that, when a student misses weeks and weeks of school, she misses valuable material. How can a student succeed in trigonometry when she missed lessons on sine, cosine, and tangent? How can she succeed in college when she missed lessons on how to write an essay? While women’s bodies deserve to heal and women themselves deserve to bond with their children, we can’t leave pregnant mothers behind.

Only 1/3rd of all teenage mothers receive their high school diploma and only 1.5% earn a college degree before they turn 30 . When the employment rate for young dropouts is estimated at 55%, compared to 74% for high-school graduates and 87% for college graduates, the implications are devastating. As Howard Goodman noted in the Toronto Star in 2003, “30 years ago, there were lots of stable well-paying jobs in manufacturing, mining and distribution open to teenagers with little education…Times have changed and there are almost no opportunities in life for children who fail at school.”

Young mothers need to stay in school—for both themselves and their children. However, can a mother learn much when she is depressed, her neck and back are sore, she’s been up all night with a crying baby, and she has a cough she just can’t shake?

Given the realities of a young mother’s physical and mental states, schools need to implement programs that encourage rather than discourage teen parents to stay in school. Perhaps, given everything that young mothers go through, home tutors might be the way to go. As Julie Jacobowitz, MSW, LCSW, and Director of Student Support and Counseling Services at Brooklyn’s The Green School, suggests, “There should be someone who can go out to the homes of these students and do some parenting programs with them. We should be providing them with some kind of alternative instruction so that they do not fall too far behind.” As anyone who has tutored an individual after teaching a class of 30 (and I have many times) knows, students seem to learn better when given 1-on-1 attention. Schools can also provide daycare so a young mother does not have to worry about where to put her baby. We need young mothers to return to school and I imagine that most new parents would be less likely to return to a place that shows little, if any, interest in accommodating them.

While I do not think we should give high school students uninterrupted maternity leave, I applaud Kayla Lewis for her commitment to pro-activity. It is not every day that teens approach authority figures and ask for what they and their children need.


Sources Cited

-Jeremy P. Meyer, “Birth Leave Sought for Girls,” denverpost.com, January 7, 2008, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_7899096
-Jeremy P. Meyer, “Birth Leave Sought for Girls,” denverpost.com, January 7, 2008, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_7899096
-Vanessa Valenti, “High School Students Tackle Sex Ed, Maternity Leave. Next, World Peace?, Feministing, January 11, 2008, http://feministing.com/archives/008387.html
-Jeff, comment in response to Theresa Walsh Giarrusso’s “Maternity Leave for High School Students?”, Momania, January 10, 2008, http://www.ajc.com/health/content/shared -blogs/ajc/parenting/entries/2008/01/10/maternity_leave.html
-MJ Podgurski, “Supporting the Breastfeeding Teen”, Journal of Perinatel Education (J PERINAT EDUC), 1995; 4(2): 11-4 (2 ref), www.cinahl.com/cgi-bin?jid=1338&accno=1997017406
-“Duration of Maternity Leave Significantly Affects Maternal Health”, AHRQ Research Activities (RES ACTIVITIES), 1997; Aug (207): 3-4, www.cinahl.com/cgi-bin/refsvc?jid=1522&accno=1998080338
-Sarah Markowitz, “Mental Health and Public Policy”, NBER Reporter, Spring 2005
-Jeremy P. Meyer, “Birth Leave Sought for Girls,” denverpost.com, January 7, 2008, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_7899096
-Neva Grant, “Helping Dropouts Break the Cycle of Poverty”, NPR, March 26, 2006, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5300726, (accessed April 5, 2008)
-Howard Goodman, “Worth Investing in Smaller Classes”, Toronto Star, September 12, 2003, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nfh&AN=6FP4

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