Back in the fall of 1995, I spent a week in the world of Ariel Gore, interviewing her for a magazine. Gore was best known then for being a welfare mom who opted to stay on welfare after procuring a bachelor’s degree in order to pursue her master’s degree. One of her college projects was the ‘zine HipMama, which she funded with a college loan.
The wretched radical right seized on Gore as the girl Satan, the personification of much that is wrong with the world today, a system-sucking slacker working the government over. She even debated Newt Gingrich on MTV. These days, long after Newt is gone, Gore remains, writing and editing books about parenting and continuing to give marginalized families a place to be heard in HipMama which is now online in addition to remaining in print.
Gore offered much philosophy in our time together. One particular nugget that jumped at me then and remains with me today is the notion that the only thing "wrong" with being a teen mother is that the cards are stacked against you financially. Otherwise she saw nothing wrong with the idea.
When she first told me this, in my mind if not out loud, I protested. I didn’t want to bash Gore—who had her daughter Maya when she was nineteen. But I was a single mother too and, having given birth at the ripe old age of 26, still found myself struggling despite a seven year jump on Gore. Why would anyone advocate teen parenthood?
In the seven years since that meeting, now Gore’s theory makes perfect sense to me. I’m about to turn forty, my kid is twelve, and while I know one should never say never, let me put it like this: the mere idea of having another kid at this age is enough to make me collapse with exhaustion. The reality would probably take thirty years off my life.
But having kids in the late thirties and beyond is what a whole lot of folks are doing. Or at least they’re trying to. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that "the trend in delayed childbirth is universal." And while over half of the births in the U.S. are to women in their twenties, the number of women giving birth in their late thirties and forties has taken a huge leap statistically. Anecdotally, with the media loving to focus the camera on older glam moms like Geena Davis, Julianne Moore, Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker (to name but a few), you’d think that well over fifty percent of new moms are pushing fifty.
Why did so many women wait to have kids (or try)? The answers vary but fall within some pretty obvious parameters. Since the seventies, opportunities for women to seek higher education, power careers, and not just automatically settle for (and stay with) some loser husband have contributed to delayed motherhood. Many wait for a career plateau, the "perfect" partner (or, in lieu of that, sperm donor), or a chance to acquire the "right" accoutrements—house, expensive equipment, Volvo.
Possibly worse than this postponing of procreation (and necessitating, for many, the use of expensive and painful fertility treatments), is the glut of books and articles that describe, dissect and ironically backlash the whole older-mother trend. Too often, it comes down to either, "Gosh look at me! I had a baby at 45!" or, to those having trouble conceiving, "See, we told you you should’ve had babies instead of a career."
I don’t ever want to be on the side that condones—nay, insists—that women should put motherhood before careerdom. Each woman truly should choose whatever plan works best for her. That said, when I am (drag) king of the world, here is a plan, which I shall call The Gore Method, and which shall be offered to all interested teen girls:
Those interested teenage girls will not be condemned should they get knocked-up prior to their twentieth birthdays. Instead, they will be provided with health insurance for themselves and their babies. They will be given childcare vouchers for a few hours per day. They will also receive a decent monthly stipend.
However, the minute they get married or live with the father of these babies, they get booted from this program. Likewise, if they try to get a job. I want them to focus 100% on their babies and themselves.
Here’s my multi-part reasoning:
First, having children when you’re young and stupid and full of energy and hope and naiveté is a wonderful thing to do. You aren’t overeducated to the point you’re wondering how to coach your kid so she’ll pass the Wee Li'l Snotty Ones private kindergarten entrance interview. You probably still enjoy playing in the dirt at the park. There’s little risk you’ll be able to afford to pawn your kid off on a nanny which just sets the child up for a lifetime of abandonment issues anyway.
Second, from an biological standpoint—and I swear my sixth grade teacher told me this about twenty-five years ago though she’d probably get fired for telling students this today—a woman’s body is perfect for childbearing at the age of eighteen. You’re young and limber and ripe. It’s not a coincidence that the fertility rate drops exponentially the older you get (to 5% chance of getting pregnant in any given month past the age of 40—which is 45% less of a chance than in your twenties). And aesthetically, let me tell you, it’s far easier to get rid of that baby fat when you’re a young mother than if you wait until your metabolism has slowed down.
Third, the way I figure it is, if these girls seeking love and approval outside of themselves—as many teenagers (and the rest of us) do— would forgo seeking it in the arms of pubescent boys and focus on new babies they’d get so much more in the pay-off department. Not only would the love be reciprocated, life motivation would move away from "Which belly shirt should I wear to please him?" to "As soon as this kid is in school, I’m going to college." (In my plan, similar to the G.I. bill, once your kid is in school, you get free college classes).
Older parents rationalize that their kids have better opportunities, more financial stability, more patient parents. I’m not knocking older parents. I’m just saying, hey, let’s start a trend now where we stop stigmatizing teen motherhood. Because it’s not teen mothers, per se, that are a problem. A lot of them know perfectly well how to take care of kids. Who do you call to babysit? You call a teenage girl, right?
In fact, I knew a hell of a lot more about taking care of kids when I was nineteen than how to make choices like what I wanted to be when I grew up or how to not put up with mounds of shit from really bad boyfriends. I didn’t even begin to get motivated toward self-improvement until I had a kid. I understood the importance of taking care of him far more quickly than taking care of myself.
So here’s to more, not less,
young motherhood. To getting an early jump on the greatest joy in our
lives, to realizing that sometimes, being young and foolish and
unemployed and uninsured and unmarried might actually be life’s perfect
moment to have a baby.