Bastardizing Bristol

The teen mother has been parading around her infant as a cautionary tale. But is raising a kid as a young parent always an illegitimate choice?

By Amy Benfer

Published May 7, 2009 7:16PM (EDT)

Yesterday, you may have heard, was National Teen Pregnancy Awareness Day, which a company that usually sells strappy sandals celebrated by asking a young mother to get on the round of morning talk shows and host a town hall meeting to tell millions of viewers that while she loved her infant son dearly, it would probably be best for all concerned if it he didn’t exist (well, OK, let’s add the condtional "yet”).

"He’s not a mistake, he’s a blessing," Bristol Palin told the "Today Show." Not surprisingly, this led to contradictory headlines like, say, this one from Gawker: “Bristol Floods Morning TV to Tell Kids How Terrible Her Blessing Is.” Yes, it makes her sound like a hypocrite. And yes, I think it’s absurd to hear a young mother who once said she found abstinence “unrealistic” preaching abstinence to her peers, and I’m guessing a certain politician in her family might have something to do with all that. 

But here’s the thing that really gets me: Why is it expected that she denounce her "choice," which now happens to be embodied in the form of an actual child who will depend on her for the better part of the next two decades? What the hell does it mean to parade around already pregnant and parenting young women as cautionary tales of why other girls shouldn’t even think about having sex in the first place? Doesn’t it come down to protecting the virginity (for social conservatives) or the "future" (education, career to progressives) of some girls at the expense of hoping for the worst for other women’s actual, living children? 

Those of us who are pretty liberal about sex, sex-ed and access to birth control might beg off by saying the moral of the story is not that we all should remain virgins until we score the degree, the mortgage and the two-car garage, but that until then, we should all use three kinds of birth control (a condom, some foam and the most accurate form of hormonal birth control should do it) each and every time we have sex. 

Since Bristol has been (understandably, perhaps) reluctant to discuss her preferred form of contraception in front of a national audience, we’ve all felt pretty comfortable making jokes about those crazy modern things called condoms that those hillbilly, pick-up driving kids don’t know about up there in the wilds of Alaska -- but judging from Levi’s comments on CBS yesterday, he and Bristol were as familiar with those little pieces of latex as any American teenager, they just didn’t happen to use them, you know, all the time (or as part of the aforementioned contraceptive triage certainly used by each and every person who has snickered at their obvious stupidity). So what, then?

Look, I’m as creeped out by her mother’s politics as anyone, but are those of us who call ourselves pro-choice really comfortable in saying that choosing to raise one’s own child is always an illegitimate choice? Lest you think I am exaggerating by invoking old-fashioned slurs for "bastard" children, let me draw your attention to this piece in today’s Washington Post , which uses Bristol as a jumping off point to argue for a return of that very term. 

Writer David Waters asks: "Why aren’t Catholic bishops withholding Communion from illegitimate parents? ... Why aren’t progressive Christian leaders pushing for more social programs to help children conceived out of wedlock? Why aren’t Mormon leaders opposing polygamous relationships (which are common) rather than polygamy (which is not). Why isn’t any community adamant against illegitimacy?"  

Invoking all the usual teen parenting stats -- high poverty rates, low graduation and marriage rates, etc. -- Waters suggests that we are all suffering because we haven't shamed parents enough. (As if we didn’t try that for the last few hundred years, from the whole scarlet letter thing on up through sending women to the proverbial aunt, knocking them out for delivery and telling them their babies would really be better off without them). He approvingly quotes John Witte, the author of “The Sins of the Fathers: The Law and Theology of Illegitimacy Reconsidered” (gotta add that one to my book shelf), who says, "There are no illegitimate children. Only illegitimate parents." And nothing empowers those parents to take care of their children like being presumed illegitimate from day one!

Wow, I really wish I had spoken to Mr. Witte before, say, my daughter’s junior high years, when the entire PTA of our public magnet school was run by a bunch of “illegitimate” single mothers from Brooklyn. Or in my college study group of four single mothers. Or in my parenting education classes way back in high school, where I would have discovered that, rather than try to figure out the best way to raise my child, I should just give up and admit my illegitimacy already. As some of you Broadsheet readers probably know, perhaps all too well, I take all this pretty personally, having raised a kid myself from the time I was 16 (this summer she’ll turn 20; I’ll be 36; you want some details, you may as well start here or here or here).

Like Bristol, I was often accused of being a bad role model for other teen mothers, because in the end, my life didn’t seem to suck enough. But while I absolutely agree that most teen parents don’t end up, say, getting the option to make some cash by making guest appearances in the tabloids or the "Today Show," I also get pretty enraged that just about every story about a teen mother ends up having to turn into a moral fable to prevent other girls from getting knocked up in the first place. Those who have a hard time staying in school, staying married, or end up working crappy jobs or on welfare just confirm the stereotype that young, unwed parents are “illegitimate” and continue to justify the prejudices we have against other young parents (even if some of them end up being caring parents who raise damn good kids). Those who get help from their families, finish school, or in some other way achieve, for themselves or their children, goals that vaguely resemble those of other "legitimate" middle and upper middle-class parents are accused of "glamorizing" teen pregnancy -- whatever the hell that means -- and are therefore bad role models for other young parents who couldn’t possible claim the same goals or demand the same respect for themselves and their children.

Between you and me, Bristol Palin isn’t my favorite celebrity teen mother role model (that honor belongs to the woman who raised our current president). But I’m so over watching journalists playing these gotcha politics, as if the most important goal of any interview is to trick her into saying any sentence that could be construed as contradicting her mother’s positions on "abstinence" and "choice." Who cares? The child is here. If we’re going to bother to speak with Bristol and Levi at all, why not ask them when they plan to finish their education, how they plan to balance classes and child care, or earn a living without a college degree? (Todd Palin, for one, seemed to do just fine without his degree.)

I never really cared much whether they married one another, but those who still deem them worthy of coverage could perhaps spend less time talking about the sanctity of marriage and shot-gun weddings, and more about the ways one co-parents a child, regardless of marital status.I’m all for preventing teen pregnancy, despite having not prevented my own. But I also care deeply, personally, and fiercely about the actual young parents who are right now raising actual children.

It’s a fantasy, I know, but there are days I wish we could have a National Help Young Parents Write a College Application Essay and Apply for Student Loans Day or Help Young Parents Get Good Mediation Services Day or Ten Jobs You Can Do Without a College Degree Day, and maybe, you know, keep that separate from Telling Teens Not to Have Sex or They Will Irrevocably Ruin Their Lives and Those of the Next Generation Day. Do you see the difference? The vast majority of teenagers will never become teenage parents. Don’t the tiny percentage of the ones who do deserve more than simply being dismissed as symptoms of failure and symbols of what every other young person should strive not to be?

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

MORE FROM Amy Benfer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bristol Palin Broadsheet