I actually was 16 and pregnant

And while TV often bungles what it's like to be a teen mother, MTV's reality series got it (mostly, movingly) right

Published July 23, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Catelynn on "16 and Pregnant."
Catelynn on "16 and Pregnant."

Last week's season finale of the MTV reality show "16 & Pregnant" had my daughter and me sobbing together in under 10 minutes. The episode follows Catelynn and Tyler, two teenagers who decide, against the wishes of their parents, to release their daughter for adoption. The next day, a 30-second recap of the episode started us off again.

"Oh my God," said my daughter, Sydney, nearly 20. "When Catelynn says, 'I'm going to the hospital and leaving with nothing ...'"

"I know!" I said. "And when they are standing in the parking lot and the baby is gone and Tyler looks down and he's still holding the blanket!"

And there we were, reaching for the Kleenex again.

We weren't sure what to expect when we first heard that MTV -- the network that arguably started the reality TV craze with "The Real World" nearly a generation ago, the channel known for launching the second careers of Bret Michaels and Flava Flav -- was planning a documentary-style series on pregnant and parenting teenagers. But we knew one thing: We were going to watch every single episode.

My daughter and I consider ourselves experts on the teen parent in pop culture for the simple fact that, in 1989, I became one. Back in the '90s and into the early part of this century, when teen pregnancy rates were steadily declining (between 1991 and 2005, the rate dropped by a third), studios were perhaps a bit more open to portraying teen mothers as something other than an unmitigated tragedy: There was "90210," in which the pregnant character, Andrea, ends up at Yale; the utterly charming, character-driven "Gilmore Girls," in which the daughter, strangely enough, also ends up at Yale; and the weirdly revisionist version of "Riding in Cars With Boys," in which the character played by Drew Barrymore does not end up going to college at all, unlike Beverly Donofrio, the former Village Voice writer whose memoir is the source for the film.

But lately, my daughter and I have had a hard time finding enough space on the TiVo to keep up: A couple of high-profile celebrity teen births, coupled with a slight (but still depressing) uptick in teen birth rates have led to an all-out cultural obsession with teen and/or unwed mothers. In this post-"Juno"/Bristol/Jamie-Lynn summer, we've had one patronizing ABC News "Primetime" special, hosted by Jay Schadler; a pregnant band geek on "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"; Lindsay Lohan as a fake unwed mother in the straight-to-TV movie "Labor Pains"; and, my personal favorite, "THS Investigates: Teen Pregnancy Nightmares!" a one-hour special that came in the lineup right after "When Husbands Kill!" We also had "16 & Pregnant," a show that proved so popular that it is getting a reunion show tonight and also coming back for a second season.

From the beginning, critics seemed concerned that MTV would somehow "glamorize" teen pregnancy. But I was worried more about the girls themselves: Often in our zeal to reduce teen pregnancy -- a goal, I hope it goes without saying, I adamantly support -- we end up unfairly reducing the girls who do become pregnant to little more than a public service announcement, as if by depicting their lives as unrelentingly bleak and unsalvageable, we will somehow scare every other teen into never having a broken condom, or even having sex in the first place. But pregnancy is just the beginning of a teen parent's story: These are actual people, with actual children, and 18 years (at least) ahead of them to continue making decisions and taking action to build their family's lives. Would MTV have the nerve to portray them in a realistic, respectful manner? Or would they end up being exploited into caricature?

As it turns out, they did a pretty good job. Six girls -- two high school cheerleaders (Maci and Farrah), an Army brat (Ebony), a high school dropout whose mother is pregnant at the same time (Whitney), a party girl (Amber) and a couple considering adoption (Catelynn and Tyler) -- each have a one-hour, self-contained episode that follows them for five to seven months, through pregnancy and young parenthood. They mixed it up pretty well, in terms of geography and class, but could have done a better job with racial diversity (five of the girls are white; Ebony appears to be biracial and lives with her white mother) -- something we hope they fix in Season 2.

One of the best aspects of the show is that each episode is narrated by the teens themselves. "The goal was for them to tell their own stories, to narrate their lives and their feelings in a way that felt organic," says executive producer Morgan J. Freeman. The girls were given small flip cameras they could use as "video diaries" to talk about their feelings in private whenever they liked. Some of the most revealing scenes between family members -- an argument between Maci and her boyfriend, Ryan, en route to the doctor's office, and one that ends with Farrah's mother slapping her while driving, then telling her she's "had enough of her belligerent anti-Christ attitude" -- were captured on small cameras mounted inside the subject's cars, with no crew present. "There's not really a lot of sit-down interviews," says Freeman. "It's less about asking people to talk about their feelings and more about watching the action, what actually happens." 

Each episode spectacularly culminates at around the 40-minute mark with a birthing scene, some of the most explicit I've seen on television. Initially, I was totally freaked out by the idea of a producer asking minor girls, even minor girls about to become parents, to consent to be filmed in stirrups, naked to the waist, in labor -- but even I had to admit that it made for riveting, emotionally charged television -- and certainly a heads-up to any skeptics that carrying and giving birth to a baby is a really big deal. (According to Freeman, refusing to allow cameras in the birthing room was not a "deal-breaker" and Maci, for one, chose to have her birth depicted in demure line drawings rather than real-life Technicolor.)

But the real heart of the show is the big questions: Do I stay in school, and if so, what will my friends think? Can I get my GED? Can I go to college? Can I hold a job? Do I live with my parents, or my baby's father?

Young fathers struggle with their role, and some show real maturity and kindness. But even the bad relationships lead to some good questions (ones that, I might add, many adult women have yet to figure out): How do you get someone to step up so that the family works in everyone's best interest? When your partner is not respecting you and your child, when do you stay and hope for the best? And when do you realize you are fighting a losing battle and take steps to make it on your own? In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the series, a tearful Maci asks her boyfriend, Ryan, if they would be having all these problems if she hadn't become pregnant; Ryan, who proposed to her before he knew she was pregnant, tells her, "If we didn't have the baby, we wouldn't be together." By the end of her episode, Maci was still mulling over her options; we may see what she decided on tonight's reunion special.

In her New York Times review, Ginia Bellafante dismissed these girls as "real-life Junos who are not scoring in the 99th percentile on the verbal portion of their SATs" and accused MTV of promoting "working-class voyeurism" -- citing, among other things, that Amber was "at least 30 pounds overweight before she even started to show" and eats Taco Bell while in labor. She concludes that the series' "class prejudice" would believe that "if you're not setting out for Wesleyan or Berkeley, then raising a child when you ought to be working on the yearbook is as good a road to character development as any."

Actually, failing to acknowledge that two of the teens -- Farrah and Maci -- actually are enrolled in college while mothering infants sounds like "class prejudice" to me. (Also, I hear even Ivy League college students are overweight and occasionally eat Taco Bell, too). And since she brought it up, I'd just like to point out that being a teen parent doesn't necessarily exclude one from Bellafante's exclusive club of teenagers who count: I actually went to Wesleyan with my daughter, as did "Riding in Cars With Boys" author Beverly Donofrio 20 years before me; Ariel Gore, who had her daughter at 19 and went on to write six books and found the magazine "Hip Mama," went to Berkeley.

No one's asking teenagers to take the girls of "16 & Pregnant" as role models. But isn't it fair to give them some space to talk about their own lives, rather than be talked about by others who see them as statistical symbols of social decay? Wouldn't it be nice if some teens -- and parents -- who watch the episode in which Whitney's friends ostracize her because they are afraid "they might get pregnant, too," realize that stigmatizing this one girl's pregnancy contributed directly to her dropping out of school? I'm guessing that few teens who watch a young girl try to hold down a job, school, a place on the dance team and still have time at home with her son are going to want to swap places with her -- but some of them might come out with respect, even admiration.

The series actually managed to surprise me, too. From the beginning, I was bracing for the adoption episode, and wondering how they would handle it. Although only about 1 percent of all women choose to put their children up for adoption, it remains, in the popular imagination, one of the most palatable choices to adults who have never had to make that decision themselves: One avoids the dicey moral territory of abortion, and the equally unpopular position of being the kind of parent whom others are perfectly comfortable discriminating against. And yet the same people who urge a young girl to think of a 6-week-old fetus as a "child" can often be remarkably callous when it comes to acknowledging that giving up an actual child that one has carried for nine months and given birth to is, for most women, a much more excruciating sense of loss. In the past (when about 80 percent of young, unmarried women released their children), it was often not even much of a choice: Families and social workers presented it as the only moral option. So how would this episode play out? Would the parents really feel it was their choice? Would they acknowledge just how hard it was?

The show upended all my expectations. Catelynn and Tyler fight their own parents -- who, in a twist straight out of "Gossip Girl," married each other after their kids started dating -- every step of the way. Tyler's ex-con father, Butch, tells him he is disappointed in him: "You didn't man up. You weren't the cowboy I thought you were." Catelynn's mother, April (not long ago arrested for a DUI), puts a bassinet in the front room and calls her daughter a bitch for going to see the adoption counselor without her. But both of their kids insist that the life they have isn't good enough for their child.

"The degree of their strength was not apparent to me when I first met them," says Freeman. "At first, I wasn't even sure they were going to go through with it. But you just watch Tyler carve out this safe space for him and Catelynn and their daughter and push back on the family. When I watched it, I was in awe. I thought, 'Where is this strength coming from?'"

It's an open adoption, so the adoptive parents, Teresa and Brandon, agree to share letters and photographs and remain in contact with Tyler and Catelynn (as well as appearing on national television, of course). They also witness their grief firsthand. In the delivery room Teresa gives Catelynn a silver bracelet and promises that she, and their daughter, will wear one that matches hers, so that the three will always be linked. Then Catelynn and Tyler end up in the parking lot, watching their daughter driven away and holding her receiving blanket.

Back on the couch, Sydney and I, both wiping tears from our eyes, started laughing at how ridiculous it was that we were both sobbing over a 30-second clip. "They should have kept her," she said.

"No," I said. "This is one case where I'm sure they really knew they were doing the right thing."

Sydney is now a college sophomore. She is fluent in Spanish and loves her dog. She is kind and wise. Even as a teenager, I never expected to have a child until my 30s and now, at 36, I am the mother of a young woman. When I first became pregnant, I was certain there was no way I could do right by both of us. Nine months later I thought, yes, I think I can. And we did.

That was a long time ago. Twenty years ago, actually. Tomorrow.

By Amy Benfer

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

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