Thursday, November 20, 2008
Pregnancies ensnare teens
Photos by Marcus Yam | The Roanoke Times
Leah Baker was 17 years old when she became pregnant with her daughter, Ashton Trescott, who herself is now 17. They live in Southwest Roanoke County, but struggled for years in Section 8 housing, on food stamps and trying to pay for special formula for Ashton, who has Down syndrome.
Baker works for Children's Trust, an advocacy organization, and teaches parenting classes to teens and adults.
Leah Baker (center) holds Isaiah Stokes, 8 weeks old, while teaching a parenting class to Tanya Martin (left) and Kimberly Stokes at Bethany Hall, a recovery home for women in Roanoke. Baker is part of an army of people in Roanoke who are addressing the teen pregnancy crisis.
Many people are not able to rebound after having a child at a young age. Leah Baker had her daughter, Ashton, at age 17 and has since gone on to graduate from Radford University.
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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.
Too many Roanoke teenage girls find pregnancy intoxicating.
Last year, the city recorded the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in Virginia.
These girls bask in the attention showered on pending motherhood. They're giddy at the arrival of the baby and the accompanying afterglow.
But a year down the road, reality can feel like a bad hangover.
Don't take my word for it. Ask 36-year-old Leah Baker, whose life changed drastically when she became pregnant at 17.
Ask her about supporting her special needs daughter on $300 a month. Ask her about living in a Section 8 house with no insulation, about sleeping on a sofa bed with her baby daughter in front of a gas heater.
Ask her about not receiving child support for 10 years. About food stamps, long government-assistance lines and paying $20 a can for the special formula her daughter required. Ask her about sometimes running short of money and having no formula.
"I wish I would have waited, if I had been a little bit older and a little bit wiser," Baker said Tuesday evening in her cozy and gaily decorated apartment in Southwest Roanoke County.
"I had to grow up. I didn't get to live in a dorm and party. I had to grow up real fast."
Baker's journey wasn't easy, but she found her footing. At 31, she graduated from Radford University. She is raising her daughter, Ashton Trescott, now 17, and a son, 14. Divorced from her son's father, Baker works for Children's Trust, an advocacy organization. She teaches parenting classes to teens and adults.
Baker is a foot soldier in a crisis entrapping too many teen girls. What others in the fight against teen pregnancy fear is that many of the young mothers won't rebound as Baker did.
That bodes grave consequences for them -- and for us.
In 2007, 71 of every 1,000 teen girls in Roanoke had a baby, according to statistics from the Virginia Department of Health. Roanoke was second to Petersburg, which had a rate of 85.5.
Women 18 and 19 years old gave birth to two-thirds of the children born to teen mothers in Roanoke. Some of them may be married and starting their families.
But another disturbing note likely factors into that trend, according to Brooks Michael, coordinator of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Project in Roanoke:
Half of all teen mothers have another baby within two years of the first baby's birth.
Having a baby when you're 15, 16, or 17 years old doesn't mean your life is over. Baker, an effusive, warm woman whose personality consumes a room, stresses that message in her teen parenting class each week.
But it certainly makes life a lot harder. Many teenage girls aren't looking that far down the road.
Michael was at a teen health center recently. After she spoke, a girl pulled her aside and was "elated" about being pregnant. The girl lives in a roach-filled apartment, Michael said.
Trish Jackson of the Roanoke Adolescent Health Partnership has been a social worker for 29 years. She has spent most of that time working with teens.
In recent years, she has seen girls wanting to have a baby because a friend or sister did or because a boyfriend wants them to have a child.
"Sometimes, it's like the new accessory," Jackson said of the way some young mothers think of their child. "I've got my Louis Vuitton bag and my baby on my hip. I'm good to go."
Some girls don't think they'll get pregnant, and still others are afraid to seek contraception, fearing their parents might find out they're sexually active, Jackson said.
'Never looked back'
Baker graduated from high school in Oklahoma in three years and enlisted in the Navy. As part of her naval training, she enrolled in a small college in Washington, D.C., with dreams of becoming a medical technician. Her high school sweetheart was stationed there in the Navy.
Those plans all went out the window when she found out she was pregnant.
"I cried. I cried. It was shock," she said.
The moment Ashton was born, a nurse whisked her away. A doctor came in and dispassionately told Baker that Ashton had Down syndrome. She became angry when the doctor suggested she give the child up for adoption or to foster care.
She told him that she loved her baby. "I took her home and never looked back," Baker said, retelling the story this week as Ashton sat on the sofa watching TV.
Being a single mom wasn't easy. Ashton's dad hasn't been in her life since she was 18 months old, Baker said. The young mother packed up and moved back to Oklahoma.
Ashton had other health issues. Having asthma, other respiratory illnesses, a compromised immune system and 13 sets of ear tubes, the little girl was in the hospital a lot during the first three years of her life and cheated death a few times.
"When you have a baby, you think about life," Baker said. "When you have a baby who is constantly sick, you have a doctor who says, 'We don't know if she's going to make it.' "
That's the side of teen motherhood girls don't see. They see frilly dresses and the sailor suits, not the colicky nights, the diaper rash and the empty cupboards.
Baker is part of an army of people in Roanoke who should be commended for addressing the teen pregnancy crisis.
Michael, who preaches self-esteem and works to prevent girls from becoming pregnant, will go before the city council on Dec. 15 to help it understand that teen pregnancy affects the entire community and not just the individuals directly involved.
Meanwhile, Baker will continue teaching and motivating young mothers.
"Teens just need to hear, 'This has happened. You still have dreams.' You have to reach them a different way."