Teen Issues: Teen Pregnancy, Teen Moms and Breastfeeding
Yesterday I talked some about periods in YA lit, in part because I had recently read 2 really amazing books that boldly mentioned periods. Also in part because it’s a topic we recently have been dealing with personally in my house because I’m a mom to two girls. The convergence of these two events, my lit life intersecting with my real life, got me thinking about a wide variety of topics. In fact, as a mom to girls, I spend a lot of time thinking about these issues and there is no shortage of interesting discussions to be had.
But as I was writing the post yesterday it brought to mind another conversation I have had with The Leaky Boob’s Jessica Martin-Weber. I know Jessica from our shared experiences with HG and it turns out that we are both very invested in talking about our culture and the way that it deals with girl’s bodies. Dress codes, menstruation, and sexual abuse are all things we talk about. It seems you can’t visit any news site at the moment and not find a conversation, for example, about another dress code challenge occurring and what these challenges say about our cultural feeling regarding girls and their bodies (and what it says about how we regard boys as well). And for Jessica, another one of those important issues is breastfeeding, and yes it too is related to the ways in which we talk about the female body.
I started thinking about teens and breastfeeding largely because of my relationship with Jessica. Her goal is to help normalize breastfeeding so that mother’s who chose to can breastfeed their babies with the support that they need. And our conversation about teens and breastfeeding began years ago with the Mtv show Sixteen and Pregnant.
I remember watching an episode of the show where the mother went out to buy a can of formula and her and the teen father of her child were talking about how expensive it is. I wondered, how come no one is talking to them about the possibility of breastfeeding. And I was not asking this in a judgmental way, I actually breastfed exactly zero of my children for reasons. I was asking because it seemed to me that someone in the hospital ought to at least mention the possibility and the various benefits, including the fact that it would be cheaper for these financially struggling teens. Now it is entirely possible that the hospital did at some point talk to them about their infant feeding options and they just didn’t show that part on television, but I would argue that if this did happen and they didn’t show it well, that might just be part of the problem.
Some Teen Breastfeeding Statistics:
43% of teens initiate breastfeeding
95% of teen moms give formula by the 2nd week
(See: Goal – Teen Breastfeeding Success)
Then I started to wonder: Had I ever read about any of the teens in the YA lit I was reading breastfeeding their babies? Had they even discussed it as one of their options? The truth is, I hadn’t really paid enough attention to say with any certainty that I hadn’t. But I also couldn’t think of any titles where I noticed that it had been discussed. (If you know of any titles, please share in the comments.) I would honestly have to re-read all the teen pregnancy novels I have read to really investigate how they approached infant feeding. It’s interesting too, though, that until I started really having these conversations with Jessica that it never even occurred to me to think about issues like how do we approach talking with teen moms about their infant feeding choices; It never occurred to me to look in the books I was reading to see how teens were having these discussions. Formula feeding is so normalized in our culture that it never even occurred to me as a reader to question what kinds of options and discussions the teen moms were having in the books I read. Which seems to prove Jessica’s point, we need to do better at normalizing the idea of breastfeeding.
Part of the problem is, of course, that teen pregnancy and motherhood is such a loaded issue. Nobody is really in favor of teen pregnancy, and yet we must still find ways to support and empower pregnant teens and teen moms without shame when it does happen. There is an excellent scene in the Gilmore Girls episode Christopher Returns that really touches on this point. The various Gilmore family members are together for a dinner and everyone is fighting about how 16-year-old Lorelai ruined her life and shamed the family with her pregnancy. And in the midst of it all sits Rory, the child who came out of that teenage pregnancy. Eventually Lorelai realizes the effect this conversation is having on Rory and reminds her that this fight is not about her – everyone loves and cherishes her – but that it is about Lorelai and Christopher and the decisions they made years ago. But it’s an interesting dynamic being angry and resentful of a teenage pregnancy and still trying to find ways to love the teenage moms and dads and babies that they bring into this world.
Reasons teen moms cited for not breastfeeding:
Highest: concerns that it will be painful
Will be embarrassed
(See: Goal – Teen Breastfeeding Success)
The other part of the problem is, of course, that breastfeeding can be such a loaded conversation in our culture. There are debates daily it seems in the press about another woman being asked to go to the bathroom or put a blanket over the head of their baby while trying to feed them in public. For us in the U.S., breasts have become such a sexualized feature that we seem to have forgotten that one of their primary biological purposes is in fact to feed our babies. It’s another part of the lie that women’s bodies, and thus their breasts, are for men; we have forgotten that they are in fact superbly designed for feeding babies with health benefits to both mom and baby. It’s interesting to note that titillating pictures of celebrity side boob are shared with glee but should we perhaps see a bit of side boob while a mother is trying to situate a baby in the process of latching on it becomes a scandal.
Even among those that do choose to breastfeed there is not universal support for breastfeeding in public in the way that is most comfortable for you and your baby. Read the comments of any online story about breastfeeding and even the support crowd will break out into arguments of yes breast is best, but for goodness sake woman stay at home or go to the bathroom, nobody wants to see your boobs in public. Except of course if it is in a sexual way, which the inconsistencies in Facebook’s practice of removing breastfeeding pictures while leaving a variety of other questionable but sexual breast shots up illustrate. Because we are so conflicted about female bodies, the ways in which we support – or don’t support – breastfeeding mothers is such a heated issue and it is wrapped up in shame, misconceptions, and cultural narratives that suggest that men have no self control and need to be protected from something that should in fact be a completely natural act. This type of thinking is as demoralizing to men as it is for women.
But back to supporting teen moms, part of that support should include making sure that pregnant teens and teen moms get the information they need to make the best decisions possible for them and their families, which just might include breastfeeding. So if part of our reading goals, particularly in contemporary fiction, is to help teens find their own stories echoed in the pages, then shouldn’t we be writing stories that de-stigmatize things like breastfeeding? The simple act of representation can be a powerful thing; it can help teens feel more comfortable in making these types of decisions for themselves as they see it in the pages of the books they read. Just as Margaret in Are You There God? can help teens feel more comfortable with their periods, seeing a teen mom choosing to breastfeed might help real life teen moms make that decision for themselves. It would be enlightening if in our teen pregnancy narratives we demonstrated that part of the struggle is figuring out what comes next, including how do we feed our babies, and we see our main characters at least investigating their options as part of their decision making processes. But it would be even more powerful to see a character casually mention breastfeeding her baby while trying to complete her algebra homework.
The truth is, whatever your personal feelings about teen pregnancy may be, a pregnant teen who chooses to keep her baby needs support in order to find ways to successfully complete an education that puts them in the best possible position to help better support and raise their families. Breastfeeding may just be one of the tools that helps them do that. Because breastfeeding advocates like Jessica are right, helping to normalize breastfeeding in American culture would make it easier for more mothers to choose breastfeeding and get the support that they need, including teen moms.
Goodreads has a list of 318 YA lit titles that deal with teen pregnancy
The book covers shown in this post are YA titles that feature a teen pregnancy, they may or may not contain discussions of breastfeeding.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network