Children Having Children

Teen pregnancies are corroding America's social fabric

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Before the baby came, her bedroom was a dimly lighted chapel dedicated to the idols of rock 'n' roll. Now the posters of Duran Duran and Ozzy Osbourne have been swept away and the walls painted white. Angela Helton's room has become a nursery for six-week-old Corey Allen. Angie, who just turned 15, finds it hard to think of herself as a mother. "I'm still just as young as I was," she insists. "I haven't grown up any faster." Indeed, sitting in her parents' Louisville living room, she is the prototypical adolescent, lobbying her mother for permission to attend a rock concert, asking if she can have a pet dog and complaining she is not allowed to do anything. The weight of her new responsibilities is just beginning to sink in. "Last night I couldn't get my homework done," she laments with a toss of her blond curls. "I kept feeding him and feeding him. Whenever you lay him down, he wants to get picked up." In retrospect she admits: "Babies are a big step. I should have thought more about it."

The rhythm of her typing is like a fox trot, steady and deliberate. It is a hot summer day in San Francisco, and Michelle, a chubby black 14-year-old, is practicing her office skills with great fervor, beads of sweat trickling down her brow. She is worried about the future. "I have to get my money together," she frets. "I have to think ahead." Indeed she must. In three weeks this tenth-grader with her hair in braids is going to have a baby. "I have to stop doing all the childish things I've done before," she gravely resolves. "I used to think, ten years from now I'll be 24. Now I think, I'll be 24, and my child will be ten."

It is early afternoon, and the smells of dirty diapers and grease mingle in the bleak Minneapolis apartment. The TV is tuned to All My Children, and Stephanie Charette, 17, has collapsed on the sofa. Her rest is brief. Above the babble of the actors' voices comes a piercing wail. Larissa, her three-week-old daughter, is hungry. In an adjacent bedroom, Joey, l l/2 years old and recovering from the flu, starts to stir. Stephanie, who is an American Indian and one of ten children herself, first became pregnant at 15. It was an "accident," she explains. So too was her second baby. "I'm always tired," she laments, "and I can't eat." Before Joey's birth, before she dropped out of school, Stephanie dreamed of being a stewardess. Now her aspirations are more down-to-earth. "I want to pay my bills, buy groceries and have a house and furniture. I want to feel good about myself so my kids can be proud of me." It has been a long, long while, she confides, "since I had a good time."

They are of different races, from different places, but their tales and laments have a haunting sameness. Each year more than a million American teenagers will become pregnant, four out of five of them unmarried. Together they represent a distressing flaw in the social fabric of America. Like Angela, Michelle and Stephanie, many become pregnant in their early or mid-teens, some 30,000 of them under age 15. If present trends continue, researchers estimate, fully 40% of today's 14-year-old girls will be pregnant at least once before the age of 20. Says Sally, 17, who is struggling to raise a two-year-old son in Los Angeles: "We are children ourselves having children."

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