The reality of parenthood

Life-changing experiences leave teenage parents wanting better lives for their children

The Chattanooga Times Free Press, A-1, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2007

Iesha Jones planned to spend her 14th birthday last February shopping for clothes, getting her nails done and hanging out with her boyfriend. Instead, the Orchard Knob Middle eighth-grader spent the day in labor at Erlanger hospital and used her birthday money to buy clothes and diapers for her baby boy.

“He messed up my whole birthday plan,” she said in June. “I wanted to go shopping, and I ended up having him.”

Still, she’s happy to share a birthday with her son, who is 7 months old.

“Everyone doesn’t get the gift to have their child on their birthday,” she said.

Iesha is one of about 250 girls, ages 10 to 17, in Hamilton County who become pregnant each year. That number is down from past years. The teen pregnancy rate in Hamilton County and Tennessee dropped almost by half from 1991 to 2006, according to the state Department of Health.

Public health experts attribute the decrease to abstinenc e programs, increased awareness of safe sex practices resulting from the AIDS epidemic and improved access to some birth control methods.

Though the decline in the teen pregnancy rate is positive, the U.S. rate still is almost five times higher than in most other industrialized countries, said Diana Kreider, manager of maternal and child health programs for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

“One pregnancy in that really young age group is a concern,” she said.

During an afternoon this summer, Iesha stood at the kitchen counter in her mother’s three-bedroom house in East Chattanooga. Wearing a denim miniskirt and a T-shirt that read “Luck has nothing to do with it when you’re hot,” she mixed 3 1 ⁄2 scoops of Nestle Good Start formula and seven ounces of water and shook the bottle. Then she picked up Ke’Andre from her mother’s arms and cradled him in her own, balancing the bottle between her chin and
his mouth.

While Ke’Andre is “the high- light” of her life, she says she wishes she’d waited to have him.

“I’m not ready for a baby, not this young anyway,” she said. “I’m still trying to get used to saying I’m a mama. It’s hard.”

Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, warns people against thinking teen pregnancy is someone else’s problem.

“When about a third of teen girls get pregnant before the age of 20, you realize it isn’t a problem confined to one socioeconomic class or race,” he said. “This is a very, very widespread problem, and I don’t think
that’s well understood.”

Teen childbearing costs American taxpayers almost $9 billion per year in public health care, child welfare and lost tax revenue, Mr. Albert said. In Tennessee, the cost of teen childbearing was $181 million in 2004, he said.

“No matter how you slice it, if you reduce the rates of teen pregnancy, you’re going to make a measured improvement on any number of social issues,” Mr. Albert said. “All these things are greatly impacted by teen pregnancy.”


Iesha’s mother, Ornatta Robinson, a single mother who works as a chicken processor at Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., said abortion was never an option for her daughter, who was just 13 when she became pregnant.

“We’re all pulling together to help her know as long as she continues her education, we’re behind her,” Ms. Robin- son said. “I want her to know she doesn’t have give up because she has a baby.”

When Iesha told the baby’s father she was pregnant, the 16-year-old junior at Hixson High was happy, she said.

He said, ‘“Oh! I got a baby. I hope it’s a girl!’ and then, a month later, ‘I hope it’s a boy!’” Iesha said.

During her pregnancy, Iesha read books about caring for babies, attended a pregnancy class at Howard Middle School, where she was in school at the time, and collected pamphlets from the health clinic.

Iesha attended school at Howard until the last month of her pregnancy, when a teacher delivered schoolwork to her house once a week.

“My goals are to finish high school, get my own house, go to college and try to finish that out,” she said.

Her hopes are high for Ke’Andre too, she said. “I want my baby to be a good baby,” she said. “I want him to be better than me and his father. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk to him and keep him on the right track.”

Teenage mothers and their children are up against some dismal statistics, though.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy:

  • One-third of teen mothers complete high school.
  • 1.5 percent have a college degree by the time they are 30. s Nearly 80 percent of unmarried teen mothers end
  • up on welfare.
  • The sons of teen mothers are 13 percent more likely to end up in prison; daughters are 22 percent more likely to become teen mothers themselves.

While teen pregnancy is a universal problem, Lesley Scearce, chief executive officer of Hamilton County’s Why kNOw abstinence education program, said she sees higher rates of teen pregnan- cy in the poorer areas of town, where academic performance, truancy, violence and substance abuse also are problems.

“I really do believe all those factors interplay in a teen’s decision making,” she said. “Some of the kids we talk to say they don’t think they’ll live past 25. Then why not have sex and get pregnant?”

Amy Pearson, who develops special programs for Why kNOw, runs Road to Excellence Leadership Development support groups at Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, East Lake Acade- my of Fine Arts, Howard School for Academics and Technology and Sequoyah High in Hamilton County and Rossville Middle in Georgia — the schools where the incidence of teen pregnancy is highest, she said.

“In working in those schools, one thing we’ve found is if you have clusters of girls and one or two get pregnant, sadly, a lot of times you see other girls get pregnant,” she said. “It becomes the cool thing to do, the thing to do to fit in that group.”

Darreka Knox, 16, a junior who was in the early childhood education class at Howard, said watching her friends who are mothers had the opposite affect on her.

“The stuff I see them go through, it makes me not want to have one,” she said. “Most of the time as a teenager, you can’t really take care of a child because you’re still a child yourself. It’s hard to accomplish the goals you set for yourself before you were pregnant.”


One recent afternoon at home, Iesha listened to rap music on YouTube while Ke’Andre sat in her lap, watching the ceiling fan spin. The late afternoon sun lit the room through drawn curtains.

Suddenly, Ms. Robinson rushed through the front door, still wearing a hairnet from the processing plant. She kissed Ke’Andre on the face.

“How’s granny’s baby?” she said. “Grandmamma loves you so much!”

Ms. Robinson said while she will sometimes babysit Ke’Andre while Iesha goes to a movie, she is not going to raise her grandson.

“It’s tough love,” she said. “I let her know, ‘You made the mistake, and you are going to have to deal with it.’”

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales also holds high expectations for teen parents. He expects them to graduate from high school, just like everybody else, he said.

“If a young lady finds herself a teen mother, we do not want that to be an excuse or reason not to complete high school,” he said. “We need to work with them to get connected with the appropriate agencies in the community to finish their high school education.”

School guidance counselors encourage teen mothers to seek the support of community agen- cies such as the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults and the Health Department’s Help Us Grow Successfully proj- ect, a home-based intervention program for girls and women pregnant for the first time.

Howard School, Sequoyah High and the Middle College High School at Chattanooga State Technical Community College offer programs includ- ing child development classes and child care centers. Teen mothers can receive six to eight weeks of homebound instruction from the school district, usually after the birth of their children.

Why kNOw runs support groups for teen mothers in several Hamilton County schools and also programs in all middle and high schools to teach stu- dents the importance of abstaining from sex until marriage.

Ms. Pearson points to Why kNOw’s work in the schools since 1991 as a reason for the decline in the local teen pregnancy rate.

“Students engaged in those risky behaviors have a lower view of their personal control over situations than students who abstain,” she said.

Ms. Kreider with the health department said encouraging students to remain abstinent is the ideal approach, but it is not necessarily the most realistic. She thinks Hamilton County students need information about contraception as well.

“People can make better choices if you give them the whole picture,” she said. “If … all we’ve told them is to say ‘no,’ how are they going to protect themselves if they make the choice to say ‘yes’?”

Mr. Albert of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy said teen pregnancy rates have dropped as a result of a national conversation about sexually transmitted diseases.

“This is a generation that has grown up and has known AIDS their entire lives and have learned about it in school. That has had a good affect on young people. It has made them a bit more cautious,” he said.

In addition, there is an increasing number of contraceptive options out there, he said.

“Some are very teen-friendly,” Mr. Albert said.

One of the most effective ways to prevent teen pregnancy is for parents to talk to their children about sex and build a “good, old-fashioned relation- ship” with their children from a young age, he said.

“Parents need to under- stand that they greatly influ- ence their teenagers’ decisions about sex,” he said. “What you end up doing by hiding under a shell is increasing the influence of peers and media and other things.”


The stories Iesha’s friends told her about their babies did little to prepare her for her own, she said.

“They left out parts,” she said. “Now I see the whole thing. It’s to the point that a baby isn’t a toy.”

Iesha is attending Orchard Knob Middle this year. She missed several days of school at the beginning of the year when she was searching for day care for Ke’Andre and visiting the doctor herself. She is currently plowing through makeup work and earning C’s and D’s. School, she said, is “all right.”

On most mornings, Iesha wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to get Ke’Andre ready for the day. Her mother leaves for work at 5:20 a.m. and drops the child off at Iesha’s godmother’s house on the way. Iesha catches the bus to school at 6:20 a.m.

Iesha no longer sees Ke’Andre’s father, who used to help her dress the baby and fix his bottles.

“We got to arguing, so we made the decision to go our separate ways,” she said.

Iesha said life has changed since she had a baby.

“(I am) trying to stay out of trouble for Ke’Andre and myself,” she said.

Donna Taheri, who directs the Teen Learning Center at Howard, said many of the teen- age girls she works with turn out to be “good little mothers,” despite the often tough circumstances.

“They want what every mother wants — and that is the best for their children,” she said.

Parenting together, though apart


EDITOR’S NOTE: The students have asked that only their first names be used.

When his daughter, Amelia, was born last year, high school senior Matt painted one wall of his bedroom baby pink so she would feel comfortable at his house when she visited.

He keeps a car seat in his 1995 Dodge truck and drives to the baby’s mother’s house every morning to dress his daughter for a day at Sequoyah High, where she attends day care and he attends school.

“People are pretty much getting used to seeing me walk down the halls with her, taking her to day care,” he said. “A 10-second walk from one end ofthe hall to the other takes me about 10 minutes, with all my friends and teachers who want to talk to her. I have a lot of support at school.”

Amelia was born 10 months ago to Matt and his then-girlfriend Marissa, who was 16 and a student at Soddy-Daisy High School.
Matt is studying in the collision repair academy at Sequoyah and working at Valvoline Instant Oil Change. He hopes to graduate in December and get a job in an auto body shop, he said.

Marissa graduated from high school in May and is studying at Chattanooga State Technical Community College.

Having a baby changed every aspect of her life, she said. Before, she took the- ater classes, made films with friends and used acting as a way to express herself, she said. After she found out she was pregnant, she switched into more academic classes so she could finish school more quickly.

“I haven’t given up on my goals,” she said. “Dreams delayed are not dreams denied. That was my motto when I was pregnant.”
Matt said he has become “nicer and way more patient” since having Amelia.

“My everyday life changed,” he said. “It’s not all about me anymore. I can’t wake up and just go at my own pace. I’ve got to make time for me and her, both.”

Even though he and Marissa broke up, Matt said he still wants to be involved with Amelia’s upbringing.

“I still plan to be a big part of her life,” he said. “I couldn’t find it in myself to say somebody who’s a part of me should be out there, and I should never see her.”

Building a family


Brenda Cuenca found out she was pregnant when she was 15 years old. Within three weeks she and her boyfriend, Eduardo, planned a wedding, and within two months they married.

The couple now live in a four-bedroom mobile home near Dalton, Ga., with their 2-year-old daughter, Nathalie. Mrs. Cuenca is 17 and a senior at Southeast Whitfield High. Her husband is 24 and works at a carpet mill.

I’ve learned that even though there are problems, you can always prevail,” she said. “If you have people who love you and are going to help you out, you’re going to make it.”

Mrs. Cuenca said her parents were sad when she first told them she was going to have a child.

“No parent wants that for their daughter at an early age,” she said. “They’re OK with it now. They’re happy, and they support me.”

On a recent afternoon, Mrs. Cuenca sat in a black leather chair in her living room, wearing broken-in blue jeans and a light blue T-shirt. Nathalie toddled around the room, carrying pieces of a Dora the Explorer puzzle between her mother’s lap and the floor.

Mrs. Cuenca is an A/B student who agonizes if she earns a C. She is involved in the marketing program and several clubs at school and eventually wants to be a dentist. Having a child hasn’t changed any of her goals, she said.

“It’s made me even more positive because now I have somebody who’s depending on me to be someone,” she said. “When I was a freshman, I knew I wanted to go to college, but I wasn’t sure I would. Now, I know I want to go to college for her. I want to set that example.”

Nathalie stays at her paternal grandparents’ house during the day while Mrs. Cuenca is in school and Mr. Cuenca is at work.

For extra income, Mrs. Cuenca sells Jafra cosmetics, and Mr. Cuenca cuts lawns and fixes appliances. They both collect aluminum can tops in a gallon-sized milk jug on their kitchen counter.

While she has received support from her family, Mrs. Cuenca wishes some at school would be less judgmental, she said.

“Just because I have a baby doesn’t mean I’m going to be a different person,” she said. “Respect people for who they are and not what happens.”

Learning how to grow up fast


It took four positive preg- nancy tests to convince Jennifer Hilton’s boyfriend she was pregnant. When the news had sunk in, he didn’t have anything to say, she said.

“I didn’t hope for him to be happy about it, but I had hoped he would be a little more sympathetic toward me,” she said.

Ms. Hilton went into labor during her cosmetology class at Sequoyah High School, and she stayed in labor for 36 hours at Parkridge East Hospital. Since giving birth to a girl she named Shae, who is now almost 2, Ms. Hilton said she has had to grow up quickly.

“I quit doing the (bad) stuff I was doing and started realizing I had somebody else to take care of,” she said one afternoon last spring, wearing a hot pink shirt that matched her flip flops, nails and the streaks in her hair. “I was friendly toward other people, where before I was rude and cocky. My grades got better, and I actually did my work.”

Ms. Hilton, 19, graduated from Sequoyah High in May and is living with her parents in Soddy-Daisy. She is working at Sally’s Beauty Supply in Hixson while she finishes her hours at Alternative Visions Hair Academy. Once she completes the program this fall, she plans to look for a job at a salon.

She and her boyfriend broke up a few months ago, she said.

“It’s really hard that he’s no here now, but my mom and dad, they’re helping me a lot,” she said.

As she gets close to turning 2, Shae “is getting an attitude,” her mother said.

“She doesn’t like being told ‘no,’ and she doesn’t like being told to do this and that. She’s her own little person,” Ms. Hilton said.

While Ms. Hilton said she adores Shae, she would have waited until she was out o school and at least 25 to have a baby.
“If I had a choice, I would have waited until I was older,” she said. “I had to grow up way faster than I wanted to.”

Making time for Linus


Jaleesa Davis, 17, a senior at Howard School for Academics and Technology, said she does not want her 2-year-old son to end up like many of the other young men she sees who “are doing drugs and going to jail.”

She wants Linus to communicate with her when he gets older, to tell her his secrets.

“I’ll tell him a little bit about my life and show him pictures of what happens to people when they’re doing the wrong things,” she said.

When Ms. Davis first told her mother she was pregnant, her mother didn’t say anything, but Ms. Davis could tell later her mother had cried, she said.

Her boyfriend of two years was glad because he had wanted a baby, she said, and her friends said “they weren’t really shocked because of how long we had been together. They just wanted to see my stomach.”

Ms. Davis lives in East Lake with her mother, who works at Shaw Industries from 3 to 11 p.m.

Her boyfriend helps her buy diapers and clothes for their son and sometimes takes him places, such as the Tennessee Aquarium and the Chattanooga Zoo, she said.

Each morning around 6:30, Jaleesa catches the CARTA bus to Howard with Linus in tow. She drops her son off at the school’s child-care center by 7 a.m. and picks him up after school. Caring for Linus fills her afternoons with changing diapers, fixing bottles, cooking dinners and ironing clothes, she said.

“I didn’t have anything to do before I had him,” she said. “Now that I have him, my days are busy, and it’s fun to see how he’s growing and learning.”

Ms. Davis hopes to study nursing at Chattanooga State Technical Community College after she graduates from Howard next spring. She has matured immensely since having a child, she said.

“I take things more seriously,” she said, “and I think twice about how I spend my money.”

School nurseries help teen mothers


EDITOR’S NOTE: A student has asked that only her first name be used.

In an effort to reduce dropout rates, Sequoyah High School and Howard School for Academics and Technology established on- site nurseries for student mothers in the mid-1990s.

Teen mothers receive inexpensive child care through the licensed day-care centers, and students pursuing careers in early childhood education receive hands-on experience caring for infants and toddlers.

Sequoyah High principal Steve Holmes said schools are not condoning teen pregnancy by offering the child-care services. Instead, they are responding to the situation in the most appropriate way possible, he said.

“We would be missing the mark as educators if we did not help students in this area,” Mr. Holmes said.

Kimberly Davis, who teaches early childhood education careers at Howard, said the program enables many teenage girls to focus on their education without having to worry about the safety and happiness of their children.

Without the program, Ms. Davis said, “you’d have students coming to school that would be worried, ‘Who did I leave my child with?’”

This year, the students in the child-care classes at Sequoyah are caring for 12 infants and toddlers, seven belonging to teen parents and five belonging to Sequoyah’s faculty and staff. Students in Howard’s Maurice Kirby Child Care Center, run by the Children’s Home/Chambliss Center, are caring for 34 children, including six belonging to students.

At both day-care centers, students’ children receive first priority.

Marissa, a mother who graduated from Soddy-Daisy High last year and asked that her last name not be used, keeps her daughter, Amelia, in the child-care center at Sequoyah, where the baby’s father is in school.

“I’m really comfortable leaving her here,” she said in the nursery last spring. “I know the work- ers are going to take care of her. They’re not going to leave her in a corner to soil herself. And she’s right here with her daddy.”

The students in the child-care classes study child development, age-appropriate learning activities, discipline without spanking, nutrition, health, state licensing guidelines and parenting skills. Then they practice the skills they learn in the school nursery.

Students leave the classes prepared for entry-level positions in early childhood education, said Kristi Stottlemire, the day-care director and early childhood education teacher at Sequoyah.

Some carry credits they can apply toward the early childhood education program at Chattanooga State Technical Community College.

One day in spring, junior Chaquita Mosley played an alphabet game with five children in Howard’s 3- and 4-year-old classroom while others napped on cots.

“What’s this letter?” she asked a 3-year-old at the table, pointing to a yellow paper cutout.

“B,” the girl responded, pick- ing up the letter and sticking it in a bowl of alphabet soup.

Ms. Mosley said she wants to be a pediatrician, and the child-care class helps her learn to interact with children.

“It’s helping me learn how to work with all kids, talk to them and react to them,” she said.

Ms. Stottlemire said for some of the teen mothers she works with, the support they receive at school is all they get.

“If I have a teen parent come to me and say, ‘I want to continue my education,’ I have a responsibility to make sure they have a safe place to go so they can get an education,” she said.