Children with Children
In the mid 1980s I began a self-initiated project photographing pregnant teenagers and teen mothers. Adolescent mothers have higher rates of premature delivery, toxemia, prolonged labor, feto-pelvic disproportion and cesarean section. Babies born to teenage mothers are twice as likely to die in the first year of life than those born to mothers over the age of twenty. Although two-thirds of births to unmarried teenagers are unintended, ninety-six percent of teenage mothers keep their children. This has a devastating effect on their educational opportunities. Women who have children before their eighteenth birthday are only half as likely to finish high school as those who postpone childbearing until they are older.
My goal was to explore the individuals behind those statistics and, in so doing, investigate the accuracy of the stereotypes about adolescent mothers. Who are these young women, these children having children? How do their young lives differ from those of their peers? Of other mothers? What is their relationship with their parents, friends and boyfriends? Why did they not use birth control or have abortions? Why are they choosing to close down so many options for their lives?
My interest in this issue was very personal. I was the daughter of a teenage mother and was given up for adoption. I became an unmarried pregnant teenager myself. And the fact that I have had three daughters intensified my interest.
I followed three young women, beginning at their last trimester of pregnancy and through their transition to motherhood. I remained connected to two of them for several years. Due to the personal nature of the project there was a fine line between meaningful pictures and exploitation. I had to win the trust of the girls and their families and maintain that trust if my photographs were to be both intimate and accurate.
I spent hours and days just hanging out, sharing meals, by-standing family quarrels, and basically just living my subjects’ lives with them. After the first, intense weeks with a given girl, I became another family member — one they took for granted. Each time I arrived, I would bring with me all the prints from the previous shoot. Everything I printed for myself I also printed for the subjects. This way, they always knew what I was doing. I would also print pictures for them in which I had no project-related interest, but knew they would value. I had a car and was able to take them on errands, to doctor’s appointments, or off to friends’ houses. This was mutually beneficial. I was able to help them, and by doing so found more picture opportunities.
This project belonged as much to the girls I photographed as it does to me. I have explored through their words and my photographs the feelings they have had about what has happened in their lives, their ideas about expectations for the future, and their acceptance of their roles as mothers.