For me, that was the best line of the 2008 US election campaign even though it wasn’t spoken by an actual presidential candidate but by comedian Tina Fey (as Sarah Palin).
At the time, Palin’s then 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was heavily pregnant and the Palin camp had hastily announced Bristol’s engagement to the baby’s 19-year-old father, Levi.
You’ll be shocked to hear that didn’t work out. Since baby Tripp was born last November and Bristol’s relationship with her high school boyfriend ended shortly afterwards, the American media has been breathlessly reporting on the fall-out. Despite her family connections, Bristol Palin looks to be heading down the same path as millions of other teen mums: no tertiary education, stunted job prospects and a struggle to find her place between the self-focussed world of her friends and the heavy responsibility of parenthood.
Human melodrama aside, it’s raised some interesting questions. Like, do celebrities such as Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears (Britney’s 18 year old sister who had a baby last year) glamourise teen pregnancy?
And more importantly, can anything ever stop horny teenagers from having sex? Really, I’d like to know. Bristol Palin’s parents are firm believers in the abstinence-only approach which goes something like this: block your ears, close your eyes, wag your finger sternly and bark “just say no” at every opportunity. In practical and policy terms, this translates as denying teenagers access to sex education and contraception, banning abortion and hoping like hell everyone keeps it in their pants UNTIL THEY’RE MARRIED. This ostrich method worked so well for her own daughter, why would the former Alaskan Governer want to seek alternative solutions to America’s teen pregnancy pandemic?
Look, I too wish teenagers would wait longer before they had sex. As Rosie O’Donnell once observed, very few adults think wistfully, “Gee, I wish I’d had sex earlier” (except, maybe, you know, male adults). Convincing today’s teens of this however, is nearly impossible. Their hormones will frequently trick their heads into believing they’re ready to deal with the consequences – physical and emotional – of sex when they’re really, really not. Cast your own mind back. Were you?
Back to Alaska and five months after America’s most famous teen mother gave birth, a rather confusing piece of propaganda appeared on the cover of US People magazine.
There was Bristol Palin, photographed in her high school graduation cap and gown, holding baby Tripp. Bristol has great hair. A beatific smile. Tripp is impossibly cute. If The Gruen Transfer dudes had to make an ad selling teen motherhood, this could be it. The photos inside were typical magazine stuff – happy, shiny pictures of a perfect life. Also known as lies.
I’m not being cynical when I say that. I’m not even drawing my own conclusions. Bristol herself reveals the jarring disconnect between the images and her reality in the accompanying interview where she talks about all the things you can’t see in the pretty pictures. Her tears, her exhaustion, her isolation, her regrets, her dashed expectations and her recalibrated dreams, big and small.
Returning to high school within weeks of giving birth, she expressed before class and dashed home at the end of each day to breastfeed for a month. Tripp, sleeps in a borrowed cot next to her bed and she’s up several times a night. Bristol works two part-time jobs to help pay for formula and nappies and she didn’t go to her senior prom and graduation because she didn’t have time. Or babysitting. “I have other things to worry about,” she sighed. “And the dress, the shoes, hair, makeup, it’s way too expensive. It kind of sucked, to tell you the truth!”
What also sucked? Kissing goodbye her plans for college and unwittingly becoming a poster girl for teenage pregnancy.
Not every teenage mother has regrets about falling pregnant and you don’t have to be a teenager to have your life derailed by an unexpected pregnancy. So let’s resist too many generalisations and skip the teenage mother bashing. Young mothers aren’t necessarily bad mothers and I don’t believe it helps anyone to demonise them, least of all their kids.
However, Bristol words are worth repeating to every teen who thinks they’re ready to have sex. “Girls need to imagine and picture their life with a screaming newborn baby and then think before they have sex,” she tells People. “If girls realised the consequences of sex, nobody would be having sex. Trust me. Nobody.”
Regardless of your position on sex education, contraception and abortion, I think we can all agree that fewer teenage pregnancies would be good. So, how to achieve that? I believe the more responsible information teens have about sex, the better equipped they’ll be to resist the pressure to do it before they’re ready and the less chance they’ll fall pregnant or catch a disease.
I blieve it’s both ignorant and reckless to confuse sex education with encouragement to have sex. They’re different things. Bristol Palin’s father has admitted that they never spoke to their kids about sex or contraception. He might want to re-think that approach in the future.
You know, kids have to have 120 hours of driver education before they can even APPLY for their driver’s licence. Instead of just wringing our hands about sexting and “the things kids get up to these days” (age can be a powerful amnesiac….what were YOU doing in your teens, hmmm?), surely we need to take a look at where kids are getting their information about sex and how we can better equip them to handle it’s physical and emotional consequences.
What kind of sex education did you get and was it sufficient? Where else did you learn stuff? And I know there are a lot of teens who read this website…I’m fascinated to hear your thoughts on the subject….