Respect Is An Everyday Thing: Why Young Parents Need Support

By Esperanza Dodge & Susy Chávez Herrera

Every morning a young parent in our communities wake up, feed their babies, get themselves and their children dressed, head to high school, but not before dropping their children off at childcare, (if it’s available to them).

Shame and stigma surround young parents sending the message to other teens to not end up like them. Many young people are raising families while getting an education. New Mexicans have been part of young families with 18% of young people currently parenting.

Yes, parenting is tough regardless of age, but parenting while young can be especially difficult when society is always telling young people they are doing something inherently wrong.

For example, in New Mexico, August 25th is a reminder that all families deserve recognition, especially young families who are often stigmatized and rarely, if ever, recognized or celebrated.

This year marks the 5th anniversary of the Day of Recognition for Young Parents in New Mexico, a celebration that was established in 2011 through Senate Memorial 25 an effort led by young parents with the support of NM GRADS, Young Women United and other allies.

Advocates in California have supported New Mexico’s Day of Recognition for Young Parents for four years, with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and their Young Parent’s Leaders Council leading the way to establish a Day of Recognition.

Young Women United and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice take the radical stance that young families deserve respect and that teen pregnancy should not be viewed as a societal problem. In the recent report released by Young Women United, “Dismantling Teen Pregnancy Prevention,” discredits myths regularly perpetuated by teen pregnancy prevention models. One belief that many may hold is that young families are a financial burden on society, while the report demonstrates how these “social costs” are actually due to systemic inequities, not the age one becomes a parent. Many also believe young parents have ruined their lives while in reality many young parents have actually found motivation to finish high school. In fact, in the New Mexico GRADS program 81% of teen moms in their program graduated from high school.

The California Latinas for Reproductive Justice published a third Justice for Young Families brief, “Young Fathers Speak Out!” focused on the obstacles faced by young fathers. As stated in the brief, “while adolescent parenthood is vilified as a whole, the success stories we hear from time to time only feature young mothers, and completely dismiss the many young fathers who are actively involved with their children, and who are invested in their children’s future.” We found that young fathers expressed the need for access to resources, educational and career opportunities, something that is rarely discussed when speaking about adolescent parenthood.

Young Women United believes people of all ages deserve access to information, education and resources to make decisions about their own bodies and lives, including the decision whether or not to parent. In 2013, Young Women United worked alongside young parents and partner organizations to pass House Bill 300 in New Mexico, a statewide excused absence policy for expectant and parenting students.

The policy supports young parents in continuing their education while raising their babies so they may make up schoolwork for taking time off to give birth, taking care of their child or attending prenatal appointments.

California similarly attempted to pass a similar bill, Senate Bill 1014, which would have given young parents, time off after the birth. Unfortunately lawmakers did not take the bill out of suspension and the bill died.

California did however pass a law last year, AB 302, Lactations Accommodation, requiring schools provide clean safe spaces for young parents to lactate and store their milk. The law helps students continue their education and not have to choose between continuing to feed their children and going to school.

Young parents and advocates across the U.S. are working to shift the cultural beliefs away from shame and stigma by uplifting the voices, expertise and dignity of young parents.

Collectives such as #NoTeenShame, a national movement started by young parents, bring awareness and push back on the negative messaging that continues to marginalize and paint young mothers and are fathers as bad people.

Partner organizations such as Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, and National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health also work to shift this narrative and highlight the realities and needs of young parents.

We feel the change, we hear it from the young parents around us, but know there is much more to do to push a cultural shift so that young parents and their children are allowed to thrive.

On August 25th we once again raise our voices in celebration of the countless of amazing young parents who work tirelessly to build dreams for themselves and their families. Whether in New Mexico, California, or anywhere else in the country we invite you to join us as YWU hosts the annual Twitter Chat, #RespectYoungFams, to honor young families and raise awareness around health care access for parents and babies. Young parents and allied organizations will join the chat and share incredible stories, touching videos and speak the truth of what they face everyday.

In 2011, when New Mexico’s Senate Statement Memorial 25 was passed, the memorial stated, “Many young parents are raising wonderful, healthy and happy children, all families deserve dignity and equal rights, all parents have a future and all families matter.”

As women of color and young parent allies, we know young parents are part of the fabric of our communities. They are our sisters, our brothers, or parents, or tías and they all deserve justice, dignity, and respect. And more than one day a year.

Esperanza Dodge is a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow, and the Mamas Justice Organizer at Young Women United, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Susy Chávez Herrera is a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow and Communications Director at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.