Kim Hone-McMahan

The sweet-faced girls sat around a conference table munching on Chicken McNuggets and fries. They could have been with friends hanging out at a shopping mall’s food court or eating lunch in a school cafeteria. Instead, they had gathered to talk about sippy cups, their boyfriends and what it was like to have a child.

The number of teenage girls having babies has come down in recent years, but there’s still a staggering number who, instead of going to a school dance, are stuck at home changing diapers and breast feeding. In fact, the teenage birth rate in the United States continues to be higher than that of other developed countries.

The five teenagers, mostly from the inner-city, came together as part of the Beacon Journal’s America Today Project, which explores the different situations people face in their lives, and how those differences are affecting our ability to solve community and national problems. This group, facilitated by researcher Alice Rodgers of Rodgers Marketing Research, discussed what it’s like to be a child — with a child.

They were granted anonymity to allow for an open conversation about personal experiences and feelings.

“Since he came to me at the age of 14, I was happy because I’d always have somebody that would always love me,” said a 19-year-old about her son. “No matter what. Somebody who will always be by my side, who will always love me who won’t walk out of my life or nothing like that.”

Karen Freeman, director of the Teen Moms program at First Glance Student Center in Akron, doesn’t think the girls intentionally try to get pregnant. Instead, they like the attention they get from boys.

“The boys know the right things to say and promise them the right things where they give it up [have sex] and end up pregnant,” she said.

And once they get pregnant, Freeman added, the girls fantasize that their baby’s father will stick around.

“The ultimate thing is that the boys make them feel like they are loved,” Freeman said.

“I think that’s called mental abuse because they sit there and tell you what you want to hear and they’re like messing with your mind…” said one of the teenagers.

‘Baby daddies’

With the exception of the 19-year-old, all of the girls around the table at the University of Akron were single.

They grumbled about how their “baby daddies” often denied fatherhood, and they referred to guys who just want to get into girl’s pants as “dogs.”

Some maintained that their child’s father neglected to divulge that they already had babies with other women. One of the teen moms, for instance, gave birth to an infant whose father had four children by the time he was 18. “I don’t get along with my baby dad,” one of the girls said, “probably because he has so many kids.”

And at least a couple often showed great immaturity by flip-flopping on feelings about the father.

“My baby daddy, he’s a very caring person. I plan on marrying him in about three years and we kind of set a date. It’s December of 2015,” said a talkative 14-year-old who maintained that her boyfriend planned on playing basketball with an NBA team someday. “But I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to work out. He does have two kids. He has my son and another. And he does a lot for his other son. Our relationship isn’t so strong because he has another son.”

Cussing and loving

Freeman joked that she needs a chart to follow the girls’ often immature love-hate relationships.

“They will cuss them out one side and the other... and the next thing they’re writing on Facebook that they love their boys,” she said.

Despite all the drama, Freeman added, all the girls dream of a loving home with a white picket fence.

Still, during the two-hour discussion, it became clear that the girls were anything but all sugar and spice. When the discussion veered toward what they would have done, or would do, if they caught their boyfriends in the arms of another woman, most didn’t mince words.

“He knows I would have shot his [penis] off,” boasted one of the teens.

Another said she told her baby’s father that she planned to “carve” her name into his neck.

“So if he tried to sleep with another woman, they would know that he was owned,” she said, with a chuckle.

Anger in public

After a baby is born, it’s common for some families with whom Freeman is familiar to get into a public debate when things go awry.

During a recent visit with Freeman, whose office is decorated with pictures of some of the girl’s babies, she turned to her laptop computer and noted the heated, often vulgar, public argument taking place between the families of a young mother and her boyfriend on Facebook.

“It’s been ingrained in these girls that they don’t give up their baby — unless it is to family,” Freeman said.

Because?

“It’s blood,” she added. “You play, you pay. That’s just the consequence of the lifestyle they’ve been living and if they have a kid that’s just what happens.”

Kathy Royer, clinical nurse psychiatrist with 4KidHelp Center for Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in North Canton used to work with teens in a family planning clinic.

“It’s a generational cycle,” she said. “Too many girls start having sex young because they wanted to know what it was like. Sex is just something they do. It’s like breathing or eating a hamburger.”

Indeed, one of the girls in the Beacon’s focus group was 14 — born to a mother who was pregnant with her, also at age 14.

Still, not all of the girls followed in their parents’ footsteps.

“I got pregnant my senior year. For me, I gave up. I felt like once my mom told me, ‘Oh, you’re disgusting, you’ll never be anything, you’ve ruined your life,’ I stopped trying for school,” said the adopted teen. “I mean I still graduated with a 3.6, but I didn’t try to get in any major colleges, no scholarships.

“They had so many high expectations. I was always on top… did everything right, sports and my grades and everything else. And once that [pregnancy] happened, my whole family stopped talking to me.”

Some 41 percent of today’s births are to single women. Fifty years ago, it was 5 percent, reports the Pew Research Center.

“We have such a cultural acceptance now of unmarried parenting,” explained Cheryl Biddle, director of Alliance for Healthy Youth in Akron. “One of the concerns I have is children in poverty. Unfortunately, that is one of the outcomes of unmarried, single moms.

“Today, the children of single moms are four times more likely to be poor,” Biddle added.

The 19-year-old said she has been struggling with homelessness since the birth of her child — five years ago.

“I was in a situation where I had nowhere to go, nowhere to live, had a child… we’re [including husband and child] staying with our friends now,” she offered.

Government assistance

They alluded to issues of homelessness and money during the focus group session. Certainly, government assistance is something that these women count on to clothe, feed and house their children.

Often times, stories about unwed teen moms in the Beacon Journal result in terse reaction from readers — even if they don’t know all the facts.

For instance, when the Beacon Journal published a story about unmarried 19-year-old twins having babies at the same time, the comments section attached to the online version of the story on Ohio.com was packed with so many off-color remarks that the newspaper had to close off comments.

Though such information was not included in the story, some readers who commented assumed that the mothers would be on assistance and lashed out at those who have children out of wedlock. Certainly, that assumption can be a reality. And Freeman understands why people get incensed when teen moms, who don’t have a family who can financially support them, are forced to use tax money to survive.

People get upset

“People get irate. It’s because they are supporting someone [through their taxes],” said Freeman.

Still, she doesn’t think the girls intentionally get pregnant just to collect assistance. Instead, it’s just something that happens.

“Because, of the cycles and the communities of poverty in which many live, it’s just a given if a girl gets pregnant she will get housing, grocery money and a subsidy check,” Freeman added. “Again, I don’t think it’s intentional — but there are no negatives for them.”

Freeman makes no bones about it — she doesn’t agree with the girl’s lifestyles. So why help?

“Because we [First Glance] are a faith-based organization and I think we are supposed to love them as Jesus loves us. And God keeps forgiving me and I keep messing up. He’s still standing there. So when these girls mess up, I want to still be standing there.”

Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or kmcmahan@thebeaconjournal.com.

Focus groups for this series were conducted for the paper by Alice Rodgers of Rodgers Marketing Research in 2012. The stories were held until detailed birth data could be obtained from the Ohio Department of Health, which took several months.