Former ‘pregnant girl’ steps up support to help other teenage moms


When Nicole Lynn Lewis got pregnant in high school, she thought it might end her dream of going to college and having a career. She was ashamed, in part because of the way people viewed her as a pregnant black teenager.

“At that point, as I watched those two pink lines appear on this test on my bathroom counter, [I felt] that I was now in a different category as an individual and as a person, “she said,” that I would forever be in that category of someone who had made all the wrong decisions, someone who was not going to succeed. ”

Lewis miscarried three months into her pregnancy, but later became pregnant with the same boyfriend – despite being on birth control pills at the time. In 1999, when her daughter was still a child, Lewis enrolled in the College of William & Mary. She faced many challenges – including an abusive boyfriend and housing insecurity – but managed to get on to college, then college.

In 2010, Lewis founded Generation Hope, a nonprofit group that helps teenage mothers in the Washington, DC metro area. with financial support and mentorship to help them thrive in college and help their children thrive in kindergarten.

“These are the times when we need to rally around mothers, no matter how old they are or how they gave birth to their children,” Lewis says. “It’s not about pairing our students with experts. It’s about pairing them with cheerleaders, with people saying, ‘You can do it – if you have a teething baby. at 2 in the morning and you have a mid-session the next day, we’re going to get through it. You can do that. It’s about having a village. ”

Lewis, who is now in her 40s, was named a CNN Hero in 2014. Last year, she was named one of the inaugural laureates of the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund in recognition of her work in combating structural racism and systemic in America. His new thesis is called Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teenage Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families.

Interview highlights

On how teenage girls don’t always have control over their bodies

The World Health Organization released a report several years ago, and in the report they talked about the fact that teenage pregnancy is more of a lack of choice than a deliberate choice. And it always really stood out to me as a great way to really reframe the way we think about teenage pregnancy and young women who find themselves in that situation.

I think there is a sense of helplessness among young people across the country. And what we are seeing is that even access to birth control is a challenge for many young people. Having effective and quality health care and being able to access it is a challenge. And so I think we really have to start to understand the underlying issues that are at play that really rob young people of their ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and their lives.

On reproductive coercion and how her then-boyfriend didn’t want her to take the pill

I think this is another aspect of teenage pregnancy that a lot of people don’t know about is that you are often, as a young woman, in those relationships where you are being pressured by your partner to get pregnant. . And often, it’s not because your partner is so excited to settle down and have a family. It’s more about the control your partner can have over you during pregnancy and making sure you stay with her, staying home, making sure you don’t work out or go after your dreams, all of these various things which they find intimidating or threatening to the relationship. We see it every day at Generation Hope in so many situations where we support young parents whose children are the product of this reproductive coercion. And I think that’s something that a lot of people, when we think about teenage pregnancy, we really have no idea what’s going on in these relationships with young people. And it happens every day.

On how teenage mothers also experience postpartum depression and a particular type of isolation

Many mothers go through this for months, when you cannot see the light in the world. And I think, again, we’re talking about that when it comes to older mothers, mothers who maybe have a traditional path to motherhood. But we don’t talk about it when it comes to teenage mothers. … We have this thing about “You made your bed now, now lay in it” – how damaging it is. It’s a time as a new mom, so many of us can understand the fragility you have as a new mom and the uncertainty and just the fact that the world feels upside down most of the time. You are in the dark, even without postpartum depression. … And yet, for young mothers, we tear the carpet under them, and we have to recognize the fact that it is damaging and that it causes so many problems, not only for the mother, but also for this child.

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Why black college students and young black parents have the most college debt

There are so many things that contribute to this, from the racial wealth gap that black families have in terms of how you pay for college in the first place, they’re more likely to have to. take out loans. But if you are a college student as a parent, you not only take out loans for tuition, but you take out loans for child care. You potentially take out housing loans. It certainly was for me. I lived on student loans to make sure that I could not only go to school, but that my daughter and I had food, had a roof over our heads. Child care is incredibly expensive. I think we’ve seen all the problems and all the problems in our child care industry in Canada. And so there are no affordable childcare solutions.

If you are a parent student and all of these costs are high, they stack up. And so, either you hit the graduation stage and you have huge debt, but at least you are able to have that title to try and get a family support job. [Or], for many, many black parents who are in college, you don’t even make it to graduation. You may need to stop due to different circumstances. And then you are riddled with this student debt, and you have no proof to prove.

Help prevent teenage pregnancy and help teenage mothers at the same time

I think the first misconception most of us have is that you can’t support the prevention of teenage pregnancy. and help teenage parents be successful, and that’s not true. These two things can coexist. … I think we can continue these really wonderful efforts on the teenage pregnancy prevention side of Comprehensive Sexuality Education, ensuring that teens have access to effective birth control and contraception, making sure adults talk to their children about reproductive health and sexuality and have those important conversations over time. All of these efforts are extremely important and can come to fruition. And also we can make sure that we delete [educational and economic] obstacles for young people going through pregnancy. …

I think the other thing we really need to start naming – I’m talking to people who work in teenage pregnancy prevention, and they don’t talk about race. They are not talking about systemic issues. And you’re missing the mark if you’re working through teenage pregnancy and you don’t name the role of race and really don’t talk about: how to tackle these underlying issues that can often lead to pregnancy in children. adolescent girls who go beyond contraception and beyond sex education? And this is really about hope for young people, to ensure that all young people in this country have the capacity to lift themselves out of poverty and overcome racial oppression. And what do we all do to make sure that happens, and that they have hope to keep going and doing some really great things in their lives?

On the link between homelessness and early pregnancy

First, I think we kind of have to name the fact that there are a lot of young homeless people before a pregnancy even kicks in. It really speaks to those underlying issues that are at play in the lives of young people before pregnancy. And poverty is a big one. And we have to stop this kind of framing the teenage pregnancy issue as being that all is well in a young person’s life, she gets pregnant, then she becomes homeless, then she falls into poverty.

What often happens is that young people find themselves in these situations of food insecurity and housing insecurity – really dark situations – difficult family situations where pregnancy is a symptom of these, these more problems. large who have played in their lives for a long time. there is time. And so, housing insecurity and teenage pregnancy are linked because sometimes it is already happening in that young person’s life before pregnancy. Sometimes this happens as a result of pregnancy.

There are families or parents who say, “You have to leave now that you are pregnant”, and they kick these young people out into the streets. And then sometimes, as you try to support your children, housing affordability alone is such a challenge. And as a young parent with maybe a high school diploma – and more than likely do not a college diploma or a post-secondary diploma – housing becomes extremely difficult. So it’s deeply linked to teenage pregnancy.

How being a mother now – married with a committed partner – compares to her experience as a teenage mom

Oh my God, it was night and day to have someone on the parenting journey – it’s huge. And to be a team together. I remember having our first child together. It was sometimes difficult to let him take care of me and the baby when we got home from the hospital, because my first experience was completely alone. And really to have a partner and someone who is there, who is involved, who wants to change diapers, who wants to talk about report cards, who wants to be there for football games and the good things, but also who wants to navigate. the most difficult things with you? It’s completely different. And it was a wonderful experience to see him be a part of my oldest daughter’s life and also to see him as the father of our children. It was amazing.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To learn more, visit Fresh Air.

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