Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Teen pregnancy
May 10, 2006

When I think back to my own years as a teenage mom - pregnant at 16, and completely unprepared for the rigours of child-raising - I still can’t explain why it happened that way. I knew all about birth control, and had a mother who had no problem talking frankly about such matters. But I got pregnant all the same.
We can count it as a victory that Canada’s teen pregnancy rate has dropped significantly since then. While I’ve never doubted the decision to give birth to my dear son, who’s coming 32 in June, I don’t recommend teenage pregnancy as a matter of course.
In 1974 - the year my son was born - Stats Canada recorded a pregnancy rate of 58 per 1,000 in girls ages 15 to 19. By 1997, that had fallen to 43 per 1,000, and then to 31 as of 2004. Good on us for doing something right, because the U.S. rate of 100 per 1,000 in 1974 remains stubbornly the same more than three decades later, and in fact spiked all the way to 120 in the early 1990s.
But there’s an untold story about the differences between yesterday and today for Canadian girls, and the news isn’t nearly as good.
For one, Canadian teenagers are now more likely to have abortions than they are to give birth. Ninety-six per cent of them are single girls when they arrive for the procedure. Years into the so-called sexual revolution, the sad legacy of unexpected pregnancy is still a girl’s problem to sort out.
Nor has life gotten easier for the girls who do choose to have their babies. I know from my own experience that in fact, things have gotten considerably worse, largely because boys and men are no longer held to any standard of responsibility around pregnancy. If you didn’t know better, you’d think single mothers reproduced single-handedly.
People who hear that I had the first of my three children at the age of 17 often assume that it was tougher being a pregnant teenager in 1974 than it is in 2006. Not a chance.
When I was a teenage mother, I had a husband who worked at the mill in Campbell River while I stayed home and looked after the kids. We had two vehicles, a great house, and at least one holiday a year. I had no idea how to be a mother and a wife, but at least I had a guy who understood that being the father meant something.
These days, four-fifths of Canada’s single-parent families are headed by single mothers. More than a third of them live below the federal low-income cutoff. That’s an improvement over 10 years ago, when 58 per cent of them did. But it’s no 1974.
And while it’s great that fewer single mothers and their families are living in poverty, 36 per cent of them still are. Compare that to just two per cent of seniors, and seven per cent of two-parent families. Being a single mom in our country is a serious ticket to poverty.
Girls sometimes get pregnant for reasons that have nothing to do with knowledge of birth control methods, a point I proved in my own life 32 years ago. But that’s not to diminish the importance of keeping girls informed about birth control and sexuality. Avoiding unwanted pregnancy in the first place ought to always be the ultimate goal.
But once children are born, much of what ails Canada’s single moms could be solved through a drastic refit of the country’s family policies. A single mother of average circumstance simply isn’t going to be as financially comfortable as a double-income family, and will pay out a vastly higher percentage of her household income on childcare costs. She ought to be eligible for any number of tax breaks, job-related daycare benefits and temporary allowances to correct for that imbalance.
She’d be even better off if the father of her child stuck around more often. I mean no disrespect to single fathers and other fine dads, of which there are many. But the tough circumstances facing a significant number of teenage and single moms in Canada these days is all about fathers who have abdicated their responsibility.
In 1974, that really wasn’t an option. The term “shotgun wedding” was still heard from time to time, and there was a general expectation in the community that when a guy got a girl pregnant, he married her. Twice divorced, I’m in no position to tout a return of old-fashioned values. But when exactly did we decide that it was OK for our young men to walk away from their responsibility as fathers?
Life goes on even for teenage mothers, and sometimes it doesn’t turn out half-bad. But the lot of a young mom shouldn’t have to be this tough, nor fathers free to go missing in action.

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