The Difference Between Being a Teen Mom and Starring on MTV’s “Teen Mom”

I have something to say about MTV’s portrayal of teen moms and the reality of actually being a teen mom: They couldn’t be further apart. It looks as if these girls have it all and are getting paid handsomely for their participation. For example, things I never had as a real-life teen mom: someone to babysit for me, a car, a nice house in a safe neighborhood (you know, the kind where you don’t have to check the sex offender registry), and time to go out with friends or on dates.

Instead of going to rehab, I went to the Federal government a.k.a welfare (WIC), so we would have cereal, milk, and juice in our kitchen. My mom and dad didn’t offer to take the baby for me so I could study I did homework while my daughter Mallory napped and while she played. The only people willing to help me with daycare were other teen moms. We traded days when we didn’t take classes to watch each other’s children. And forget living in a house! I lived in an apartment so small that the stove and refrigerator weren’t even full sized. A living room, one bedroom, one bathroom, and a mini-kitchen. That was it.

But you know what I learned from all this? Survival. We did without more than I care to remember. I can recall the exact amount of the check I got each month in order to provide for the two of us (not child support, that was also never part of my reality). Each month when the check for $259 came, I had to make rent, pay utilities, and get the things we needed with the rest. Sometimes I regret having been so open with Mallory about our money situation but, like any kid, she constantly asked for toys when we went to the store or for the same clothes and shoes her friends had. One month I went to the bank and cashed the check, taking home all $259 in a variety of bills. Then I gave Mallory, who was about 5 at the time, all of it and told her to match it up with the bills. Rent came first, then gas and water, and finally a school bill I had to pay. She carefully placed seven $20 bills on the rent pile, a few of the tens on the utility piles, and the college bill pile I had. She ran out of money before all of the bills were paid and the look of pure confusion on her face quickly turned to the realization that we didn’t have enough to pay our bills. She stopped asking for toys after that. Her attitude was always that our clothes and shoes were enough and if we had to get them from the second-hand store she would be okay with it.

Though it sounds like I taught her a valuable lesson, I somewhat regret it. It made her so fearful to ever ask for anything, so even when I got a higher paying job and could afford to buy new things, she still sheepishly asked if she could maybe have one. Is that okay, mom? I don’t want to be greedy. I wish I hadn’t created such fear in her to have new things. If I could do that portion of my mothering all over again, I would do it differently.

Those girls on Teen Mom don’t know how good they have it. It’s not often they have to look in their kids’ eyes and tell them no. And their lifestyles don’t seem to have changed all that much. Except, of course, if you count getting breast enhancements, modeling, and attending culinary school like Farrah Abraham. Unlike Amber Portwood, I never got a misdemeanor nor was I charged with domestic battery, either. That just wasn’t an option when raising my child alone. The only MTV Teen Mom with whom I can relate to goal-wise is Maci who, as I have learned, is still trying to attend college classes.

I’m not quite sure it’s their fault either. The majority of the girls on that show are so exploited for our national entertainment that the money thrown at them creates an incredibly out of touch “reality” that I can’t relate to, let alone someone who is a teen mom right now.

I’m not suggesting that MTV’s Teen Mom encourages pregnancy, but I will suggest that girls who get pregnant are probably hopeful that they can be as lucky as these girls. The biggest enemy here, then, are the people who put this on display, raise funds to support the making of this show, and profit off of producing a show that has little bearing to what being a real teen mom is like. It’s more accurate to say that teen parenting is frowned upon and that the shame thrown their way still doesn’t include shame for the fathers. I know firsthand that it’s hard to prove you’re a worthy mom when you’re 19 years old with a toddler on your hip at the grocery store. I still remember being asked time and time again: “Why are you so young?” when I took my daughter places with me and even being asked if I knew how birth control worked. We don’t support enough teenage mothers raising children by themselves even when they’re trying to make the best of an imperfect situation.

Instead, we just watch them on television and silently wish we had their money and opportunities. The opportunities I had came in the form of a bachelor’s degree with an extra helping of struggle and not being able to buy diapers by the end of the month, so I potty-trained my child early. The chances came when I had to prove, on a tiresomely monthly basis, that I wasn’t “tricking the welfare system,” and I learned to hold my head up proudly that I was, in fact, taking college classes to end my time on welfare.

My hope for my own children has always been shaped by this. Growing up, they heard my requests that they please not do what I did and that they also not make me a grandmother in my 30s the way I did to my own mother. They knew how hard things were for me and I told them stories from that time that made them think hard about their sexual health as well as how it can be a financial setback. What I hope to have imparted to them was some hard-won wisdom that allowed me to talk openly with them about a myriad of things. I hope they saw a young mother who struggled by herself and how that strength built to be the woman, and mom, that I am today. It was my desire that they could see where I’d come from and where I ended up in my own successful career as a person who, when she gets knocked down, gets back up with a fierceness while she’s swinging away at all the hard stuff.

I sincerely don’t think they’d ever get that from watching a show like Teen Mom.

Photo credit to Kevin Dooley.
Read more from Kelly at her personal blog, Mocha Momma. Latest post: People Every Day

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