“Nobody really wants to get pregnant, but it happens,” Tatiana explained when I asked her if she meant to get pregnant at seventeen. We were sitting on her bed, I was holding a microphone and she was holding her three week old baby boy. “It was kind of an oopsie.”

As a 2007-2008 Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow, I spent a year in Chelsea, MA—a low income, primarily immigrant Boston neighborhood. There I partnered with Roca, a community centered non-profit. At Roca I collaborated with thirty young mothers to create a documentary piece that reveals young motherhood as they understand and experience it.

While I would like to say that the best form for the project easily and immediately presented itself, that would not be accurate. In the beginning it was difficult to find a way to engage the young mothers. I began by offering weekly journaling classes where we incorporated writing, photography, and scrap booking. Although some of the girls enjoyed the artistic freedom in the classroom, others did not.

Classes would usually start with me giving back photographs that I had taken of the young mothers and that they had taken with disposable cameras. For the first twenty minutes everyone would excitedly talk, showing each other the rooms in their homes and talking about all the things they had recently done with their children. Then when the journaling began, half of the class would stare down at their journal unwilling to make a mark. It soon became clear to me that act of writing was stifling both their excitement and what they wanted to say about young motherhood.

At this point I asked the young women in what medium they would like to explain teen pregnancy and young motherhood. Together we decided on a three-part project. First I would make portraits of them in their homes; then I would conduct, transcribe, and edit personal interviews; and finally each young mother would take her own photographs with a disposable camera. We decided on these three parts because each component revealed a different glimpse into their lives.

We continued to meet weekly to share the new photographs and read through their interviews. The women were fascinated to hear about each other’s experiences and thoughts on young motherhood. By hearing their uninterrupted stories, it soon became clear that the difficulties they had each encountered, (abandonment by baby daddies, getting a GED, financial difficulties,

dating, sick children, getting a job…) were shared experiences. 

Over the course of the year I was impressed by how incredibly open and honest the young women were. They didn’t gloss over the difficulties but told it like it is. We talked about the statistics: that currently one out of every three girls in the U.S. becomes pregnant before the age of twenty, a rate that exceeds that of most other developed countries. We were able to openly discuss some of the bare truths of teen pregnancy: young mothers are much less likely to graduate from high school and college and are more likely to require government assistance; their children tend to do poorly in school, are at a greater risk of abuse and neglect, and are more likely to become teen parents themselves. These topics were particularly difficult because many of the women were dealing with these issues themselves and the last thing they wanted was to be “just another statistic.”

After working with these women I am convinced that young people when faced with an “oopsie” can choose to raise their children the right way; however in making this choice they often find themselves burdened by such overwhelming responsibilities that their education and subsequently their ability to stay off government assistance falls behind. This is a unique time for young mothers because the social pressures to either give up a child for adoption or have the father support the family no longer obtain. Young women who become pregnant often find themselves a single parent, a student, and the sole provider. At the same time these women are still in the life stage of deciphering who they are and what kind of a person they want to be. With more responsibilities than any person would choose to shoulder, many of the negative outcomes exist because young parents who make their child a priority lack the safety net to complete their own education and development.

Despite a lack of intent to get pregnant, most of the young mothers will tell you that they have no regrets. When I asked one young women what makes a parent, she responded, “Everything you do for your child and the way you love them. It doesn’t matter if you are old, young, middle aged; a mom is a mom.” The more time I spent with these young people, the more I saw that motherhood, despite its unique difficulties for young moms, is filled with wonderful moments no matter when it begins. 

Amanda van Scoyoc
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