I was a pregnant teen, seeing billboards with scary statistics about guaranteed failure, walking amid a society that told me a child will ruin my life. I was isolated, depressed, and faced with the reality that my future was not entirely in my control. But at some point, I had to choose between getting by in this negative environment or redefining it.
When I found out I was pregnant at 17 in 2005, I turned to my parents for guidance. Even with the uncertainty of how they would take the news, I never expected them to push me away and kick me out of my home. That same night, I took what I could carry and moved into my boyfriend’s house.
I was an honor-roll student in a private high school in Massachusetts, volunteering for the mayor’s youth groups when I wasn’t at work. But I was just 10 weeks pregnant, with no visible bump, when the rumors started unfolding within school walls. Without my permission, my school nurse spread the news of my pregnancy in the teachers’ lounge like a box of free doughnuts. I was hurt. Unlike most parents, I never had the chance to announce my pregnancy on my terms or to be excited about sharing the news. I wasn’t even given enough time to decide whether or not I was going to keep my child before teachers were staring me down. My own pregnancy didn’t feel like it belonged to me.
I decided to finish my senior year in a more supportive public high school near my boyfriend’s home while he was away for active duty in the Marine Corps. I had to do it all alone. Determined to stay on a positive path, I worked toward being a good mother just as hard as I worked toward being a good student. Some of the decisions I made as a pregnant teen seemed strange to others. For starters, I wanted a natural childbirth. I knew enough mothers who were so often talking about the benefits that I decided I wanted to start my child off with a natural delivery too. Second, I wanted to exclusively breastfeed my daughter—which isn’t “common” in the teen parenting community.
Only 2.5 percent of teen moms continue breastfeeding their babies until they are a year old, compared to 25 percent of older mothers. Since 2000, the number of teen moms who breastfeed has decreased by nearly nine percent.
Even on MTV’s “Teen Mom 2,” teenage mother Kailyn Lowry says that she breastfed her baby, but the network never showed it. But MTV ended up reversing that decision. Lowry tweeted: “Teen Mom 3 will show me breastfeeding for a year. I’m breaking that stigma and normalizing it again.”
After 19 hours of labor, my child was placed on my nipple. Excited to finally have her in my arms, I cried from joy. It took a while but she eventually latched on and my joy morphed into a shriek. It was painful—more painful than anyone told me it would be. But then I reminded myself that I pushed an entire human being out of my body, pursed my lips, and carried on.
There were points I thought that breastfeeding might not be for me anymore. Now that I look back, I recognize there is a larger cultural obsession with and sexualization of breasts. I always wanted boobs, nice boobs, which I could proudly sport around like trophies granting me access to womanhood. So when I had to look at my prized anatomical possessions as baby milk-makers, I had a hard time letting that go.
After talking to other breastfeeding mamas, I decided to let school staff know that I would be exclusively breastfeeding my child. This meant I would need to pump milk at school two to three times a day to be able to feed my child for six hours a day, five days a week, for the next six months.
As if my request to breastfeed was a ridiculous idea, they suggested I turn to formula. Part of me wanted to cave in, give up, and not get on their bad list. I was in the situation where I had to decide whether I would become the angry teen mom or the one who keeps their lives simpler. But I was furious. How could my school try to take away one of the best decisions I felt I made for my child?
I called the woman who arranged my tutoring and maternity leave, who was my school’s first-ever Co-Operative Parenting Educator. As an advocate for expectant and parenting students, she informed me of my Title IX rights. As a new mother who was exclusively breastfeeding, I found out that not being able to give milk on my baby’s set schedule while I was at school is considered a violation of Title IX. By barring me from taking breaks to pump breast milk, I would end up with engorgement, which can lead to extreme pain and infection, causing a health issue the school could have played a part in preventing. Eventually, the amount of breast milk I would produce would decrease and my inability to pump milk in school could affect my child’s access at home. Some asked me why I bothered to go through with all of this or why I tried so hard. The answer was simple—only I have the right to make the decisions for my child, and these decisions directly impacted our health. In the long run, Title IX prevented me from having to choose between my health and my child’s health or my education. The educator simply helped the school understand that I had the right to breastfeed and that its sole role was to support me.
While there were many teen parents in my school before me, none have pumped. Prior to experiencing the bitterness and pushback from school, I would have assumed teen moms just didn’t want to breastfeed their kids. I began to feel like maybe there were so many injustices in situations prior to my own battle. How many others tried to breastfeed before me?
There have been a few cases of fellow teen moms fighting against their schools’ bans on breastfeeding. Earlier this year, a student in Delaware, Jaielyn Belong, was granted permission to breastfeed under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But her superintendent, Dan Curry, seemed less than enthused about the accommodations for her and other teen moms. “They’ll have to bring their own cooler to store (breast milk) in. We’re not comfortable with storing it in the teacher's refrigerator where they store their lunch,” Curry said. And in 2011, a Georgia school district banned breastfeeding by both students and employees—although it did set up private pumping areas.
Unlike what most people assume, bitterness was common from staff, never students. Even after the school granted me the right to pump milk, things were still tough. The most horrifying experience was during my first week back in school after maternity leave. My teacher wouldn’t let me leave class to pump, and my breasts were becoming engorged. A few moments later, I began to leak milk through my breast pad, through my bra, through my shirt, in class. Finally, she looked at me and said aloud, “Natasha, you’re leaking breast milk,” and my face turned red. Embarrassed, I ran out of class. I thought this would be my last day trying to breastfeed in school. I considered dropping out so I could breastfeed at home or giving up on breastfeeding so I could stay in school. Either way, they made me feel like I could not do both.
As teen parents, our very presence in the classroom is proof that we want to be there, that we want to learn, and that we want to succeed. Fighting every single day to breastfeed and stay in school, I had to come up with my own solution. I volunteered to give up my homeroom period and my lunch break to pump milk. Twice a day, I would run to my locker, pull out my pump, run down to the nurse’s office, and shut the door. For 15 minutes, I latched two pumps to my breasts and ate alone until I had enough milk for my child’s lunch the next day. I would clean up, put the milk in her fridge, run to my locker, put my pump away, grab books for my next class, and go back to being a student.
So why do people assume teen moms choose not to breastfeed? Just like any other decision we are forced to make, are we given all the information and tools we need and the right to make the decision best for us?
Throughout all of this, there weren’t support groups for me, lactation consultants readily available, or any sort of positive messaging to my demographic that would help me better understand the benefits of breastfeeding. Even when I needed an actual pump, I looked at the cost and could not afford one. But throughout my pregnancy, I acquired an amazing social worker and advocate who did what she could for me, because she believed I could be an awesome mother. This meant connecting me with resources, supporting my needs, and believing in me and my parenting choices every single day. Not everyone has this type of support; I was unfairly lucky. I recognize how privileged I was to have access to these resources because of the town I lived in, the connections I made, and the people who wanted to help me. While I’m grateful, my biggest motivation is to ensure that every young mom has the respect and support she needs to make her own decision to breastfeed or not, without having to weigh in the negativity of others.