June 4, 2021
As new parents and high school students, they were determined to build a better future amid unprecedented hardship.
Amya Noble initially never thought that she could be pregnant. She was 16, a sophomore high school student, with no plans to raise a child.
But in December 2019, she started feeling particularly sleepy. She was sick and hungry at the same time. Then one morning she looked down and saw something new: a road map with blue veins crossing her chest. However, she was certain that she had had her period last month. Well, pretty sure. That day, instead of going to school, she went to the Family Dollar Store around the corner and bought a pregnancy test. It was positive.
To her great surprise, an ultrasound in January confirmed that she had indeed been months pregnant and was fast approaching the end of the first trimester. Her baby was on the way, as was a pandemic – although no one could have told her the last part.
“Something just clicked in my head: Now I just have to go to school,” she said. “Because I was really quite careless before.”
There is little research on how teenage parents fared over the past year, but abundant evidence suggests that both mothers and teenagers have experienced a unique set of stressors.
The isolation of lockdown left many teenagers feeling anxious, depressed, and unmotivated. A national poll of teenage parents ‘polls published in March by CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, found that around half of respondents said their teenagers’ mental health had changed or worsened as a result of the pandemic.
The teenage parents also had a year of uncertainty and difficulty. But for those fortunate enough to have a supportive network of teachers and family members, there were also rays of hope. We spoke to three teenage mothers at Nowell Leadership Academy, a small public charter school for pregnant, parenting, and underserved students in Providence, RI, about the newfound pressures of being a mother for the first time and the challenges of being in the middle of school staying in school is a pandemic.
18-year-old Ania Snead said she fell into depression after giving birth to her son, which was worsened by conflicts with her son’s father last year. Online school is also a struggle, she added, because it learns better in person.
“I just sat there surrounded by everything that was wrong,” she said. “I felt myself digging deeper and deeper into a hole that I almost couldn’t climb out of. And I’m so young, you know? “
After she and her boyfriend broke up, she began making some positive changes for both her son and herself.
“I have many examples of people around me, of people who just screw their lives up and get stuck,” said Ania, whose son is now 17 months old. “And I don’t want to be part of it. I actually want to travel the world, live my life before I die. “
She began to take care of her schoolwork more and enrolled her son in the school’s in-house daycare, which he can attend for free with a government voucher. In two years she wants to go to college and eventually become a nurse.
“The easiest way is to stop,” said Ania. “And I can’t do that.”
Gladys Dennis, 19, a refugee who fled the conflict in Ivory Coast, feels similarly motivated. Gladys and her family members came to the United States in 2019 when she was pregnant. She hopes to become an obstetrician.
There are many challenges in her home country, said Gladys.
“Sometimes you didn’t have any food in Africa,” she added. “And in Africa we had no child benefit. So it’s a little better here. “
One of her biggest difficulties last year was having to give birth alone in the hospital with no loved ones nearby because the hospital’s pandemic rules did not allow visitors.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I was there from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.”
Amya also faced hospital restrictions that prevented her from bringing her usual support network with her. She received a visit when she gave birth in July, so she chose her son’s father.
“All of my work experience has been kind of junk,” she said.
“I wanted to have a natural birth even though the pain was very excruciating,” said Amya, who felt pressured to have epidural anesthesia and had a difficult labor while wearing a mask.
“They told me to breathe,” she said. “I couldn’t because I continued to hyperventilate.”
At the hospital, she added, the staff treated her like a child. “You haven’t explained a lot of things to me,” she said.
Last year, Amya said she doesn’t mind being quarantined, but seeing her son so isolated was hard.
“I want him to go out and enjoy the world, get some sun, meet people, you know?” She said.
In the United States, the teen birth rate has fallen dramatically over time, but it is still higher than most developed countries.
And racial differences persist. In 2019, Hispanic and black teenagers in the United States had more than twice as many children as non-Hispanic white teenagers. These racial groups were also disproportionately affected by Covid-19 compared to whites. They experienced more infections, illnesses and deaths – not because of an inherent susceptibility to the virus, but because social and environmental factors have made them more exposed to Covid-19, experts say.
In November, Amya and her entire family – including her son and father – were diagnosed with Covid-19. However, no one got seriously ill, and within a few weeks they recovered.
With the school already set up to support student parents in addition to those who found traditional public school challenging, Nowell was well positioned to help the student body during the pandemic, said Jessica Waters, the school’s executive director.
The administrators decided that classes would be virtual, with ample opportunity to chat with teachers outside of class. Additionally, students could come to campus every day throughout the week to study in learning pods from up to 15 other students if they needed tutoring, a quiet place to work, or access to services like the school’s daycare, which stayed open throughout the school year.
“This enabled us to never close the school,” said Ms. Waters.
For Gladys, who lives with 12 other family members, a quiet workplace on campus was essential.
When she tried to attend the online school at home, “I can’t really understand what the teacher is saying,” she said. “I just like to be personal.”
For Amya it was exactly the opposite: virtual school attendance at home turned out to be a convenient way to keep track of her schoolwork. A few weeks before the birth, she was able to take a short online summer course in English and history. Soon after, she started another math and science class, but couldn’t finish it because the baby was there.
“To be honest, I’ll do all the honors I can,” she said. “I didn’t want to miss a chance.”
In the fall, her mother and the baby’s father watched her son when they were not at work, and she met with her teachers online while her baby slept. Sometimes she would stay up until 1:00 a.m. to do her homework.
“I was exhausted, yes,” she said. “But I think I have to do this training.”
Produced by Tiffanie Graham