The Tough Life of a Teen Mom

The number of teens giving birth is dropping, but teen pregnancy is still a huge problem in the U.S.

©William Neumann

Jennifer Swims was 17. She had a great boyfriend. She was doing well in school. One of the starting five on her high school basketball team, she dreamed of going to college and playing hoops. She wanted to study to become a doctor.

But that same year, Jennifer got pregnant. It was not planned. Now 18, Jennifer has a baby to take care of—his name is Jaquvaus Jamal DeGroff—and her dreams are on hold.

Today, Jennifer and Jaquvaus (JA-quay-vee-us) live in Newark, New York, with the parents of the baby’s father. Jennifer is finishing high school and working to support her child. Jaquvaus’s father, Scott DeGroff, is in the Marines. She plans to join him after she graduates. They will get married then.

Jennifer loves Jaquvaus deeply, but says she wishes that she’d waited to have a child. “Sometimes, I feel like I messed up my life by doing this so early,” Jennifer says. Her message to other teens? “It’s not worth losing your freedom,” she says. “You have your whole life to have a kid. You should wait. When it’s your own child, you can’t give him or her back to someone else.”

Tired All the Time

Between school, work, and caring for Jaquvaus, Jennifer’s schedule is grueling. She goes to school at 7:15 a.m., leaving Jaquvaus with his grandmother. When school ends at 2:35 p.m., Jennifer returns home to care for the baby. Then, at 4:00 p.m., she reports to work at McDonald’s. Often, Jennifer closes the restaurant and doesn’t get to leave until 12:35 a.m. “Jaquvaus is usually awake when I get home. I guess he smells me,” Jennifer says. “He’s looking up, wanting to play. We’ll play until about 1:30, and then we go to sleep.”

Most nights, Jennifer gets about four or five hours of sleep. She’s always exhausted. “On my breaks at work, I take naps,” Jennifer says. “They have to wake me up because I’m so knocked out. When I come home, I drink tons of coffee to keep me awake, but sometimes it doesn’t work. My body just shuts down.” Jennifer says she’d like to cut back on work, but she needs the money to support Jaquvaus. “I’ve worked before, but it was to buy fun stuff,” she says. “Now, I work to buy baby clothes and diapers.”

Finding Out

Jennifer and Scott weren’t using birth control when Jennifer got pregnant. Even so, Jennifer says the pregnancy came as a shock. At the time, Jennifer was living with an aunt and uncle—Caroline and Ben Holt—who had raised her since she was a little girl. When she began to suspect that she might be pregnant, she told her uncle first and then Scott. “I went to a drugstore and bought a pregnancy test,” Jennifer says. “My uncle was with me. I did the test, and it was positive. I was in denial. I didn’t believe it could be true. My uncle was just quiet. He was like, ‘What do you plan on doing?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’”

Jennifer broke the news to Scott the same day. “He wasn’t upset, but he wasn’t happy either,” she says. Her biggest fear was telling her Aunt Caroline. A Baptist minister, Jennifer’s aunt had talked openly with her niece about the risks of teen pregnancy. Though she counseled abstinence, she had offered to help Jennifer get birth control pills. To avoid letting her aunt down, though, Jennifer lied and said she and Scott didn’t need them.

Breaking the News

Jennifer finally got up the nerve to tell her aunt she was pregnant. “I was shocked, scared, mad, frustrated,” says Caroline Holt. “I knew she wasn’t ready for it. But most of all, I was hurt. I thought I’d taught her well, and I thought we had a pretty open relationship.”

Scott’s parents had a similar reaction. “Scott’s first words were, ‘Mom, you’re going to be really mad,’” says his mom, Gail DeGroff. “And I don’t know why, but I just knew. I said, ‘She’s pregnant, isn’t she?’ And Scott said, ‘Yeah.’ And I just started to cry. I was shocked because we have three boys, and we’d really talked to them about teen pregnancy. I didn’t want it to happen to them.”

Jennifer and Scott were lucky because both of their families were there to help. Many pregnant teens are not so fortunate. In fact, Scott’s mother was once one of those teens. She says that when she and Scott’s father conceived a child just after high school, their parents said, “Get married. You’re on your own.”

Moving Ahead

Jennifer is finishing up a high school program that will lead to a degree as a certified nurse assistant. She plans to work in a hospital and eventually go to college. “But it won’t be like I wanted it to be,” Jennifer says. “I wanted to experience living on a college campus and all the college things, and playing basketball. But now I can’t.”

Jennifer’s goal now is to provide the best possible life for her son. She wants to spare him the pain she went through in her own early childhood. As a kid, Jennifer was passed from relative to relative and didn’t have a stable home. “I always try to do better for my baby than I had done for myself when I was younger,” she says. “That’s what I keep my mind focused on.”

But it’s not easy. “Some-times I just start to cry,” Jennifer says. “Sometimes it’s because Jaquvaus is crying and I’m so stressed out. But mostly, it’s when I see other people—a mom and a dad with kids who are like a family. I know Scott’s in the Marines to make it better for us, and I’m trying to finish high school. But it’s hard for me. I would definitely tell any teens out there to wait until they are older to have kids.”

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