GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 28, 2008

Challenges of a high school mom

By Kristen Grieco

As a freshman, Amanda Ireland made a list of goals: get a job, buy a car, graduate.

It wouldn't have been an insurmountable plan for most students newly entering high school, and it might not have been for Ireland except for another list she had — one of her priorities. That list had three items on it as well: her daughter, schoolwork and herself, in that order.

"I walked into my freshman year pregnant," she said. "To this day, I don't know how I did it."

A shocking tripling in pregnancies at Gloucester High School — from three or four normally to 10 so far this school year — and reports that teen pregnancy is on the rise nationwide for the first time in more than a decade may begin to make challenges like those Ireland faced more common for high school students.

Today, Ireland is a 17-year-old senior, and her story is one of success, but she is the first to say that to achieve even the simplest of goals has required tremendous sacrifice.

Her daughter, Haley, was born during October of her freshman year, and Ireland has made constant trade-offs throughout her high school career.

"She always gets everything first," Ireland said. "She needs it more than I do."

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The increase in pregnancies at Gloucester High could begin to create pressure on the support system to which Ireland largely attributes her ability to stay in school over the past four years. Pathways Young Families Initiative provides free child care and parenting-education services to teen mothers, at first at the high school and later in an Emerson Avenue facility. The program has space for seven teen mothers from Gloucester and Peabody high schools.

This year, they are at their lowest numbers of infants born to teens ever, said Lisa Sorrento, program coordinator of the Pathways Young Families Initiative. There is one baby in that program, which begins working with mothers in their third trimester, and two teens expecting.

"There's absolutely a correlation between what happens for young parents and children and the support available to them," said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. "Nothing can happen without stable child care."

If the program does not have space for an expectant mother, she may need to hold off on going back to school, Sorrento said. While they never have had a year in which Pathways couldn't accommodate Gloucester students, Sorrento said that the pregnancy spike next year could make it a difficult one.

"We don't turn anybody away," said High School Principal Joseph Sullivan, whom Ireland credits as a major source of support. "We'll figure it out. We have to keep them in school."

A difficult decision

Ireland became pregnant as a seventh-grader, then living in Ohio. The decision to have Haley wasn't easy for Ireland, who was barely entering her teenage years herself.

She wrestled with her options — keeping her child, giving it up for adoption or having an abortion — and began selecting families for an open adoption in Ohio.

But then circumstances changed. Ireland found she was moving back to her hometown of Gloucester, and she had a fateful doctor's appointment.

"Once I saw the heartbeat, I couldn't do it," she said. "I had to keep her."

According to Bill Albert, deputy director for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, fewer than 2 percent of teen mothers end up giving their children up for adoption.

A challenging start

School officials in Gloucester decided that she was "age-appropriate" skip eighth grade to begin ninth grade early, Ireland said, so she enrolled for barely a month before having to go on six weeks of maternity leave when Haley was born.

While Haley spent her days at the high school's child care center, Ireland attended classes, leaving to breast-feed whenever Haley got hungry. Instead of having a study period or elective, Ireland spent a block a day taking a parenting class or volunteering in the child care center.

"It's been a big help having the program there," she said.

The support was essential, but raising a child meant compromises. If Haley was sick, Ireland stayed home with her. When Haley wanted to play in the afternoons, Ireland had to leave her homework until late at night, when her daughter went to sleep. Popular music was traded for the tunes from Haley's singing potty, of which Ireland knows every one.

"I chose to stay at school," Ireland said. "There have been many, many, many hard times, though."

She achieved one goal — a job cleaning rooms at an inn — but had to give it up last year when Haley became too old and active to play quietly in the office there. She has plans for college, beginning at North Shore Community College next year and hopefully moving to a four-year school after that, but is still unsure of how she will manage Haley's day care on top of it.

And while Ireland said she never regrets her decision to raise Haley, she reacts with disbelief when her peers tell her how lucky she is to be a mother.

"They always say the same thing," she said. "'Oh, I know what it's like. I have a sibling,' or 'I baby sit.' But you can give a sibling back (to your parents)."

A missing parent

Ireland has raised her daughter largely on her own. Her mother, with whom she lives, occasionally baby sits, but Ireland believes that Haley should be with her whenever she's not in day care.

Haley's father last saw her over the summer, and Ireland frequently shows her a picture to remind her of who he is. She recalls with sadness a moment awhile back when Haley walked into the living room, threw her hands up, and asked, "Where's my daddy?'"

Despite the fact that they live in different states, Ireland tries to stay in touch with Haley's father, who is now 18. It's an endeavor, she says, that has had mixed results.

"He never really had to do it," Ireland said. "He was given the excuse that he's a guy."

Ireland's parents quickly separated her from her boyfriend when they found she was pregnant, a move that still confuses her. She worries that, with Haley's father detached from her during pregnancy, he also became detached from his daughter.

"It didn't make sense," Ireland said. "I was pregnant — the horses were already out of the barn."

The cost of teen pregnancy

Since leaving her job, Ireland has gone on welfare, adhering to strict policies for teen mothers. She helps her mother with household bills and pays all of Haley's expenses, leaving around $30 at the end of the month for her to spend on herself, she said.

Teen childbearing exacts a financial toll from taxpayers as well. According to a 2004 study from the National Campaign Against Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, families begun by a teen birth cost taxpayers $9.1 billion a year, or $1,430 per child annually. Most of that — $8.6 billion — is attributed to children born to teens under 18, resulting in a per-child cost of $4,080 per year.

In Massachusetts, the cost is even higher, according to the study. With $6,001 per child per year being shouldered by taxpayers, the state has the fifth highest annual cost for children born to teen mothers.

Quinn said that Ireland's case is typical. She often sees young people who do not go on welfare right away, but the burden of having a child at such a young age eventually becomes heavy enough that they need to turn to the state for support.

"Their ability to get off (welfare) varies widely," Quinn said. "All young people, if they believe in their opportunity, will safeguard their future in some way."

In fact, Ireland intends to do just that. When she completes college, she plans to work toward opening her own bed and breakfast.

"I've never been rich. I've always been poor," Ireland said. "I mean, I've always had a roof over my head, food on the table, but I never want to have to worry about bills — especially for Haley.

"My past," she said, "just kind of made me more determined."

Kristen Grieco can be reached at kgrieco@gloucestertimes.com.