Ashley Wilkens of Carmel, Ind., got pregnant at 16, delivered a boy and placed the baby for adoption. Now 18, she works in retail sales, is studying for her GED and has filed paperwork to join the Navy.
She stayed in high school halfway through her pregnancy and says her peers seemed fine with it.
"It just seems like it's OK and it was accepted. People would say: 'Look, how cute. You have a little baby bump. That's adorable.' "
But even though friends and media portrayals may be more accepting of teen pregnancy today than in the past, the "baby bump" still generates a wide range of reactions when the mother-to-be is a teenager.
Think of the comments in the blogosphere when 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, star of Nickelodeon's Zoey 101, announced her pregnancy. She's reportedly due in May.
Or the barrage of conflicting opinions generated by the movie Juno, about a fictional 16-year-old with plenty of attitude who gets pregnant and finds her baby an adoptive home. It was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, but the kudos have been somewhat mixed, depending upon attitudes toward teen pregnancy.
"In some quarters, it's frowned on, and in other quarters, it may be discouraged but not so frowned upon," says Thomas Cottle, a sociologist and psychologist at Boston University.
Acceptance May Be Cultural
Though many say society has become more accepting of all kinds of once-taboo issues, including teen pregnancy, Cottle says he isn't sure it's actually more accepted.
"There is not one culture in America," he says. "It is a very complicated and complex culture. With all these races and ethnic groups and social classes and religions, this thing called 'teen pregnancy' is experienced in very different ways and it's thought about in very different ways."
Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is concerned about the message girls will get from Juno, which she believes is unrealistic. The movie paints a portrait of a pregnant teen who is not only extremely self-possessed but who also has a very supportive family.
"Adults understand the bigger picture and what the risks are of adolescence and childbearing," Brown says. "Adolescents see it through the lens of the 'me generation.' Adolescence is also a self-absorbed time. If the baby got handed off and she got the boyfriend back (as happens in Juno), what's the problem?"
Brown says part of her concern is the film's tone toward unintended pregnancy. "We're all now tolerant and non-judgmental. Apparently that now extends to getting pregnant and having babies," she says.
"Less than 2 percent of teens place their babies up for adoption. The vast majority keep them. We have large numbers of teen mothers, whereas in an earlier time, we had large numbers of married teen mothers." Most teens giving birth now are single, she says.
Deborah Roffman, who works with elementary through high school students as a human sexuality educator in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., says Juno is a story "about a remarkably resilient young person, and that's why there's a movie about her."
"She's atypical. She's also atypical in that she has a support system," which most pregnant teens do not have, Roffman says.
Kids of Teens Face Challenges
Research on teen mothers shows that their children often are raised in poverty because teenage mothers are less educated and likely to have fewer job skills.
Studies also suggest that children of teenage mothers have lower math, reading and vocabulary test scores than children of older mothers, and that when children of teen mothers become adolescents themselves, they have lower odds of completing high school.
But young people don't look at the long-term picture, says psychologist David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a non-profit research group based in Minneapolis. "They don't think of all the realistic implications that are coming down the road. They focus on how wonderful this is going to be to have this wonderful baby who I can love and who will love me."
Pop culture professor Gary Hoppenstand of Michigan State University disagrees with those who suggest Juno makes teen pregnancy seem cool.
"Moral issues aside, you have a younger person who got into a situation and, in a sense, is taking responsibility for it and resisting tremendous social pressure," says Hoppenstand, 53. "It's showing a kind of strength and empowerment for the young that older, traditional people will not understand or comprehend.
"In very traditional values, there are absolutes and no gray areas. It's either right or wrong. What's being represented here in the popular culture is that there are gray areas and no absolutes. Young people recognize and understand that."