Plenty of people my age watch trashy reality fare like Rock of Love, but there’s one show I feel sort of ashamed to call my appointment television: MTV’s Teen Mom. Why am I so riveted by a show that’s about 18 year olds with babies? Two reasons: one, because it’s the exact opposite of my life; and two, because it’s dangerously close to what my life could have been if I’d made one or two decisions differently.
Like many of the girls on Teen Mom (and its companion series, 16 and Pregnant), I grew up in a medium-sized town and attended a school that didn’t teach us about sexuality, contraception, or STDs. Of all the moms on the show, I’d say my own background was the most similar to Maci’s – middle class family in a Southern town. There were many Macis, and Ambers, and Catelynns in my high school. Like Maci, I also dated an older guy who was already out of school and working. Like Farrah, I equated sex with being cool. And like almost all the girls on the show, I didn’t have access to birth control or much information about it.
What was it that kept me from having sex with my high school boyfriend and, possibly, getting pregnant as a teenager? It wasn’t the abstinence education policy at my school. If anything, it was the fact that there were several pregnant girls in my class, and that I was terrified of being one of them. I saw how “Karen”‘s boyfriend left her as soon as she found out she was pregnant. I saw how eight months pregnant “Debbie” walked down the aisle at graduation with her high school diploma and nobody clapped for her. I saw how “Julie” made her best friend promise not to tell anyone she’d got an abortion and then showed up at school the next day with “Baby Killer” written on her locker. I didn’t know much about sex, but I knew enough to know I didn’t know. That sense of fear – or was it shame? – kept me from becoming sexually active in my teens.
Am I saying I’m better than any of the girls on this show? Not a chance. Making it through my high school years without becoming a Maci had more to do with luck than anything else. Without access to birth control or basic reproductive health information, I could just have easily become a statistic as not. It was a combination of fear, confusion, and pure chance that I was able to graduate from high school without a baby in tow. If I’d gotten pregnant, I don’t know what I would have done. My state did have legal abortion, but it required parental consent, and I would have been terrified to have to break the news to my parents. Even if I’d been able to get an abortion without that, the closest Planned Parenthood was a considerable drive away, and I didn’t have a car. If I’d had the baby, would I be where I am now – a college grad with a grownup job and a savings account? I don’t know. But I’m really glad I never had to find that out.
So do I watch Teen Mom out of some kind of pride, because I want to remind myself that I made superior life choices? Maybe deep down. But I watch it because Teen Mom, more than Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill ever could, reminds me of the kid I used to be and of the kids I grew up with. Born-rich New York prep school brats don’t have anything in common with my experience. But Maci and Farrah do. And you know what? I keep watching them, rooting for them, and hoping they’ll be okay.