Demographic information is listed in . On average, women became pregnant at 16.1 and ranged from 14 to 18 years old. Many turned a year older at delivery. The average age at the time of the first interview was 35.5 and ranged from 20 to 65 years old. Despite circumstances, women were academically motivated. Most (n = 28; 94%) either achieved their high school diploma or obtained their General Equivalency Diploma (GED).
Descriptive Characteristics of American Indian Women Who Experienced Pregnancy at Age 18 or Younger (N = 30)
Women's trajectories into early childbearing are reported elsewhere.43
Oriented to the world as young indigenous, impoverished women they described chaotic and diminished childhoods that often set them upon a risky path. Wedged between childhood and young adulthood, competing concerns created existential turning points for these women. With the experience to look back and evaluate their past, women shared the significance of early childbearing as: 1) mourning a lost childhood, 2) seeking fulfillment, and 3) embodying responsibility (see ).
Meanings of Early Childbearing Meanings as described by Adult American Indian Women Who Experienced Pregnancy at Age 18 or Younger (N = 30)
Mourning a Lost Childhood and Expected Future: “It was like a whirlwind”
Mourning a lost childhood expressed the tumultuous and isolating aspects of early childbearing. Becoming a young mother was often described as a surrealistic experience: “It was like a whirlwind.” Barriers in the community, in her family, and within herself at times characterized this as a troublesome time. Some women felt ashamed of their pregnancy and took measures to conceal their condition. Ignoring the symptoms of her pregnancy at age 15, Cleone, who played the entire varsity basketball season pregnant recounted memories of her denial.
I was able to jump, and at the time I didn't know you weren't supposed to do it. It did hurt to jump, and it killed to rebound, but I hid it. I remember being in the bathtub and seeing my stomach move, and I remember just pushing, “Stop! I can't be pregnant!” Because I had my mind convinced that I had my period, that there was no way I could be pregnant. But even seeing my baby move, I still said, “I'm not pregnant. I'm not pregnant.” And I would purposely lay on my stomach so that nobody would think about it. God it was hard to breathe… [and later] It was like a stigma. If you were Indian, female and then got pregnant, you would drop out and never finish school. I fit that mold and I was ashamed of fitting that mold.
Cleone's identity as a young pregnant Indian woman was at odds with her expectations for her future and identity, creating immense shame. This shame led to self harm of rigorous physical activity and methods of concealment, potentially endangering her pregnancy.
Loss was also discussed in terms of childhood. Cienna became pregnant at age 15 and likened the dramatic changes precipitated by her pregnancy to a whirlwind as she transformed from a high school cheerleader to a married mother on welfare by age 17 Similarly, Jade who at age 15 became pregnant, mourned her lost dream of attending college when taking on young motherhood.
Many women wistfully reflected on a childhood that could never be recovered and a disintegrating anticipated future. Looking back they recognized in some ways their pregnancy filled a void.
Seeking Fulfillment: “To fill that void”
Feeling a void in their life, some women revealed that they sought fulfillment through love and affection. In Jade's experience, young motherhood narrowed life's opportunities, but also filled an emotional void.
My mom has never told me that she has loved me. Never. We didn't have affection, like motherly affection, because she grew up without a mom. I just firmly believe that's how you learn to love, to nurture, and about compassion, from your mother. And she didn't have one. She knew how to provide for us, but she didn't know how to give love. And, that's something I always wanted was love, and just to feel that someone needed me, and that's what I was lacking. So when I had my son, he needed me and he was someone to fill that void.
Jade's pregnancy happened when she felt emotionally isolated. Given her circumstances, she was determined to cultivate an interdependent relationship with her son that was absent from her childhood.
Some women sought a partner to fulfill their emotional needs. Describing herself as a “little hellion” who partied (used substances), two years later Mariel found herself pregnant. Coming from a broken family and a slew of foster care experiences, Mariel confided that she purposely stayed with her older abusive boyfriend who “said the things I wanted to hear.”
Women sought an emotional sanctuary where their love and affection would be reciprocated; although not always met, many women viewed childbearing as a positive force that changed their lives.
Embodying Responsibility: “I settled down”
Embodying responsibility was characterized by three subthemes (). These included a) reorganizing life, which described the epiphanic experiences that motivated the women to move toward responsibility; b) confirming adulthood, which characterized the actions and experiences that reinforced the women's responsible behavior; and c) curbing risky activities, which explained how the women steadily progressed toward responsible behavior and away from destructive lifestyles. Most women (n = 22) indicated that early childbearing created avenues for them to assume responsibility for themselves and their infant. Some expressed how it may have been instrumental in curtailing substance abuse problems or risky activities like partying.
Reorganizing Life: “It was a turning point for me”
Yadira started drinking at age 13 in response to absent, drug-dependent parents. Despite her boyfriend's denial of paternity, she wanted to settle down. Becoming pregnant at age 15 refocused her life.
As soon as I found I was pregnant though, it was a whole different turning point for me. I didn't touch a drop of alcohol after that. I continued my education. At that time, I was going to [school], and it was a little bit hard. But I think I made it all the way up until the seventh month of going to school. And I dropped out until after she was born, and went back to school… That didn't last very long. I ended up not even lasting a year, and dropped out in my junior year. I didn't receive or go for my GED until I was 19 and pregnant with my second child.
For Yadira, pregnancy was the impetus that gave her the strength to reorganize her life. She stopped drinking and doggedly pursued her GED, actions that illustrate how young motherhood positively refocused her life.
Confirming Adulthood: “…working hard for my son”
Confirming adulthood was seen in women's actions and how they took up their childbearing status. After moving out from her parents' home when she became pregnant at age 14, Stephanie remarked that she needed work to support herself.
I had to go to work and I was working and going to school at the same time. And a lot of my friends were not working and were having fun…they were not working to support themselves. They worked to do whatever they wanted with their money. I was working hard for my son. That was what I thought was important and that had not even crossed their minds. So, that made me grow up. I had to support somebody. I was making $5.50 an hour and trying to support another person. That was hard for me.
Stephanie recognized that working for her child set her apart from her friends who worked essentially for pocket money. For her, working was a means to survive, to bring food home, and to support her family. In contrast to her friends who spent their money indiscriminately, Stephanie carefully watched her expenses day by day, an embodiment of adult responsibilities and behaviors.
Curbing Risky Activities:“That is not the way I want to be.”
Some of the women described motherhood as destiny, a fateful event that prevented them from stumbling down the “rocky road” to continued substance abuse and other risky behaviors. Early childbearing became a source of inner strength for these women, reminding them of the difficult situations they had survived and protecting them from present and future hazardous behaviors.
Valerie felt that early childbearing protected her from further substance abuse because she learned how to be responsible when she became pregnant at age 14.
I think that it has showed me more responsibility. That you have to work for what you want, and I did. I would walk to the local gas station and buy diapers because that was what I had to do. I think it gave me more responsibility and made me realize that you have to deal with it … I would not do it any other way now. I mean what would my life be like if I did not have my children? I would still be one of those girls running around all skinny and screwed up looking. Drunk… and that is not the way I want to be.
Having children positively affected Valerie's life. She realized that her children not only enriched her life but also motivated her to model positive behaviors and activities rather than self-destructive behaviors.