By DENENE MILLNER
He’s sweet and thoughtful and says, “Yes ma’am” when I talk to him, and has challenged my 16-year-old son to enough sweaty driveway basketball duels for me to know his name and his mama’s, too, and even invite him every once in a while to sit at my table for dinner. What I didn’t know about my son’s friend, though, is that, at age 16, he was expecting to have a baby with a girl he was “messing with.” I almost choked on my smoked turkey wings when, at our dinner table, he pulled out his cell phone and showed me pictures of his little brown bundle, a boy, wrapped in scratchy hospital linens and nestled in his teenage mother’s arms, a roomful of not-so-doting family members scattered around her.
I congratulated him, of course. To be polite. But the questions came soon after. What’s your game plan? Who is this girl to you? How are you going to care for this baby? What does your mother think? What does her mother think? You do realize that the life you envisioned—college, career, getting paid—is going to be near impossible to achieve, right? Right?
I mean, I’m just sayin’.
Trust me: The word “proud” was not one that crossed our minds that night at the dinner table. But to hear the operatives of presumed Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and his troubled sidekick, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, you would think we should break out the cigars, party hats and bubbles to celebrate yet another teenager’s crash course in parenthood. This, of course, is the key talking point we’ve heard over and over again as the GOP deals with the fall-out over the news that the 17-year-old daughter of Palin, an abstinence-touting/anti-birth control/anti-sex education “family values” conservative, is knocked-up. This, those operatives insist, is the “normal life” of most Americans—a “private family matter” that needs to be respected, rather than discussed.
Sorry—no cigars and party hats for me: My husband and I are too busy having the very serious, very necessary discussion with our three kids (yet again) about why we don’t want them bringing any babies into this house. We’re not judging—we just know the stakes. Because despite that all-too-many in the Republican party are all happy, happy, joy, joy that Bristol has a baby bump, teenage pregnancy traditionally has been something Americans have neither condoned nor supported, especially if the parent-to-be is black. Indeed, those same folks who ask us to “respect” the choices of Governor Palin’s family are usually the same ones breathing hot fire about the irresponsibility of black families whose children face similar circumstances. I’m 100 percent certain that when they see the mother of my son’s friend’s baby pushing her stroller down the street, nobody is going to look at that black teenage mom and think adoringly about the love and support she has at home. Not one is going to say, “Golly, how proud must her mother be to become a 40-something-year-old grandmother?” I assure you, too, that there won’t be any applause for the “courageous” decision her and her baby’s father made to keep their baby.
And they especially won’t consider that young black mother’s decision a “personal family issue” that need not be discussed. Nope, they’ll be all up in her womb and her Baby Phat purse, wondering how many more illegitimate babies she’s going to bring into the world; how many baby daddies she’ll have; how much in welfare and food stamps they’ll have to shell out to take care of those babies (“because you know the men who fathered them won’t,” they’ll say), and; how long will it take for her little crumbsnatchers to follow in her footsteps, littering their great American landscape with more illegitimate babies the good tax-paying folk will have to take care of. Poverty statistics will be rattled off. Crime statistics surely will be cited. And all kinds of questions about the morality of the teen parents—and most certainly their parents, too—will be in play.
In other words, that “unconditional love, support, and respect” I keep being told I should give the Palins is never, ever extended to young black mothers and their families as they negotiate raising children in an extremely contemptuous, prying society that judges them at every turn.
Oh, the irony of it all. So rich.
As much as McCain/Palin supporters want us to hush up about Bristol’s baby already, now is not the time to be quiet. There are way too many mixed signals being sent to my teenage son and my little daughters, who, one day, will all be faced with the very hard, very grown-up decision about whether to have sex. If I let them listen, unfiltered, right now, the chatter sounds a lot like this to my African American children: It’s hard to be a teen parent, but we should support them (if they’re white) because family values are important (except in the instances when black teens have sex—then we need to question their parents’ apparent inability to impart morals on their brood), raising babies at such a young age is difficult (unless you’re black; then we expect you to find a way to raise the kid without digging into my pockets—you got yourself into that mess, we shouldn’t have to pay for it) and they deserve applause for choosing life (unlike black teen moms, who should be popping birth control like candy or make an appointment at the clinic because nobody’s interested in dealing with their mistakes).
That’s why we’re having with our kids the same very real, very hard conversation about Bristol Palin that we did when my son’s friend pushed himself away from the table: We don’t want you to have sex until you’re old enough to deal with the emotional, physical, mental, and financial consequences that come with it. We assure you that if you’re still a teenager, you will not be ready. But if you think you are, we want you to protect yourself. From disease. And pregnancy. And the struggles that surely would follow should you become a black teen parent in America, where you already have to jump double the height, double the speed (with a smile) to even sit at the table and beg for crumbs from that American pie.
Would we support and love our children if they followed Bristol and my son’s friend down the same path? You betcha. But it’s up to us as good, solid parents, to be proactive about such things—to give our children the information, the family value set, and the tools they need to choose the path that works for this family. And we’ve the right to question just how our family’s values would stack up in the administration of a potential VP, who would serve a heartbeat away from the presidency with a grandbaby born to a teenager whose mother is anti-birth control and anti-sex education and whose insistence on abstinence clearly fell on deaf ears.
I’m not judging.
I’m just sayin’.