Young parents buck societal trends
By JULIA SHUMWAY
They balance school, entry-level work, a baby or two and often judgmental glances from peers or strangers. They’re young moms, and there are fewer of them every year.
In 1970, the average mother was 21.4 years old at her first birth. By 2010, this age had risen to 28.9, while the average first time father was 33.1. But while the averages continue to rise, some parents stay young.
Shari Sweetwood, 21, of Tempe, will celebrate her daughter’s first birthday in December. Sweetwood was 19 for the first several weeks of her pregnancy with Sophia Grace, and the father, who’s now back in her life, was absent for the first eight months. Sweetwood said she felt judgment from strangers and acquaintances.
"It wasn't just quiet judges," she said. "It was loud, 'I can hear what you're saying' judges."
Sweetwood’s own mother was 39 and father was 42 when she was born, and she said she wasn’t interested in having children at that age
"In my opinion, if it were up to me, I don't think you should have a child at 30," Sweetwood said. "That's just me. I think you're just too old."
Having a baby young makes some aspects of life harder, she said.
Sweetwood’s not currently in school, but she’ll start studying childhood development in the spring. She plans to run her own preschool out of her house as an alternative for moms like her who aren’t fans of the public school system. While Sophia Grace was a happy surprise for Sweetwood, some young mothers plan out their pregnancies just as much as their older counterparts do.
Kelcie Hoon, 22, had her first son, Mason, in July. Hoon is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Mormon faith encourages starting families early. Hoon is glad to have had Mason while she’s still young and considers every day with her son is a blessing.
Still other mothers have children earlier than they would have intended. Arizona has the sixth highest teen pregnancy rate and the 15th highest teen birth rate in the country. At least part of this discrepancy is attributed to the fact that the majority of teen pregnancies in the state belong to women aged 18 and 19, some of whom are out of their teens by the time they give birth.
Nationwide, teen pregnancy rates are highest among Latina, American Indian and African-American women. Latinos and American Indians make up a significant portion of Arizona’s population.
For teen mothers in particular, Teen Outreach Pregnancy Services offers resources and advice.
Planned Parenthood, the first thought of many who realize they’ve conceived a baby without planning, directs teens to TOPS, communications director Cynde Cerf said.
"They are a wonderful agency that does a lot with pregnant teens," she said.
Kelley Rodriguez, outreach coordinator and regional administrator at TOPS' West Valley office in Glendale, said her location has helped roughly 200 girls in the past year. It provides healthy prenatal care and support for pregnant teens and women under 21.
"Basically, they get the support of their peers," she said.
Girls at the location can earn "TOPS Dollars," a form of Monopoly-type money that functions as a reward. They also participate in parenting classes and peer support groups.
"I think it's good for them to come to a judgment-free zone," Rodriguez said. "All parents need help at some time."