SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Pregnant Without Pause

Why America has the western world's
highest teenaged birthrate


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Krystal Correa, freshly 18 and ripely six months pregnant, knew exactly where she was heading. The sunlight shimmered in slats between the short brick buildings on the broken down block that is Douglass Street, just off 4th Avenue in Park Slope. The odd play of light cast a warm autumnal glow on her caramel-colored face. She mounted the four crumbling concrete steps that led to the steel door with the chipping paint at No. 339. She hoisted her backpack further up on her shoulder and pushed the No. 2 button, next to which was a hand-lettered label announcing the Brooklyn Young Mothers' Collective. Buzzed in, she walked slowly up the interior stairs to the building's second floor. Benita Miller met her in the doorway of the homey office space. "Hellooooo!" she said, showing white teeth and glistening brown lipstick. Krystal trudged past, complaining of high school-induced fatigue. "Just wait till you have that baby!" Miller squawked. "Then you'll know what tired is!"

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Lumpy old taupe couches and beat-up grandma-patterned carpets trim the single large room that is the collective's headquarters. Several filing cabinets stand next to cluttered desks, and PlaySkool toys sit in a corner with a few half-filled coloring books. On any afternoon, a toddler will be there, light-up sneakers tapping the floor as he runs circles around Miller or another staffer. Whoever is on duty will probably be trying to convince a young mother to stay in school or will be yelling over the phone to find housing for a 16-year-old and her son who have maxed out their eligibility in a homeless shelter uptown.

This haphazard haven is a supportive resource for teenaged moms in New York City. Miller is the founder and director, and she's recruited a staff of mostly under-30 women to help her provide counseling, tutoring, and motherly advice to girls about to become mothers themselves. At least once a week, the girls come here, from their high schools and their grandmothers' houses and their cashier jobs, to learn about breastfeeding, money management and college applications. A poster across from a wooden rocking chair reminds them that "It takes an entire village to raise a child." Someone has tacked a pamphlet to the nearby bulletin board that illustrates both appropriate and inappropriate colors of baby poop. Here, it is all about educating the mothers and ensuring their wellness first; babies second, says Dionne Grayman. She had her first child at 19, and now she has a law degree and is the collective's program director. "It's the airplane survival model," Grayman says, looking around the room as the toddler of the day grabs at her knees. "The mother has got to get the oxygen first. If you're not first helping the mother, you aren't helping the baby's future, either."

More young women are becoming reliant on that oxygen. After a 15-year decline, the U.S. teen birthrate has increased for two years in a row. It is the highest in the western world. In 2007, out of 1,000 American women aged 15 to 19, an average of 42.5 percent had a baby. That was a slight increase over 2006, when an average of 41.9 out of 1,000 women in that age group gave birth.

There is nothing new about American teenagers becoming mothers. What is new is that both the number of births to teenaged mothers and the rate at which they are occurring are on the rise. To determine a change in teen birth rate, researchers analyze sexual activity, abortion rates and contraception use and look for a net change in the sum total. So, if, say,sexual activity is up from one year to the next, but abortion rates are also on the rise and contraception use remains the same, the three factors might balance each other out and result in a stable birthrate. For the past two years, however, that balance has been thrown off. Abortion rates and sexual activity have remained relatively constant since 2000. A lack of contraception, then, is the apparent culprit.

But deeper cultural forces are also at play. As Miller and Grayman at the Collective can attest, race, religion and personal finance all have played their parts in building America's teen birthrate to its remarkable height, a level nearly twice that of any other industrialized nation. Pastors, politicians and professors are trying to dismantle that statistic, to lower the number of young women who decrease their chances of college degrees and economic ascent. But these well-meaning mentors often miss the point. By listening to young women who were raised to just say no, or raised to believe teenaged pregnancy was a foregone conclusion for them, it becomes clear what is lacking. Besides condoms, pills or diaphragms, what is missing is a balance of the current expectations of these girls' respective communities, expectations which are often either impossibly high or dismissively low.


Bristol Palin was sitting at a plain wooden kitchen table this past February, sharing glass mugs of milky coffee with Greta Van Susteren, the FOX News anchor. The reason for the cozy chit-chat, of course, was the 17-year-old's newborn son, Tripp. This was to be his television debut, and in a few minutes new grandma Sarah Palin, baby Tripp in arms, would make a surprise appearance on camera, effectively silencing her daughter for the remainder of the interview. But that hadn't happened yet. For now, the Wasilla high school student was clomping through questions with an unthinking bluntness that had been carefully covered up all through her mother's vice presidential campaign and her parents' September announcement that she was with child. For her first solo appearance on the public stage, Bristol was speaking plainly to 3.8 million viewers and with her own agenda: in the words of Van Susteren, she wanted to "talk about the big picture of teen pregnancy."

She talked about how the birth of her son had changed her life. "It's not just the baby that's hard," she explained. "It's just like, I'm not living for myself anymore. I'm living for another person. So that's different." She talked about her parents' reaction. "They were scared, just because I had to grow up a lot faster than they ever would have imagined." She talked about the tabloid portrayal of her pregnancy, and, columnists later pointed out, undermined her mother's pro-life stance by emphasizing the importance of choice. "[Tabloid reporters] thought that my mom was gonna make me have the baby, and it was my choice to have the baby," she said. "That kind of stuff just bothered me."

But then came the thing that stuck, the big comment that would be the takeaway in all the interview wrap-ups that followed. "Everyone should be abstinent or whatever," she said quickly, "but it's not realistic at all."

FOX producers may as well have added explosion sound effects. McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, strategists agree, partly because she had a strong evangelical support base, and in her 2006 run for Alaska's governor, Palin said she supported abstinence-only sex education. The Bristol interview illuminated a substantial dent in the idealistic silver ring of evangelical sexuality: Kids who are raised to just say no aren't any more likely to do so than those who are not, and they are often irresponsible when they do decide to stray. Despite the adamant evangelical support for abstinence-only education and the popularity of wait-until-marriage pledge groups, these teens have sex earlier than any other major religious group except black Protestants, according to the largest most comprehensive national surveys of adolescents, known as Add Health. And although Bristol demurred on whether her faith had shaped her stance on contraception ("No, I don't want to get into detail about that."), white evangelical teens, experts have found, are much less likely than other groups to use any form of contraception.

The Add Health study has followed a cohort of participants for more than 10 years, providing, among other findings, what is considered the most definitive source of information on the connection between religion and adolescent sexuality. One of the study's researchers is Mark Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the lives of American Teenagers, a book about the evangelical teen pregnancy culture which Margaret Talbot focused on in a significant and heavily referenced piece on the topic in The New Yorker's November 2008 issue.

"She looked like a molerat, or a lima bean."
– Krystal Correa

Regnerus found that compared to teenagers in other major religious groups, evangelical teenagers are most likely to believe in abstinence and also that their partners will lose respect for them if they have premarital sex. They are also the least likely to believe that sex will be pleasurable. Beliefs, however, do not predict behavior. There is a gap, Regnerus says, between religious belief and sexual activity. For white evangelicals in particular, that gap is more of a chasm. The Add Health survey indicates that 74 percent of white evangelicals ages 13 to 17 believe in abstaining from sex until marriage. Yet the average age for a white evangelical's first sexual intercourse is 16 years old.

As Talbot recalls, Regnerus writes in Forbidden Fruit that in a world where evangelical teens are subject to the same hypersexualized pop culture as other young people but are still expected to abstain, "attitudes about sex may formally remain unchanged (and restrictive) while sexual activity becomes increasingly common."

Despite that reality, the abstinence pledge movement is strong in the evangelical community. Kenneth Purdom, a 45-year-old father of two, started HisWay Productions last year to organize and promote the abstinence pledge rallies sponsored by the national movement known as True Love Waits. This year, Purdom has produced events in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, the last of which attracted an audience of 1,100 high school students. The crowds fill churches, schools and community centers to see videos and PowerPoint presentations and to hear personal testimonies that promote the True Love Waits message: to "utilize positive peer pressure by encouraging those who make a commitment to refrain from pre-marital sex to challenge their peers to do the same," according to the program's Web site. Purdom's inspiration was the abstinenece pledge his son and daughter took five years ago at the family's church. His son, Logan, was 15 at the time and still "actually carries the index card he signed around with him in his billfold," Purdom says proudly.

The essential ingredient in the recipe for teen chastity, Purdom says, is "the God factor." Religion is the reason to save oneself, and in order to make it easier for teenagers to save themselves, they should engage in non-sexual activities, rewiring their teen libidos to choose handheld walks over a lusty evening in the back seat of a pickup truck. "I think the solution is that people have certain desires, and we need to create positive behaviors to show the good side of abstinence," he says.

By 1995, some two million teenagers already had taken public abstinence pledges, according to sociologists Peter Beardman and Hannah Bruckner. But another recent study that appeared in the January 2009 journal Pediatrics indicates that pledges do not make teenagers any less likely to have sex before marriage. And once teens who pledged do have sex, they are significantly less likely to use contraception than teens who did not pledge. The findings by Janet Elise Rosenbaum echo Regnerus' conclusion: that evangelical teens in general are unlikely to use contraception. The net effect of all this abstinence pushing, then, isn't less teen sex. It's less safe teen sex.

So what is the practical plan for dealing with the possible consequences when the teenagers pledged to chastity can't quite live up to that evangelical ideal? And what happens at the other end of the spectrum, where teenagers aren't encouraged to strive for any ideal at all?

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A few weeks after that October visit to the young mothers collective, Krystal Correa sat in the Connecticut Muffin coffee shop on Prospect Park, recalling the first time she saw her unborn daughter on the ultrasound at the OB-GYN. It was June 26, she says without hesitation, and it was weird.

"She looked like a molerat, or a lima bean," she said, her face becoming animated for the first time since she sat down in this wooden chair after a six-hour school day. She remembers the cold gel on her stomach, that the picture came up very quickly, and that the baby was visible, small and squiggly but definitely moving. She left the doctor's office that day with a fuzzy black-and-white printout and visited her friends at the places they worked, all over the neighborhood, so she could show it off. Her baby was real.

Correa, it should be noted, does not look like a lima bean, or even a molerat. Her coarse hair grows in tight curls, her amber eyes are big and thick-lashed, and her skin is of a color that would radiate even if she wasn't pregnant. She is part black and part Latina, with a touch of Native American that keeps people guessing. She is beautiful and her heritage is ambiguous.

She is part of a group – black – that for the past forty years has been the dominant shade in the narrative tapestry of teenaged motherhood. But she is also part of another group – Hispanic – that has become a noticeably more prominent presence in recent years. These women are the new frontrunners of the youth-produced baby boom. In 2007, unmarried teenage birth rates for Hispanic women were the highest among races in the country, more than 17 percent higher than the rate for non-Hispanic black women. But as the babies born to black teenaged mothers in 2007 can attest (or will be able to attest in a few years, anyway), identifying a population as high-risk does not necessarily lead to effective teen pregnancy prevention for it. More often, it leads to lowered expectations for a young woman's potential.


"The Negro Family: The Case For National Action" was a harrowing 1965 report authored by U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat, for the U.S. Department of Labor. In several pages of near-apocalyptic language, Moynihan sought to diagnose what he called the "tangle of pathology" that was family structure in the black urban community. The rise of blacks from the lower to the middle classes had halted in the 1960s, and one of the main impediments to continued black success, Moynihan said, was the "destruction of the nuclear family" in this community, caused by too many unmarried young women having children. In Moynihan's view, matriarchy and an absence of marriage, spurred by male joblessness, were the key culprits.

It was true that adolescent motherhood was -- and still is – particularly high in the black community. But more recent research suggests that poverty is a far more important factor than race. Stephanie Coontz, an historian and author of several books on family systems, explained the change in understanding since Moynihan reached his highly controversial conclusions: "The piece of the report that got major attention was this pathology idea and the idea that women were too strong in these communities," she says. "There was the idea that you had to get women married, had to get them to be more submissive to their husbands. That part was blown way up by conservatives who didn't want to fund services to end poverty and so were saying that what we have to do is change the values and family behaviors of the African American family."

"This wouldn't be the first time that the public's idea about a social phenomenon is relatively inconsistent with the empirical evidence."
– sociologist Holly Heard

Even at the time, Moynihan had his detractors. He was assailed as a racist by some and accused of "blaming the victim" by psychologist William Ryan, who wrote a book of the same title lambasting the Moynihan report. Liberals at the time were retiscent to speak up in Moynihan's defense. Holly Heard, a sociologist at Rice University, explains they did not want to appear anti-black by saying that this trend of black teen moms was detrimental, or anti-feminist by saying that women shouldn't be raising children by themselves.

"They were quiet, but the conservatives were talking, and in a vacuum, you only hear the ones that speak up," Heard says. "Once the issue was framed, it was hard to get out of." Thanks to the report, young, poor motherhood "was racialized immediately – this is a problem of the black family," Heard says. "And it's never gotten off that."

Lost in all of this debate, of course, were the subjects of report themselves: 16-year-old girls with babies who grew up in poverty with little educational opportunity. Lost, Heard says, was an important opportunity to discuss and remedy poverty, the apparent underlying cause of these specific high teen birthrates. "Part of the problem is that [teen motherhood] has become associated with welfare," Heard says. "We assume that you must be poor, you must be on welfare, and that your child is going to suffer the same fate. But it's never been true that there is a strong evidence that there is an inter-generational welfare dependency, not in a way that you can assume that if someone was raised on welfare, they were going to grow up to be on welfare for a long and extended time. It's just the kind of thing that seemed reasonable to people, so they kind of went around saying it.

"This wouldn't be the first time that the public's idea about a social phenomenon is relatively inconsistent with the empirical evidence," Heard says.

Those misperceptions don't bode well for Krystal and other girls like her. Coontz, the family-focused historian, thinks the greatest danger of ingrained narratives such as these even when they are statistically true, may become self-perpetuating. It is a question of lowered standards and expectations for women of the lower classes, and the women of the Brooklyn Young Mothers Collective say they see this effect all the time.

"No one says to them, 'You can really do it!'" Grayman says while sitting on one of the old-lady couches at the collective. It is a few days before a new class of pregnant girls is to begin taking the collective's weekly classes and Grayman is reflective. "Children who need the most attract the worst. In some of these schools in disadvantaged areas, these girls never received their SAT prep materials. What you're telling them is that they're never going to contribute meaningfully."

The lack of encouragement at school, of a voice telling these young women that they should be reaching for the achievements they are more than capable of attaining, is often mirrored at home. Many of the girls who come to the collective have rocky relationships with their families, Grayman says. But one committed advocate can inspire more, so it's not unusual for collective staff members to visit the girls' schools or to ask, pointedly, about their homework and attendance. "Once teachers see someone pulling for you, they'll pull for you, too," Grayman says. "Keeping girls in school is the biggest thing. As women of color, the stakes are high."

Andy Vernon-Jones is an advocate counselor at South Brooklyn Community High School who works with Krystal Correa. He says his students often exhibit apathy about planning their futures. He has worked with several students who have become young mothers and finds the work emotionally draining.

"As somebody who is involved in their lives, I do feel all of their ups and downs," he says. "They can sit heavy on my heart. So somebody getting pregnant can scare them, and it scares me too. It can be very disappointing to know they can have that extra weight on their shoulders. I want my students to have the most options, really, and I don't think getting pregnant at such a young age opens options."

But his students don't necessarily believe all options exist for them, or that opportunities for things like further education and financial independence are worth taking proactive steps, like contraception, to preserve. So sometimes, they have babies.

"I've never had a student come to me and say 'hey, my boyfriend and I are thinking about having a baby,'" Vernon-Jones says. "My impression has always been that it's an apathetic stance toward safe sex. When they don't have a lot of people in their lives who have gone to college and have careers, or when they've been struggling to see that path for themselves, becoming a parent can be a wonderful part of life. They're not careful, they get pregnant, and they think, 'I can have a baby right now.'"

Krystal Correa admits that she and her boyfriend, Ivan Matos, were seldom careful. A few hours before her evening baby shower, Matos is sitting in his grandmother's tiny kitchen, watching her fry chicken in corn oil for dinner. At 20, he is tall and good-natured, his still-soft facial features grinning widely as he pats his grandmother on the head or teases Correa, rubbing her belly, swollen with his child. He loves to cook, and eventually wants to enter the catering business, he says. Correa, for her part, says that she has always loved stories and would like to "write books someday." But neither idea has ever been fleshed out into a career plan, and both aspirations must be placed even further down their growing lists of priorities with a child on the way.

Matos and Correa have known each other for eight years and are familiar with each other's stories. Knowingly, he calls their combined personal histories "a recipe for disaster." Growing up, he and Correa both spent time living in foster homes or shelters, and both lost school time on suspension for disciplinary infractions—absences, physical altercations, shouting matches. Both are the survivors of unstable upbringings which bred their angry early adolescences. Economically, both have always lived toward the bottom of the scale.

Matos says he's ready to defy odds. He calls himself a "goal-oriented person, a hungry individual." Fatherhood, he says, is something he wants to do right. "My father left me, and one thing I've said is that if I do have a child I'm not going to sit there and be the absentee father that my father was," he says. "I'm going to have to play some type of active role in this child's life. Whether it kills me or makes me miserable, I don't care. I'm like, 'I have to do this.'"

It sounds hopeful, but practical details are scant. He admits, "How I'm going to accomplish it at this point and time is beyond me. . . . I'm 20, no college education, can work at best a minimum wage job. How much can I do?"

Matos has been unemployed since he quit his last minimum-wage job at a Manhattan Jamba Juice in June—the same week he found out Krystal was pregnant, a decision of questionable timing that Correa says still makes her wonder. He's had his G.E.D. for over a year and says he's been actively job hunting, but so far he's had no luck. Correa knows she is in a less than ideal situation. "I don't think it's the right thing to have kids when you're young," she says. "But things happen."

When it comes to explaining how, exactly, this particular thing happened, Correa mostly just shrugs. Unprotected sex was common for her and Ivan. Correa wasn't thinking about getting pregnant, so she wasn't thinking about not getting pregnant either. It is as if she has fallen into this new role and burgeoning responsibility by chance, as if she never had reason not to gamble.

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When making decisions about sex and babies, teenagers, and particularly teenaged girls, muddle through skewed standards and mixed messages that have been years in the making. Just as established is America's lofty position as the highest teen birthrate holder in the western world. When reports from the Centers for Disease Control announced the increases of 2006 and 2007, activists and researchers paid attention, but weren't all shocked – the numbers have always been high, relative to other industrialized countries, and these trends go up and down.

"There was lots of discussion, lots of buzz about it," says Julien Teitler, a sociologist who studies adolescent transitions and health disparities at Columbia University. "There's a huge interest in it. But I don't know if it's that surprising or shocking that there's an uptick. Things don't trend in one direction forever; they reach certain floors or ceilings. There are lots of factors that could explain this."

But it is contraception that stands out. Between 2003 and 2007, teens tiptoed away from contraception. That time period showed a slight decrease in condom use, a slight decrease in pill use and a slight decrease in diaphragm use. As the public health researcher John Santelli explains, all of those tiny dips might be adding up to a larger problem, but it's too soon to be certain. "If you add up all these little changes, they make a difference," he says. "That to me looks like what's going on. But we're going to need some new data, probably the 2009 data, to really establish the reason." Santelli's specialty is adolescent health and teen sexuality and birth rates.

Academics are not the only ones trying to interpret the root of the problem and find a solution. Social and educational planners also have taken up the cause. At schools, adults are establishing several kinds of programs designed to lower the number of kids having kids, but not all are equally effective.

In the last year of the most recent Bush administration, the federal government spent $176 million on abstinence-only education, a substantial sum many researchers think has been no more effective than abstinence pledges. According to a 2007 study, it neither prevents teens from having sex nor encourages them to use protection. "Most of us [researchers] would say abstinence-only was an utter failure in terms of having any effect whatsoever," says Teitler, the sociologist. "Lots of resources were dedicated to it, and we have lots of data showing that it had zero success. It just doesn't work." He adds that the data suggests there isn't "any correlation at all" between teen birth rates and the degree of sex education experienced. "Lots of people say they should have spent those resources on more comprehensive sex education programs, and that's where I differ," Teitler says. "I think they're extremely important for helping teens negotiate relationships that they get into. There are lots of positive elements to having good information when going through these times of your life. There are huge benefits to those programs, just not in terms of fertility."

Santelli, the public health researcher, goes further. He thinks that the result of abstinence-only education is more harmful than neutral.

The abstinence-only curriculum guide provided by the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services explains that these programs "must emphasize that the best life outcomes are more likely obtained if an individual abstains until marriage." Information on contraception is not required at all in the program, and if provided, "must be age-appropriate and presented only as it supports the abstinence message being presented. Curriculum must not promote or endorse, distribute or demonstrate the use of contraception or instruct students in contraceptive usage." Teachers who do mention condoms are advised to present "the limitations of contraception to consistently prevent STDs."

Santelli sees other problems with the curriculum. "This program specifically prohibits information about the advocacy of contraception," he says. "We also know that there is lots of misinformation about contraception in abstinence-only education. I think many programs say that if you tell kids contraception doesn't work very well, they won't have sex. I think it's more that if you tell them that, they just won't use contraceptives."

Generally, Teitler and Santelli agree, teens know how to get pregnant. The trick is getting them to be sufficiently knowledgeable, proactive and materially supplied to ensure that they don't.

The 2007 study evaluating abstinence-only education followed two groups of students for ten years and ended when the average subject age of each subject was about 17. One group went through the comprehensive sex ed program offered by their local school districts, while the other went through abstinence-only. At the end of the study, half of each group had already had sex. And of those who had sex, in each group, less than a quarter of them used a condom every time. It suggests that abstinence-only doesn't lead to less sex, and that neither programmatic approach leads to safe sex.

"I think many programs say that if you tell kids contraception doesn't work very well, they won't have sex. I think it's more that if you tell them that, they just won't use contraceptives."
&ndash Dr. John Santelli

For the past twenty years, Michael Carrera has been working on a different approach. He's developed a pregnancy prevention program for girls and boys, now used throughout the school day in 10 schools and in 15 after-school programs across the country. He calls his work a "holistic approach" to the challenges of growing up.

"I learned that the way to get the message to stick --about reducing risky behaviors, not being a daddy or mommy during the second decade of your life, reducing risks for STDs -- is not to obsess about it with kids," Carrera says. "The way to get it to stick is to discuss it regularly, obviously, but to connect it to all the other things that make a young person whole."

A new program site is born when community leaders contact the organization, which is supported by the Children's Aid Foundation. Teachers then show up, bringing with them their five part curriculum – classes in art, a sports program, a "job club" which simulates the corporate world, an academic package including tutoring and SAT preparation, and, of course, a comprehensive family life and sexual education course. In addition, the Carrera program provides all students with medical care, including reproductive health and contraception guidance, and mental health services, including counseling.

This all-around support and stretch for empowerment, Carrera says, is designed to stimulate and inspire young minds who would otherwise be told they can't amount to much. Current program sites serve a variety of ethnic backgrounds – Mexican-Americans in Houston; whites in Jamestown, New York state; and Dominicans in Jackson Heights, Queens. Carrera says the programs are in communities with high rates of poverty, few economic opportunities and poor health care.

"The core values of the program are based on the goodness of kids, their great possibility and the fact that we believe they're not at-risk, they're at-promise," Carrera says. "We don't prevent teen pregnancy, young people do. We create a climate and atmosphere so that young people believe that good things can happen for them. When young people believe that it's possible, then they have the confidence to go out and achieve."

And they have. A three-year study of the Carrera program produced favorable findings. Compared with the control group, Carrera teens had substantially more accurate knowledge about sex and were more likely to make a reproductive health visit with a doctor. Program participants were more likely to possess a bank account, have work experience and enroll in college. And the percentage of girls using effective contraception was two times higher in the Carrera group.

The secret to the success, Carrera says, is recognizing that teenagers are whole, complex people, that their sex drives are not robotic and that their self-perception is fragile. "When I'm training teachers, I remind them that when we talk to kids, they don't leave all their other issues outside. They bring everything into a classroom."


Krystal Correa named her baby Sklyer. Her daughter weighed in at 7 pounds, 12 ounces, when she slid into the doctor's hands at a Brooklyn hospital on February 1 after her mother's 26 hours of labor. She had a full head of dark hair, her mother's warm skin and her father's oblong head.

She grew quickly in just five weeks' time, and on a rainy March day she was dozing in a blanketed rocker-seat, wearing a pink onesie and drooling on her fisted hand. Her mother was watching from the couch a few feet above her, wearing pajamas.

Correa, like Bristol Palin, recently broke up with the father of her baby. She still sees him often, though. Matos comes by Correa's mother's apartment most days to see his daughter, and sometimes he brings money for diapers. She said he doesn't "know how to handle Skyler yet;" he isn't gentle enough when he picks her up, isn't careful enough to support her neck so her head doesn't swing from side to side.

Flipping through a parenting magazine that just arrived in the mail – courtesy of the hospital – Krystal said the hardest part has been waking up in the middle of the night, every few hours, when Skyler screams her way awake. She had started out breastfeeding, which she said felt strange but not uncomfortable, but she stopped lactating about three weeks after giving birth. Now Skyler drinks formula.

Krystal stopped deliberately on a page in the magazine. "Look Ma, that's what I want," she said to her mother across the room. It was an advertisement for Mirena, a brand of intra-uterine systems which can be inserted by a doctor to reduce the frequency of ovulation and prevent pregnancy for up to five years. "What you should do is have your ovaries removed," her mother said, neither obviously joking nor serious. "I already checked. The doctor won't do that until after you're 26," Correa told her.

Krystal loves her daughter more than anything now, but she says she doesn't feel like a mom yet. She doesn't want to repeat the process any time soon because doing it once has made her life difficult enough. She had already been behind in high school, about the equivalent of a sophomore, credit-wise, and the birth has meant more absences. She's looking forward to getting back to class next week, but she doesn't know what she'll do about the summer and beyond. She needs a job, and she's not sure she can do that and school with Skyler in the picture. "I'm just trying to take it a day at a time," she sighed, looking out the window on the gray afternoon. She bent down and scooped up her baby girl, lifting her quickly to her face and getting a gurgling smile as reward.

The Brooklyn Young Mothers Collective is still serving the very young ladies of New York, and Krystal plans on stopping by next Tuesday. Grayman has moved on to other projects, but Benita Miller is still greeting newcomers at the steel door. Hers is a challenging project, the causes of which spread far beyond her shabby Park Slope office, but she responds to the problems she sees in the ways she knows how.

"We're still letting young women learn to be parents," she says. "It's about teachable moments here."

Megan can be contacted at

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute