As new parents and high school students, they were determined to build a better future in the midst of unprecedented hardship.
At first, Amya Noble never imagined she might be pregnant. She was 16, a sophomore in high school, and had no plans to raise a child.
But in December of 2019 she started feeling extra sleepy. She was both nauseated and hungry at the same time. Then, one morning, she looked down and saw something new: a road map of blue veins crisscrossing her chest. Yet, she was sure she had gotten her period last month. Well, pretty sure. Instead of heading to school that day she went to the Family Dollar store down the block and bought a pregnancy test. It was positive.
Much to her surprise, an ultrasound in January confirmed that she had actually been pregnant for months, and was quickly nearing the end of the first trimester. Her baby was on the way, and so was a pandemic — though nobody could have told her that last part.
“Something just clicked in my mind: Now I just have to go to school,” she said. “Because before I was actually kind of really slacking.”
There has been little research on how teenage parents have fared over the last year, but ample evidence suggests that both mothers and teenagers have experienced a unique set of stressors.
The isolation of lockdown left many teenagers feeling anxious, depressed and unmotivated. A national poll of parents of teens, released in March by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., found that about half of those surveyed said their teen’s mental health had changed or worsened in the pandemic.
Similarly, teenage parents have also had a year of uncertainty, rife with difficulties. But for those fortunate enough to have a supportive network of teachers and family members, there were bright spots, too. We spoke with three teenage mothers at Nowell Leadership Academy, a small public charter school for pregnant, parenting and underserved students in Providence, R.I., about the newfound pressures of becoming a first-time mother and the challenges of staying in school in the midst of a pandemic.
Ania Snead, 18, said she fell into a depression after the birth of her son, made worse by subsequent conflicts with her son’s father last year. Online school was also a struggle, she added, because she learns better in person.
“I was just sitting there surrounded by everything wrong,” she said. “I felt myself going deeper and deeper into a hole that I almost couldn’t climb out of. And I’m so young, you know?”
After she and her boyfriend broke up, she started to make some positive changes, both for her son and herself.
“I have plenty of examples of people around me, of people just messing up their lives and not getting anywhere,” said Ania, whose son is now 17 months old. “And I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to actually travel the world, live my life before I die.”
She began paying more attention to her schoolwork and enrolled her son in the school’s on-site day care center, which he attends free with a state voucher. In two years she plans to go to college and eventually become a nurse.
“The easiest thing to do is quit,” Ania said. “And I can’t do that.”
Gladys Dennis, 19, a refugee who fled conflict in Ivory Coast, feels similarly motivated. Gladys and her family members arrived in the United States in 2019 when she was pregnant. She hopes to become an obstetrician.
In her home country, there were many challenges, Gladys said.
“Sometimes in Africa you didn’t have food,” she added. “And in Africa we didn’t have child support. So here it is a little bit better.”
One of her biggest difficulties over the last year was having to give birth alone in the hospital without family members nearby because the hospital’s pandemic rules didn’t allow for any visitors.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I was there from 9 a.m. until 12 at night.”
Amya also faced hospital restrictions that prevented her from bringing along her usual support network. When she gave birth in July, she was allowed one visitor, so she chose the father of her son.
“My whole labor experience was kind of garbage,” she said.
“I wanted to do a natural birth even though the pain was very unbearable,” said Amya, who felt pressured to get an epidural, and endured a difficult labor while wearing a mask.
“They were telling me to breathe,” she said. “I couldn’t because I kept hyperventilating.”
At the hospital, she added, the staff treated her like a child. “They didn’t explain a lot of things to me,” she said.
Over the last year, Amya said she didn’t mind quarantine very much, but it was tough to see her son so isolated.
“I want him to go out and enjoy the world, get some sun, meet people, you know?” she said.
In the United States, the teenage birthrate has fallen dramatically over time, but is still higher than in most developed countries.
And racial disparities persist. In 2019, Hispanic and Black teenagers in the United States gave birth at more than twice the rate of non-Hispanic white teens. These racial groups were also disproportionately affected by Covid-19 compared with white people. They experienced more infections, illnesses and deaths — not because of an inherent vulnerability to the virus, but instead because social and environmental factors have led them to become more exposed to Covid-19, experts say.
In November, Amya and her entire family — including her son and his father — were diagnosed with Covid-19. Nobody became seriously ill, however, and within a few weeks they had recovered.
Because the school was already set up to support student parents in addition to those who found traditional public school to be challenging, Nowell was well positioned to help its student body during the pandemic, said Jessica Waters, the school’s executive director.
The administrators decided class would be virtual with ample opportunity to chat with teachers outside of class sessions. In addition, students could come to campus each day throughout the week to study in learning pods of up to 15 other students if they needed tutoring, a quiet place to work or access to services like the school’s on-site day care, which stayed open throughout the school year.
“This enabled us to never close the school,” Ms. Waters said.
For Gladys, who lives with 12 other family members, having a quiet space to work on campus was imperative.
When she tries to participate in online school at home, “I can’t really get what the teacher is saying,” she said. “I just like to be in person.”
For Amya, it was just the opposite: Attending school virtually at home turned out to be a convenient way to stay on top of her schoolwork. A couple of weeks before she gave birth she was able to complete a short online summer course in English and history. Shortly afterward she started another course that covered math and science, but she wasn’t able to finish because the baby arrived.
“Honestly, I am going to earn all the credit I can,” she said. “I did not want to waste no chance.”
In the fall, her mother and the baby’s father watched her son when they weren’t at work, and she would meet with her teachers online while her baby slept. Sometimes she stayed up until 1 a.m. to get her schoolwork done.
“I was exhausted, yeah,” she said. “But I’m like, I’ve got to get this education.”
Produced by Tiffanie Graham