It’s easy to read the statistics about family composition and feel thoroughly distanced from the human reality those numbers represent. Tonya Green, who attended the first "Families in the Nineties" summit in Washington DC, speaks candidly here about how she became one of the 9.2 million single parents in the United States. She is president of the Adolescent Parenting Program in Chapel Hill, NC, an innovative project matching teen mothers with older volunteers who help them navigate through the personal, social, and bureaucratic mazes such young mothers face. For more information about this award-winning program, contact Cathy Putnam at 410 Caldwell Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516.
Alan: Let’s start with a little background. Tell us about your own family.
Tonya: Well, I was brought up with my grandmother and my mom – my mom was also a single parent, and a teenage parent – and I’m the middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother. And my mom was pretty strict. We were fairly poor. She was going to school at night, and she had to work during the day, so that meant my grandmother took care of us mostly. We moved around a lot – we used to move about once every year.
Alan: What does your mom do for work?
Tonya: Now she’s a pharmacist.
Alan: And your father wasn’t in the picture at all?
Tonya: No. I see him about once or twice a year. But I didn’t actually meet him until I was around twelve or thirteen, when we moved back here.
Alan: And how do you get along with him now?
Tonya: We don’t talk that much because I don’t really know him. I mean, I can’t call him "Father" or anything because I never knew him as my father. But we get along alright. It’s not the best relationship.
Alan: When did you have your son Joseph?
Tonya: When I was fourteen.
Alan: And is Joseph’s father in the picture at all?
Alan: A lot of young single parents report feeling a certain pressure to have a baby, because having a baby is something that gives them some status or identity with their friends or within the community. Is that anything like your experience?
Tonya: No! I think it’s true in certain cases, but not in mine. If you were in school, you didn’t want to have a child. At Chapel Hill High people talked about you real bad when you had a child. Joseph was unexpected. I mean, I had my goals all set out, and it just – it was my first time. It just happened my first time. Mom would talk to us about birth control and everything, but, I don’t know, I just figured it wasn’t going to happen my first time.
And after I got pregnant, I didn’t have any friends at all. It was like I was real nasty – I was dirty or something. I just didn’t have any friends after that.
Alan: Did you drop out of school?
Tonya: Well, I dropped out temporarily after Joseph came. My little boy came out with pneumonia, and I couldn’t take him to day care or to a babysitter. His father’s parents said they couldn’t watch him. So I dropped out for a few months, and then I got a job, so I had to go to school at night. But I did get my high school diploma.
Alan: What’s your family’s role been in all this? Have they been supportive?
Tonya: Yes! When I first got pregnant, I was sort of scared to tell my mother, and I didn’t gain that much weight. I was seven-and-a-half to eight months pregnant before she found out – which was two weeks before I had him.
She gave me a choice. She said, "You can have him, or you can put him up for adoption. But if you have him, it’s going to be your responsibility." And what she meant was that she would support him as far as buying his clothes and his food, but everything else I would have to do, which meant she was not going to babysit or anything unless I paid her. So that was the deal. If I had him, it had to be my responsibility.
Alan: And what’s the relationship like now? Does your mother babysit for him?
Tonya: Now she does. She babysits on the weekend. She feels that it’s a good idea that I have my weekends free so I won’t be so pressured all the time. And any time I need anything, or if I need a babysitter during the week, there’s my brother – he’s only fifteen, but he’s always there to watch Joseph for me.
Alan: Do you have a church or other social group where you get some support?
Tonya: Well, at my church, it’s like we’re a family because we’ve been around each other for so long. And at first they didn’t accept it – they said things like, "What are you going to do with a child? You’re just a baby yourself!" But then they sort of put that aside, and they would help me if I really needed it, or if I just went to them and asked. Nobody actually put me down except for Joseph’s father and his parents. They didn’t want to accept him.
Alan: What’s your relationship with Joseph’s father like now?
Tonya: There is none.
Alan: But you’re members of the same church?
Tonya: Well, Joseph’s grandparents are, but his father isn’t.
Alan: Did you get any federal assistance or local government assistance after you had Joseph?
Alan: So you’ve managed all of this on your own and with family help.
Tonya: Yes. I’ve been living on my own since I was sixteen. But see, my mom is real supportive, she knows what I’m going through. Because she was there at one point in time. And when I moved out, she told me, "Well, if you ever get in any trouble, or if you need to come back home, home is always here."
If I ever needed anything, I either went to my mom or my grandmother. But – I worked. At first I would work sixteen hours a day, and Joseph would stay with my brother till night. Then I got a raise, and then I got a better position. So I stopped working so many hours and I started going to school. It’s not easy. It’s never been easy. But I’m not actually struggling now as much as I was, either.
Alan: Does Joseph have a father figure?
Tonya: Actually my brother is the man figure in his life. I don’t have a boyfriend or anything. My brother will take him out bicycle riding or he’ll sit in the house and play with him. My brother is there for Joseph, just as a man figure, as a man to be around. But as far as raising him goes, it’s just me and my mom. If he gets sick or something – and sometimes I don’t know what to do if he gets real sick – I call her.
Alan: Now that you’ve had several years of experience, what’s your sense of the kinds of support that are needed that aren’t there for somebody in your situation?
Tonya: I think we need to be talking to children about birth control and pregnancy during junior high school and high school, before it happens, instead of everyone trying to give everybody lectures after it happens. And we also need to have counselors in the school who talk about birth control, not just the school nurses saying something to you when you go to them. We need to have classes about birth control.
For the teenagers who do have children and who are trying to stay in school – well, the majority of them drop out. One reason is lack of day care. If they could put a day care in the high schools and the junior high schools, and maybe even a clinic for prenatal care, that would save a lot of problems also. I know a lot of teenagers have a hard time taking their babies to the hospital, because they’re scared they can’t afford it or they have other problems with it.
Alan: What kinds of problems?
Tonya: When I had Joseph, there was a woman who came to see me in the hospital. She wasn’t exactly a social worker, but she worked with social services. I never told anybody I was planning on putting Joseph up for adoption. But she came in there and said, "Well, I found a nice home for your child," and I was so scared that they were going to take him away from me. That’s a scary feeling for a teenage mother. I think they should have a counselor in the hospital just to talk with the mother, give her some kind of support.
Alan: Give her an awareness of the options rather than trying to force a particular option on her.
Tonya: Yes. Right now, I go visit the high schools in this county, and I try to talk to people about having children. I try to let the girls know that it’s not as easy as what they expect, because what you said before about some people feeling pressure to have a baby was true. But a lot of people go out and get pregnant and have babies, and they think it’s just like having a baby doll or babysitting. They’ve got to realize that you just can’t take that child back to the mother, or just lay it down like a baby doll. They don’t realize the responsibilities that go along with it.
Alan: What other advice do you have for students when you go around to these schools? What do you tell them?
Tonya: First of all, this is the way I look at it. I don’t think a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old should be having sex in the first place. That was my biggest mistake. It was my first time, and I did it because I was pressured into it. And I just tell them that a friend is not a friend if he’s going to pressure you into doing something that you feel is not right. And I just tell them to talk to their parents. That’s a big problem, too. We don’t communicate with our parents enough, and our parents don’t communicate with us. We need to talk more with our parents instead of listening to our friends who know as little as we do. And if not our parents, we need to talk to the counselors at our school.
Alan: Everybody needs to talk to everybody a lot more.
Alan: Tell me a little bit about your experience at the "Family in the Nineties" summit in Washington.
Tonya: I didn’t think I was going to get invited actually. I mean, they only had room for a certain number of people, but I got in at the last minute. And I was so excited! I loved it! I also thought it was very worthwhile.
Alan: What did you get out of it?
Tonya: Oh, a lot. I mean, you don’t realize how different people are. I thought I was so different, that I would be the only black poor person there and everything. But everybody you talked to, even if they didn’t quite understand what you were talking about, they wanted to understand. They were actually listening to what you were saying. It was great!
Alan: How do you feel about being a mother now?
Tonya: Well, if I could change things, I think that I would have preferred to have Joseph a little later in life. But – I couldn’t imagine my life now without him. I mean he’s just – he’s a joy! He’s four years old, but if I’m upset or something, he’ll come and put his arms around me, and he’ll say "Mommy, can we talk?" He’s a great baby. I love him.