By Briana Palma
Growing up is harder when raising someone else
In the middle of the night, Alisa Ruperto can ignore the fire truck sirens roaring by her window. She can ignore her laughing neighbors stumbling home from the bars and slamming their doors. But when her roommate cries, sleeping just a foot away from her bed, Ruperto can’t ignore it.
While her classmates spend their nights at parties with friends, Ruperto’s nights are occupied with a different kind of company — her 6-month-old son and roommate, Nathan.
Ruperto became pregnant in the summer of 2007, and has since been living a dual life as a Syracuse University student and a mother. During her first semester freshman year, when many girls worried about gaining the freshman 15, Ruperto hid her swelling baby bump under a bulk of sweatshirts and jackets. Last summer, while other students interned in Manhattan or tanned on the coast, she worked three jobs — sometimes from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m — to save money for the school year. And wherever she goes today, Ruperto carries an oversized diaper bag in place of a designer purse.
“The other day it was raining,” Ruperto said, “And [Nathan’s] stroller is really heavy, so I prefer to carry him. And it was raining and I had to carry him and the umbrella so he wouldn’t get wet, and I had my backpack and I had to walk to the bus. That’s when I’m like, damn, this is hard.”
Ruperto is not the only one who carries a hefty load. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the birth rate among young women ages 15 to 19 rose 3 percent from 2005 to 2006 — a notable change after falling for 14 consecutive years. The report, released last December, fueled new discussion about teen pregnancy and sexual education. It exploded two weeks later, when 16-year-old actress Jamie Lynn Spears announced she was pregnant.
Media attention pushed teen pregnancy into the spotlight during the past year. Juno, the comedy about a knocked-up high school student, won an Oscar in February. Just three months later, Gloucester High School in Mass. announced that 17 of its students were pregnant, and possibly had planned it. In July, Spears graced the cover of OK! magazine next to the head line, “Being a mom is the best feeling in the world!” Less than two months after that, the Republican Party announced that, if elected, citizens of the United States will have a first grandbaby courtesy of the pregnant 17-year-old daughter of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Hollywood and the media are now scapegoats for the rise in young mothers and critics blame them for desensitizing the issue through comedy and glamour.
“Stop the presses!” mocked Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert and professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, regarding the Spears pregnancy. “She’s 17, she’s pregnant, she’s not married, and she stars in this show that little kids watch. Surely [conservative commentators would say] this is the end of the world as we know it.”
Thompson said the media treated Spears much like 17th-century Puritan Boston treated Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Thompson explained that both supporters and detractors treated the pregnancy like a fatal, contagious disease. “You could listen to an entire report [about Spears’ pregnancy], and it could have been a brain tumor that they were talking about,” he said.
Ruperto insists the hardships of being a young mother are balanced by the positives. “He’s here; there’s nothing I can do to change that now,” Ruperto said. “Me sitting here crying over it or complaining is not going to change anything. You have to look at the positive side. You have a beautiful baby who wakes you up in the morning and the things he does are like, wow.”
The media failed to take a similar positive position on Spears’ pregnancy, condemning her for wanting to raise the child on her own.
“It bothered me a lot that [the media] criticized [Spears] for not letting her mom take care of the baby,” said Ruperto, who has refused her own mother’s offers to care for Nathan until her graduation. Ruperto said she would rather endure the struggle of young motherhood than miss out on the first three years of her son’s life. “It’s really easy for you to say, ‘Well, I have this kid, I don’t know what to do, so here, you take care of him,” Ruperto said. “Anyone can do that. It takes double the person to be there and do it herself. I pay Jamie Lynn lots of respect.”
However, the Republican Party portrayed Bristol Palin as a heroine during her teen pregnancy. “It’s very ironic because the situation that Sarah Palin and her daughter are in is one which conservatives have railed against,” said Kristi Andersen, a professor of political science in the Maxwell School. Andersen explained that while conservatives decry teen sex, the Republican Party and Palin’s supporters framed the situation as an example of good family values because Palin and her husband are supporting their daughter, who will marry the baby’s father.
Spears had the same family support and marriage plan, but the public reacted differently. Her mother, Lynne, noted this reaction in a recent interview with Newsweek; she claimed that the public treated the two teen pregnancies hypocritically. Lynne told the magazine that the media “crucified” her daughter while praising the Palin family for its strength. Andersen attributes the lack of criticism toward Palin and her daughter to politics and the boundaries traditionally placed around politicians’ family members. The Republican Party also left little room for interpretation.
“Almost before the media did anything, Republicans started talking about how terrible mainstream media are and how any kind of scrutiny [of Palin] is unfair,” Andersen said.
Republicans have fiercely defended Bristol Palin, but Thompson thinks her presence in the media has caused a public embarrassment similar to that of Spears. “He knocked her up and he’s got to marry her,” Thompson said. “The two of them standing together is almost like a shotgun wedding, which instead of happening in the back room, is happening in front of the American public.”
Ruperto thinks the problem lies within the society as a whole, not just the media. She hid her pregnancy for the entire first semester of her freshman year; she was three months along when school started in late August. And when she finally couldn’t help but show, Ruperto’s swelling belly made her an easy target for stares.
“I wish I didn’t have to do that,” she said, referring to masking her bulging belly. “I feel like I didn’t get to enjoy [my pregnancy] because every time I stepped outside, I was a whole different person from when I was inside by myself,” she said. Even now, when she walks across campus with Nathan in her arms, she attracts attention.
The national fascination with pregnancy is a relatively new phenomenon — half a century ago it was completely taboo. In the 1952–1953 season of “I Love Lucy,” CBS forbade the word “pregnant,” even though Lucy was indeed with child. Attitudes have changed, but public discussions still lack meaning. Thompson said he has watched about 20 hours of television commentary about Bristol Palin, none of which offered much insight into real issues of teen pregnancy.
In general, the sensationalized conversations avoid the cause and effect, focusing exclusively on the state of pregnancy. Though Spears’ pregnancy signaled that she was sexually active at 16 and probably had not used birth control, the media ignored these issues. “You’d swear that somehow, Jamie Lynn Spears got a visit from the stork at night,” Thompson said.
Ruperto thinks such incomplete portrayals of pregnancy affect young women. “Teenage girls see [pregnancy] as so happy and dandy,” she said. “They see the baby shower; they see when everyone spoils you. But they don’t see the effects. They don’t think about when he wakes up at 3 a.m. and he’s crying hysterically.” She thinks that young people learn about the difficulties of raising a child only after they experience or witness it firsthand.
While she does not regret keeping Nathan, Ruperto admits that her pregnancy resulted from laziness in obtaining birth control. She said if she thought about it more, maybe she would have seen the reality of parenting that comes after birth, rather than just that of pregnancy. “My best friend’s baby needs more attention [than Nathan does],” she said. “He cries a lot and he’s really energetic. A baby like that would be perfect birth control for anyone. For anyone. It would have been for me.”