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Jul 04th
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From Barack Obama’s mother, a wise message for teenage girls


I was walking up Seventh Avenue in New York City last Saturday when I saw these words on a billboard shaped like a large baby’s bottle:



teenage girls

will become pregnant

this year


the candiesfoundation

Now, I don’t know how many teen girls were milling around me in the crowd, or how many would look skyward, as I did, to catch the message, but it got me thinking about teen pregnancy prevention, which is the Candie’s Foundation’s goal.

Actually, I’ve done a lot of thinking about teen pregnancy over the past 30 years, since it’s one of the reasons why I initially became involved with sex education while serving on the State Board of Education. And I continued to learn about the subject, particularly how it keeps poor, minority teens with the highest rates mired in poverty.

asingularwoman_opt I learned that teen moms more often than not drop out of school, have a repeat pregnancy, rarely if ever marry the father of their children, and have trouble finding jobs that pay above minimum wage. A high percentage of daughters born to teen moms often continue the cycle of early pregnancy themselves, and many of the sons often end up in jail.

The number of unplanned teen pregnancies and births in the United States has declined over the past 30 years, and some of our programs and policies are going in the right direction. One of these is the Carrera Program of the Children’s Aid Society in New York City, which will soon be replicated in Cumberland County, New Jersey. (That county has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.) The Carrera Program offers enrolled teens eight components including education, employment, family life and sex education and lifetime individual sports instruction.

However, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies, “the U.S. still has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and births among comparable countries.”

Yet, a teen mom whose life contrasted sharply with negative predictions was Ann Dunham. A new book, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, by Janny Scott, recounts the life of Dunham, who became pregnant when she was barely 18 and starting her freshman year at the University of Hawaii. The father was a 24-year-old Kenyan, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., who was on a fellowship at the university. They had a short, intense romance that resulted in the pregnancy.

Their baby boy grew up to become our 44th president; his mother became a scholar who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology and became a recognized development specialist involved in micro finance programs that help reduce rural poverty. She died of cancer at 52 before seeing her son’s election to the highest position in the land.

What a success story for a pregnant teen! But I doubt many teens even know that President Obama was born to a teen mom who managed – despite the difficulties and with her parents’ help and her own smarts – to make a good life for her son and herself.

Many teens are likely learning about how hard it is to be a teen parent from watching MTV’s Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant, which draw millions of viewers.

They may have something to learn from Dunham.

One of Dunham’s many fine qualities was her ability to be nonjudgmental about people and their life choices. She would have shown empathy to teens who stumble into early pregnancy, but I think she might also have counseled them not to rush into early pregnancy and marriage and to take time to develop themselves. I found Ann’s message about in these issues in the book’s Epilogue.

There, biographer Scott recounts that Maya Soetoro-Ng, Dunham’s daughter by a second marriage and the president’s half-sister, was thinking of getting married and turned to her mother for advice. At the time, Maya was five years older than her own mother had been when she married Barack Obama, Sr., but, unlike her, she was a college graduate working toward a master’s degree.

Dunham advised her daughter to wait, adding that a woman should know herself well enough to know who she was and who “would satisfy her long term” before getting married. Then Maya told her the biographer that her mother believed that “women have choices” obtained from the women’s movement, and they “needed to ask themselves what they really wanted, then go out and get it.” Dunham’s words echo those of an old Jamaican proverb: “Before you be a Mother, be a woman first.”

Pregnant teen girls don’t have any time to first become women, because early motherhood is all engulfing. Luckily for Dunham, she had choices and the pluck to take advantage of them: parents with some means to support her and her son; smarts to excel at the university; a second marriage that offered some stability and took her to an exotic new country; talents to land jobs that could help to support her, her son and her daughter; and a career as an anthropologist that brought her success.

This book could have been titled A Singular Teen Mother, which would have been accurate in some respects; rather it is rightfully called A Singular Woman and the accent should be on the last word.

I’ve thought for many years that the backbone of teen pregnancy prevention is high-quality sex education courses as part of the school curricula and ready access to contraception, preferably in school health clinics. I still believe strongly in these components, but I’d add a dose of feminism to the curriculum to encourage young girls to become women first and mothers later.

Approaches like the Carrera Program are good, because they offer a variety of activities to teen girls. These programs and middle schools would be good places to share stories about successful women like Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama.

To that list, I would add Ann Dunham. It would be wonderful if someone wrote a short, easy-to-read biography about her based on Scott’s excellent book, which could be read by seventh and eighth graders and turned into a made-for-TV movie.

A book in the hand or a program on the TV screen might be worth more in the long run than any billboard that a teenage girl would have to crane her neck to see.

Susie Wilson, former executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University's Center for Applied and Professional Psychology (now renamed Answer), is a national leader in the fight for effective sexuality and HIV/AIDS education and for prevention of adolescent pregnancy. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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