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Teen mothers think love conquers all (Released: 2/10/00)

by Karen Grava, Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- For many teen-age moms, love and marriage go together with the baby carriage.

And if not marriage, then at least a lasting relationship.

That conclusion emerges from the research of Pamela I. Erickson, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, who conducted in-depth interviews with 46 Latina teen mothers and 18 of their male partners in East Los Angeles, a heavily Latino section of the city. The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development.

"What comes out over and over again with the young women is that it's their first love, the first time they've connected with someone," Erickson says. "They're young and confused, and they don't know how to deal with their emotions. Young men aren't much different about the relationship," she says. "There is a strong feeling between them. It's a matter of building trust. They're not just out for sex."

The sex, and the babies that may follow, are usually not planned - but it's not for a lack of knowledge about birth control, Erickson says. Her interest in studying the formation of relationships grew out of research on adolescent pregnancy from a public health perspective.

"After five or six years of working with teen-age mothers, I could see that the reason they were having babies was not because they didn't know about birth control," Erickson says. "For a lot of teen mothers, the first person they have sex with becomes the father of their baby. Yet two-thirds to three-quarters of the girls said they didn't plan to get pregnant. Something was missing in the research."

She notes that professionals in the health field was more interested in helping with family planning and preparing for the baby, and that didn't happen until a girl had become pregnant or had been in a relationship for a while. Many of the teens she interviewed are immigrants from Central or South America.

"In their culture, there are expectations of virginity when they marry, so they're not planning for sex. Sex takes them by surprise. The couples usually go out for three to six months before they have sex. Then they're not prepared for it."

Erickson says part of the reason the teen-agers in her study get pregnant results from gender roles in their culture that do not allow women to be prepared to deal with relationships or to talk about physical desire.

"Sometimes the guys are just out for sex and then dump the girls, but that's not usually the case. Even if they don't get married, they live together and the father helps take care of the child."

For the girls, Erickson says, the entire issue is about love and relationships.

"The girls who talked to me think the first love is the only one, forever," she says. "It sounds like Cinderella to an adult, but they really believe that and think that's how it's supposed to be."

She says that some girls who are "lost" - in gangs or from dysfunctional families - run away. Having a baby "turns them around, changes them in a good way."

That can happen with the father as well as with the teen-age mother. "One young man I talked with said he is certain that he would be in prison if he had not become a father," Erickson says. She says that although there are thousands of articles on teens, almost never do they address love and the power of the emotions people feel when they fall in love. "The teens are not thinking about babies. They're in love. They get caught up in the image of being swept away, and that becomes an excuse for premarital sex."

Erickson says many girls believe premarital sex is wrong, even though that notion may run counter to what they see happening in real life. "It's the idea that love conquers all," she says. "The 46 teen moms I worked with were involved in a serious relationship with someone they expected to be with for a while, if not forever.

"For the immigrant girls, they expect that first person to be their husband. They're so young they don't understand how hard it is to have a child. But they still want a Cinderella story where everyone lives happily ever after," she says.