Q&A with Nicole Lynn Lewis, author of ‘Pregnant Girl’

“I was a person before I was a mother, before I was a teen mother, before I was the pregnant girl.”

The last time I spoke to Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of Generation Hope, she told me that student parents, especially those who are teenagers, are a “largely invisible population.” Despite being at the epicenter of intersecting issues, including systemic racism, poverty, classism, and basic needs insecurity, young adults who are juggling school, work, parenting, and growing up are frequently left out of discourse on everything from student debt cancellation to societal perception of what young adulthood holds. Around 12 years ago, when Lewis first got the idea to share her story via a memoir, that’s what the mentality was: Lewis was told audiences wouldn’t be interested in the story of teen parents being successful. She knew that mentality part of the problem.

With the release of Lewis’s book, Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families (out May 4th from Beacon Press), student parents are at the center. The book isn’t only the story of one young mother, or just a critical call to action that demands better of our politics, policies, and structures of power. Pregnant Girl is also a nuanced portrait of the systemic issues that impact young people, and shape their lives.

Lewis’s memoir is an interrogation of worthiness in a country that still measures it, an examination of the inherent value of young people, and how equitable and effective programs and policies actually impact young parents. It should be required reading for anyone invested in creating a more equitable, just world, a more responsive and accessible “college experience,” and supporting young people.

Lewis spoke with me ahead of the book’s release. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can order Pregnant Girl here.

In regard to the initial conception of the project, I was thinking of the so-called “traditional” college student. One of the things that I think the book does so well is point out the nuance in young people’s journeys and how complex they are and how interconnected with different issues they are.

I think there’s a lot of reasons why the initial reaction 12 years ago was that it shouldn’t be told, and one of them is that there’s such a stigma around teen pregnancy that I think people are concerned about somehow encouraging teen pregnancy. I think that really stems from people having no clue about the complexities of teen pregnancy.

Many of the young people who experience a pregnancy, that pregnancy is just a symptom of these larger issues that are happening in their lives that we’re not talking about, and we’re not dealing with. We don’t want to talk about youth homelessness. We don’t want to talk about rates of sexual assault for Black girls. We don’t want to talk about mass incarceration and the school to prison pipeline for men of color, Black men in particular. We don’t want to talk about our history of genocide with Native Americans and what’s happening to young people in that community. So, what we tend to do is blame the pregnancy and blame the young person.

I talk about that in the first chapter of the book: what are the things that are happening in the lives of young people way before a teen pregnancy comes into the picture? We have to deal with those things and get real about those things.

Nicole Lynn Lewis; photo courtesy of the author.

One thing I love about the book’s structure is it shows how interwoven so many issues are in the lives of young adults. Why is that so critical in terms of how stories get told?

I think one thing that’s really important is for people to walk away from reading the book, understanding issues that we’ve talked about in silos and that many of us care about — we care about homelessness, we care about how young people are doing, or child welfare. We talk about hunger; how many of us are donating to food pantries, particularly right now in COVID? We have been supporting and giving and trying to solve these issues without recognizing who is at the center of them. Teen parents are often at the center of these issues.

What was important to me was for people to say, wow, I care about housing insecurity and affordable housing, but I never thought about the fact that teen parents are more likely to be homeless, or I’ve been advocating for student loan debt forgiveness without knowing that Black parents who are college students are at the epicenter of that crisis. It was important to talk about all of those issues and weave them together, so it prevents us from talking about them in these silos, and really makes us think about the people who are at the center of these issues that we care about.

Within the first couple pages, we have a scene where you’re in the car with Stacey, who is an addict, and you note that, despite addiction, Stacey’s prospects were inherently better than yours, because she’s white. I underlined this line: “Unlike Stacey, I would move through the world with people assuming the worst about me, constantly wanting me to prove my worthiness.” Can you tell me about the decision to open with that scene?

I wanted to start with my lowest point. That was something that was really important to me, because I think it immediately brings people into what is happening? I also wanted to drive home the fact that I was a person before I was a mother, before I was a teen mother, before I was the pregnant girl; that I had these things working against me before any of that even came into the picture.

I talk about how I would learn that we have so much to overcome. Starting the book there: at the place of acknowledging that these are people, and these are people who are experiencing real, significant challenges way before they give birth, way before they’re trying to figure out housing and how to feed their children.

That one line pulls at a conversation that’s unfolding again and again on such a national scale: this idea of worthiness; who’s worthy of resources, who’s worthy of our care.

We don’t see the innate worth in each and every person, and that’s a problem. That’s a problem in our classrooms with our littlest ones, where we don’t see the potential and the assets and the great talent in each and every person. Inability to see that influences everything. It influences how we treat a Black mother in the hospital who is giving birth. It influences whether or not we talk to kids about going to college. It influences that school-to prison-pipeline. I think: how do we get to a place where we recognize the worthiness in everyone, and we want to cultivate that and nurture it? I think that’s what’s missing across all of our systems, and obviously so much of that is tied to race.

Obviously the book, in a lot of ways, is centered on mothering. What do you think our relationship with mothering is like in this country?

Well, I think it’s devalued big time, and I think we’ve seen that with even a pandemic and childcare, and how that has just not been a priority. Even coming into the pandemic, childcare has not been a priority. I see so many of our students struggling with affordable childcare. I talk about affordable childcare in the book, and that was just an ongoing impossible thing. I think motherhood is just not valued at all in our country. I think on top of that, there are certain mothers who are even more devalued and teen mothers absolutely fall in that category, as well as Black mothers, women of color.

This book gives so much to readers, including to policymakers about what needs to happen. What’s something the process of writing the book has given you?

I think it was really a learning process for me to go through the research and the statistics. There were things in the statistics that just blew my mind, like the fact that when I got pregnant, teen pregnancy was actually on the decline, and the highest rates were in the 1950s, when everything that I was taught was completely opposite.

My daughter, who was three months old as I say in the book, is about to graduate from college. It was really emotional at times to go back to those scary moments, and really wonderful to know that we’re in a different place as a family and that she’s grown, and I’ve grown, and that we’re okay.

Is there anything, about the book or about Generation Hope, that readers ought to know?

One thing that’s really important in the conversation around teen parents going to college, as well as parenting college students, in general, is that if we’re going to try to get more teen parents and parenting students into college, we have to make sure that those colleges are ready to support them. What we’re seeing now is that, by and large, they’re not. We’re setting them up for failure.

So, I think we have to do both. We have to encourage them to go to college. We have to remove barriers for them to go to college, but our systems need to be set up for them to thrive. There’s an argument for that on the K-12 level as well, where in high schools, we also have to make sure that we have systems in place to support pregnant and parenting students in getting their diplomas, their GED, and moving on to whatever they’d like to do next. I think that’s a big theme in the book that people see: higher ed isn’t designed for these students. If we really want to make changes, the field has to make some changes to be better equipped to support them.

What’s been inspiring you recently?

One thing that’s been wonderful for me in all of this past year has been my kids, and just being able to spend more time with them.

Any time that I am like, I’m going to lose it, I think about our students who have so many more things on their plates right now. I did not put myself through college in the middle of a global pandemic. I just can’t even imagine. We’ve had Scholars who have tested positive for COVID, we’ve had Scholars who’ve lost their jobs, or their family members have gotten sick or lost their jobs. They’ve had to switch to virtual learning. I think I am inspired by their perseverance and the fact that already on top of really difficult circumstances, they’re navigating all that is going on in the world right now and they’re doing well.

Author of An Ordinary Age, out 5/4/2021. Freelance writer. Kentuckian.

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