Lesley Messer and Michelle Tauber
September 20, 2010 12:00 PM

“Hello, Missy!” coos Catelynn Lowell as she kneels in front of 16-month-old baby Carly. The blue-eyed tot has just arrived at a PEOPLE photo shoot at a New York City studio in a stroller pushed by her parents, North Carolina couple Brandon and Teresa. The pair warmly greet Catelynn and Tyler Baltierra, the teens turned MTV reality stars who placed their baby for adoption when she was a newborn. But right now the 18-year-olds have eyes only for the little girl in the stroller. While Carly-her face a tiny mirror image of Tyler’s-quietly takes in the scene, Tyler bends over and kisses her hand before playing peekaboo behind his fingers. “You remember!” a clearly delighted Catelynn exclaims as Carly breaks into a gummy grin. The couple last saw the bubbly baby earlier this summer, when they drove from their homes in suburban Detroit to West Virginia for a visit as part of their semi-open adoption arrangement with Brandon and Teresa. “I didn’t think I was going to see her for another year,” says Catelynn. “And then we got the call [about the photo shoot] and mine and Tyler’s hearts go…” She rapidly thumps on her chest. Notes Tyler: “It’s intense.”

Experiencing an emotionally supercharged moment in such a public way is nothing new for Catelynn and Tyler, who documented their lives as expectant parents-and their wrenchingly painful decision to place their baby for adoption-last year on MTV’s cult reality hit 16 and Pregnant. Since then the couple have shared the aftermath of that choice in often heartbreaking honesty on the spin-off series Teen Mom, which in its second season regularly draws more than 3 million viewers. While the show’s other teen moms grapple with diaper duty, toddler tantrums and juggling motherhood and dating (see page 74), Catelynn and Tyler have struggled with the complex web of feelings that comes with any adoption. “When I see a dad and a little girl walking to the park, I think, ‘I wish I could do that right now,'” admits Tyler, who has a tattoo of Carly’s name, newborn handprint and birth date. (Catelynn has a similar tattoo of Carly’s footprint.) “But it all comes down to what do you think your kid deserves? And I think Carly deserves exactly the parents she’s got now.” Adds Catelynn: “I don’t regret my decision at all, but you have your days when you miss her.” Still, she says, “I’m way stronger than I was a year ago.”

For Tyler and Catelynn, watching Brandon and Teresa-whom they chose through a local adoption agency after seeing a YouTube video the couple had made for prospective birth parents-has reaffirmed that they made the right choice (see box). “They’re just so ready [to be parents],” says Tyler. “Me and Catelynn were just so not ready.” Both couples say they are proud to put a positive face on adoption. “A lot of girls are like, ‘I’d never be able to do what you did!'” says Catelynn. “And I tell them, ‘I never thought I’d be able to do it, so don’t ever tell yourself you can’t do something until you try.’ I’m glad we put the option out there. Carly is so lucky. She’s got three families: Teresa’s, Brandon’s and ours.”

As the lone couple from 16 and Pregnant who are still together, Catelynn and Tyler say they have only grown closer since the adoption. Had they decided to raise Carly, “I think we probably would’ve struggled a lot,” says Catelynn. “That was my biggest concern-I didn’t want to struggle, and I didn’t want [Carly] to be around all that.” Around the time 16 and Pregnant was taping, Catelynn’s mom, April, married Tyler’s dad, Butch. Both parents were bitterly opposed to the adoption, and April remains unsupportive of her daughter’s choice. “My mom’s still angry,” says Catelynn. “We argue, and I couldn’t imagine Carly seeing all that stuff-my mom screaming at me. I wouldn’t want her around that at all.”

Still, Catelynn admits that she and Tyler-who began dating in seventh grade and got engaged last year when Tyler proposed in a moment captured by MTV’s cameras-have weathered “a couple of bumps in the road” during the past year, including a fight on this season of Teen Mom in which Tyler confronted Catelynn about her contact with an ex-boyfriend. Now in couples counseling, “we’ve been getting way better with communication and just me being me, expressing myself,” says Catelynn. “It’s kind of weird because we’ve found our soulmate at such a young age. I would never give him up for any guy out there, even if he was famous and hot as hell! We’re best friends.”

Looking ahead, the young couple, who are eager to enroll in college, say they plan to marry and start a family-eventually. “Once we get married, we want to have our own time for a couple years,” says Catelynn, who hopes to work with children either as a teacher or a pediatric nurse. Like much of her life these days, it’s a goal she says Carly inspired: “There’s not a day she doesn’t pass my mind. I want to make her proud.” Tyler, who plans to be a youth counselor, feels the same way. “I know Carly’s gonna come to mine and Catelynn’s doorstep one day and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, for everything you did.'”

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