For an increasingly large segment of women who choose to have children out of wedlock, Murphy Brown’s values simply do not apply, says author and Washington Post reporter Leon Dash. Dash, 48, grew up in New York City’s Harlem and Bronx and lived for 18 months in Washington Highlands, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. He emerged with a book, When Children Want Children (1989), and with decided ideas about black teenage mothers. He discussed his conclusions with correspondent Stephanie Slewka.
Why did the teenagers you interviewed have babies?
These kids grew up in deep poverty, totally isolated from mainstream America. They are aware of conventional values, such as postponing sexual activity or waiting until you’re married to have babies. But they feel these values don’t apply to them. These kids are bright but undereducated; generally the public school system lost them in the second grade. Most of them know that their lives are going to be limited, if not bleak.
What values are they looking for?
The kind that tell them “I’m a man. I’m a woman.” By producing a child, they gain status. They move from adolescence to adulthood. One teenager said of his girlfriend, “With her on the pill, I couldn’t feel like a man because there was no chance of getting her pregnant.”
To him, that was manhood—making a girl pregnant. For most of the girls, it wasn’t getting pregnant but having a child that was important. Then the girl can say to her mother, in essence, “You can’t tell me what to do anymore. I’m grown.”
Aren’t these girls having babies because they want something to love?
A lot of people say that. But I found it to be a myth.
Once a teenager has one baby and knows how difficult it is to look after, why does she have another?
Half of the teenage girls who have a child have a second one within two years of the first. The second child is born before the first one begins to walk. The first child is still a doll. It hasn’t reached the demanding period that begins with the terrible twos.
Where are the fathers?
Out on the street, getting involved in crime and selling drugs. The teenage mothers do not see these adolescent fathers as husbands. They see them mostly as boyfriends. The young men are not there to supply love as the child grows up. The status they receive in the community comes from showering the mother and child with money and gifts.
The trouble is, these teenage fathers cannot make enough by doing legitimate work to even support themselves. So they turn to crime to supplement what the mother gets from welfare. But in the process they disqualify themselves from being part of the family. They could get killed at any time, and so could the mothers if they lived with them.
Do these teenagers resent politicians telling them that they have to stop having babies?
I think they’re totally unaware of the politicians and their ideas. People don’t recognize that these families live incredibly isolated lives, aware of mainstream values but totally unable to live in the mainstream.
Would a sitcom like Murphy Brown influence these kids?
No. They probably never watch it.