Looking back on the last 20 years of her life, 36-year-old Jennifer recognizes some regrets.
When she was only 16 years old, Jennifer learned that she was pregnant with her son, Marcus. The baby's father, John, was a boyfriend who Jennifer had been dating for several years. The two continued to date for several years after Marcus was born.
"It wasn't just some random sleeping around type thing. It was a relationship. Of course, he was happy. He was older. He was actually like four years older than me," Jennifer said.
Having Marcus so young, though, caused Jennifer to mature well before her time.
"I wish I could have experienced prom and the teenage things, the fun part. I don't know about the drinking and all that, because looking at it as an adult now, it would have been a waste of time, but it's still an experience that I never got to do. I had to mature so quick. I had to grow up so fast, it's crazy. I lost a lot of years to it. I had to grow up fast and I lost a lot of the experiences. There were things that I wanted to do, and I couldn't. I wanted to be a model. They were calling me actually while I was pregnant, and I remember telling them that I was pregnant and that there was no way that I could do this now. So, I ruined that whole future," Jennifer said.
LARGE FAMILY EXPERIENCE
Growing up with 12 brothers and sisters, Jennifer knew what to expect when it came to babies. However, there were still surprises.
"The only thing I didn't realize is how much work it truly was, and devotion. It wasn't something you could just push off for a day. You had to be there. You had to get up in the middle of the night. You had to change the diapers. You didn't have where you could just let it go for a day and walk away and come back to it. You had to give a whole lot of sacrificing," Jennifer said. "I didn't realize how much love you can have for somebody. I think that was most surprising part of it all, just for the fact that you never realize that you could love somebody that much."
Jennifer's own mother was 16 when she had her first child, and Jennifer recognizes the pattern. She has been sure to talk to all three of her sons about protection.
"I know that it does take (on) a pattern. I think that parents could change that. I was very open. I talked a lot to my boys about it. And, even if I would've had girls, I would have been very open. And, one of the things I would have done is put them on some kind of birth control pill. I don't care if they were having it or not, just to protect them. When you're in that moment, you're in that moment. You're not caring if there's a condom, you're not caring. That's one advice that I have, especially if they have girls, because girls are more vulnerable to it. And, girls get the short end of the stick. They have to carry the baby, ultimately, they are caring for the baby. They have to protect themselves," Jennifer said.
Jennifer said that the best thing that teenagers today can do is not rush to adult responsibilities.
"Try to be a kid and be a teenager. Don't try to grow up so fast. Really, it's not fun. And, there is so much to life that you can experience before you become a parent. Enjoy that while you have that, because once you lose it, you can't get it back. Wait. What's the rush? You have your whole life, so why rush it? Looking back, if I could change it all and still have the same kid, I would. But, I know I wouldn't have been the same person. He wouldn't have been the same kid. It made us who we are."
At the time of her interview, Ashley was an 18-year-old senior, looking forward to her high school graduation.
Like many college-bound seniors, Ashley has already been accepted to Jamestown Community College, where she plans to study early childhood development. She would like to either become a preschool teacher or a daycare provider.
Ashley's 2-year-old son, Alex, proves to be a handful as the young mother steers herself toward graduation.
"It's been hard. This is my fourth time taking global (history). It's harder when you have a baby. You can't just go home and study all the time. It's harder to try to fit it in when you have a toddler that runs all over the place," Ashley said.
When, at the age of 16, Ashley found out she was pregnant, she was thrilled by the news.
"I was really happy. Like, I love kids so much. I grew up with lots of cousins and nieces. So, I've always liked children, but I was still shocked because it was actually mine now; it's my situation," Ashley said.
LESSONS ON MOTHERHOOD
Being a mother, however, has not come without its heartaches for Ashley. Recently, Alex hurt himself at daycare and required stitches.
"It was so hard. My mom had to be in the room with him; I couldn't do it. I was so scared. So, my mom sat in the room with him. I was downstairs freaking out, because (I saw) the blood rushing everywhere. It was horrible," Ashley said.
Another surprise for Ashley were the problems that Alex had after he was born. He required medical attention by a Buffalo doctor, and Ashley had the responsibility of getting her son the necessary care.
"It's hard when you have no transportation. Like, you don't have your own car, but you have to take him to Buffalo every couple months. So, that was surprising. I didn't know you would have to take your kid out of your little place. I always expected that if they were sick, they would go to their doctor, that it wouldn't be that hard to get there," Ashley said.
She said being a mother has enormous joys as well.
"You always have someone that loves you. I don't know, my mom was always there, for me, I know she loves me, but she also worked a lot, so it was really hard. Now, I have my own kid, he loves me. It's nice for him to show it. I always had my mom, and I always got to see what I did to her. Now, I can feel like all of it. Like, the hugs and the kisses, and all of the wonderful little joys that they do," Ashley said.
FINISHING HIGH SCHOOL
For now, Ashley's focus is on being a mother to a curious toddler while hoping to pass her final two exams, so that she is able to attend college. She said that her school has given her several suggestions for studying, but she is unable to do many of them.
"Like, posting things around the house, my toddler would just go and knock it all off. With a baby, I guess it would be hard too, with any kid. But for me, it's hard with a toddler," Ashley said.
For all of the good times that Alex gives her, Ashley still says being a mother can be difficult.
"It's different than when you are growing up around little kids, and then you feel like you expect you know what it would like to have a kid. When it actually happens, it's totally different. When you're watching other kids, it's not your kid. Now, if you're having a hard time, you're stuck with it. You just have to deal through it. You can't just give the kid back to another parent."
Although her daughter, Maddie, is now more than a year old, 19-year-old Kaitlyn still experiences hateful remarks.
"When I'm walking in the mall or down the street pushing Maddie or carrying her, people are just like, 'Wow, look at her.' I've been called a slut before by kids my own age. I'm a slut because I have a baby? That makes sense," Kaitlyn said with sarcasm.
Kaitlyn was dating Maddie's father, Mike, for five years. Although the couple was engaged, Kaitlyn recently moved out of Mike's house, because their relationship was becoming violent. She said that one of the most difficult things about being a teenage mother is the judgement she receives from people who don't know her background.
"It's hard, because I don't have anybody to really talk to about it. I just kind of deal with it and brush it off," Kaitlyn said.
Raising Maddie has brought Kaitlyn extreme happiness, despite difficult circumstances.
"Seeing her grow and knowing that I'm aiding to her being able to learn and grow skills and knowledge of how to do things is just amazing. It's an indescribable feeling; it's just amazing. Being a parent, you have someone that is a part of you, is a piece of you. You are just so connected; it's really hard to describe the feeling," Kaitlyn said.
Kaitlyn added that she had never realized how wonderful it would be to bring up a child.
"I knew it was going to be good, but those moments where they cuddle with you and you just get the best feeling. It's amazing that little person completely relies on you and love(s) you so unconditionally; it's ridiculous. Because I've grown up without a lot of that, it's just amazing that no matter what I do, she's still going to love me no matter what. I'm just not used to it. I'm used to disappointing everybody, and I can't disappoint my daughter. It's just an unconditional love that you can't get from anybody else," Kaitlyn said.
However, Kaitlyn still feels as if she is missing out on the life of an average child-free teenager.
"It takes up your youth, basically. You can't have the normal teenage life like all of your other friends. You can't go to college and have a normal college life. You can't experience the partying and the focusing just on school and being able to sit down and just do your work. It has to come after my baby. I feel sad sometimes, because I can't just go out whenever I want," Kaitlyn said.
No longer being with Mike also makes bringing Maddie up more difficult.
"I felt that me and Mike would be together, and that it would be a lot easier with him and me in the picture. But, that's not how it turned out. It's definitely not what you're going to expect. Life doesn't care about your plans or the way you want it to be. It just happens. It just kind of tumbles over that plan," Kaitlyn said. "And, I don't think Mike wants anything to do with my daughter. He just doesn't care. I'm not sure if he really cares or not, I don't know what goes through his head."
Despite her situation, Kaitlyn is currently enrolled in the TEAM Program, where she is working toward graduation. Upon moving out of a safe house and into her new apartment, Kaitlyn got herself enrolled both in school and in TEAM.
"I'm going to be joining the Air Force reserves for the money and the opportunities that it will give my daughter and I for the future. Then, I'll be going to college when I get back, and getting a job and all of that. I'm hoping to get into the LPN program, which is a very intense program. Then, I want to try becoming an RN too," Kaitlyn said.
Although Kaitlyn and Maddie have been through a lot together, Kaitlyn maintains a positive outlook on what the future will hold for them.
"I'm proud to be a mom. I may be young, but it happened. There's a reason for it. Maybe I can't have a baby later in life. There's a reason for why I had her so early, and I'll find that out eventually."
Keeping children, including her own, informed about sex education is something that 22-year-old Katie finds important to make changes.
"I think being more open with kids, letting them know what's out there, where they can go. Especially now that kids are having sex early. It's not 16-year-olds having sex, it's 14-year-olds. I think that having a more open relationship helps. My dad wasn't really open, neither was my mom. I never had a sex talk with my mom," Katie said.
At the age of 16, Katie began dating Jim, who was four years older than her, and already out of school. Four months into their relationship, Katie found out that she was pregnant with her daughter, Jolinn, who is now five.
Her own mother was 17 when she had her first child. Katie said that becoming a teenage mother herself is something that affected her entire family.
"I have little sisters that had to watch not only my sister be a teen mom, but they watched me. They had to see the suffering that I went through, and it affected them. They had to become an aunt at a young age. My one sister and Jolinn are only, like, eight years apart in age," Katie said.
Because of her family history, Katie intends to keep Jolinn informed about what choices she will be able to make.
"My cousin had a baby young. My step-sister had a baby young. My sister had a baby young. I told them that they were all stupid, and that I would never make such a dumb choice. Things happen. Birth control is only 99 percent effective. You can say it's never going to happen, but it's going to happen. My best advice is just to talk to your kids," Katie said.
CREATING A BETTER LIFE
Katie has been working hard to ensure that Jolinn has a better life. They have moved in with a close friend, Katie works full time and is engaged to a different man, and Jolinn is currently attending preschool.
"Five years later, I'm still struggling. Maybe it will get easier now that she is going into school full time, but it's a struggle. You want to provide for them, you want to give them the best, you want to give them more than you had when you were a kid, but you really can't when they're little," Katie said.
Dating while raising a child was also difficult for Katie.
"Dating was hard. You can't just look for a guy that loves you; he has to love your child. To find someone your age, and date them, that's hard. Not every guy wants to be a father figure at 20, 21," Katie said.
Katie is also a member of a local volunteer fire department, along with her fiance. Jolinn is often at the fire hall with them, which Katie said she hopes will be a positive influence.
"I'm kind of hoping that with Jolinn being so involved with the fire department, maybe that will get her mind involved elsewhere. Or, maybe all of the guys in the department will scare her boyfriends away. One or the other," Katie said.
Although it has been difficult to get to this point, Katie is continuing to make changes for both herself and her daughter. In just five short years, the change that she sees in herself is the most drastic.
"I wasn't one of those teen moms where their child ruins their life. I was headed down a bad road, and I didn't even think I was going to graduate high school. Jolinn gave me that incentive to live for."
Looking toward the future, 15-year-old Joyce is focusing on the joys that motherhood will be bringing her.
The teenager - who lives with boyfriend of four months, Rick, as well as her mother and brother - was filled with excitement at the time of her interview. Five weeks before she was due to give birth to her daughter, Joyce's biggest fear was what labor would bring.
However, being enrolled in the TEAM Program has helped to dispel many of the concerns of the soon-to-be mother.
"If they didn't have TEAM, I don't know where any of these teen parents would be. They have, like, everything here. They do so much for us. The learning isn't easier, but they break (lessons) down more for people that need it. They have a lot to offer us here," Joyce said.
Although Rick is looking forward to being a father, he is not the biological father of Joyce's baby. The biological father, Joyce said, does not believe that the baby is his, and currently does not have a relationship with Joyce.
As her belly continues to grow, Joyce said that she has begun to notice more people staring at her when she is out in public.
"Apparently, people have never seen a pregnant person before. I just brush it off and ignore it," Joyce said.
And, as time winds down, Joyce is becoming more excited about having her daughter although, she is becoming turned off to the color pink, and is already trying to incorporate other colors into her daughter's life.
"There is so much pink. I wish that there was something else besides pink. Like, every piece of clothing she has a little bit of pink on it. I was going to do her nursery yellow, but then I did it purple. Half of my room will be mine, half of it is hers. It has her name painted on the walls," Joyce said.
She said she is excited for the first time that her daughter walks. She is excited to be able to actually hold her daughter, and know that she created her.
"I made her, she's me. I'm just excited. I get to see her grow up," Joyce said.
The last five weeks of pregnancy doesn't come without some fears, though. Her biggest fear is when she goes into labor, and not knowing what to expect. Other fears include breastfeeding, bathing and potentially dropping the newborn.
Overall, though, those fears are not getting in the way of Joyce's feelings of excitement.
"I'm just excited, I can't wait for my baby to come. It's what I'm looking forward to."
Writer's Note: Joyce gave birth to a baby girl in June.