The youngest teen of My Teen Is Pregnant And So Am I may need more help than a reality show can offer.
I hate to suggest that a reality show -- even one that, since it's on TLC, purports to teach something to its viewers -- would not be the best forum to deal with a ninth-grader's unplanned pregnancy. But last night's episode of My Teen Is Pregnant And So Am I was the grimmest yet, and it's because of Shaniyah.
At fourteen, Shaniyah is the youngest of the show's titular pregnant teens, and it shows: in the series premiere, as she describes why she thought she wouldn't get pregnant from having sex with her now seventeen-year-old boyfriend, who's either not in the picture at all or just didn't sign the TLC release, she kind of marble-mouths a shrugging explanation that it didn't ever last that long, trying not to smile with embarrassment. You know how they say if you aren't mature enough to buy condoms, you're not mature enough to have sex? People say that, right? Anyway, that's Shaniyah: a loose understanding of biology combined with an overburdened young mother who was already accidentally pregnant herself and worked nights, and the result is Shaniyah's pregnancy.
The way Shaniyah behaved in the series premiere with regard to her pregnancy was upsetting but not that surprising: we learned that she'd realized early on that she was pregnant and didn't know how to tell her mother, so for the first few months, until it became too obvious for her to hide, she pretended she was getting her period, putting dirty pads in the garbage (stained with what? I guess I don't want to know) and pantomiming cramps. Even if Shaniyah had wanted to terminate her pregnancy -- and she tells the camera that she'd never planned to have kids at all, never mind when she's barely just started high school -- it seems like she waited too long to tell anyone who could have helped her get one and therefore has no option but to see it through.
Shaniyah was muddling along as well as can be expected, but then last week Lemhele had her baby, and since she's brought him home, Shaniyah's mental state seems to be unravelling fast. In her first scene in the latest episode, as Lemhele and a visitor idly note that Shaniyah will be bringing her own baby home from the hospital soon, Shaniyah quietly says she's not sure she will. Rather harshly under the circumstances, Lemhele barks that Shaniyah will be allowed to bring her baby home, unless the doctors think she's crazy or that she'll harm herself or the baby, and is there something Shaniyah wants to tell her?! Shaniyah says that her new little brother was allowed to come home because he "had everything," and we cut to an interview in which Lemhele admits that she hasn't started buying clothes or furniture for Shaniyah's baby yet because she doesn't want to give the impression that it's acceptable to be pregnant at fourteen, which, that ship has sailed, lady, the baby's going to arrive any minute.
The weirdest thing about this whole exchange is the way Lemhele marvels uncomprehendingly at the change in Shaniyah's manner, as though it weren't pretty obvious why a fourteen-year-old pregnant girl might not be her usual sprightly self. And when she later tells Shaniyah that she's found her a counsellor to talk to about what's going on, it smacks of producer intervention; one of the first things Lemhele said about Shaniyah's pregnancy back in that first episode was that it brought shame upon Lemhele, so arranging for Shaniyah to tell family business to a stranger doesn't strike me as something Lemhele would have suggested on her own.
And this therapist appointment...yeesh. Veronica does the best she can, but since, as she says, her mother taught her that you don't put your garbage out on the street, Shaniyah basically refuses to talk: she won't say how the pregnancy has been, or what she likes or liked about her baby's father. When Veronica asks, "If you had three wishes, what would they be?" Shaniyah shoots back that she'd only need one, which is not to be pregnant at age fourteen.
Even before her pregnancy, Shaniyah was around babies; her second-youngest sibling looks to be around two, maybe younger, and if Lemhele's children's father is co-parenting with Lemhele, we haven't seen it. Shaniyah doesn't have to use her imagination to guess single parenthood might hold for her; she's seen exactly what Lemhele goes through, and knows it's going to be even harder for herself, without a job or an education. So while Veronica and Lemhele are right to tell Shaniyah that she is about to give birth soon and needs to be mentally prepared for it, why aren't they talking about the possibility that Shaniyah could have the baby but not necessarily bring her home? Since that is, quite reasonably, what Shaniyah seems to be dreading the most, maybe someone could suggest placing her daughter for adoption?
Believe me, I am all for making people live with the consequences of their actions, even when those consequences are harsh. Where you lose me is when you involve another person in this penitentiary of a life, and that other person (the baby) didn't do anything to merit the punishment. This is not to say that there are not great people who get pregnant accidentally, under less-than-optimal circumstances, who end up being wonderful single parents with exceptionally talented and attractive kids: I know this for a fact, because my mom was one of the former and raised one of the latter (me) (and then my sister, but that was after my mom got married) (whatever, you didn't ask for our life stories). But single parenthood seems to me like something you need to choose affirmatively if it's going to work out well for everyone (one of the other pregnant moms kicked out her dirtbag boyfriend for obviously cheating on her, but in last night's episode took him back because she's overwhelmed by looking after all her kids on her own -- so some people never make their peace with it, even if they're grown), and Shaniyah is trying to communicate, using her limited vocabulary and capacity, that single parenthood is not her choice. Unfortunately for her, Lemhele seems to have taken the view that the only way Shaniyah will really learn not to get pregnant at fourteen is to raise the child that is about to result. However, I feel like Shaniyah kind of gets it already, and that her imminent daughter would benefit if more qualified parents were allowed to raise her, and if Shaniyah were allowed to finish being a kid herself.