photo credit: AP Photo/Fox NewsBristol Palin, 18-year-old daughter of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and mother of 2-month-old Tripp, is not a statistic. But as word spreads of her recent split from 19-year-old fiance Levi Johnston, she joins 13.6 million parents raising children alone. With this break up, her baby becomes one of the 26 percent of children under the age of 21 growing up in a single parent household in the United States.
Bristol Palin, still working on a degree from Wasilla High School, is already a part of a startling 3% percent upswing in the number of teen parents in this country. Although teen pregnancies and births decreased every year from 1991 to 2005, the number jumped in 26 states in 2006. The increase, called "fairly remarkable" by experts, occurred among white, black, and Hispanic teens aged 15 - 19.
Some experts blame a culture where sex seems to be everywhere, on TV shows that younger kids are watching, and a culture that reveres pregnant teen celebs like Jamie Lynn Spears and cheeky, way-too-together fictional pregnant teens like "Juno." Others say abstinence-only education and de-emphasizing birth control may play a part.
If either of these opinions are on target, the highly profiled Bristol Palin certainly stands in the center of them. While her mother is an outspoken advocate of abstinence-only education, birth control restriction, and banning abortion, Bristol Palin said openly in a FOX interview that abstinence-only education "isn't realistic at all." If that link is correct, then she would know.Regardless, Bristol Palin is now a single teen mother, facing all of the challenges those statistics predict, and more.
What comes next for Bristol Palin as she moves from the break up that happened weeks or "a while ago" (according to different sources) and into life as a single mother?
How can this girl raising a child get beyond the statistics that say that, as a teen mother, she is more likely to have sole parenting responsibility and be a high school dropout?
Here are our five tips for Bristol Palin, with hopes that she will succeed far beyond what the numbers predict:
1. Reach out to other single parents. There are many, many of us single parents out there. This is the one reason the numbers are reassuring. Even if there is not a developed community of single parents in Wasilla, Alaska, there are many virtual communities that can offer substantial support.
Some cities offer playgroups and meet-up groups so that single parents can share tips and experiences and social time while their children get the benefit of interacting with kids from families like their own. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn how other single moms are making it -- financially, emotionally, logistically -- and become a part of a group where your situation is not out of the ordinary or publicized for the world.
If meeting in person is not possible, know that there is a boom in single parent websites, message boards, social networking connections, blogs, and online magazines where you can get similar kinds of support, humor, and comraderie. This has personally served me at my most vulnerable -- at 2 a.m. when my worries keep me from sleeping, the time my son locked himself in his bedroom and I had no one to call, when I have had questions about money or lawyers or what to tell my child about his father. Finding your people online can be just as powerful as finding them at the local Y or Starbucks.
2. Come up with a plan to empower yourself. Of course, you will put your child first and ensure that his care is your first priority. Remember, though, that this is your life and your professional and educational aspirations are a priority as well. As you invest in finishing high school, getting the education you need for your career, and then pursuing a job that will fuel you financially and spiritually, you will also be investing in your child's stability and well-being.
This isn't easy. And most teen mothers are not a part of an influential family, like Bristol Palin is. Statistics show, however, that teen mothers are more likely to drop out of high school and skip college. This is remedied by the simple yet challenging commitment to education.
Bristol Palin has said she wants to be a pediatric nurse. As a teen mother still working on a high school diploma, this seems like a big task. However, she has a lot going for her, including family support. As this Statistics Canada study "Life after teenager motherhood" notes, teenage moms who do graduate and continue their education are just as likely to be employed full time down the road.
"Overall, women with similar education levels, regardless of when they had their first child, also had a similar likelihood of being in full-year, full-time employment," the report says. "Teen moms and adult mothers with less than high school education were both less likely to be working in a full-time job for the full year."
Interestingly, the study also points out that teen mothers who went on to complete postsecondary education were more likely than their adult counterparts to work full time, year-round.
3. Embrace the family you have, not the family you envisioned. We all have a dreamy picture in our head of what we'd like our family to be. Most of the time, because of circumstance or choices or turns in the road we never saw coming, this is not the reality. As hard as it is, let go of that. It is just fine to grieve that loss, but it is more important to move beyond that to make the family you have the happiest, healthiest, and most secure that you can. (Here's a project I did with my own son that worked wonders for us when we needed to both grieve and celebrate).
Some reports say Bristol is "devastated" by the break up with her fiance, others say she broke off the engagement, and still others say the split was mutual. Whatever really happened between the couple and however Bristol Palin is coping, the end of the relationship is not an anomaly among teens. Even if they had followed through with the wedding, data from the Campaign for Our Children Inc. shows that their chances of separating would have been quite high.
A third of teen marriages where the bride is under the age of 18 end in divorce within five years, and nearly half of those marriages have been dissolved by the ten-year mark.
That just shows that the "what could have been" has just as many ups and downs as the "what is." Remind yourself and your child frequently that your family is not the same as all of the mommy-daddy-baby families around you, but it is just as special, full of love, and important.
If seeing your family as a two-person unit is too much, open the circle to include grandparents, close friends, and other highly-involved people.
4. Schedule time for yourself. Bristol Palin's been seen shopping and exercising around town, and People reports she just returned from Juneau, where she was visiting her mother. These small moments have significant impact for single parents.
Child Trends senior research scientist Jennifer Manlove says that the primary responsibility of raising a child takes a toll on women.
"Of course, a single mom can raise a remarkable child. She can surround her child with other caring adults, including, hopefully, the father. She can closely monitor the child's progress in school and his or her friendships. But doing these things while supporting the family financially 'takes a lot out of the mother' and, by extension, her child," the Washington Post reports about Manlove's analysis.
Giving yourself a reprieve from the daily stresses and responsibilities (and even the exhilaration and joys) of single parenthood is not only OK, it is critical. Scheduling self-care makes it easier to keep calm and positive during the late nights of teething, the tantrums, and the other parenting moments that are otherwise made easier when shared with a partner. Call on that extended family you've formed or set up a reliable visitation schedule with the other parent so that exercise, stress relief, and fun are a part of your weekly routine.
5. Protect yourself and your child medically, legally, and financially. This is the time to take care of all the business that feels overwhelming and bureaucratic but is necessary for a single parent's protection and peace of mind.
- Have a will legally drafted that abides by any arrangements made with the other parent and requirements of the state.
- Be sure to discuss and sign paperwork to grant Power of Health for yourself so that responsible and compassionate medical decisions are made if you are unable to make them.
- Get the best health insurance coverage you can for yourself and your child, whether you are able to be a part of your parents' plan, are eligible for state-run children's insurance, or have to get insurance through a job or independently.
- Pursue child support if you are eligible, and sign up with any child support enforcement services your state offers.
- Even if it requires help from a loved one or professional, create a realistic budget with a sidebar of your goals (like college tuition for yourself, soccer expenses for your child, braces for the both of you) and how much they would add to your monthly or annual expenses. Know exactly what it takes to raise this child with as much financial security as you can and also know what it will take for your family to thrive, even if you are different or the country's in an economic crisis.
With statistic and text contribution generously made by Dory Devlin and Charlene Prince Birkeland.
More about Bristol Palin and teen pregnancy on Shine:
Bristol Palin says teen pregnancy is not glamorous
Jamie Lynn Spears gets online support from teen moms
Motherhood and teen pregnancy take center stage in presidential election
Teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. are up. Surprised?