May is upon us again and for some that may signal a montage of blooming flowers and baby bird, or for those who are more musically inclined, it may cause you to spontaneously break out into song and dance. For me, however, May means just three simple, yet highly significant things: my parents’ birthdays, Mother’s Day and National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month.
At 23 years old, it hasn’t been that long since I was a teen. Since graduating college in 2007, I have spent almost two years working for Planned Parenthood of Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo alongside a fabulous team of dedicated staff. I began my career with Planned Parenthood working as a medical assistant in our Santa Barbara Health Center, serving the needs of teens and low-income individuals in our community. It’s this experience that has motivated me to take the opportunity to discuss teen pregnancy and my own experiences with sex.
Becoming sexually active didn’t happen for me until my later teens. I spent most of my teen years growing up playing basketball on the community courts of San Diego, where I was often the only female present. When I started college I found myself completely unprepared for a sexual relationship. To put it more bluntly, I was unprepared for sex. After all those years of watching episodes of Will & Grace with my Mom, I had to wonder why she hadn’t taken at least one opportunity to talk to me about sex, sexual health or sexual identity. When I was in the sixth grade, a fellow student became pregnant and didn’t return to school, but even then my mother never discussed what had happened.
Over the years, my mother and I missed many opportunities for honest and healthy conversations about sex and sexuality, a safe space where we could have shared values, experiences, hopes, dreams and even fears. Looking back, even though I wasn’t sexually active in high school, I wanted my parents to talk to me about sex. I wanted them to know where I stood on the issue and I wanted to know where they stood. Only since I began working for Planned Parenthood have I felt comfortable and confident initiating conversations with my parents about sex and sexuality. I’ve realized that it’s never too late to start talking, even about sex.
During my time at Planned Parenthood, I’ve learned why parent-teen communication matters and seen firsthand the consequences of its breakdown. In my experience, talking about sex must be an ongoing conversation between teens and parents or other trusted adults in their lives, a discussion which continues as children mature. As in my case, such conversations may even have to be initiated by the kids.
I consider myself lucky. Lucky I didn’t become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection. Lucky I had the courage to seek accurate information and access to reproductive health services at the Student Health Center on campus, and later at Planned Parenthood. What if I hadn’t been so lucky? I recently read a statistic by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy that in the U.S. each year 745,000 teen girls under the age of 20 become pregnant. Shocking right? Even more shocking is that the United States has the highest teen pregnancy and birth rates of all the industrialized nations. To put this in perspective, our teen birth rate is one and a half times the teen birth rate in the United Kingdom, which has the highest teen birth rate in Europe. So this May, what will you do to initiate the conversation?
Incidentally, my Mom and I still watch “Will & Grace” re-runs whenever I visit, but now, sometimes long after the episode has ended, we find ourselves just talking…