Kristy Santos had something to tell her father. She gathered the strength to sit him down but didn't know how to tell him. It was serious.
He asked if she was a lesbian.
"No," she told him.
Did she have a boyfriend?
So, she wasn't a lesbian, she had a boyfriend and, he said, he was pretty sure she wasn't pregnant.
He was wrong. She was four-and-a-half months pregnant. The two didn't talk again until a month before the baby was born.
With her pregnancy, Kristy, 16, joined thousands of girls across the country who have become teen parents. In 2006, the year Kristy conceived her daughter, teen birth rates were up for the first time since a steady decline began in the early 1990s.
On Thursday, Time magazine reported that 17 girls at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts made a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. None of the girls is older than 16.
The Massachusetts case might be the extreme, but social and cultural stereotypes often portray teen parents as youngsters gone astray. However, the picture presented by several young Passaic County mothers is much more complex. These girls suggest that having a baby makes life harder, but does not mean it is over. One thing is certain: adolescence is irrevocably changed.
Experts often discuss the impact of teen pregnancy in economic terms - the millions spent on public health care, child welfare, incarceration, decreased earnings and spending and lost tax revenue.
But the human toll is equally significant. Not only are teen mothers more likely to drop out of school than their non-pregnant peers, they are also more likely to remain unmarried and live in poverty.
Their children more often are born at low birth weights, grow up poor and with only one parent, become victims of abuse and neglect and enter the child welfare system. Daughters of teen mothers have a greater chance of becoming teen parents, and sons are more likely to go to jail.
Some girls are trying to outrun the statistics.
Kristy's pregnancy disappointed her and her family. Now that her daughter is a year old, however, Kristy revels in motherhood and her family is supportive.
Kristy gave birth to Jaylin Mann on Feb. 20, 2007, after an emergency Caesarean-section that followed more than a day of labor. That early difficulty has been replaced by delight.
"I could sit and look at her for hours," said the 16-year-old junior at Clifton High School.
Her daughter's frequent giggle makes her face light up and draws her attention away from almost any conversation. Jaylin, Kristy says proudly, is "goofy," just like she is.
When she found out she was pregnant, Kristy rejected the idea of abortion. She knew that her father and mother, although angry, wouldn't throw her out, and that caring for her baby was her responsibility.
"If you knew what you were doing at the time, and you didn't use protection, then, basically, it's your fault," she said. "You have to serve your consequences. Having an abortion was like quitting, for me, giving up."
Clara Pernia didn't plan for motherhood. Not the first time, and certainly not the second. "I have a lot of headaches," she said, months before her second daughter, Emily Chitic, was born on June 11.
Her first child is in the throes of her terrible 2s. Clara, 18, knows she could be a more patient parent. Kianna Pernia, born Feb. 26, 2006, is learning to speak, and Clara sometimes struggles to understand what the child wants. Her exasperation is evident in her tone of voice: "Kiaaannaaa..." she says, irritated when the little girl asks for too many cookies, won't play quietly, or won't do as she's told.
"She's really hard to take care of," Clara said. An active, squirmy child, Kianna doesn't sleep well and is demanding of her mother's attention. Clara, who just finished her junior year at Passaic High School, was exhausted before the birth of her second child. She started home instruction in May because, eight months pregnant, attending classes had become too trying.
Clara says she always wanted children, just not so soon. She explains both pregnancies, with different fathers, as youthful lapses of judgment. Once, she and her current boyfriend, Anthony Chitic, 19, simply didn't use a condom. "Afterwards, we talked about it," she said, "and we should've used protection, been more responsible."
Before her son was born, Kristen Mallory had plans: college, a writing career, maybe becoming a music industry executive. Now if she gets there, she'll have her mother to thank.When she learned as a high school junior that she was pregnant, Kristen didn't know what to do. She dismissed the months of missed periods, the weight gain, and an episode of vomiting at track practice as long as she could. Finally, at 26 weeks, it couldn't be ignored: She was pregnant and too far along for an abortion.
"The thing that worried me most was actually taking care of him," Kristen said of her son, Kaden Amir Mallory, born June 9, 2007. "Would I have to drop out of school to take care of him? Could I run track? Go to college? It was my future and his future."
That's where her mother, Marsha Tynes, came in. She told her daughter not to worry about caring for her son while attending college. Tynes said she would do it, Kristen recalled. "She wanted me to have the full college experience."
Although she plans to come home on weekends from Seton Hall University, Kristen, now 17 and a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, is nervous about her decision.
"I don't think it's hit me completely," she said. "I think it's going to be hard to be away from him for so long."
Pregnancy wasn't entirely an accident for Yazmin Garcia. That's because, as she put it, her pregnancy was "kind of" planned.
Her boyfriend, George Moran, wanted to be a father. As a junior at Passaic High School, Yazmin figured that with only a year left of school, parenthood wouldn't be too hard. Emely Moran was born July 21, 2007. Since then, Yazmin's feelings have changed.
"Now it's hard," said the recent high school graduate, perhaps especially so because her own mother isn't always around to provide active support and guidance.
Yazmin, 18, and George, 20, live in a house with his father, aunt and uncle. She, George and Emely share a room, paying $300 in rent. Yazmin misses her mother, whom she often visits on weekends. But the move, she said, was important to her new family. Unless they all lived together, "he wouldn't be closer with my daughter," Yazmin said, "and she wouldn't get to know him."
Yazmin plans to attend Passaic County Community College in the fall on a state scholarship and wants to get married, maybe in January.
Four girls far from unique
In struggling with the competing demands of parenthood and adolescence, Kristy, Clara, Kristen and Yazmin are not unique. Hundreds of girls in Passaic County join that sorority each year.
According to the state's Center for Health Statistics, 670 girls aged 10-19 gave birth in Passaic County in 2004. Most were between 18 and 19. More than a third were younger. Most of the county's births to teens occurred in the cities: 392 in Paterson, 176 in Passaic and 60 in Clifton.
Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and based in Washington D.C., said teens who become successful parents to successful children are the exceptions and "tend to have some very caring and interventionist adults in their lives."
Kristy's mother, Patricia Prevot, plays that role for her, as does Kristen's mother. Prevot is determined to see her daughter graduate from high school, both for Kristy's sake and for Jaylin's. "I told her, 'Your daughter is going to see you walk that grass — you and your daughter's father,'" Prevot said.
Supportive adults are among the crucial differences between girls who get pregnant in high school and girls who don't, said Nora Gelperin, director of training and education at Answer, a national sex education organization, part of the Center for Applied Psychology at Rutgers University. Another difference is the kind and quality of sex education adolescents receive in school. The more teens know about sex — including relationships, contraception, abstinence — the better able they are to avoid pregnancy and disease, Gelperin said.
It also matters whether or not young girls have hope for their futures, concrete goals and good self-esteem, Gelperin said. That often means getting involved with teams, clubs and after-school activities. Albert, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said, "Keeping girls in school is good contraception."
Coping with unwanted children
Clara's first pregnancy posed a familiar dilemma: Although she didn't want to have the baby, she believes abortion is wrong. She also didn't want to give her child up for adoption. According to Albert, fewer than 3 percent of teens choose adoption.
Much of Clara's pregnancy was unpleasant. Her mother, Lorena Fuentes, sent her to live with relatives in Guatemala, which Clara said depressed her. Fuentes wanted to separate Clara from the baby's father. "I wanted to punish her," she said. After four months, bending to Clara's repeated requests to come home, Fuentes finally relented.
Fuentes was herself a teen parent who bore her first child at 15. Her younger daughter, Antonia, gave birth to a son at 14, just two days before Clara had her first daughter at age 15. Fuentes acknowledges feeling some responsibility for her daughters' early pregnancies.
"Yeah, because I am working all of the time," she said, "and they are all the time alone." For the past seven years, Fuentes has worked from 2 p.m. to midnight, managing a restaurant in Moonachie. She works some mornings, too. "Maybe if I was with them, it wouldn't have happened."
Experts also suggest that pregnancy myths — such as, "I can't get pregnant the first time," or "contraception will make me fat" — can lead to trouble. Other dangers: Girls who seek to keep a boyfriend by having sex with him, or embarrassment at the idea of buying condoms.
Some adolescents view parenthood as a shortcut to adulthood. And, said Albert of the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, some teens simply think they can't get pregnant because, so far, they haven't.
That's what Clara thought before her first child. After two years of having sex with her boyfriend, "I never thought I would get pregnant," she said.
For Kristy in Clifton, it happened the first time she had sex, but not because she didn't know about safe sex. Kristy's mother talked to her daughter about sex "until she was blue in the face," she said. But it was a difficult time at home — her parents had just separated — and Kristy was leaning more and more on her boyfriend Damien for emotional support.
"Damien told me he loved me," she said.
Although Kristy remains with Damien Mann, 18, also a junior at Clifton High School and an active and loving father, she has sworn off sex. Yes, she says, they hold hands and kiss, but that's about it.
"I felt like, 'eww, sex,'" she said.
Since becoming a mother, her priorities have changed. "Everything is all about the little one. Nothing is really about what I want or what he wants."
Finishing school not easy
Fewer than 2 percent of mothers who give birth before 18 have a college degree by age 30, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Though Clara's report cards of mostly A's suggest she may be different - she aims for 100 on exams and scoring 97 makes her mad - her younger sister, Antonia, is on a more common path. She dropped out of school this year while in eighth-grade and now works with her mother.
Kristen also hopes to be among the fraction of teen mothers whose college aspirations aren't dislodged by parenthood. To do so, she's relying heavily on her parents, especially her mother, who will raise Kaden while she attends Seton Hall University in South Orange, 15 miles away.
Tynes, Kristen's mother, said she had her first child at 18 and relied on her own mother for help and support. Now, she's just returning the favor and helping Kristen realize her college dreams. Tynes herself has recently returned to college and is pursuing a sociology degree at Bloomfield College.
"Why should I give up my daughter's chance to go when she has a great chance?" Tynes said. Kristen has a scholarship and federal grants to attend Seton Hall. She will live on campus. "She can be somebody, do something better and make a better life for her and her son."
And she doesn't consider taking care of Kaden a sacrifice.
"He's her kid, she's my kid," Tynes said, "so they both belong to me."Kristen worries about missing important moments in Kaden's development but, in debating her options, college seemed the best choice.
"I think it would be more of a sacrifice if I didn't go," she said, "because if I didn't go to college, I wouldn't be able to get a good job and support him."
Kristen's quandary is emblematic of the ways in which teen parents struggle to lead normal lives - a feat many say is nearly impossible. Something is always sacrificed.
For Kristen, that included running track, a sport she loved. Her most prized medal is the gold she earned for a 4x200-meter relay in a county race in 2006. She also lost friends who asked her to go out and couldn't understand that her priorities had changed. "I can't just leave Kaden with my mom or my sister," she said. "They have things to do, too."
Yazmin, who lives with her boyfriend and his family, misses going to the mall with friends and buying herself treats. Before Emely, she'd have eyed a new cell phone. "But not anymore," she said. "I think it's just a waste of money."
Her younger sister, Nayeli Garcia, 14, said becoming a mother has made Yazmin less carefree.
"She's serious," Nayeli said. "She don't play around with me no more."
But Yazmin has had a lot on her mind this year, such as doctor's appointments to get Emely's required shots, dinner for four in the evenings (herself, George, his father and Emely), household chores, homework, college applications and maybe squeezing in some sleep. During the school year, she rose most mornings at about 5:30 to get Emely to a day care provided through her high school by 7 a.m. Then she was off to school.
Yazmin also gave up the comforts of her parents' house. It was important for her and George to be seen as a more serious and responsible couple, not just "like a boyfriend-girlfriend type of thing."
Belly bumps not so unusual
Each school district in New Jersey determines how many days a student can miss before losing credit for courses. For high school students in Paterson, it's 20. In Passaic, it's 15, and in Clifton, 16.
Pregnant students tend to know the numbers well, especially when confronted with morning sickness, trying to schedule doctor's appointments and general pregnancy-related exhaustion - all of which can pose conflicts with school hours.
Staying in school requires more than passing a class. It also requires getting there in the first place and on time.
Several area high school students said it was not uncommon to see girls walking the hallways with bellies protruding. Kristy, whose early disappointment has turned to joy in parenthood, said the baggy clothes she wore during her nine months were an attempt to be modest and obscure her growing stomach from her parents and family.
"I wasn't embarrassed because I wasn't alone," she said. "At least 10 other girls were pregnant at the same time." Andrew Cardona, 17, a senior at Clifton High School, said he is so accustomed to seeing pregnant girls in his school that it was like "the new style."
Stephanie Polanco, also a 17-year-old senior, said a teen pregnancy can still lead to derision from other students. Pregnant girls are sometimes called names like "ho" and "slut," she said.
Jesus Tapia, 17, a junior at Clifton High, was more understanding: "Everybody makes mistakes."
'It felt pretty awesome'
Despite planning her pregnancy, Yazmin acknowledged that she sometimes felt "weird" walking around pregnant in her junior year. "People would stare," she said. She was also self-conscious about what her teachers thought of her, feeling they assumed she would drop out.
"That made me feel mad," she said. "They don't know what could happen."
Like what did happen: Yazmin maintained grades good enough to remain in the top 20 percent of her class. She wants to eventually be a nurse or a midwife.
To earn good grades, Yazmin said she completed homework in class whenever she had extra time. She also skipped lunch most days to head for the library. At home, when Emely slept, Yazmin would take advantage of the quiet to study.
Soon after Seton Hall-bound Kristen learned it was too late for an abortion, she realized she would have to get used to being a mother.
"A lot of people say motherhood is the best thing that can happen to a woman," Kristen said. "I started thinking about the power I would have to shape another life, and it felt pretty awesome."
Initially, Kristy also struggled with what motherhood would mean for her and she said she was depressed for much of her pregnancy. Would her identity change, she wondered? Could she still be goofy and lighthearted? Yes, and yes.
"I'm exhausted, but I wouldn't want it any other way," Kristy said. "My daughter is the best thing that ever happened to me."
All four girls have realized that being a parent while still in high school is no simple endeavor.
But it did not mean that their lives were over. "Having a child, even if you're young, isn't the end of the world," Kristen said. "It's a reason to go forward."
None regrets having their children, though Clara, now a mother of two, acknowledged that if she could go back, she would wait until she was older.
Yazmin advised other teens to hold off until after they have completed school and can afford a child on their own. Since Emely's birth, she has gotten an IUD and feels that she does not want more children.
But Kristy, Clara, Kristen and Yazmin also said their children motivate them in ways no one else could, figuring in nearly every decision they make. Their babies make them want to work harder, be better parents and achieve more.
Before her first daughter was born, Clara felt aimless.
"I didn't think I had a purpose," she said. "I was just wasting my life." Not anymore. "I have to do good, have a better future for her."
1 - PHOTO - Leslie Barbaro / Staff Photographer - Clara Pernia struggles to complete a homework assignment as she cares for her 2-year-old daughter Kianna. Pernia, who recently gave birth to another daughter, says she plans to complete her senior term next year at Passaic High School.
2 - PHOTO - Kevin R. Wexler/Staff Photographer - Jaylin Mann, 16 months, peaks outdoors while her mother, Kristy Santos, studies.