Every time I see a headline with the
names Bristol and Levi, my blood pressure skyrockets. Long after the
campaign in which Bristol’s mother, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin,
ran for vice-president on the Republican ticket, her daughter is
being hounded by the media. Not long ago we learned that her
boyfriend and the father of her child, Levi Johnston, had quit his
job with ASRC Energy Services over questions about his
qualifications. After an
Anchorage columnist suggested that Bristol’s
mother secured the position for her future son-in-law, a position
that typically requires the high school diploma that Levi lacks, he
quit to “calm the waters.” Teen parents Bristol and Levi were
back in the limelight—and it was the last place they needed to be.
I don’t know Bristol and Levi. But
the media’s sordid obsession with their relationship gets me all
riled up. Divorce
statistics suggest that first marriages have a
higher rate of success if the wife is 20 or older when she marries,
does not have children already and has a college education. Although
Bristol does tick some boxes associated with marriage success (grew
up in a two-parent home, has a religious affiliation) the deck is
stacked against her. Attempting to navigate the challenging early
years of marriage and parenting will be even more difficult if she is
subjected to constant media scrutiny.
My own experience working with pregnant
and parenting teens as a Chicago high school teacher makes me
particularly concerned. I have seen the sometimes agonizing struggles
of young people who have made a courageous decision to give life to
the child of an unplanned pregnancy. One young woman I knew
persevered through sleepless nights with an infant only to wake up
early the next morning, take the baby to day-care, attend a full day
of school, work late to pay for the day care, finish a challenging
homework load (en route to earning all As and Bs), and crawl into bed
exhausted. The next day was the same.
For many of these teens, their children
motivated such determination. At the same time, though, they
occasionally battled loneliness and isolation from peers as they put
their dreams on hold and stepped into adulthood. It takes incredible
strength to choose life in the face of so many cultural obstacles .
The resulting vulnerability requires an equally strong system of
support. The media’s condescension towards Bristol and Levi and their newly-arrived baby Tripp is like
watching someone kick a puppy.
What bothers me the most is the fact
that so many people continue to harbor a desire to make the Palin
family suffer. What is it about their commitment to life—a large
family, a son with Down Syndrome, an unwed daughter supported during
her teen pregnancy—that makes people so contemptuous? Why does
“political” commentary so frequently degenerate into “You know,
they just have such weird names.” Somewhere along the line charity
flew out the window.
Governor Palin can take the
criticism—deserved or undeserved. She’ll have to if she plans a run at the presidency in 2012. But it’s Bristol and Levi I’m
worried about. These two need support. They need confidence. They
need reassurance that they are doing the best they can and
encouragement when they feel like giving up.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t
understand why we can’t just try to be nicer. I’ve seen people
mobilize behind kids in this same situation, cutting them some slack
and rallying around them. Why can’t Saturday Night Live do the same
for Bristol and Levi? Why not declare a media blackout on Bristol and Levi stories—at least until they’ve had a chance to adjust to life as a married couple? Give these two young people the
dignity they deserve.
Anne McClure, an educator and mom,
writes from the Chicago suburbs. Read more at