Their Mothers Were Teenagers. They Didn’t Want That for Themselves.

JENNINGS, Mo. — Brittnee Marsaw was born to a 15-year-old mother in St. Louis and raised by a grandmother who had given birth even younger. Half grown by the time her mother could support her, Ms. Marsaw joined her three states away but never found the bond she sought and calls the teen births of preceding generations “the family curse.”

Ana Alvarez was born in Guatemala to a teenage mother so poor and besieged that she gave her young daughter to a stranger, only to snatch her back. Soon her mother left to seek work in the United States, and after years of futilely awaiting her return Ms. Alvarez made the same risky trip, becoming an undocumented teenager in Washington, D.C., to reunite with the mother she scarcely knew.

While their experiences diverge, Ms. Marsaw and Ms. Alvarez share a telling trait. Stung by the struggles of their teenage mothers, both made unusually self-conscious vows not to become teen mothers themselves. And both say that delaying motherhood gave them — and now their children — a greater chance of success.

Their decisions highlight profound changes in two related forces that shape how opportunity is conveyed or impeded from one generation to the next. Teen births have fallen by more than three-quarters in the last three decades, a change of such improbable magnitude that experts struggle to fully explain it. Child poverty also plunged, raising a complex question: Does cutting teen births reduce child poverty, or does cutting child poverty reduce teen births?

Ms. Alvarez felt left behind even before her mother left Guatemala. Nineteen and single when she had her second child, her mother left the family farm to work in the city, and their contact shrank to monthly visits.

After her mother had more children, a woman she met in a clinic waiting room offered to adopt one. Ms. Alvarez was equally surprised first to be given away and then to be reclaimed months later. Then her mother departed for Washington, and Ms. Alvarez came to think of a mother as “something I hoped that someday I will have.”

She quit school after fourth grade to help her grandfather care for her younger siblings. For her 15th birthday, she asked her mother to hire a smuggler to bring her north.

The reunion disappointed. To Ms. Alvarez’s surprise, her mother was married and had another child. She seemed distant, stern and impatient with questions about why she had left. “I had more resentment than I understood,” Ms. Alvarez said.

While Ms. Alvarez did not find reconciliation, she did find opportunity. Starting high school as an undocumented Spanish-speaking migrant with a fourth-grade education, she was a better student than she knew. A counselor at a Washington clinic, Mary’s Center, said she could earn a college scholarship.

Looking no further than her mother’s life, she saw a threat. “I realized if I get pregnant, I’m not going to college,” she said.

It was one thing to set her goal, another to sustain it through a precarious adolescence. Of the two ways to avoid pregnancy, Ms. Alvarez judged abstinence more certain than contraception and ignored girls who teased her for avoiding sex.

In her junior year, a suitor named Fredy who worked as a cook asked her to move in. He was seven years older, fun and supportive, and she needed a place to stay, having left her mother’s apartment for a rented room. But she forced herself to stop taking his calls. She graduated from high school at 20 with the college scholarship — neither a teen nor a parent.

“Wow, I made it all the way to college!” she told herself.

Ms. Marsaw may be even more inclined to see her life through the prism of adolescent pregnancy. Her grandmother raised her on a food stamp budget in a house with a dozen aunts, uncles and cousins, while her mother, who had given birth at 15, came and went and finished her teens with a second child.

When Ms. Marsaw let slip in third grade that her mother had a different address, she was transferred to a distant school, and care fell to a rotating cast of relatives. She came to think of her mother as “a person I needed that I couldn’t reach.”

Her mother moved to Atlanta to work as a medical technician. Ms. Marsaw followed but felt frustrated by her mother’s long hours and emotional remove. Where others might see a parent striving to get ahead, Ms. Marsaw felt a new way of being left behind. “The reason I’m a fast talker is because I wanted to get my point across before she walked out for her 16-hour shift,” she said.

She identified the cause of her mother’s struggles — teen motherhood — and pledged to avoid it. In 10th grade, she insisted that her boyfriend use condoms. In 11th grade, she stopped dating. Classmates taunted her, but loner status was a price she was willing to pay. “I did what it took not to have children,” she said.

She returned to Missouri for her senior year and wrote herself a letter years later, celebrating what she achieved: “U finished high school w/no children so pat yourself on the back.”

As a test of whether postponing birth reduces poverty, Ms. Marsaw’s life yields ambiguous conclusions. Even without a child, her transition to adulthood proved difficult. She was slowed by an immobilizing bout of depression, which she blamed in part on her childhood separations from her mother.

“Forgive ur mom,” she later wrote to herself. “She was so young.”

In her early 20s, she followed her mother to Texas, got a job at an indoor amusement park and dated a man who parked cars. For all her teenage vigilance, she stopped using contraception, figuring “if it happens, it won’t be a crisis.”

She gave birth at 24, nearly nine years later than her mother.

Hardship followed nonetheless. Her depression returned and her relationship ended. Unable to pay the rent alone, she returned to St. Louis. She and Zaharii, 5, have lived in at least seven places — eight, counting times when they slept in a car — though Ms. Marsaw is proud that unlike her mother she never left her daughter in someone else’s care. As an anti-poverty strategy, postponing motherhood was not foolproof.

Still, Ms. Marsaw sees benefits to the wait. She is more “emotionally intelligent” as a parent, she said, more savvy about jobs, and more resilient. She also said an earlier start might have left her with a second child before she was ready.

In 2021, she got a commercial driver’s license and spent months as a cross-country trucker, with Zaharii sharing the cab. She is driving a child care van for the winter, and with an income of about $40,000 she managed to buy a small house. Her mother sometimes helps, and their relationship has improved, with Ms. Marsaw more sympathetic to the sacrifices she made to advance.

“I don’t feel as though I have completely accomplished who I am or where I want to be,” she said. “But I’m no longer in poverty.”

For Ms. Alvarez, the story is simpler: Her future unfolded as planned. Though still working on her English, she managed the transition to the University of the District of Columbia. In her second year, fortune smiled: She boarded a city bus and ran into Fredy, the man who had pursued her in high school.

Like Ms. Marsaw, she no longer feared pregnancy as she had in her teens. When a lapse in contraceptive use had a predictable effect, the news solidified her plans more than it disrupted them. She married shortly before giving birth at 23. “You’ve never ready to become a mother, but I felt like I can do this,” she said.

A baby did slow her educational progress. Working two jobs, she took six years to earn a bachelor’s degree, then started a job at Mary’s Center, the clinic that had encouraged her to seek scholarships.

She coordinates care for cancer patients and has legal protection under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program for undocumented migrants who came to the United States as youths. With a family income above the national average, she and her husband recently bought their first house.

“If I die tomorrow, I can say I achieved the American dream,” Ms. Alvarez said. “But if I had gotten pregnant as a teenager? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.”

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