Chelsea Gonzalez lays on her back, holding her 6-month-old son in the air. She makes faces as he gazes into her eyes, his wet smile growing wider and his thick brown hair flopping around.
Chelsea likes being a mom, but she's not your typical mother. The thing is, she's 16. And nothing has been typical since she got pregnant.
But Chelsea — and the other moms and soon-to-be moms at the New Horizons Teen Parent Program at Plaza Robles High School, where they get daycare and assistance while they finish high school — aren't bad moms. Or bad kids.
They started having sex young, just like many of their friends at school. They slipped up and forgot to take the pill or bring a condom. It's a common mistake, really. The only thing that makes them stand out, is they are the ones who ended up pregnant.
They have worries like every mom. Mona Nop, 17, says it's frustrating to do chores as simple as the dishes when she is trying to calm a screaming baby. Sometimes Chelsea, 16, is amazed that her son, so small and lovable, downs 10 huge cans of formula a month. Taylor Garcia can't keep her daughter from getting into her makeup now that she's in her "terrible twos."
Most of them, now single, wonder what they'll tell their babies when it comes to the guys who helped create them but suddenly disappeared when that pregnancy test popped up big, bold and positive.
Though teen pregnancy is down nationally, California still has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Groups like New Horizons and the Pregnancy Resource Center of Lodi exist out of need: To give accurate pregnancy tests. To offer tips on breast feeding. And to be honest about the sexually transmitted diseases and infections that about half of the teen moms deal with.
Life before baby
Chelsea — wearing jeans and an oversized sweatshirt as she plays with Joshua — was 15 when she got pregnant. She could have had an abortion — that pressure was there for all of the girls — but there was no question in her mind: She would have this baby.
It may be a level of maturity gained from being forced into the motherhood role, but Chelsea seems more open and sure of herself than the average teenage girl. She has a slightly tough exterior and wild stories of her 14- and 15-year-old party days that now seem like distant past, but she's a girl who has gained life lessons — and a new soft spot for that little baby who laughs while she tosses him around in her lap as she sits on the carpet of the New Horizons nursery.
She hadn't planned on being a mother, at least not yet. Not before she had a job that would begin to support another person. And especially not before she was even old enough to drive a car. But doing adult things, like drinking and having sex, forced her to grow up quickly.
"I was doing things I shouldn't have been doing," she said. "I could play beer pong and cards and drink all night."
When she started having sex with her boyfriend, she was not taking birth control pills.
But even with birth control, teens don't have the odds in their favor. A nationwide study by the Guttmacher Institute found that one in five teens ages 12 to 18 using the pill get pregnant within six months. And one in five teens under 18 using condoms get pregnant within a year.
But for Chelsea, it only took three months of using condoms sometimes to get pregnant.
Her stomach grew bigger every couple of days, and before she knew it, it was nine months later and she was in labor.
She was scared. She had not been around babies much. She didn't even like babies, she admits — until Joshua arrived with his big brown eyes and constant smiles. It's true, she says — it's different when they're yours.
And the father, Chelsea's ex-boyfriend, was no longer around, having moved to Virginia when Joshua was a couple of weeks old. He sends Chelsea money every couple of weeks. She's lucky to get it. Most of the girls talk about the fathers as though they were magicians who disappeared out of thin air, never to be heard from again.
In fact, eight of 10 teenage fathers do not marry the mothers of their first children, according to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. And most of the absent fathers pay less than $800 annually for child support because their low-income statuses don't warrant more.
Nop's situation is a rarity. She has her boyfriend's support, and she even lives with his family. She is surprised that her boyfriend is so excited to be a father.
"It's so weird," she said. "I would expect him to be freaking out."
Mamas in school
On a quiet, rainy day, several of the program's girls have made it to school. Program director Becky Beeman is never quite sure how many girls will show up once they have babies to get ready, too. And rainy days are especially quiet.
With most girls in class, Beeman and her program assistants Maria Perez and Danielle Martinez work in the program's nursery, a small room lined with cribs holding sleeping babies. The nursery is covered with carpet, rugs and blankets, where the babies practice "tummy time," which stimulates the babies and encourages them to stretch. Others are fed from bottles marked by tape with their names, and rocked to sleep in the rocking chairs.
Beeman sits in the program's kitchen, spooning mashed roast beef from a baby food jar into a baby's mouth. She talks to him about the day's meal and the truck on his shirt. He understands more than we know, she says.
Beeman, who is a certified childbirth educator, says New Horizons is a way to assess developmental problems and help the moms create good parenting routines.
During the day, the girls attend regular high school at Plaza Robles. The classes are a mix of moms and parenting students. In class, they can be normal students again, with only homework to worry about. They say some of the kids in their classes don't even know they're parents of babies who spend their days in the next building surrounded by toys, blankies and bottles of formula.
Most of the girls have given up their first period. It's nearly impossible to get to that early morning class when they not only have to get themselves ready, but a baby as well. They devote one period a day to lab time, doing cleaning and changing or feeding other students' babies.
'Every girl wants her baby to have a dad'
For Taylor Garcia, the Lodi teen who once cared too much about herself, New Horizons meant she could finish high school.
It means that now she has hope for the future. Working two jobs, she refuses to become the statistic that says teen moms struggle with poverty later in life.
Looking at her rambunctious 2-year-old daughter, Emily — who is nothing short of cute, with a big personality, likes to play dress up, swing at the park and is starting to talk, a lot — Taylor has even more reason to strive for a better life. Just because she's a teen doesn't mean she can't give her daughter a good life.
"I am happy that I did have her," Taylor said. "If I didn't, I don't know where I'd be right now."
Before she got pregnant, she had the worries of every teenager. Did her boyfriend love her? Should she try out for cheerleading? When was the next party?
"Before I found out I was pregnant, popularity was everything," she said.
Looking back, she laughs a little about her old self. She didn't know how simple life was then.
Now, she works most days to pay for the gas in her car. Gas is her only bill, really. She and Emily are sharing a bedroom with a friend, whose parents are OK with letting the young mom stay.
Taylor thought she had support from her boyfriend. But like most teen fathers, Taylor says he decided fatherhood wasn't for him.
"He hasn't had anything to do with her. It's a really hard subject for me," she said, with teary eyes. "Every girl wants her baby to have a dad."
'He came at the perfect time'
In middle of the school day, some of the moms are checking on their babies in the nursery. They've bonded in their situations. They relate to each other. When they are together, they are peers; not the kids who say they are judged and stereotyped every day.
They all have their own opinions about motherhood. Some of their smiles and lifted eyebrows say "just wait" to the pregnant girl who tells of how her boyfriend gives her extra attention and buys her McDonald's when she's feeling hungry.
Alexandria Olmos watches her baby, Alex, rock back and forth in the swing. She is a teenager in foster care, while caring for her baby. She dreams of being on her own, just her and her baby. She wants to graduate high school, to give Alex a good life. She wants to get a job to support herself. In-n-Out Burger, she hears, is a good job, paying about 10 bucks an hour. Her goal is emancipation, to be legally separated from adult guardians. For her, there is no better time, and she is completely ready to be an amazing mom.
"He's perfect," she said. "He came at a perfect time."
But others warn her that it's not that easy. Others, like Chelsea, have unsuccessfully tried to get out on their own.
Battling more than pregnancy
For some of the mothers, it was only a matter of time after having continual unprotected sex that they got pregnant. Many give in to what they call peer pressure and "the moment" and have sex. For many, it's during that first sexual experience when they conceive.
"They're so fertile as teenagers," Beeman said. "Most aren't using birth control — they hate the side effects of the hormones."
One girl who was in the program got pregnant at the time she lost her virginity. When she had sex a second time, she got pregnant with a second child.
Two pregnancies are more common than you might think. That's what happen when you stick to the same lifestyle. Still having sex. Still not using protection. Still thinking, "No way can it happen again."
But pregnancies aren't the only problem. There are the diseases and infections, too. And they're being spread from teen to teen. By the time they get to the program, the expecting and parenting mothers are open with the details of their STDs and STIs.
"A good half have had STDs," Beeman said.
Chlamydia is a big one. So is gonorrhea. And at least two of the girls have been diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Fighting for success
It takes a lot for the young mothers to show up to New Horizons daily. They know dropping out is an option. Their friends with kids have given up. For some, dropping out isn't an option — their parents won't let them. But for others, it's the only way they know to get ahead.
New Horizons has good numbers. Seventy-five percent of the moms who graduate that were part of Plaza Robles go on to San Joaquin Delta College, Job Corps or another type of college.
"We emphasize learning is a lifelong process," Beeman said. "Eventually, they will get there."
At the end of the day, several of the moms gather in the nursery. Some take their shoes off before they sit on the floor and spread out quilts for the babies to lay on. Today's lesson: baby massage.
Guided by an old video, they practice massaging the babies' feet, legs and arms. The pregnant girls practice with dolls.
They are nervous at first. They are, after all, still teenagers worried how others perceive them. But soon, each of the moms are lured in by the calming voice of the woman on the screen. They mimic her moves, stimulating the baby's nerve endings.
Their futures may be unclear. But for now, they're with their babies. With each other. They are living in the moment.
Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.