Three Detroit women who had children as teenagers defied the odds to become productive, successful professionals. Here's how they did it—and their advice for other struggling young mothers.
uring her senior year in high school, Kaye Byrd got news that she knew would change her life forever. No, it wasn't admission into her dream college, something that would have set her on a path to success. Instead, it was something that would make that path much harder-she was pregnant at age 17.
"I just wasn't 'that girl' who gets pregnant in high school. I had dreams for myself. And that did not include giving birth to a child when I was 18," says Byrd of Detroit, now 43.
Byrd met the father of her son while she was working at McDonald's and says she became smitten. They dated for a while and became pregnant. She says she was so ashamed that she hid her pregnancy for five months. It was Byrd's sister who told their mom the news. She remembers her mother sitting beside her on the bed.
"I don't even think (my mom) said the words," Byrd recalls. "We just kind of had this look and she said, 'I will help you.'"
Byrd says that the support she received from her family wasn't necessarily there from others. "They just immediately kind of write you off in terms of what your potential is in life," she says.
Detroiter Dr. Margaret Betts, 63, who was 15 when she had her daughter, Marquita, says people expected her to live by the young, single Black mother statistics. We've all heard them before: Teen moms won't continue their education and will have more children in hopes of getting government assistance. Often, when a teenager gets pregnant, society gives up on them altogether. Betts says this forces the young mom to prove herself or just live by those low expectations.
Although the teen birth rate has been declining almost continuously over the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the statistics are against the success of teen moms. About half of them complete high school by age 22, compared to 90 percent of teens who didn't have children in school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, the Michigan Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative says that more than 98 percent of those teens will not graduate from college by age 30, and the children of teen moms are nine times more likely to grow up in poverty.
Continuing education after early motherhood
Byrd completed one semester at Detroit's Murray-Wright High School then graduated, on time, from an alternative school for pregnant girls and teen mothers that's now called Catherine Ferguson Academy. She gave birth to her son in July.
"I didn't have so much of the pressure of missing out on things that was going on because my school catered to (teen mothers)," Byrd says. "There was a level of understanding about the condition you are in when you are pregnant, moody and emotional. … It was a good experience, because I think the alternative would have weighed on me in a stressful way."
Charletta Dillard, 40, also went to CFA. But her experience was much different because she had her son Troy in the 10th grade. At 15 years old, she would go to school, drop her son off at the on-site nursery, see her son in between classes and at lunch, then take him back home.
"It was difficult more times than not," says Dillard of Detroit, who ended up graduating as valedictorian a year early in 1990. "If I had to be at school at 8 a.m., I'm up at 5-5:30 getting bottles ready, getting him ready, getting me ready, then jumping on the bus and going to school. That's how it was."
When Betts was a teen, there was no alternative school like CFA. Despite being a mother in high school, she was able to graduate on time in 1972 with the help of her parents and a babysitter who watched Marquita during school hours. All she wanted was to become a doctor and make her father proud. Betts says it's not hard being where she is, but it is hard work.
"The disadvantage of the young mothers today is the lack of structure, lack of will, lack of drive and determination. And lack of somebody to push them (and) help them," says Betts.
Byrd went to college for one reason-to make a better life for her son. "I did not want to rely on anyone. Not the state. Not a man to take care of my son," she says.
Byrd attended Wayne County Community College District, later transferring to Wayne State University to pursue a bachelor's degree in journalism. Byrd says her college career spanned about eight years because she was juggling so much. She had to work full-time, meet the demands of school, take her son to day care-and be a mother.
"Sometimes I had to take him in a stroller with me to my classes. I was mom," says Byrd, who went on to be a producer for a show on Radio One. "None of my teachers said anything. I probably didn't give them the opportunity to say anything because I was about my business."
She is now the founder of GirlGrow.com, which provides a track of programs that will support women who need the mentorship and support to help them fulfill their dreams.
Betts also attended WSU. She completed only three years before she was accepted to the Medical College of Ohio, now the University of Toledo Medical Center. While Betts was in school, Marquita lived with her grandmother and went to Ohio every weekend to be with her mom. Betts says she doesn't feel like she missed out on anything by this arrangement.
"If your kids see you reading, they are going to want to read. Kids who see their parents study, kids who see their parents work, kids who see their parents pray are all going to grow up to be studiers, workers, prayers," says Betts, who has been practicing medicine for 25 years and is now the medical director of Betts Medical Group LLC in Oak Park.
Dillard had a different journey. Instead of going to college right after high school, she worked at White Castle, where she and her son received health benefits. She later decided to go to school to become a medical assistant. The year she finished her externship was the year she gave birth to her second child, Taray, at 19.
During a night out with the girls, Dillard recalls a friend saying, "'While we hanging out at these damn bars, we could be taking a class or something.'"
So Dillard went to WSU to get her bachelor's in nursing. While working nights as a nurse, Dillard attended medical school to become a psychiatrist. She's now a third- year resident with Henry Ford Health System.
Advice on being a young mother
Byrd, Betts and Dillard wouldn't trade their paths-their children's lives-for anything, but that doesn't mean they recommend having kids so young.
"Who wouldn't want to give themselves enough learning experience and time to be a better mother?" asks Byrd. Teen mothers have to realize that there is a sacrifice.
Betts says when you become a mother, you no longer have the freedom of being selfish. Being a good mother is putting your child first and not dumping your child on grandparents every night.
"(Some teen moms) will just drop their kids off and not pick them up for days and days because they are out with a boyfriend or out with their girlfriend or at a party," says Betts. "I always tell anyone who will listen-give your kids the first 10 years of their life. Don't focus on anything but them and your education."
Motherhood and sacrifices go hand in hand. Byrd says that comes with the territory. "I would say that there are so many little sacrifices that come and sneak up on you that you don't keep a tally. You just know that that is a part of being not even just a young mother, but a mother."
Still, to succeed like Byrd, Betts and Dillard have, you need support.
"What can you do alone? It's hard to accomplish anything alone," says Byrd. "You can either fall into a crack or fall into a crater. But having people around you that support you and can help you think things through is key."
And avoid peer comparisons. "Just find where your place is and move forward inch by inch," says Byrd. "But always move forward in a direction going into what you even think can be a possibility."
Although parents don't have complete control, Byrd says tough, honest, age-appropriate talks about sex and pregnancy can prevent pregnancy. Byrd and her son, Deonte, who passed before his 23rd birthday in 2011 due to an undiagnosed heart condition, often had those talks. Byrd says that's why she's not a grandmother today at 43.
Betts says if the child doesn't listen and gets pregnant anyway, it's the perfect time for parents to talk-because now he or she will listen. But she says parents also need to encourage kids rather than put them down. "The parents need to understand that it is a misstep, not a mistake. It is a child of God, not a child out of wedlock," says Betts. "I think we deny ourselves our dreams because people talk us out of them, talk us out of our real purpose for being on this earth."
Dillard says she endured a lot of negativity when she was pregnant. If you're a teen mom, you have push past that, work hard and prove them all wrong.
"If you can't encourage them, if you can't uplift them, then there is no reason to open your mouth. It's never someone else's place to comment on your life if they are not trying to encourage you or build you up."