Published on February 27th, 2018 | by Jen Bryant1
“My Teen Pregnancy Wasn’t A Tragedy”: MUTHA Interviews Katherine Arnoldi
I first became aware of Katherine Arnoldi’s graphic novel The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom a few years after it was published. At the time, I was one of the site moderators for an online forum for teen mothers. Seeking community, we logged on after we put our babies to bed, eagerly conversating with other young moms across the globe, from Austin to Vancouver, Auckland to Fallbrook, CA. Those forums provided a glimpse into what it felt like to have a community of like-minded parents, supporting and lifting each other up. We might have been relegated to the fringes at playgroups and preschool drop-offs, but here, we weren’t alone.
We organized book swaps to further our own education, sending well-loved copies of bell hooks and Adrienne Rich to each other via media mail. I don’t remember who originally owned the copy of The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom that crisscrossed the country all those years ago, but I do know that it changed hands at least a dozen times, each of us nodding along as we read. Partnered or single, queer or straight, college student or high school dropout, we all found something to relate to in Arnoldi’s story.
The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom is part memoir, part instruction manual. The tightly packed, cleverly drawn graphic novel poignantly illustrates the teenage heroine’s journey as she navigates her way through soul-deadening jobs and abusive relationships, finally achieving her dream of going to college with her daughter by her side.
Arnoldi created her critically acclaimed autobiographical comic to inspire and inform young moms in GED programs. Originally published in 1998 and reprinted in 2015, The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom continues to be relevant today.
Recently, Arnoldi spoke with me from her home in New York, where she works as an educator and teen mom advocate. –Jen Bryant
JEN BRYANT: In the years since The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom was originally published, you’ve continued to work on issues that pertain to teen parents. What’s your current area of focus?
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: My preferred method of activism these days is working within existing laws. My area is equal rights to education for teen moms. I can’t even tell you how much that entails. It took me a little while to understand the significance of my own experience as it related to the political landscape.
I visit GED programs and homeless shelters to speak to teen moms. I help them realize that Pell grants can provide more money and opportunity than a minimum wage job, and I fight for teen moms to have equal access to education.
JEN BRYANT: Do you ever face any sort of backlash when you’re advocating for teen moms? Sometimes it seems like there are few spaces on the political spectrum where teen moms can get support — conservatives generally push abstinence and adoption, but liberal folks aren’t necessarily the most supportive, either.
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: The left is afraid to talk about teen mom issues — they fear it won’t seem pro-choice, to support teen moms. But equal rights to education for teen moms? That’s a feminist issue.
The Alliance on Teen Pregnancy in Boston — an area with a low rate of teen pregnancy — supports teen moms. You can do both! You don’t have to denigrate teen mothers in order to discourage teen pregnancy.
JEN BRYANT: In the graphic novel, your character is confronted with the message “You made your bed, now lie in it” — a common refrain that young mothers hear. You raised your daughter in the 70s and 80s. I became a teen mom in the early 2000s, but a lot of what your character went through was so familiar. It’s striking to me that some of the situations in your novel are applicable even today — the way young parents are treated hasn’t changed much.
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: I think things are worse now. In the book, we were hitchhiking, and the cars just went by. If I was out hitchhiking with my daughter today, the first car would pull over, grab their cell phone, and call the police. I would be arrested, and my daughter would be in foster care. Then, everyone just ignored us and sprayed us with water. I see that young women with children are constantly afraid to make one wrong move and be in the situation of having to fight for their children. The surveillance today is frightening.
JEN BRYANT: That happens all the time, particularly to poor mothers, mothers of color, single mothers…they’re at a heightened risk. There’s kind of an allowance given to standard-age mothers who have resources, but as a younger mother, you feel like you don’t have the room to be human sometimes, or to make mistakes.
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: Right, and what teen mom has resources? I wish somebody would do a study of teen mothers to show how many are kicked out of their homes with their children, especially when they have daughters. That’s an issue, too, and one that causes the poverty and shaming and fear to be compounded.
If a teen mom is kicked out of high school, she doesn’t get guidance in her junior and senior year about grants and scholarships for college. If you’re coerced to leave as a pregnant freshman or sophomore, then you’ll miss out on that. I see it in the GED programs I visit, when I ask how many people know about grants. Nobody raises their hands, because they didn’t have the guidance counselor in high school. There’s such a knowledge gap.
JEN BRYANT: So many times, teen parents can be steered away from the college path by well-meaning guidance counselors and family members. The dominant social narrative often encourages teen moms to settle or even to fail.
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: So many tragedies have happened because accessibility to education has been denied. There have been class action lawsuits because teen moms have been kicked out of school. The New York Civil Liberties Union was involved in a discrimination lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education. They had interns call 28 high schools and pretend to be teen moms. Only 6 of the schools would admit them without reservations. The people answering the phones just gave their own opinions — “Oh, I think you should just get your GED.” It was astounding.
Title IX is about gender equity, not just about sports. Title IX protection also applies to teen moms who are coerced and pressured to leave school.
JEN BRYANT: Without guidance, young parents can get overwhelmed — maybe they want to go to school, but don’t know where to start. How did you find your way back?
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: In my book, there’s that panel that says “I was on the road to college, but going in the opposite direction.” I felt like I was standing in a crossroads, but there were no signs on the road. That’s why, for me, Jackie Ward — another mom, who I met walking back from the playground with my kid — was my savior. It was just a matter of luck that I ran into Jackie. Our kids started playing together, and I started talking to Jackie, and that’s what changed my life. I am so grateful to her. She helped me fill out the application and find a free daycare center. The daycare center was a direct result of Pat Schroeder’s work.
For so many student parents, college is a time just for them. I remember the first time I sat in a study corral in the school library — I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! I had time to think and contemplate.
JEN BRYANT: In an article published in the New York Times this summer, you discussed teaching at Bronx Community College, where you work with first-generation college students and immigrant students. You mentioned that many of your students are single parents who are balancing school and family. Do you have any tips for nontraditional students who want to go to college?
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: Beware of scam colleges. You see the ads on TV — they target vulnerable, isolated people, like women with children. When you go online, what comes up? All these fly-by-night colleges, like the University of Phoenix. They buy the campus of an old college that has gone under, and then say, “Oh, we’ve been here since 1890…”
I once spoke at a homeless shelter in Lafayette, PA. I was explaining that the residents would get more from Pell grants and state grants than from the minimum wage jobs the homeless shelter was trying to get them to take. The shelter tries to get women to get jobs that will end up with them re-cycling back to the homeless shelter. They might be able to get out and get an apartment, but it’s just not enough money to move forward.
One young woman raised her hand and said, “I went to a college online. They had me sign these papers, and now I have $20,000 in school loans, and I don’t even know what happened to the college.” These scam schools take students’ Pell grants, all their grants, and give them loans. There’s so much to say.
What my students are doing to be in college is unbelievable. Between a fourth to a third of my students are teen parents. They’re working full-time, working nights and going to school, all while taking care of their families. There’s a sense of, “I can’t not do this.” My contribution to the article this summer in the NYT was my anti-Trump work. I wanted to highlight how much immigrants contribute, and the great work they do.
JEN BRYANT: Can you tell me about your work with College Mom Magazine?
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: I ran College Mom for several years back in the early 2000s, and then decided it wasn’t needed anymore — “Oh, everything’s okay now.” I recently decided to relaunch it, though, because things aren’t okay. I’m going to try to publish an issue quarterly.
College Mom was created to provide support and resources to student moms. Enid Mastrianni was doing Upstate Welfare Warriors, organizing women and going to Albany, explaining what the true implications of welfare reform were for families. I would complain to her about these college scams, and she said to me, “Well, let’s analyze the top 300 colleges for accessibility for mothers.” So we did a feature on College Mom — we looked at how much family housing they had, how many had childcare centers, how much they cost, and we made calls to colleges. We published our data on the website.
We found some great stuff. For example, the University of Florida in Gainesville built family housing after WWII for veterans, and it’s really reasonably priced. They have a Baby Gator childcare center that can be as little as $28 a month. UC Davis takes Section 8 for their family housing. We found that there were women organizing at Temple University for more family housing — that’s still a big push, the family housing on college campuses. It’s not sufficient for teen moms.
The cool thing is, I’m finding the people I featured before. I’m going to highlight some of them in an upcoming issue — ‘where are they now?’ One young woman started a single mom sorority at her college — I thought that was really cool. Another was in school in Boston — she organized moms on campus because housing was too expensive around the college, and she was working on trying to get family housing. Another person we interviewed was Rebecca Trotzky-Sirr, a teen mom who had a Fulbright to South America and took her child with her. I just heard from her — she’s a doctor now.
In San Diego, I spoke to a group of teen mothers about college, and one woman, Rita Naranjo, stood up and pointed at me and said “What she’s saying is exactly right.” When she came up to get her book signed, I asked, “What’s your major?” She told me, “I’m going to be a teen mom activist just like you.” I said, “Well, that makes 3 of us, then.” (laughs) It’s not exactly a lucrative career. But she’s traveled to Washington, and she’s a graduate now, teaching at two colleges in San Diego. She’s still advising teen mothers in foster care. What an inspiration.
JEN BRYANT: You have this line in the book that I love — “I had a kid and decided I still wanted to be what I was becoming before I had a kid.” So many times, we hear this message that you have a baby and that’s it, your life is over. You know, “Get a job in fast food, or in a factory — that’s the best you can hope for now.” But there are so many stories out there like yours, and the women you featured in College Mom, where becoming a mother was the start of a whole new trajectory. You were a teenage mother, and you’re now an accomplished writer, professor, and artist.
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: You know, Jackie sold it to me like this: “If you sign up here at Metro, every semester that you go, they’ll give you a check for $600.” That was a lot of money, in the 70s. And then, once I got in there, I realized what it could mean for me. I went from a factory, with bells ringing to tell me I could go to the bathroom, to being beat up by boyfriends…nothing but more and more trouble, you know? So I got my undergraduate degree and worked, but I was still curtailed and shamed. My teen pregnancy wasn’t a tragedy; the shaming was.
I worked in jobs I didn’t want to do for a long time, and I finally felt like I was at a crossroads. Not wanting to go on, or going to grad school. So I went to grad school.
JEN BRYANT: Educating teen mothers also benefits their kids, which really benefits society as a whole. How can people get involved?
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: Laws only work if they’re enforced. Hopefully people will continue to strategize about what’s the best way to approach these issues. Teen mom education access is such a narrow field — we need nonprofits, politicians, sociologists to come together and work on this.
There’s a Pennsylvania representative who has a program called High Hopes. They want to tell students about financial aid in sixth grade — isn’t that a great idea? That’s an example of how awareness can bring a change. Tell people early — do it again in high school, but start in sixth grade. Then that student who is forced to drop out, maybe she has some knowledge, a memory.
Class action lawsuits can be successful when women are discriminated against. Bringing awareness to these issues — like the class action lawsuit against the NYC Board of Education — will stop this behavior. Taking action will lead to change and let them know that they’re not right, that what they’re doing is not right. That’s what leads to results, to something good.
JEN BRYANT: Who are your artistic and literary inspirations?
KATHERINE ARNOLDI: Pat Gowens, Welfare Mother’s Voice. Enid Mastrianni, Upstate Welfare Warriors. New York Civil Liberties Union’s Donna Lieberman. I am inspired by Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle. Middlemarch by George Eliot (“We are standing on the shoulders of those who went before…”).
And some more recent: Lynn Paltrow, Advocates for Pregnant Women. Beverly Donofrio, Riding in Cars With Boys. Hip Mama by Ariel Gore. Girls Like Me by Nina Packebush. Allison Crews.