Teen birth rates drop

Jane Pascal, 46, with her active sons  Matthew, 11,  and Michael, 5 as they swing in the backyard of their grand parents, Thursday afternoon, November 15, 2007.
Jane Pascal, 46, with her active sons Matthew, 11, and Michael, 5 as they swing in the backyard of their grand parents, Thursday afternoon, November 15, 2007. Modesto Bee

Fewer teens are having babies in California. The trend is true in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, too, but the area's teen birthrate still is among the highest in the state, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report released Thursday.

The study looks at birthrate trends from 2000 to 2005.

California women in general are putting off pregnancy. The fertility rate among women 40 to 44 has tripled since 1982.

The rate of childlessness among women has gone up, too. While the report did not provide specific data on the birthrate among older women, Nancy Fischer, director of Public Health Nursing at the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency, said the county has seen little growth in the past six years.

A vibrant 46-year-old Jane Pascal of Modesto is typical of the women waiting until later in life to have children. She had her first son at 35 and her second at 41, after she'd gone to college, worked on Capitol Hill, gotten a law degree and founded a nonprofit advocacy group in Chicago.

"I think if I'd had children young and then tried to get back into the work force, it would have been really hard," she said.

Marilana Magaña, 22, of Modesto agrees. Magaña, a store clerk who had a son at 17, is typical of those who haven't waited.

"I thought I'd stay at home with my kids like my mom. I wasn't trying to get pregnant, but I wasn't really trying not to either," said Magaña, who hopes her situation has been a lesson to her younger sisters, who are in high school.

"Outside of school, no one talked about it with us, so now I talk about it all the time," she said. "I love my son, and I know that I could have given him more if I'd waited. So I tell my sisters the way to show they love their kids is to wait until they can make a better life for them, and you can't depend on your baby's dad to take care of you."

Vicki Bauman figures teen moms talking to other teens about parenthood can be a walk-up call.

"I think the best way kids learn is through example," said Bauman, director of prevention for the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

Mary Hernandez, 42, of Modesto is a cannery worker and had her first child at 14 and her fourth last year. Her first three daughters all have become teen moms as well.

"Now, I'm very open because my mom wasn't. The first time, I didn't know I was pregnant until I was six months along and finally my mom noticed," said Hernandez, who, like all of the women interviewed for this article, figures education plays a big part in how long they waited to have children.

"It's the Hispanic culture; you don't talk about those things - periods and sex," she said.

Teen pregnancy rates are highest among Latinas and lowest among whites and Asians, according to the study, which did not explore birth control or abortion's impact on birthrates.

While teen pregnancy rates are dropping, the Northern San Joaquin County's rate still is higher than that in most other regions. Just as one thing cannot be named as the reason behind the decreased teen pregnancy rate, there's not one reason why the valley's rate is higher than in most other areas. The strongest indicator is the size of an area's Latina population and the sense of opportunity in an area, said Hans Johnson, who authored the study.

"That's the heart of teen pregnancy programs, really providing a sense that they have a future and a way to achieve it," said Public Health's Fischer. "Boys need to feel postponing pregnancy is important, too."

But teens' education and dreams mean little without resources, said Fischer and Carole Mason-Loux, a nurse practitioner who has been working with pregnant women for 25 years.

"We're still finding that some primary care providers are not providing birth control. I have a 15-year-old right now who went to a primary care provider with her mother to get birth control, and he told her to go home and talk more with your mother. Now, she's 15 and 32 weeks pregnant," Mason-Loux said.

Statewide, the birthrate among twentysomethings has decreased, while it has increased among thirtysomethings.

Before Barbara Brown, 43, of Modesto had her first child at 31 and her second at 34, she accomplished every goal she's had, including bucking a family trend. Brown's mother was 19 when she had Brown. She didn't set out to save pregnancy until her 30s. She just didn't think about it, focusing instead on school and her career.

"I really wanted to be married and established first," she said.

Pascal can relate to that.

"I traveled all around the world. I didn't have to be home at a certain time. Worrying about (when I'd have kids) never came up," she said.

Marlene Gwerder, 44, of Modesto had her first child at 37 and her second at 41, after getting a master's degree in microbiology and helping expand the family dairy business.

"An individual has to fulfill themselves before they can fulfill someone else," she said.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or ehightower@modbee.com.