Reality Bites

updated 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

Last year, Becky Anderson's room was a typical teenage lair with jewelry, barrettes, tapes and CDs piled on her bed and bureau. These days, with a crib and a Swyngomatic and baby toys strewn on the floor, it looks more like a nursery—which it is. Still, the change in Becky Anderson's room pales next to the transformation in Anderson herself since she gave birth to her son Tyler, now 9 months old. "On my birthday, I didn't feel like I'd turned 17," she says. "I felt like I'd turned 30."

Tyler Anderson is one of more than 500,000 babies born during the past 12 months to teenage mothers—girls who are themselves still in the process of growing up. A year ago, as experts and policymakers debated welfare reform and improving sex education, a team of PEOPLE reporters and photographers met with teen parents and parents-to-be across the nation. In a cover story on Oct. 24, 1994, many of the teenagers voiced a mixture of regret and optimism, together with an overwhelming resolve to succeed in their new roles.

In the face of so many statistics predicting failure, have they succeeded? This fall we revisited Anderson and most of the other teens in our original story to find out how they are surviving teenage parenthood. "I knew it was going to be hard—and knew it was going to be harder than I thought—but it's even harder than that," says Anderson.

BABY MAKES THREE

"I kind of miss going out and doing stuff right when I want to," says Amy Smith. "But having a baby kind of makes you feel you're not a teenager anymore, like you don't fit in."

Last Dec. 16, Smith, who turned 18 in October, gave birth to daughter Amanda by cesarean section. Still living with her mother, she returned to her junior year in high school in Spring, Texas, the following month. But teen life as she had known it had come to an end. In August she and Amanda moved to Clinton, Okla., to be with the baby's father, Carmen Arriaga, 21. Though not married—something Smith calls too big of a step—they have established something rare among teenage parents: a nuclear family.

The couple pay rent and share expenses for the small, three-bedroom house they live in with Arriaga's sister and brother-in-law. After a 12-hour shift spent working for $8.42 an hour on a production line making carpeting for cars, Arriaga can't wait to see his daughter. "The best part of the day is when I come home," says Arriaga. "I'll walk in, and Amanda will be smiling."

As for the baby's future, Amanda can be "whatever she wants to be," says Smith, who says she doesn't want to be a "pushy parent." For her own future, she hopes to resume high school, then go on to community college. That path is difficult with a baby, she now knows, and she wishes she could have "been a little wiser in everything—in school, in my education. When I had a baby, I had to grow up real fast."

THAT TRAPPED FEELING

Seated in the backyard of her sister's house in Rosemead, Calif., Angela Myada finds little respite from parenting even as her twins, Mandisa and Maresha, take a nap inside. "It's the stress," she says, ticking off a list of worries that have worn her down since the girls were born 18 months ago. The two have constant fights and colds, and it hasn't helped that Myada, 19, has been shuttling them between motels and relatives in an exhausting search for a place to live.

"I love my babies, but I always wish I'd gotten an abortion or never got pregnant," says Myada, who receives no financial support from the girls' father, Lee Franklin, 20, though he does provide an occasional gift—such as a recent pair of matching outfits. Her welfare benefits of $607, plus $167 in food stamps each month, never seem to stretch far enough. The rent alone for her last apartment, from which she was evicted on Sept. 30, came to $600.

But Myada may have found a way to break the cycle. She recently moved with her children into the Women's Care Cottage in North Hollywood, a privately owned shelter, and thinks she has found a job house-sitting for an elderly woman. That would give her a $300 weekly salary and a schedule that would let her take a college class or two during the day. A month ago, Myada said, her life "just looked hopeless," but now she sees a chance for change. "It's late at night when I get to my weakest moment," she says. "But then I rest, and it's a new day."

GOING IT ALONE

Becky Anderson knew she shouldn't make too much of it. Still, she was heartened when the 17-year-old father of her newborn son showed up at the hospital last February for Tyler's delivery. "The next day he passed out cigars to his friends," says Anderson, 17, a high school senior in Evergreen Park, Ill. "I pictured all three of us going to the zoo, doing stuff together as a family."

Unfortunately, the proud father's interest lasted only slightly longer than the cigars. "It makes me angry that he quit coming around," says Anderson. "I want to hit him."

For the most part, though, she wastes little energy on anger. She needs all she's got for her hectic life. Anderson, who lives in a four-bed-room house with her mother, Debra Tully, her stepfather and two stepsiblings, starts her weekdays at 6:45 a.m. After feeding Tyler, she heads for Evergreen Park High School. Returning home after 3, she plays with her baby (who is cared for during the day by Debra) until 5:30. Then, three days a week, she heads to the local Kmart, where she works as a cashier until 10:30. Then she tackles her homework until 1:30 a.m. and tries to get a few hours sleep before starting again.

The schedule leaves her little time for a social life. "I look at things differently than my friends," says Anderson, who plans to go to Fox College in Oak Lawn, Ill., and study accounting. "Their lives revolve around partying and drinking. To me, work is serious. I can't goof off. I have Tyler—I have to make a better life for him."

A WILLING FATHER

"I was happy with the two kids we got," says Jeffery Mims, 21, sitting in the simply furnished New York City housing project apartment that he shares with girlfriend Twanna Gaines, 18, and their son and daughter. "But I thought about it. There wasn't no alternatives."

At a time when many couples would find themselves stressed by the presence of one child, Mims and his girlfriend are expecting a third. The baby, due in January, is bound to strain their resources, but so far Mims has proved equal to the challenge. "I was real angry at first," says Mims, who said the couple briefly considered an abortion. "We'll work in this one, but this is it."

When Mims fell in love with Gaines, she was already pregnant by another man, but Mims promised to stick by her. And, unlike most of the young men interviewed for our story last year, he has reared little Jeff, now 3, as if he were his own. Their daughter Jac'Quazia is 20 months old.

Jeff's boss, Michael Friedman, president of a New York publishing house that produces books on gardening and interior design, says Mims "has really gotten a sense of responsibility" in his job as an office clerk over the last two years. Recently, Friedman gave him an unexpected hug, told him he wanted him to succeed, and offered him additional computer work in the business division. "It was shocking," says Mims. "He's focusing on my future. He took an interest in me."

OUT OF HER CLASS

Colleen Fitzgibbons, 17, stifles a yawn as her earth-science teacher at Lake-wood High School, near Denver, discusses how shale metamorphoses into slate. It's only a little past 1 p.m., but for Fitzgibbons, who has been up since 5:45, it has already been a long day. She is the only mother and senior in this freshman class, a course she failed three years ago, before her own metamorphosis. Fitzgibbons has matured. "Before, I would never have repeated earth science even though I needed it," she says.

In February, Fitzgibbons gave birth to daughter Alexis, whose toys now mingle with her mother's collection of stuffed animals in a basement bedroom of Colleen's parents' house. Though Fitzgibbons works one night a week as a waitress at the local Elks Lodge, her parents pay most of her expenses—including her $100-a-week babysitting bill. "I can't buy things for Alexis myself, and that makes me feel bad," says a teary-eyed Fitzgibbons, who plans to go to college so that she can eventually support her daughter.

Two months ago, Fitzgibbons split up with Alexis's rather, Lenny Armenta, a telephone company employee. While they work out their finances, he has agreed to care for the baby three nights a week. "It's a lot harder than I expected," says Armenta, 19, his attention divided between Alexis and a televised football game in his parents' living room. "They go to the bathroom a little more than you expect."

LESSONS IN REALITY

Motherhood is for grown-ups, and Tori Michel's mother isn't going to let her forget it. When Michel, 18, graduated from high school last May, friends and relatives helped her celebrate with checks totaling $300. For a moment, Michel imagined spending the money like a teenager—toward a down payment on her first car.

No such luck. Michel, who gave birth to daughter Caitlin in September 1994, lives in suburban St. Louis with her mother, Susan, who decided that the windfall should go toward daily expenses, including rent. "I was mad," says Michel. "That was my money! After 13 years of school!" Susan didn't waiver. Tori may not have understood the cost of raising a child before, she says, but "it's getting realer to her."

Money continues to be Michel's biggest concern. "If you've got problems with money, you get crabby. You end up taking it out on everybody, including her," she says, nodding toward Caitlin. The baby's father, whom she met on "a one-night thing," gives her nothing. "I don't think he gives a rat's butt," says Michel. Food, diapers and rent swallow up the $446 she receives in benefits, but still she longs for independence from her mother.

With a $650 loan from her divorced parents, Michel began classes recently at St. Charles County Community College and hopes one day to become a counselor—perhaps helping troubled teens navigate "stuff like I have been through." She credits Caitlin with giving her the motivation to continue through school. "Before I had her," Michel says, cuddling her daughter, "I was on a one-way ticket to nowhere."

WILLIAM PLUMMER and CURTIS RIST
VICKIE BANE in Denver, KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles, MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City, LEAH ESKI in St. Louis, KAREN ROEBUCK in Clinton and BARBARA SANDLER in Evergreen Park

From Our Partners