Bionic Mamas

you're not losing a vagina, you're gaining a son

THINK BEING A PARENT WON’T COST YOU? NYC Department of Social Services will at least make you feel terrible about it every day.


Screw you, NYC Human Resources Administration, Department of Social Services. Every day when I take the subway I find myself staring at your new campaign, which is not only hateful, dismissive, and ineffective, but makes me, a person far outside your target audience, feel terrible about myself. Good job!

There have already been articles written about why the new campaign against teen pregnancy is terrible and wrong: it stigmatizes an already stigmatized group, it perpetrates shame, it is classist, racist, and, on top of those already great reasons to NOT DO IT, fear tactics have been shown not to be effective in encouraging behavior change. Basically, if the department of social services went out trying to do as horrible a job as they possibly could, they would have come up with this campaign. So why does this campaign exist?

Any campaign so clearly not based on the science of behavior change or any decent research into the target audience is based instead on prevailing prejudices. Let’s think about how this campaign probably got approved. Here is my best guess:

Some douchebags at an ad firm thought, we’re not being paid that much (the total campaign cost the city $400,000, which in the context of an ad campaign is not very much) and the client isn’t really selling anything anyway, so who cares? They slapped something together based on their first dumb-ass thoughts about poor young mothers. Then they did focus groups with teens and older people who had been teen parents. (Well, they say they did. ‘Focus group’ can have a wide range of meanings. I also wonder what they asked these teens and parents. Did they say, hey, does this idea make you feel really bad? Great! That’s the point!)

Then, some other people at DSS heard the ideas and didn’t ask if there was any research to back up doing the campaign that way because wow, those were their dumb-ass assumptions too! Yay! Let’s all be dumb together! End of guessing.

So the posters were printed and put in subways and bus shelters all over the city. Then a bunch of people noticed that they were really awful. Then the mayor came to his own defense saying that we have to keep hating on people to keep them down it was “past time” to be “value neutral” about teenage pregnancy. That brings us to now.

At first I saw my own feelings of inadequacy while reading these posters as collateral damage. It seemed clear that the groups the ads are trying to make feel awful are people of color, people living in poverty, and teenagers. I am in none of those groups.

However, this campaign (and really any campaign aiming for mass behavior change for supposed social good) is strongly normative and I and my family are not the ideal towards which norming points. Perhaps this is why I’m feeling the reverberations from it so strongly.

This is what I hear when I look at these posters:

  • Only wealthy people should have kids. Anyone else is harming their baby and society. I AM HARMING THE BEAN.
  • Your partner will leave you. OH, GOD, WHAT IF THAT HAPPENS?
  • Being a single parent is impossible, don’t even try it.
  • Having a baby makes you poor. WHAT IF THIS IS HAPPENING TO ME TOO?
  • Your child won’t graduate from high school, and you should feel terrible about that.
  • Above all else, don’t be black.

This is the poster that makes me, personally, the most irritated. First of all, this number is BS. We live in New York, which is a very, very expensive place to live. Two years ago we had a baby. There is NO WAY it cost us $10,000 more to live during our first year with the Bean than the year before. I know this because I am not $10,000 in non-college-loan debt, and yet the Bean lives. It’s so expensive that sometimes I need a loan, and I found the best loans on this article

Second, like all the posters in the campaign, this one features a weeping/frowning child. No one wants to look at a perpetually weeping baby, and there are already enough things in a subway car that I don’t want to look at. Thanks, DSS, for adding one more. My immediate emotional response to this weeping baby is to want to rescue it from its current circumstances. This is not useful. This is a picture of a real baby, not a theoretical construct. Once a baby is out there in the world, wearing a sweater, you can’t put it back where it came from. So the only option is to ‘save’ it from being, what exactly, poor and black? Why is DSS encouraging me to think this way? Wait, don’t answer that. This has to feel terrible to a person in one of groups actually being targeted by the campaign, and especially for those who have kids now. Here is a big sign saying that you are ruining your child’s life, just by existing.

But what gets me the most about this poster is the underlying assumption that the main item of value, the thing that makes the most difference in life that you can give your child, is money. I certainly hope this is not true. I would like to believe, and most of the time do believe, that love, patience, caring, reading, talking, drawing, playing and all the other nice, difficult things we’ve been doing over the past two years are of more value than cold, hard cash. Whoever a person is, and whatever her life is like, if she is putting forth the effort to love and care for a child, even a child born to (gasp) a teen, our society should support that, with, at the very least, messages of encouragement. I would benefit from such messages, I know.

I am disturbed by this campaign every day. After so much new coverage about it, much negative, I had this crazy idea that it might be pulled. But no, if you visit the DSS website there is still a self-congratulatory page talking about the benefits of the campaign and showing all the horrid posters. My faith in this city dies a little more every day.

10 thoughts on “THINK BEING A PARENT WON’T COST YOU? NYC Department of Social Services will at least make you feel terrible about it every day.

  1. Wow. This is really appalling. And yet I am selfishly comforted that Chicago isn’t the only horrid city. Our prevailing message is that poor people of color don’t love their kids enough to deserve public schools.

  2. Sing it!

    Sadly, many of the coupled lesbian moms and moms-to-be who I know tend to particularly judgmental, and don’t seem to want to recognize that lesbian mom can also mean single mom, poor mom, and young mom. Sigh…

  3. WTF??? Those are awful! And, as you say, particularly awful because they don’t tell folks who already had kids at a young age what they can do about their bad choice except to feel guilty about all of the ways that they have harmed their child.
    We have a somewhat similar one around here (though not quite that bad) which talks about all of the ways that kids whose parents aren’t married do worse in life. I wondered a lot about what parents who were already divorced/separated/unmarried thought about them. And of course I’m sure they’re super-helpful for folks who are considering leaving unhealthy/unsafe relationships…..

  4. I had heard of these- they are as bad as I was imagining.

    I cannot believe they haven’t been pulled yet.

  5. Wow, that’s really awful. It seems that several cities have simultaneously come up with the idea that it would be best if most women felt ashamed most of the time. Sigh.

  6. … the hell did they do to get that many pictures of ACTUALLY WEEPING small children? What? It’s not like you can say “here’s a lollipop if you’ll only cry”.

    Worst. Ads. Ever.

  7. Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. Incoherent ughs all around. I know of a few people who set out to become teen moms (a friend’s 14yo niece, for example) but how is this helpful? Others have articulated this far better than I will, but let’s also think about all the kids of teen moms–way to make THEM feel guilty about being such a terrible burden to their parents too. Passing the shame along, generation by generation! Awesome.

  8. Woooooow. How utterly revolting. I grew up in a state with a high teen pregnancy rate. (New Mexico–I think we’re usually up there in the top…) It wasn’t unusual to have a pregnant person in one of my classes in high school, though usually only in gym or other classes that weren’t tracked. And to my mind the cause wasn’t a shortage of shaming ads, it was poverty and catholicism. That’s what makes my blood boil–ignoring the fact that we live in a society that simultaneously sexualizes teens and denies them adequate sex ed and access to contraception and tells them sex is bad. FUCK YOU, UNITED STATES.

    Ahem. Also, you know what kids don’t give a shit about and/ or have particularly realistic feelings about? 1) MONEY 2) THE FUTURE. And you know why? Because, among other things, their fucking prefrontal cortices don’t fully mature until they’re, like, 20. OH MY GOD IT MAKES ME SO MAD. Thank god I live in a state where all we get is giant pro-life billboards.

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