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Hardships and lessons return with 'Teen Mom'

The hit MTV show, which chronicled the difficulties of being a teen parent of an infant, returns July 20 to explore the new issues four of its young mothers face as they learn to settle into their lives as parents of toddlers.
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Eighteen-year-old Maci Bookout sounds wise beyond her teenage years. At the age of 16, the “love of her life” impregnated her, she got engaged, accelerated getting her high-school diploma and quickly enrolled in community college.

Then the real world stepped in. After giving birth, Bookout quit the dance team to care for her child. She dropped classes at college because studying with a crying baby wasn’t working out. Then, she made the hardest decision: Her fiancé, Ryan, didn’t step up to the plate, forcing her to make the heartbreaking choice to end her engagement to the father of her child.

One thing that sets Bookout apart from other young mothers, however, is the fact that all of these moments were caught on video. She is on MTV’s “Teen Mom,” a series dedicated to following the struggles of four teenage mothers.

Her pregnancy was chronicled on “16 and Pregnant,” a show that became so popular MTV green lit the spin-off project to follow the girls through their first year of motherhood. “Teen Mom” reached across age demographics and became MTV’s second most popular reality TV show after “Jersey Shore.” The second season, which continues to follow the same four mothers, begins July 20.

“When I first did ‘16 and Pregnant,’ I was worried how the show was going to be portrayed,” Bookout admitted. “I didn’t know if it was going to be glamorized or dramatic, or if they were going to tell me what to say. Everything is very accurate and very real. They just really get every single struggle that we have out in the open.”

But with conflicting messages about living the party lifestyle and hooking up with strangers coming from shows such as “Jersey Shore,” some parents and other members of the public worry that “Teen Mom” and similar programs can sensationalize teenage pregnancy. Executive producer Liz Gateley says the public shouldn’t be too quick to judge the show by its title. She insists “Teen Mom” can offer many life lessons, if only its harshest critics will give it a chance and actually watch the program.

“Both shows portray what’s really going on out there in youth culture,” Gateley said. “We always want to offer up diversity to viewers who want to escape and have fun. ‘Jersey Shore’ offers that up in a great and entertaining way through the summer and beach, and that’s something that is equally good when you are young.

“But just because you are young doesn’t mean you can’t do it responsibly,” she adds. “That’s the problem: Parents don’t think kids are having sex, and they are. And they are drinking and going to parties. ‘Teen Mom’ is about instilling decisions and asking, ‘Are you making smart choices?’ ”

The necessity of ‘Teen Mom’ In order to do the show right, MTV said it decided to partner with The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. According to the non-profit organization, three out of every 10 teenage girls will get pregnant, and 60 percent of them will choose to be a teen mother.

While changing diapers and taking the baby to the park might be part of it, most teens don’t recognize that children mean more stress on their relationships, the end of their social lives and a whole host of challenges. The organization believes so strongly in the message and tone of the show and “16 and Pregnant” that it distributes episodes of “16 and Pregnant” to sex-education programs to use for educational purposes.

“There’s no way that you can watch ‘Teen Mom’ and think this is easy or glamorous as a young person,” said Amy Kramer, director of entertainment media for the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage and Unplanned Pregnancy. “Especially as a teenager, you have a lot of stuff going on that has to take a backseat when you have a child.”

Both “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” focus on the pro-life choices of the mothers. While most decide to keep their babies, some, like Catelynn Lowell and Tyler Baltierra, decide to give their daughter up for adoption.

“The overarching message of this show is that once there’s a pregnancy, all roads ahead are hard,” Kramer explained. “Even if you have super supportive parents like Maci or if you chose adoption, all of these are really, really hard. This show has the potential to show in devastating clarity how important it is to prevent a pregnancy in the first place.”

Gateley agrees, saying that the show gives parents the opportunity to discuss these issues with their children. It allows them the opportunity to ask what their children feel about teenage pregnancy without sounding too accusatory.

“Why the show works so well is it’s not a teacher or parent preaching,” Gately said. “It’s not saying don’t have sex, or use a condom. It’s showing the ramifications if you don’t. It’s one girl speaking to another saying, ‘This is what can happen.’ ”

Criticisms and worries Still, there are some worries about the show. For a program that is important to both genders, it consistently fails to reach a male demographic. Though Gateley says that they are exploring options to do a teen dad special on the young fathers on the show, the fact of the matter is that girls are normally the ones who have to step up and take responsibility.

By the end of season one, three of the four girls broke up with their boyfriends at least once because of issues having to do with the children. In the new season, Bookout has to take legal action to get child support from her son Bentley’s father. “It’s not such a favorable portrayal of the guys,” Kramer admitted.

“At that age, guys typically don’t have the maturity to take that on,” Gateley added.

Other critics say shows like these glamorize teen pregnancy. Kramer argues that plenty of other programs and movies tackle the same issues, but don’t even show the harsh realities like MTV does. In “Juno,” Kramer said, the protagonist is allowed to visit the potential adoptive father of her baby at any time and ends up with her boyfriend in the end — which in almost all the cases never happens. In “Teen Mom,” Lowell and Baltierra choose open adoption, but don’t even know their daughter’s last name or where she lives.

Bookout said many people told her that the show was only intended to make her famous and encourage other teenagers to be a young mother. “They should sit down and watch one episode of ‘Teen Mom,’ ” she said.

A better future Though Gateley was initially concerned that the first season of “Teen Mom” would not sustain interest, she says that she’s sure the second season has plenty of material that needs to be addressed — and will keep viewers interested.

Teenage mother Farrah Abraham deals with domestic abuse charges she filed against her mother, moving out of her parents’ home and making her own mistakes with trying to keep her lifestyle without as much support as she was used to. Lowell has slowly come out of her depression after giving her child up for adoption, and her fiancé, Baltierra, now really begins to feel the brunt of their decision. And on-again, off-again couple Amber Portwood and Gary Shirley, who made headlines when Portwood struck Shirley on the show during an altercation, deal with a potential second pregnancy and their volatile relationship.

“Brand new motherhood, which is what we captured in the first season, has evolved into something different,” Gateley explained. “It’s about settling into this life, and ‘How do I make this work on a daily basis?’”

As for Maci, she’s still struggling with dealing with her ex-boyfriend and balancing being a young mother, but she says she’s finally “completely happy with what’s happening.” She has a new boyfriend in her life who cares for her son, and things are going as well as they can.

“He loves him,” she said of her son and boyfriend. “They’re best friends.”

“I actually think (Bentley) likes him more than he likes me,” she happily added.

But it’s hard not to mistake the sense of relief in her voice that she may finally have her happy ending.