Teen Mom: Partner violence, grief, & high school graduation

Teen Mom was an intense roller coaster this week — Amber assaulted Gary (multiple times), Farrah reconnected with her deceased boyfriend’s sister, Tyler and Catelynn couldn’t graduate on time, and Maci and Ryan worked together on a custody plan for Bentley.

1. The signs of an abuser

Last night, Amber verbally assaulted Gary to no end. She yelled things such as “Guess what bitch, this is my house — I’ve bought everything in this motherf-cker — get out!” and “Don’t get cocky with me,” and ” You need to shut your f-cking mouth … You want to f-ck with me? Huh? … You are so f-cking lucky, you better watch your goddamn back.” As if that abuse weren’t enough, she then threw his stuff down the stairs, punched him in the face, and then slapped him again before he left.

Amber is an abuser. And she was an abuser before she punched Gary in the face, as the things she would scream at him were meant to maintain control over and demean him. She constantly called him a fatass, meant to degrade him and lower his self-worth, and she constantly reminded him that it was her house, so he’d better do what she says or he’s out on the street.

At the reunion episode after season one, Dr. Drew called her out on the domestic violence and she said she didn’t regret it. Only after she remembered that Gary had been abused when he was younger did she retract that statement, which was concerning because it was like she admitted that, had he not been abused as a child, her hitting him would’ve been perfectly justified. It seems that sympathy for Gary didn’t last very long.

Abusers often were victims of abuse themselves, and so have learned to use violence as a way to solve problems, relieve stress, or control a situation. Of the four main types of abuse found in intimate partner violence (via the Centers for Disease Control), Amber utilizes three (the fourth being sexual abuse, which isn’t discussed on the show) — physical abuse, threats, and emotional abuse (including “harming a partner’s sense of self-worth”).

There is a major disconnect for Amber between how she treats Gary directly and how she interprets her own treatment of Gary — directly, she is obviously abusive in a number of ways. As she puts it, however, she is sympathetic toward Gary and lets him live with her because he is Leah’s father and she doesn’t want him living on the street. She confides in her friends that Gary threatened to call Child Protective Services, and the aggressive attitude she has toward Gary was nonexistent when she described the incident to her friends.

“It scares me as a mom to hear him say, you know, ‘You’re never going to see your daughter again, I’m going to take her away,'” Amber said, though this possibility never seems to stop Amber from abusing Gary — it’s unclear whether Amber’s rage is enhanced for the same reason Maci got angry at Ryan, which was that he was implying she was making poor parenting choices, though he himself had only recently become more involved with raising their child. Regardless of what fueled the rage, nothing makes it OK.

And, again, I keep wondering how people’s reaction would be different if the roles were reversed — if Gary were abusing Amber on film, calling her a fatass, hitting her, telling her that he better respect her because he puts a roof over her head. I’m sure the public outcry would be loud and strong, and my hope is that viewers don’t cut Amber slack for her behavior — she needs anger management classes, not martial arts classes.

2. Dealing with — not avoiding — grief

Sophia’s dad hasn’t really been mentioned much before this season — in Farrah’s episode of 16 and Pregnant, it wasn’t even mentioned that he had died in a car accident, but it simply seemed like Farrah’s mom and her had decided he wouldn’t be involved with raising her. This week, she reconnected with her ex’s (Derrick’s) sister Kassy, who shared with her how much Farrah meant to Derrick and gave Sophia a picture book with pictures of him.

“I see her everyday, I see Derrick’s face everyday,” Farrah told Kassy, and the pictures of Derrick really do show a strong resemblance between Sophia and her dad. Farrah’s mom told her that the best way to deal with those sad feelings is to stay away from the family, but that is not a way to deal with those feelings — it’s merely a way to avoid them. She admits she doesn’t think she’ll find anyone who compares to Derrick, and all these feelings need to be sorted out — not swept under the rug — for her to gain some closure and move on.

I’m glad that Derrick is being mentioned in the show, because Farrah has to be feeling so many emotions that viewers who have lost a loved one or partner can identify with, especially considering Farrah was pregnant when the car accident happened. It always seemed weird that Sophia’s dad was the elephant in the room, and I think there are a lot of viewers (and obviously Farrah) who will benefit from openly addressing Derrick’s death and its effect on Farrah and Sophia, rather than avoiding discussing it.

3. The importance of education

For many people, a high school diploma is the default — a piece of paper that is just routine on the way to college. For Tyler and Catelynn, a high school diploma is the exception rather than the rule, and a symbol of why they gave their daughter up for adoption. “Me and you will be the first ones to go to college or even graduate from high school,” Catelynn told Tyler, regarding their families.

But Catelynn made a good point that they needed to graduate to really make the adoption worth it, because the entire reason they gave her up was because they couldn’t support her financially and needed to get an education first. Though being pregnant with Carly set Catelynn and Tyler back when it came to having enough credits to graduate, Catelynn says, “If I had kept carly, I might not be graduating at all.”

Catelynn and Tyler also struggled with choosing college career paths, something every teenager can relate to. It’s daunting to be 18 and charged with figuring out your life goals, and I know so many people who didn’t truly figure out what they wanted to study or pursue until two or three years after high school, and sometimes longer. “I thought I knew what I was doing, and now I don’t know what I’m doing,” Tyler said, frustrated with all the options and feeling like he should have his life figured out by now. Trust me Tyler, you’ve got a lot of company there.

Something else Catelynn mentioned was that she had to miss school because of her mom’s alcoholism — I think this is an interesting problem that isn’t really discussed in the mainstream. For a lot of people, school is just a given — you always have a way to get to school, you always have money to buy lunch, you always have the resources to complete homework.

But for some people, that’s not the case — merely getting to school is a challenge, and family problems can get in the way of attendance and homework (e.g. what if you need to focus more on an after-school job to help pay the bills than doing homework? Or what if, like Catelynn, one or both of your parents has a substance abuse problem that means 1) you can’t find a way to school or 2) you have to take care of them?). Catelynn’s admission revealed an obstacle to education that many people don’t experience or realize happens.

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